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Fund Management, Do-It-Yourself Style





You, yes, you, can be a mutual fund manager. Fund companies are lining up to give you a chance, but whether that's a good thing is another matter, although at least one of the do-it-yourself funds is handily beating the S&P 500.

IPS Funds, for example, a small outfit in Knoxville, Tenn., has filed preliminary paperwork to launch the IPS iFund, which will not only show shareholders its portfolio online in real time but also let them decide what stocks to buy or sell via an online voting system. Wannabe Wall Street titans will even dictate how many shares should be bought or sold, according to the filing, which schedules the fund's launch for October. IPS folks, who didn't return a call for comment, might pick some stocks initially to get the ball rolling, but after that they'll primarily just officiate, making sure the fund doesn't stray from its broad mandate, according to the filing.

The new fund is the latest in a growing crowd that lets investors see their fund's current portfolio online and, to greater or lesser degrees, help decide what stocks should be there. While this new crop challenges the fund industry's widespread reluctance to provide frequent full portfolio disclosure, it also chips away at something that doesn't seem so wrong-headed: the professional manager.

"This is either going to go down as the dumbest idea in the fund industry, or it's going to be broadly accepted," says Jonas Max Ferris, co-founder of MaxFunds.com, a fund-tracking Web site. "It's hard to say which yet."

"It's an interesting marketing concept, but not necessarily a great investment concept," says Morningstar senior analyst Scott Cooley.

Like them or not, the list of no-load audience-participation funds is growing and they're not all the same. Each has its own way of measuring and acting on what investors want.

Last August, MetaMarkets.com launched the (OPENX) OpenFund , a high-octane stock fund that tells the world what stocks it owns and what lead manager Don Luskin paid for them. Luskin and his management team make the picks themselves, but they also trade ideas and stock picks via message boards on the MetaMarkets.com Web site. Some of the picks have made their way into the portfolio.

Two months later another online money manager, StockJungle.com, launched the (SJCIX) Community Intelligence fund. The fund posts its portfolio holdings daily and its professional managers can pick only from stocks selected by amateur analysts for hypothetical portfolios on the firm's Web site. The company tracks each portfolio, with daily cash rewards for the top pickers over the past three months, so investors can focus on the picks of the most successful amateurs.

In June TheStreet.com previewed three funds that fledgling online fund shop MutualMinds.com had filed with the regulators: Investors Diversified Growth, Small Cap Growth and New Economy. Here investors will forecast individual stock prices on the shop's Web site and pro managers from Smith Asset Management will buy stocks pitched on the site, perhaps focusing on those from the most-accurate amateurs. New Economy appears to be first off the blocks, scheduled for launch this summer.

Last month Marketocracy.com kicked off a Web site that will track hypothetical $1 million portfolios managed by amateurs. The five wannabes who shine brightest over the next three years will get the chance to co-manage a fund, according to the firm's Web site.

And finally, iExchange.com, a Web site that tracks amateur analysts' picks, is said to be mulling the idea of a fund that buys stocks pitched by its best amateur analysts. On Friday morning, the firm's Web site polled visitors on whether they'd invest in a fund of its best analysts' ideas.

How has the concept, in its purest form, performed? The StockJungle.com's Community Intelligence fund is up 26.3% since Jan. 1, beating the S&P 500 and 98% of its large-cap growth peers, according to Morningstar. The firm's other two funds, Pure Play Internet and Market Leaders Growth, have also started plucking ideas from amateurs' stock picks.

Community Intelligence fund's performance was aided by the fact that much of its cash remained on the sidelines during the market skid. One concern for investors: Chief Investment Officer Michael Petrino is leaving his post.

That kind of performance has raised a few intrigued eyebrows. "I thought this was a half-baked idea, but now I'm wondering if there's something to this," says Ferris. He adds that the idea will have to bloom beyond a few pioneers and the funds will have to get a few years under their belt before they're can be judged accurately.

Many of these planned do-it-yourself funds have modest expenses -- then again, if you're doing some of the work you should pay a bit less. The IPS iFund expects to have a 0.95% expense ratio, well below the average stock fund's 1.4%. But IPS, which runs the aggressive (IPSMX) Millennium and (IPSFX) New Frontier funds with pro Robert Loest in charge, and others could have a hard time keeping costs low if investors don't buy in. Funds with smaller assets lack economy of scale, raising their average expenses per share. StockJungle.com recently boosted its funds' fees by 45%.

Believers call the upstart funds a great leap forward, but others wonder if they won't be just short-lived gimmicks that go a bit too far in empowering shareholders. Then, of course, there's also the question of whether letting shareholders extensively participate in fund management is practical.

"I think there are probably some talented individuals out there, but I think the most sophisticated ones will just go out and buy a stock if they like it, not bother with this," says Cooley. "I certainly wouldn't hop into one of these things just because it seems like a neat idea."

Most investors appear to feel the same. Despite its record, the Community Intelligence fund holds only $4 million, according to Morningstar, compared with $396 million in the average U.S. stock fund. The OpenFund, where Luskin and his team are down 10.5% for the year, has $31.7 million.

If investors do want to test the do-it-yourself waters, they would be well advised to treat these funds as tech funds, because they tend to have heavy weightings in the sector. For example, on March 31, more than 80% of the Community Intelligence's assets were in technology stocks, according to Morningstar. Also, those who give it a try should keep these types of funds to less than 5% of their portfolios (but we all pretty much knew that, didn't we?).

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