Long Bond Edges Stock Funds in Topsy-Turvy Year

You could've made more money in long-term goverment bonds this year than in the average stock fund.
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Forget about beating the

S&P 500

. This year, stock mutual funds can't even beat long-term government bonds.

The average stock mutual fund this year has returned only 9.3% through last Thursday, according to

Lipper Inc.

That trails the return of the long-term government bond, which is posting a 15.3% year-to-date return, according to the

Merrill Lynch U.S. Treasury Current 30 Year Index

. Even Merrill's wider index of 10-plus year treasury bonds is beating the average stock fund, with a return of 11.6% year to date.

And it could get worse. This year's numbers fit onto a trend line that peaked in 1995 and has gone lower ever since. Barring any wild swings this week, stock funds will post their lowest returns in four years.

Bull market? What bull market?

Through the day before Christmas last year, stock funds were returning 13.6% for 1997. In 1996, they posted a 17.2% return through the second-to-last week of the year. And in 1995, the number was 23.4%. The last negative number was posted in 1994, when stock funds lost 2.8% through the penultimate week of the year.

The only bull market to be seen this year was in a few select stocks that led the indices, says William Dougherty, president of Boston mutual-fund-tracking firm

Kanon Bloch Carre

.

"You're hearing about the bull market because you see the S&P and the Dow" are up, says Dougherty, noting that those indices are dominated by large-cap stocks. "The broader market has done worse than that."

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

is up 16.6% through Dec. 24, according to

Baseline

, while the S&P 500 showed a 26.6% rise for the year through Dec. 23. The

Wilshire 5000

, which tracks the broader stock market, is up 20.2% during that period.

But the

Russell 2000

, an index of smaller stocks, has logged a negative return of 7.2% year to date. Couple that with global jitters, which caused investors to seek security in U.S. Treasuries as currencies of other countries collapsed, and you have a formula for the long bond returning more than your average stock fund.

"People were scurrying around the globe, trying to invest in U.S. Treasury securities as a safe haven," says Greg Hahn, head of institutional fixed income at

Conseco Capital Management

in Carmel, Ind. He also notes that the lowering of interest rates, in anticipation of a slowing U.S. economy, also has helped the long bond.

Still, most fixed-income funds can't claim double-digit returns. The average domestic long-term fixed-income fund has returned only 4.9% year to date, according to Lipper, a fact Hahn attributes to fixed-income managers investing in corporate securities early in the year and missing out on the long bond's rally.

While stock funds are showing lower returns this year, investors should keep overall numbers in perspective, says Reuben Brewer, an analyst with the

Value Line Mutual Fund Survey

, a fund-tracking group.

"If you're going to start complaining about a 9% -- almost 10% -- return, then you need to reassess your expectations," Brewer says, noting that, historically, the overall stock market has posted annual returns between 10% and 12%. "If you're expecting a 20% return from here until eternity, you're going to be disappointed a lot."

Well, we've all got to remain realistic. But what about the fact that equity managers are wearing some fixed-income egg on their faces?

"Falling interest rates will do that, won't they?" says Brewer. "But it really depends on what you're looking at, too. What are bonds going to return next year? Are they going to fall back to their historic range? Or are they going to underperform their historic range? Things tend to revert to the mean."

How true. But for a lot of equity managers out there, those are some mean, hard numbers to swallow.