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For Safe Plays, Try Franchise Funds

Ownership of investments with strong franchises might supply comfort during these uncertain economic times.

For example, Subway sells franchises for submarine sandwich shops, while Nike (NKE) has established itself as a leading sports shoe and athletic wear franchise. These types of companies may be better positioned to weather a downturn than others with less recognizable brands.

A number of mutual funds describe themselves as investors in "franchise" securities. For the most part, they take the word to mean companies with such a strong association with a product or service that their names and their industries are intertwined in the minds of the public.

For fund investors who feel most comfortable with funds that hold shares in established leaders in their respective fields, we parsed TheStreet.com Ratings database of open-end funds for those with the word "franchise" in their names or their investment objective statements.

The 21 funds that were found to have franchise focus in the investment selection process are listed in the accompanying table.

These are funds that deliberately focus on the top names in given fields. For example, the venerable Dodge & Cox Stock Fund (DODGX) includes "quality of the business franchise" as a criterion in its portfolio selection process.

DODGX's policy of selecting household names is reflected in its biggest holdings: Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Get Report), Comcast (CMCSA - Get Report), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT - Get Report) and Wachovia (WB).

As a group, the franchise-conscious funds have outperformed the S&P 500 total-return index by an annualized rate of 1.76 percentage points over the past three years. But their big-name holdings haven't prevented them from tumbling 1.74 percentage points further than the S&P over the difficult 12-month period ended Jan. 31 of this year. Their performance was fractionally lower than the S&P's for the latest three months.

Of 18 funds on the list with sufficient history to be graded by TheStreet.com Ratings, one received a mark of "A" while seven were in the "B" range, which qualified the eight as "buy" recommendations. Seven of the buy-recommended funds achieved double-digit annual percentage gains during the most recent three-year period. Overall, that group averaged an annualized return of 11.64% over that span, solidly ahead of the S&P's 7.27%.

While the S&P skidded 3.89% over the most recent 12 months, the eight buy-recommended funds held onto a positive return of 0.10%. The "buys" on the list tumbled an average of 9.50% over the past three months, but that was still more than a full percentage point better for their investors than the 10.55% setback suffered by the S&P over the same period.

With one exception, the funds in the table state investment preferences for "concept" franchises such as Nike rather than firms in the business of selling franchises. Only the Rydex Series-Retailing Fund (RYRTX) mentions in its investment objective statement an investment preference for companies that sell franchises.

RYRTX mentions that restaurant franchises are among the investments it considers, although none in that industry were listed among its positions in a recent report of holdings. Its largest portfolio positions are Wal-Mart Stores and CVS Caremark (CVS - Get Report).

Mutual Fund Believers in Business 'Franchises'
NAME, TICKER & TheStreet.com RATINGS GRADE * 3-MO. TOTAL RET'N (%) 12-MO. TOTAL RET'N (%) 3-YR. ANN'L RET'N (%) "FRANCHISE" MENTION IN FUND STATEMENT OF INVESTMENT OBJECTIVE
Aston Optimum Mid Cap Fund N (CHTTX) B- -10.97 3.72 10.23 FOCUSED BUSINESS FRANCHISE
Columbia FS Acorn Portfolio A (N/A) U -12.55 -2.74 N/A STRONG BUSINESS FRANCHISE
Columbia FS Acorn USA Portfolio A (N/A) U -11.98 -6.58 N/A STRONG BUSINESS FRANCHISE
Commerce Intl Equity Fd (CFIEX) B- -15.15 1.67 13.28 STRONG FRANCHISE
Dodge & Cox Stock Fund (DODGX) C- -10.33 -7.18 7.89 QUALITY OF THE BUSINESS FRANCHISE
Eaton Vance Tax-Mgd Value A (EATVX) A -7.68 1.57 11.59 STRENGTH OF...BUSINESS FRANCHISE
FTI Small Capitalization Equity (FTSCX) D -17.25 -3.67 7.04 STRONG FRANCHISE OPPORTUNITIES
Janus Aspen Mid Cap Value Inst (JAMVX) B+ ** -5.71 2.97 11.53 BUSINESS FRANCHISES...THAT GIVE THEM A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
Janus Aspen Sm Co Val Svc (N/A) D- -14.25 -11.77 5.70 TRADING AT A DISCOUNT TO THEIR...FRANCHISE VALUES
Janus Fd Inc-Small Cap Val Inv (JSCVX) C- -6.90 -1.42 8.06 LOW PRICE RELATIVE TO...BUSINESS FRANCHISE
MSIF Inc. Global Franchise P (MSFBX) B ** -8.33 0.28 12.14 RESILIENT BUSINESS FRANCHISES
MTB Large Cap Value A (VEINX) C- -10.32 -5.84 8.88 UNDERLYING VALUE AS MEASURED BY...BUSINESS FRANCHISES
PL Intl Large Cap Fund A (PAGGX) B+ -11.32 -1.90 12.70 DEMONSTRATE A STRONG FRANCHISE
Rydex Series-Retailing A (RYRTX) D- -8.44 -15.68 0.69 RESTAURANT FRANCHISES
T. Rowe Price Small Cap Value Fd (PRSVX) D+ -11.20 -7.33 7.23 UNDERLYING VALUE AS MEASURED BY...BUSINESS FRANCHISES
TA IDEX Evergreen Health Care A (IRHAX) C+ -9.09 -1.45 10.27 FRANCHISE NICHE
Universal Inst Global Fra II (UGIIX) B- -8.32 -7.92 9.25 RESILIENT BUSINESS FRANCHISES
Van Kampen American Franchise A (VAFAX) U -9.55 -8.29 N/A RESILIENT BUSINESS FRANCHISES
Van Kampen Global Franchise A (VGFAX) B -8.48 0.37 12.41 GLOBAL FRANCHISE ***
Wells Fargo Avtg VT Opp (N/A) D -10.11 -14.75 2.81 FRANCHISE VALUE
Wells Fargo Avtg VT Sm Cp Gwth (N/A) C+ -16.11 0.92 11.08 FRANCHISE VALUE
GROUP AVERAGE -10.67 -4.05 9.04
S&P 500 TOTAL RETURN INDEX -10.55 -2.31 7.28
* "U" is unrated.
** Institutional fund with minimum initial investment of more than $25,000.
*** From fund's name (no mention of franchise in its statement of objective).
Source: TheStreet.com Ratings - Data as of 1/31/2008.

Richard Widows is a financial analyst for TheStreet.com Ratings. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.

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