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Investors who had written off housing, retailing and financial-services stocks were surprised when mutual funds specializing in those industries jumped to the top of the performance pack in August.

Still undecided is whether the advances were dead-cat bounces or initial spasms in a return to life.

International funds, especially those focusing on emerging markets and precious metals, also topped the list. However, the winners in those tumbling sectors were "short," and "inverse-leveraged" funds that move in the opposite direction of stock prices.

The quintet on the accompanying list represent the top-gaining open-end stock funds for August, when "inverse" and "leveraged" funds are purged.

Exceeding even the most leveraged of stock funds during the month was the

Harbor SMID Value Fund

(HISMX)

. It vaulted 17.6% by keeping the faith in small and mid-cap stocks, areas also not among those touted by most pundits in recent months. Its largest holdings include

Adaptec

(ADPT) - Get Free Report

and

Rent-A Center

(RCII) - Get Free Report

.

Reports of the death of housing may have been exaggerated, as witnessed by the 8.2% rebound in the

Fidelity Select Construction and Housing Fund

(FSHOX) - Get Free Report

. Its performance resulted from holdings that include

Lowe's

(LOW) - Get Free Report

,

Home Depot

(HD) - Get Free Report

,

Fluor

(FLR) - Get Free Report

and

KBR

(KBR) - Get Free Report

.

A sign that consumers haven't gone into hiding was also reflected in a surge of 8.2% by the

Rydex Series-Retailing Fund

(RYRTX) - Get Free Report

. Like the Fidelity fund, it has a position in Home Depot, as well as

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Free Report

,

CVS Caremark

(CVS) - Get Free Report

,

Walgreen

(WAG)

and

Target

(TGT) - Get Free Report

.

Fourth-best was the more traditional

Olstein Strategic Opportunities Fund

(OFSAX) - Get Free Report

. Guided by master analyst Robert Olstein, the fund has bet that consumers will step out for cheaper meals on a fairly regular basis. It has major positions in

Denny's

(DENN) - Get Free Report

and

Cheesecake Factory

(CAKE) - Get Free Report

.

Evidence that the financial sector still lives was presented by a burst of 7.4% by the

Burnham Financial Industries Fund

(BURFX)

. Although its portfolio includes industry standbys

Citigroup

(C) - Get Free Report

and

JP Morgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Free Report

, its biggest positions are in

TFS Financial

(TFSL) - Get Free Report

and

People's United Financial

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.

Richard Widows is a senior 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.