WHENEVER investors have faced economic or market uncertainty, they have sought comfort in high-quality bonds and bond mutual funds. And today is no different. With many investors still wary of the stock marked after last October's decline, the flight to quality has intensified.
After the crash, new fund offerings dropped off sharply. Lately, however, the number of funds in registration has been creeping back to pre-crash levels.
But look carefully before you leap, professionals who monitor these funds warn. You could be in for a fall, since many fund sponsors are looking to attract assets and diversify their portfolios, not necessarily for the investor's benefit.
``I don't regard this as a negative. It's just a way to keep money in the family,'' said Sheldon Jacobs, the editor of the No-Load Fund Investor in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. ``They are just rounding out their product lines.''
Right now, pure equity funds are out of favor with many investors. Funds with fixed-income securities are in. And even those equity funds that are new this year, professionals say, tend to be more conservative, stressing government securities, blue-chip equities, and precious metal and natural resource stocks.
Change is evident throughout the industry.
``The majority of our customers are unhappy with the volatility they see in the stock market,'' says Bruce MacAlpine, vice-president of Fidelity Investments' investor center in Manhattan, where traffic is down from a year ago. Consequently, they're returning to money-market and bond funds, he said.
Fidelity, with more than $80 billion under management, recently introduced a new United States Treasury money-market fund, a utilities income fund, and a blue-chip growth fund. In addition, the investment company has enhanced some state tax-free products by introducing a New Jersey money-market fund and a New York short-term bond portfolio.
In March, there were only eight strictly common-stock fund offerings. This compares with three in February, and three ``umbrella fund'' registrations with different portfolio objectives in January, according to Simon's Mutual Fund Monthly, a Washington-based publication that tracks fund registrations.
One of the new fund areas receiving red flags from advisers emphasizes blue-chip corporations. One such entrant is Fidelity Blue Chip Fund. Since blue-chip equities have been favorites for five years, some counselors believe they will soon be replaced by stocks of smaller companies, those with capitalizations of $500 million or less.
``Small-cap stocks have been out of favor since 1983, but during the rebound off the October crash, they have been the market's big winners,'' says Norman Fosback, editor of the Mutual Fund Forecaster, an investment newsletter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ``I expect this buoyancy to continue.''
As a hedge against an uncertain market, you might try funds that perform asset allocation and switching among different types of investments. They are gaining momentum and provide protection against both inflation and deflation.
``They're looking like a very good vehicle,'' Mr. Jacobs said. ``They're growth funds for uncertain markets, hedging against many unforeseeable hazards.''