Splitting hares in 1998

Aesop, apparently, would have made a lousy investor last year.

Because in the modern, mutual-fund, 401(k) version of his fabled footrace, the hare stops for a mid-race snooze, then wakes up and splits for the finish line at a record pace, putting paw prints all over Mr. Tortoise.

Stocks started 1998 quick as a bunny, napped in August, then skedaddled in October, reaching new and truly astonishing record highs. Someone was eating their carrots.

We've got the details in this week's Work & Money, our quarterly roundup of mutual-fund performance in the last quarter and year of 1998.

We're loaded with information, some of it bite sized, some with all the toppings.

Become a stock-market forecaster with page 12 by tracking the money flows for mutual funds. No coincidence, here, that the river dried up in August, triggering a steep correction. The dollar drought ended in October, as Mr. Rabbit took charge.

Also on page 12, feel good about being good. The socially responsible Allegiance Fund - no tobacco, alcohol, gambling, or drug companies - smoked the market indexes in 1998, as did Citizens Funds.

Jim Tyson sums up the action in stock funds, starting to my right then hopping along to page 14. Read how index funds stole the spotlight, then hogged it.

Bond funds, as Guy Halverson writes on page 13, became the tortoise in this revised Aesop - starting slow, finishing last.

And the small caps generally napped last year. Pages 14 and 16 present a clear, concise outlook for them in '99 and merit close attention - unless you want a portfolio that resembles rabbit stew.

Next year could mark their turn to strap on the Nikes. The US economy is so strong that some of this stock-market energy should spill over to the stocks of smaller companies.

Of course, analysts have been saying that for the past two years, and it hasn't happened yet.

In fact, the only real winners, as the page 15 article on indexing notes, were the investors who hitched themselves to a few, very big, very expensive stocks, especially those in technology.

The real action in 1998 and, especially in the last quarter, was the Nasdaq 100, which measures the 100 largest stocks traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Check out the page 14 chart of top performing funds. The No. 2 slot goes to ProFunds UltraOTC, perhaps the ultimate index fund. It moves up, and down, twice as fast as the Nasdaq 100. So if you think 1999 looks like a repeat of 1998, ProFunds is the place to be. Prepare for lots of risk.

Risk aside, that chart shows some incredible numbers. Five mutual funds earned more than 70 percent last quarter. And five mutual funds more than doubled last year.

Yet none of them represents more than a square inch of one tiny corner of the stock market. As Mr. Tyson's coverage points out, Wall Street may be moving fast, but it's not carrying many passengers.

And the moral to this story?

Well, Aesop, oddly, snagged it just right - slow but steady wins the race.

If you hopped in and out of your mutual funds and stocks, trying to time the market, your portfolio now feels more sluggish than a snail in North Dakota.

You missed a huge and largely unexpected surge in the market.

But if you followed the frequent advice offered here in Work & Money, if you stayed steady, if you dug in with the discipline of dollar-cost averaging, you finished 1998 a winner. You recovered from the losses of October and arrived at last week's mega-rally in fine style.

E-mail comments to: mccormickl@csps. com

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