Americans disenchanted with prospects for stocks and bonds are being encouraged to try a small dose of something new: commodities funds.
They're not just for daredevils anymore. A number of Wall Street firms, with Goldman Sachs among the most enthusiastic, are recommending that clients diversify by putting 5 percent or more of their assets into commodity investments.
A pickup in inflation, as indicated by recent government figures, should give a boost. Many experts are convinced they'll be strong performers over the next 12 months, and might even be headed toward a prolonged bull market.
This year, futures markets in coffee, Swiss francs and copper have excelled in line with that reasoning. However, these volatile choices are never a sure thing. Fund managers need strong trends to make the right moves, and there haven't been too many lately.
The overall index of commodities funds available to the general public is down 4.7 percent in 1994 because the meandering performances of energy, currencies and cotton have disappointed greatly.
Historically, commodities (also called futures) funds have done well when stocks go into a downturn and outperform other diversification vehicles such as gold and real estate. They often employ several trading firms to make their investments, so performance isn't dependent on just one manager, as usually is the case with mutual funds. Some funds emphasize specific commodities, but increasingly they diversify. Currencies, Treasuries and stock indexes are among growth areas.
Commodities funds have grown rapidly into a $23 billion industry offering nearly 500 funds, their newfound acceptance indicated by the fact that many major brokerage houses now sponsor them.
Initial investments in public funds are often a reasonable $2,000 to $5,000. However, upfront charges are hefty, perhaps as much as 10 percent, and there are often redemption charges. That makes these long-term vehicles that should be held for three years or more.
Now the reality check. "A person investing in a commodities fund shouldn't invest unless he feels he can afford to lose everything without affecting his standard of living," advised Jay Klopfenstein, president of Chicago-based Norwood Securities.
Performance often varies widely from month to month, though bullish or bearish trends alike can benefit traders. "Futures traders can make money on the long or short side, since they adjust their strategies to trends," explained Daniel Stark, who publishes the Stark Report for commodities investors in La Jolla, Calif. "Whether the market goes up or down, they can make money, but they need that clear trend to follow."
Don't buy into just any fund. "Make sure you're buying from a reputable firm and inspect the disclosure document that explains all risks and benefits," emphasized Lois Peltz, managing editor of New York-based Managed Account Reports, which tracks commodities funds. "Don't get out of a fund just because you don't see huge moves, for you never know when these moves are going to occur and you must be patient."
Top-performing public funds over the past 12 months, according to Managed Account Reports, were:
* Levin Limited Partnership, general partner Levin Capital Management Inc., Chicago; $2 million in assets; $50,000 minimum initial investment; invests in S&P; 500 index, foreign currency, U.S. bonds and OEX 100 index; up 13.10 percent.
* DW Multi-Market Portfolio, Demeter Management Corp., New York; $20 million in assets; $5,000 minimum; diversified investments; up 6.46 percent.
* DW Select Futures Fund, Demeter Management Corp., New York; $195 million in assets; $5,000 minimum; diversified; up 4.19 percent.
* Iowa Ultra Futures Fund Limited Partnership; FCC Ultra Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa; $560,000 in assets; $5,000 minimum; invests in agricultural commodities; up 3.96 percent.
* Millburn Global Opportunity Fund, Milburn Richfield Corp., New York; $32.6 million in assets; $5,000 minimum; invests in currencies and financial futures; up 3.07 percent.
* ML Global Horizons Fund Limited Partnership, ML Futures Investment Partners, New York; $100 million in assets; $5,000 minimum; diversified; up 2.63 percent.
* Global Opportunity Fund, Rodman & Renshaw, Chicago; $5 million in assets; $5,000 minimum; diversified; down 1.84 percent.
* Cornerstone Fund II, Demeter Management Corp., New York; $35.7 million in assets; $6,300 minimum; diversified; down 2.80 percent.
Only ML Global Horizons Fund and Cornerstone II Fund are still open to new investors, with Cornerstone II closing at the end of this month.