Investing With Principle as the Bottom Line

Bruce Martin insists on both investing well and being a good investor, and he finds the former a lot easier than the latter.

He figures one mutual fund will make about as much money as another. But the chemistry professor at Louisiana's Northwestern State University wants his retirement savings working in companies that treat workers fairly and pay them well.

So he found three mutual funds that employ "socially responsible investing," or SRI.

"It may be feeble," Dr. Martin says, "but it's my only way to send a message to the financial community that there's more to life than getting the last quarter out of somebody."

But even with these funds, Martin says he isn't sure he's getting the values he wants.

From just a few generic funds several years ago, SRI now offers people like Martin an increasing array of choices - from religious funds to an animal-rights fund.

Yet the information available to investors is often sketchy.

SRI mutual funds identify their general standards in their prospectuses, but discovering which fund works best with your values isn't easy.

The Domini Social Equity Index Fund, in which Martin invests, owns shares of Nike, a company he would prefer to see run out of the fund. He says Nike and other companies undercut US workers with cheap foreign labor, an issue more important to him than liquor or nuclear power.

"The definition of socially responsible is subjective," says Cliff Feigenbaum, editor of the GreenMoney Journal (800-318-5725), an SRI newsletter. One person's good-works company is another's sin stock.

In response, industry has rolled out more niche funds.

For Southern Baptists, the Domini fund wouldn't do. It owns a big chunk of Disney, and the Baptists are boycotting the Magic Kingdom over programming.

But the Timothy Plan (800-846-7526) might work. Targeted at fundamentalist Christians, the fund doesn't hold Disney, and its big concerns are abortion, pornography, alcohol, and gambling.

Funds emphasizing religious values are growing fastest:

* The newly launched Catholic Values Investment Trust (800-888-9471) joins the Aquinas fund family (800-423-6369) in serving Roman Catholics. Abortion and workers' rights are key concerns.

* American Trust (800-385-7003) recently opened Allegiance Fund, catering to Christian Scientists and others with similar convictions. It shuns drug, medical, tobacco, liquor, and gambling stocks.

* Amana funds (800-728-8762), for Muslims, avoid companies that dabble in alcohol, pornography, gambling, pork, and banks (because they charge interest).

And applying these standards often requires some flexibility.

"In many cases it's a judgment call," says Phelps McIlvaine, who, with help from an Islamic board, advises Amana.

The fund considered Albertson's, a supermarket chain that gets 3.75 percent of its revenues from wine, beer, and pork. The fund opted for another grocer, with a lower percentage.

Many financial advisers argue that SRI funds are really financially irresponsible, because their dual motives - profits and principles - produce inferior returns.

The funds have a mixed track record, but some of the biggest perform well.

"It's inherently a successful strategy," argues Sophia Collier of Citizens Index Portfolio. Her fund beat the Standard & Poor's 500, a measure of stock market performance, over its two-year existence.

If you decide on a good-works fund, look for a strong track record, and make sure the fund shares your values.

Ask for the fund's annual report, which lists specific company holdings.

Co-op America is another source of information on SRI (202-872-5307).

Franklin Research & Development (617-423-6655) in Boston rates SRI funds on how well they screen out companies active in tobacco, alcohol, gambling, weapons, and nuclear power. Franklin favors those with certain policies toward workers, consumers, community, and the environment. Each of the generic social funds shown in the chart above screen companies on almost all these issues.

But broad ratings often don't satisfy choosy investors.

"There's a lot of people who are frustrated with those ratings," says Mr. Feigenbaum, who is working on his own rating system. "A fresh outlook needs to come in on it."

Your Vote?

This story started with a reader's question about mutual funds. What do you think about socially responsible investing? You can respond in a reader poll on the e-Monitor, our Internet site.

To weigh in, dial into the Internet, and in the address field of your Web browser program type:

Vote today through Tuesday. We'll print a summary of the responses in Thursday's paper, July 3.

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