Can you tell me how to locate the buys and sells of funds over the most recent period? I understand that fund companies must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
-Ron Dombcik

These days investors are rallying for more information from companies and financial institutions. But you shouldn't expect to see mutual fund firms come rushing to that party.

Fund companies are required to release the complete holdings of their funds only twice a year. And that's as good as you'll get from some firms. It's not that the funds are trying to keep shareholders in the dark; rather, it's to stop some people from using this information to trade with or against a manager.

Take, for example,

Janus

, which manages more than $100 billion but has been experiencing heavy shareholder redemptions. If investors can figure out what stocks Janus is trying to unload, they can short those stocks -- borrow stock from a broker and sell it, hoping to buy it back at a lower price -- and make a tidy profit. But that selling could send those stocks lower as Janus tries to sell, and that ultimately hurts the returns of Janus' remaining shareholders.

So you can understand why some fund companies aren't rushing to reveal what they're buying and selling.

But some firms will give you more than just the minimum. Here's what fund companies are required to tell you about their holdings, which firms give you more information, and how you can use this data.

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Fund companies must disclose each fund's holdings in the annual and semiannual reports of those funds. The annual report gets mailed to shareholders within 60 days after the end of the fund's fiscal year, and the semiannual report is sent 60 days after the end of the fiscal half-year. Firms actually have five days after that to file with the SEC.

By the time those reports reach your mailbox, that information is already as much as 60 days old.

Many fund companies also post these reports on their Web sites.

Fidelity

, for example, provides easy access to its most recent annual and semiannual reports on

its site.

Thankfully, some fund companies give you more information than what's required by the SEC.

Oakmark

, which runs the impressive

(OAKMX) - Get Report

Oakmark and

(OAKLX) - Get Report

Oakmark Select funds, releases quarterly reports for its mutual funds, which include the total holdings of each fund. And those reports can quickly be found on Oakmark's

Web site.

Even if a fund company compiles shareholder reports only twice a year, you might be able to find updated lists of top fund holdings on the firm's site. Frankly, that's the first place you should look for current fund information. Searching through the SEC's EDGAR database is a headache -- at best.

But if you're set on tackling one of the EDGAR sites such as

FreeEDGAR, you should know what filings to look for. A fund's annual and semiannual reports are filed under form N-30D.

Many money managers are also required to file a Form 13F with the SEC every quarter. Form 13F is a quarterly report of equity holdings by institutional investment managers who have equity assets under management of $100 million or more. Investment advisers, pension funds, banks and insurance companies may be included in this category.

But investment advisers don't have to deliver these public documents to fund shareholders. And all the stock holdings of an adviser are aggregated in the filings. So the holdings aren't broken down by fund. You can probably comb through some 13F filings and figure out which stocks a firm likes. But you won't be able to tell what your fund manager is doing specifically.

There are Web sites that track all the filings of money managers and fund companies to try to tell what firms are buying and selling. But these sites, such as

bigdough.com and

LionShares, charge thousands of dollars a year for access to this information.

Morningstar's Web site, on the other hand, is one that you should bookmark. It not only delivers the most recent top holdings of mutual funds, but the site also includes information on stock ownership. Of course, these aren't real-time data. That's impossible to get.

Using What You've Got

All of this begs the question: How are you going to use information on a fund's holdings and what will this data really tell you about a fund?

Most fund shareholders don't need to monitor a fund's holdings daily or even weekly. The whole idea behind buying a mutual fund

other than an index fund is to let the manager pick stocks for you.

Now, if the manager's stock picks are bad, you'll be able to spot that in the fund's performance, which is much easier to track. How much a fund swings in a day, week or month compared with the broad market will give you some idea of the volatility of the fund.

That said, a fund's top holdings can tell you something about how much risk a manager is taking and what style the fund is following. If more than one-third of a fund's assets are in its top 10 holdings, the fund is fairly concentrated and could be more volatile than a fund with greater diversification.

And if the top holdings come from just one or two sectors, you could be taking on additional risk. The fund could act a lot like a sector fund.

That top-10 list can also give you some insight into whether a fund manager is mimicking an index. If a fund's largest holdings are almost identical to those of an S&P 500 index fund, you have to wonder what you're actually paying that stock picker to do other than to blindly follow a broad benchmark.

You can use a portfolio's holdings to analyze the style of a fund. Does the manager own growth stocks but say he's a value investor? Or does a small-cap fund have several larger stocks in its top 10? That might suggest a fund is getting too big to buy only small stocks or that the manager isn't buying what the fund's name suggests.

You can use the list of holdings to see how much your investments overlap with one another. If you have three funds that have many of the same stocks in the top 10, then you can probably get rid of one or two of them. Their performance could wind up being very similar to one another, and that's not what you call diversification.

In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Dagen McDowell doesn't own or short individual stocks, nor does she invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Dagen welcomes your questions and comments, and invites you to send them to

Dagen McDowell.