Billionaire Warren Buffett's chances of winning a bet that the S&P 500 stock index will outperform a collection of hedge funds are improving, but Buffett still trails the money managers four years into the 10-year bet.

Buffett has long been critical of hedge funds because of the high fees they charge investors, so Berkshire Hathaway's chairman and CEO wagered that an S&P 500 index fund would beat any 10 hedge funds over a decade if all the fees were included.

Buffett made the bet in 2008 with the money managers who own Protege Partners LLC. The winner will be able to donate at least $1 million in the charity of their choice at the end.

The latest results were reported first Wednesday by Fortune magazine. Buffett did not immediately respond to a message.

Buffett's chosen low-cost S&P 500 fund gained 2.08 percent in 2011 to beat the five portfolios of hedge funds Protege chose, which were down 1.86 percent.

Through four years, the hedge funds are down 5.89 percent. Buffett's index fund is down 6.27 percent.

Both sides of the wager performed poorly in the first year when the stock market collapsed in 2008. But the portfolio of hedge funds fell 23.9 percent, while the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund Buffett chose plummeted 37 percent.

Buffett has said that most investors will do better over time with a low-cost index fund than by paying steep fees to investment managers. In the past, Buffett has devoted parts of his annual letters to Berkshire shareholders to highlighting the perils of paying hefty fees.

Buffett has said paying a hedge fund manager 2 percent of your investment principal and 20 percent of the profits _ the customary hedge-fund rate _ is a recipe for minimizing investment returns.

Initially both sides of the bet put up roughly $320,000 for the wager, and that money was invested in a bond that was designed to grow to the $1 million that will be donated when the bet concludes at the end of 2017. The Long Bets website is administering the wager.

Recently, Fortune magazine reported the bond had grown to about $930,000 in value, so both sides agreed to sell it and invest the money in Berkshire Hathaway stock. Buffett agreed to guarantee that he would buy the stock for at least $1 million at the end of the bet, but if his company performs well it could be worth more.

Buffett plans to donate the money to Girls Inc. of Omaha if he wins. Protege will donate to Absolute Returns for Kids if it wins.

Protege has always declined to name the funds involved in the bet because of concerns about the Securities and Exchange Commission rules that bar hedge funds from promoting themselves.

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Online:

Long Bets: http://www.longbets.org

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com

Protege Partners LLC: http://www.protegepartners.com