To grow a nest egg, use enough baskets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Diversify!

It's the one mantra on Wall Street that almost everyone subscribes to.

But how diversified are you really?

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If you don't pay attention, you could fall into an overlap trap.

For example, consider these high-flying funds: Alger Capital Appreciation B, Fidelity Select Technology, and Rydex OTC. Each produced annualized returns of 38 percent or better over the past five years, putting them among the top 10 funds for that time period.

And they sound diversified.

But investors who poured all their money into these three funds could be making a dangerous mistake. All three invest heavily in volatile technology stocks. In fact, they invest in many of the same stocks.

To avoid overlap in your portfolio, investment experts suggest you take a good look at the funds you own. Make sure they don't all invest in the same sectors of the economy, use the same strategy (say, growth instead of value investing), or buy the same-size companies (say, large-cap instead of small-cap).

If you're being especially diligent, compare the top 10 holdings of each of the mutual funds you own. There's bound to be some overlap. If there's too much, jettison lookalikes.

"Every investor needs to look carefully at their portfolios," says Amy Granzin, domestic equity analyst for Morningstar Inc. "You want to allocate your assets.... If you have an S&P 500 index or large-blend fund, diversify into a small growth or small-cap fund."

A software solution

One of the spiffiest tools to spot diversification problems is a software program called Overlap. Investors can use it to compare more than 3,000 mutual funds. It detects which stocks various funds have in common. It also finds which sectors funds concentrate on.

"It's possible to have a zero percent overlap in two funds on a stock-per-stock basis, but you still may be heavy in [particular] sectors," says Richard Berg, an assistant to Overlap Inc., based in Kansas City, Mo.

The program doesn't come cheap. A year's subscription, which includes four quarterly CD-ROM disks, costs $158. But the tools are so easy to use and comprehensive, the program may make sense for the active investor with tens of thousands of dollars at stake.

Chicago-based Morningstar, which rates mutual funds, also offers an overlap detector on the premium portion of its Web site (www.morningstar.net).

Free information, too

But for investors of more modest means, here's how to get some of the information for free: Get the ticker symbol for each mutual fund you own. Then input the symbol on the Morningstar site and look up each fund's profile or "Quicktake." The tabs at the top of the screen show the fund's top 10 holdings and which business sectors it invests in. (Morningstar also rates each fund, of course, which is helpful when choosing a new fund or jettisoning a current one.)

Also find how Morningstar categorizes the fund (under the snapshot tab). Is it a large-cap growth fund or a small-cap value fund? Again, the key is diversity. And unfortunately, investors can't always trust that the name of the fund describes its investment strategy.

"Don't look at what they say they do," warns Ms. Granzin of Morningstar. "If they have stocks with high PEs (price-to-earnings ratios), they're a growth fund, no matter what they call themselves."

Be especially careful about funds from the same fund family. Since they share investment expertise, it shouldn't be surprising that they hold many of the same stocks.

For example, three Fidelity technology funds rank in the top 10 list of funds with high five-year average growth. But their overlap is extensive - 24 to 37 percent. (Anything over 20 percent is generally considered too high.)

Investors seeking diversity would be better off picking one of these funds and parking the rest of their money somewhere else.

When you've narrowed down the list of holdings in your portfolio that look suspiciously alike, head over to the Findafund site (www.findafund.com). Its "similarity portfolio analysis" will compare the funds two at a time. The charts offer a graphical view of how extensive the overlap is.

"A lot of people are finding they aren't as diversified as they thought," says Mr. Berg of Overlap.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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