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Financials Finally Worth Banking On

Bank on the banks.

I know, I know, in a week when the Fed decides to raise rates, it's hardly conventional advice. It could even be considered crazy. And financial funds did so poorly in January -- down 4.9% on average, according to Lipper.

But, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there's a buzz about banks. Cramer made clear on "TheStreet.com" TV show last weekend that they are definitely not boring, unless you think that making money is a yawn. And yeah, though they might not be quite as sexy as high-octane, high-tech funds, many of you are writing me about funds with money in the banks.

It's not because you checked out recent past performance, however. With few exceptions, financial funds floundered through much of last year -- on average, they were 6% in the red, while most mutual funds were flying in the double and triple digits.

But since January -- which proved that techs aren't the sure thing they used to be -- there may be good reason to take another look.

Still, if you believe financials make financial sense, you should still steer clear of specialty sector funds. These concentrated bets can make you a bundle by being in the right place at the right time, but your fate is determined more by the sector's fortunes than by the manager's stock-picking prowess. Unless you have a very strong stomach -- and a very clear crystal ball -- stick instead with more diversified funds featuring managers who have proven records taking stakes in a particular sector, but aren't constrained to investing only in that sector.

Let's run the numbers. I know it's unfashionable these days to look past a 12-month time frame. But the truth is, you want to get some idea of how the stock-market selloff of 1998, which hit financial services hardest of all, took its toll on a fund. So a better yardstick is three-year return.

Here's my take on the top-performers with at least 25% in domestic financials, rated on a sliding scale of dollar signs, with four $$$$ being the highest. ( Weitz Hickory doesn't get a rating because it's closed to new investors.)

In the Money?
Fund 3-year average annual return % Financials Brenda's bottom line
(WOGSX) White Oak Growth 34% 26% $$$$
(WEHIX) Weitz Hickory 29 30 *
(LMVTX) Legg Mason Value 29 27 $$$$
(FSLBX) Fidelity Select Brokerage & Investment 27 90 $
(TAGRX) John Hancock Large Cap Value A 26 28 $$
Specialty financial funds 11 N/A N/A
Source: Morningstar; *closed to new investors

  • (WOGSX) White Oak Growth Stock

    OK, so loyal readers will know I put my money where my mouth is with this one. I've owned White Oak Growth for several years and have not been disappointed by manager Jim Oelschlager's ability to navigate very volatile sectors -- not only financials, but tech as well.

    And it's hard to argue with the numbers, both short- and long-term. For the past five years, it's ranked right at the top of the biggest hard-chargers -- large growth funds -- returning nearly 40% a year on average to rank in the top 4% of the category. In 1999, it was up some 50 points. But unlike a lot of last year's highfliers, White Oak Growth gained even during January's choppy market, beating the S&P 500 index and most of its peers.

    Oelschlager is no fast trader, though. He has one of the lowest turnover ratios around, and he buys to hold, so you usually know what you're getting. And he's ridden some financials, such as American International Group (AIG), to big wins in a slumping sector. But if you want diversification, apply elsewhere -- White Oak has only a couple of dozen holdings in its portfolio. Still, it's hard to find a better diversified fund with a preference for financials.

  • (WEHIX) Weitz Hickory

    Sorry, the sign on this door says "closed." In fact, there is a very active auction system on mutual fund message boards for shares of this fund. For good reason. Value manager Rick Lawson has stocked up on beaten-down small-cap financials. (He's not a traditional bargain-basement seeker, though. He has no problem with tech and telecom.) And again, it's tough to argue with the numbers. Weitz Hickory is near the top of the class for the three- and five-year periods, and has been there consistently, beating the market every year for the past six years.

    Another long-term investor, Lawson doesn't jump in and out of stocks quickly. But a concentrated portfolio means that tough times can really be tough. And so far this year, that has definitely been the case. The fund is at the bottom of the small blend category in the year to date, a place it hasn't seen since 1994, when it lost 17%.

    But current owners should hang on. Lawson's nontraditional view of value, combined with a very strong record, makes this an investment that will likely take advantage of any spike in banks or financials.

  • (LMVTX) Legg Mason Value

    Hot-money investors chasing recent performance may be disappointed in this long-term winner. There's a lot of chatter on the message boards from new investors unhappy with Legg Mason's recent slump. But Bill Miller -- another unconventional value guy -- has one of the very best records in the business, one built on a keen eye for financials in markets up and down. I wish I'd invested years ago, but better late than never -- I have a prospectus on my desk, just waiting for a check.

  • (FSLBX) Fidelity Select Brokerage & Investment

    Yes, this is one of the hottest gainers in the past 10 years. But how much of this specialty fund's returns are a result of being in the only part of the sector that has really sizzled: brokerages? The more exposure to brokerages, the better; however, if you were in thrifts or small-cap banks, forget it. While that narrow focus hasn't done much this year, it has ruled the fund. Yes, the manager is strong. But the truth is, there's not much he can do. The success or failure of this fund rests with its subsector -- its up-and-down rank in the category tells that story --and that means this is one that belongs only with your very aggressive money, and only if you really believe the brokerages are the way to go.

  • (TAGRX) John Hancock Large Cap Value

    Good solid performer with (finally) a strong manager. The style and strategy sound pretty familiar here: Like many on the list, it overweights tech and financials. Don't read too much into the "value" in its name. But in the company of White Oak Growth, Hickory and Legg Mason, it's not easy to say that this is the one to ride.

    Brenda Buttner's column, Under the Hood, appears Thursdays. At time of publication, Buttner owned shares of the White Oak Growth fund, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks or funds. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, Buttner appreciates your feedback at TSCBrenda@aol.com.

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