A Fund-amentally Amazing First Quarter

By , Work & Money editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Spectacular.

How else to describe it?

This is the section where we roll out mutual-fund results for the first three months of the year, and it was a spectacular quarter.

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It's no coincidence that as we were assembling the numbers, the stock market reached another millennial milestone. The Dow Industrial Average spent much of Friday north of 9000 before retreating.

On the fund front, US stock funds gained an average 11.9 percent, while index funds that track the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broad measure of market performance, rose 13.8 percent.

During normal times, that's an entire year's performance. But these times are about as normal as El Nio, and 11.9 percent barely tells the story.

One fund, Berger Select, returned 37.1 percent, and a handful of others topped 20 percent.

You'll find more about the quarter's hot rod performance as you wander through these pages. But the really important information is not in a numbing parade of numbers. It's in just a few of the words.

Forgive this shameless promotion, but we've got terrific stuff (that's the technical, financial term) in this Work & Money. Cull it, compile it, and you've got the keys to a secure portfolio.

Turn to pages B6 and B7, where Guy Halverson gives you some spring cleaning tips: how to construct a portfolio (asset allocation) and what to put in it (shopping tips) and what to sweep out the door (dump the bums).

Central to Guy's coverage is the idea of a core holding. It's the equivalent of a home. It always gives you shelter, and no matter what kind of car, furniture, or pet pooch you purchase, your home performs the essential duties.

Same for a mutual fund portfolio. A core holding might be a fund that invests in large companies - the General Electrics, Cokes, and IBMs of this world that may occasionally slow down or even take a couple of steps back, but usually move forward. They give shelter to your money - with the growth potential you expect from stocks. For a some, a core holding is an index fund that tracks the broad market.

And if you've got a good core holding, you can rearrange the furniture - your other investments - every so often and still feel comfortable. You can sell a fund that's not performing well. You can buy one that invests in a promising sector.

So, speaking of furniture, pull your chair up to Pages B4 and B5. The talk there is about sector funds. Jim Tyson writes at length about investing in the oil and airline industries, and Mark Trumbull, our deputy business editor, vaults into the field of banks. The oils hold promise, and airlines have been star performers already this year. Banks continue their multiyear roll.

Investing in sectors requires attention, but it can pay off. The idea behind the oil sector is that, though prices are low now, demand will continue rising and pull prices higher in the process. Of course, that assumption has been made before, and it has been wrong before.

The hot sector during the first quarter was telecommunications, and the math here is easy. The constants in our technology-driven economy are computer chips, computer software, and telephone lines. Just consider the Internet's explosive growth, then consider that you need wires, chips, and software to connect.

Another example: look at the quarter's top performing fund (the chart on Page B7). It invests in South Korea.

But East Asia's in the financial doghouse, isn't it? True, but a number of analysts have said in recent months that the worst may be over for Korea's economy. Again, it takes homework, but if you saw Korea recovering faster than its neighbors, you would have gained 50 percent for the quarter.

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