In the top spot:

Al Frank has never been the typical model of a Wall Street financier.

He has a handful of college degrees under his belt, none of them in finance. He once taught remedial high school biology. He toyed with the idea of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter or cinematographer.

But along the way, he was always intrigued by the world of stocks. "I always loved the game of Monopoly," he says with a laugh. "But I learned that the real stock market was five times as much fun, and you could actually win money!"

In middle age (he's now in his 70s), Mr. Frank started up a small financial newsletter called the "Pinch Penny Speculator." (He'd read a lot of Charles Dickens, he says, referring to the very British sounding title.)

That newsletter eventually became "The Prudent Speculator."

A registered "investment advisor" with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Frank now runs the newsletter that is king of the hill - the top-ranked newsletter in the United States, by at least one account.

The newsletter's stock recommendations have returned more than 16 percent for the past two decades, through April 30, according to the Hulbert Financial Digest.

It also has been No. 1 for the past five- and ten-year periods. For the past-15-year period, it came in second, behind the MPT Review, another newsletter. Of course, as is often said in the trade, past performance does not necessarily guarantee similar current or future results.

While "The Prudent Speculator" may be a hit in terms of stock-market returns, it's still "a well-kept secret" in terms of readership, says the publication's research director and co-editor, John Buckingham.

Appearing in both Internet (www.alfrank.com) and print versions, the Speculator has about 4,000 subscribers, even though it has been around since the late 1970s. Subscribers pay some $249 a year (or a current special price of $225).

For their money, investors get a monthly market analysis, three suggested model portfolios, and access to a special telephone hotline feature three times a week.

And while Wall Street has been sagging of late, the Prudent Speculator's portfolios have been sizzling. Frank's personal portfolio, found in the newsletter, is up 22 percent this year; the so-called Millennium portfolio, started last year, is also up 22 percent; the Prufolio portfolio, the newest portfolio, which has just 31 stocks, is up a dazzling 33 percent.

Oh yes, there is also a mutual fund - the Al Frank Value Fund (888-263-6443). The fund carries the highest rating, five stars, from information firm Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. A load fund (a 5.5 percent up-front fee and 2 percent upon redemption), it is up 22 percent through May 16.

Frank's investment philosophy is straightforward: An admirer of famous investment guru Benjamin Graham and investor Warren Buffett, Frank looks for out-of-favor, downtrodden value stocks, companies that have, among other things, very low price-to-earnings ratios.

Once purchased, he lets the stocks percolate over time, for at least six years, he says.

"It's not rocket science," says Mr. Buckingham, laughing. "We stick to our [value investing] discipline. We buy the cats and dogs [of Wall Street] and hang on to them. It's called 'buying low and selling high.' "

Although not as active as he once was, Frank is still the guiding force for the publication. He writes a column for the newsletter and does a hotline feature each Monday.

It is clearly his investment strategy that undergirds the publication, named for its founder, as are many other newsletters.

But as Frank is the first to admit, he does not turn out the newsletter by himself. Although Frank lives in New Mexico, he has a staff of six that does basic research out of offices in Laguna Beach, Calif. There is another small staff in Minneapolis that does the printing and mailing.

One thing that The Prudent Speculator does not tout: bonds. "We are a stock-market oriented publication," says Buckingham.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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