Your falling fund may be doing great, so don't sell

The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes you just can't win.

Lately, that's been the case for people who own mutual funds that invest in stocks.

If you have the average fund that invests in large U.S. company stocks, you probably have lost about 6 percent of the money that was in the fund July 19.

If you have money in a mutual fund that invests in small company stocks, you may have lost about 8 percent.

If you have an international fund, you might have lost 8 percent, too.

And if you are like the 35-year-old paralegal who contacted me from a Las Vegas casino last week, you might be worried that you are gambling with your 401(k) savings and wondering if it is time to dump a losing fund.

During periods like the present, second-guessers hurt themselves. A couple of years ago, Dalbar Inc., a mutual fund consulting firm, looked at how average investors fare with their mutual funds.

For 20 years, the average fund had climbed about 12 percent - on average - per year. In some years, stocks are losers; in others, they soar. And if you blended the up and down years together, the money would have grown an average of about 12 percent a year.

But investors generally didn't do nearly that well. With all their second-guessing, and moving money from one fund to another, Dalbar says they ended up with a gain of about 4 percent a year on average.

Perhaps you still wonder if your stock fund manager has let you down over the past six weeks.

There is an easy way to check. Compare your fund's performance - or what you made or lost in the fund - to other funds like it, and to the stock market in general. Large-cap funds as a group have fallen about 6 percent, according to Lipper. So if your fund hasn't lost more than 6 percent, your manager has done fine.

Besides focusing on the present, look at the past three years. That's a more dependable period of time - a chance for your fund to show its stuff in good and bad times. If your fund has kept up with the average fund like it, that's good. If it has kept up with the overall stock market, that's even better.

In the case of a large-cap fund, your fund would have done well if it earned more than 11 percent on average each year for the past three years.

For small-cap funds, your fund will be outstanding if it earned more than 13.4 percent a year for three years.

Take a look at your international fund's performance, too. An outstanding international fund would have earned more than 22 percent a year for the past three years.

But notice that stocks have been falling since mid-July because investors have decided they have been too cavalier about taking risks for the past few years.

Emerging-market mutual funds, for example, have dropped 10 percent over the past six weeks, while the average fund that invests throughout the world has dropped 8 percent.

Morningstar analyst Michael Breen recently evaluated international funds that held up comparatively well during downturns in the stock market. Among those he identified: First Eagle Overseas, Thornburg International Value, American Funds EuroPacific Growth, Templeton Growth and Templeton Foreign, and Tweedy, Brown Global Value.

Among U.S. stock funds that have held up best in downturns, Morningstar identified Delafield, Fairholme, Clipper, Franklin Balance Sheet Investment, Oakmark Select, Selected American, Osterweis, Jensen, Hartford Midcap, Columbia Acorn and FBR Small Cap.

Gail MarksJarvis is a Your Money columnist.

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