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Investors' ideas employed in fashioning Internet portfolios


In the town where I live, you might buy a mutual fund run by your neighbors, if they work for Fidelity, Putnam or the other big Boston area fund companies.

In the rest of the world, buying a fund managed and directed by your neighbors would seem to be foolhardy.

Yet there are a number of mutual funds -- and many more on the way - that let your neighbors manage your money. But these would-be managers don't live next door; they are your Internet neighbors - hobbyists with a passion for talking stocks.

It's part of a trend to give individuals more control of the funds they invest in. Included in that trend are services that, effectively, allow you to manage personalized mutual funds. The inner-workings of those services will be covered in this column next week.

Before we get to personalized funds, let's examine funds in which investors play an active role in management.

The fund with the most name recognition among the shareholder-involvement upstarts is the Stockjungle.com Community Intelligence fund, in which site members suggest stock picks and a professional manager buys from that list.

Year-to-date, the fund is up 45.4 percent, making it the top-ranked multicap core fund in the Lipper Inc. database (where its average peer shows a gain of just under 9 percent).

MutualMinds has registered to open a fund that will evaluate the talent of the stock pickers in its community and then use that community to pick investments.

Other firms such as Marketocracy, Maxfunds, and iExchange (set the names between a www. and .com to find their Web sites) are planning fund groups in which investors are analysts on at least some offerings.

The Allied Owners Action fund (www.eraider.com) buys stocks that its manager believes would "benefit from improved analyst coverage as well as shareholder scrutiny and debate." It then promotes such debate on its Web site, where the motto is "If they won't take care of business, we will."

There also are funds, such as OpenFund, in which managers chat with shareholders online and regularly disclose money moves, which at least makes the Internet community feel that it is a part of the decision-making process.

Obviously, the success of the Stockjungle fund is one reason for the creation of these funds. Using Web-site traffic to generate a profit for some other type of business is another.

The Web sites, however, sell the fact that professional money managers don't exactly have a stellar track record compared with the indexes. If old-line money management thinking is not working, they suggest trying something new, tapping into the best investment ideas of a huge number of "analysts."

The question remains whether these interactive funds can deliver superior investment returns in the long term.

There are concerns that stock manipulators might use these sites to create a buzz - making these funds more vulnerable to scams - and that few people who contribute to the idea pool actually buy the fund.

Stockjungle, for example, has 15,000 community members, but just 1,000 Community Intelligence fund shareholders; some of those investors are not part of the online society.

That's a bit like your neighbor inviting you over for his fabulous meatloaf, and then eating something else while you have a plate of meatloaf. It doesn't inspire your confidence.

Michael Witz, Stockjungle's chief executive, says he expects more community members to buy the fund as it matures.

In defense of these funds, the Web sites pre-date the funds, so the number of investors should lag community membership.

Still, because of who these "communities" represent, interactive funds tend to have portfolios concentrated in technology and Internet stocks (the Allied Owners fund is a notable exception to that).

Skeptics say interactive funds are a bull-market phenomenon, and that investors will leave in droves once the market turns and reality sets in.

Says Kurt Cerulli of Boston consulting firm Cerulli Associates: "I think it's a complete gimmick. If you want professional management, go to people who think about and analyze investment decisions for a living. If you want to be in an investment club, join one. These funds are just a fad."

That may be the case, but there is no reason why an interactive fund automatically should do worse than a traditionally managed fund.

There also is no reason to believe that amateurs - however their picks are put into use in a fund - routinely will beat the pros or the indexes.

Says Morningstar Inc. President Don Phillips: "This is an innovative use of new technology to tap into the ideas of investors, but you still have to worry about the caliber of the community. Until these funds prove themselves long-term, most people will be more comfortable with funds run by professionals rather than people they chat with on the Internet."

Charles A. Jaffe is mutual funds columnist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached by e-mail at jaffe@globe.com or at the Boston Globe, Box 2378, Boston, Mass. 02107-2378.

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