The most recent top-rated equity funds graded by Ratings are dotted with entrants that wouldn't qualify as "stock" funds in a traditional sense.

As appropriate for these uncertain investment times, half of the 10 highest-rated open-end equity funds in the accompanying table either focus on "hard assets" or have portfolios constructed in such a way as to be largely net unexposed to the stock market.

The two highest rated funds, the

Permanent Portfolio Fund

(PRPFX) - Get Permanent Portfolio Permanent I Report

and the

Merk Hard Currency Fund Investor

(MERKX) - Get Merk Hard Currency Inv Report

, along with the

Prudent Bear Fund

(BEARX) - Get Federated Prudent Bear A Report

, have investments in "hard" (tangible) assets such as precious metals and other minerals.

Two other funds, the

TFS Market Neutral Fund


and the

Aberdeen U.S. Growth Leaders Long/Short Fund

(MLSAX) - Get Aberdeen Focused US Equity A Report

, combine long and short investment positions that can cancel each other out to near-neutral net exposure to the broad equity markets. Such funds, when successful, achieve competitive total investment performances with far less volatility of returns than traditional "long-only" stock funds.

MLSAX's top portfolio holdings include

Goldman Sachs Group

(GS) - Get Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (GS) Report



(CO) - Get Global Cord Blood Corporation Report


Wal-Mart Stores.

(WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report


With annualized growth of 16.29% over the past three years and a return of 9.93% over the last 12 months, TFSMX has been particularly successful at picking appropriate long and short investments.

Ironically, with hard-asset and long-short funds dominating the spotlight, a quartet of funds that would be considered as highly conservative ended up on the list.

Two utility funds, the

AIM Utilities Fund

(IAUTX) - Get Invesco Dividend Income A Report

and the

Alliance Bernstein Utility Income Fund

(AUIAX) - Get AB Equity Income A Report

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, have each grown at compound rates of more than 15% annually over the past three years. Both count


(EXC) - Get Exelon Corporation Report

among their top portfolio holdings, with IAUTX also favoring


(T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report



John Hancock Balanced Fund

(SVBAX) - Get J Hancock Balanced A Report

has combined its cautious strategy of investing in equities and fixed income instruments correctly enough to enrich its holdings at an annual rate of 14.73% over the last three years and 11.32% over the most recent 12 months. Its top holdings include the diverse investments of

Archer Daniels Midland

(ADM) - Get Archer-Daniels-Midland Company Report



(AA) - Get Alcoa Corp. Report



(MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) Report


The fourth fund on the top-rated list with a relatively conservative approach to investments is the

Oakmark Equity and Income Fund II

(OARBX) - Get Oakmark Equity and Income Serv Report


While SVBAX and OARBX tend to maintain relatively constant proportions of equities and fixed income holdings in their portfolios, the

Blackrock Global Allocation Investment Fund

(MDLOX) - Get BlackRock Global Allocation A Report

has a strategic mandate that allows more extreme mixing of stocks and bonds as well as domestic and international investments. Its largest U.S. investments include

General Electric

(GE) - Get General Electric Company (GE) Report

, Microsoft,

Union Pacific

(UNP) - Get Union Pacific Corporation Report


American International Group

(AIG) - Get American International Group, Inc. Report


Richard Widows is a senior financial analyst for Ratings. Prior to joining, 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.