Fund geek that I am, I always look forward to seeing Morningstar's choices for

fund manager of the year. I have only one minor grievance with the Morningstar awards: Since it's a backward-looking laurel, there's no way to profit from it.

With that in mind, for today's column I humbly submit my early nominees for 2004's Manager of the Year. Hey, sportswriters are expected to make preseason predictions, why shouldn't financial journalists be required to the same?

I base my early nominations on some hunches about the direction of the markets in 2004. The key themes will likely be: a flight to quality; dividend-paying stocks; value over growth; and the continued ascent of Asian markets. Of course, as the fund scandal continues to unfurl, firms that look out for us little folks will again draw the attention of Morningstar -- and more investor dollars.

Of course the odds are pretty slim that I'll pick the eventual 2004 winners out of the universe of thousands of mutual funds. However, hopefully, this list will ameliorate the one grievance I have with the Morningstar choice: By calling them early, I'm making my prediction that these funds are poised to outperform the pack in 2004.

Domestic Stock Manager of the Year: Dodge & Cox Stock

As they say, it's an honor just to be nominated, and the 10-person management team of the outstanding

(DODGX) - Get Report

Dodge & Cox Stock fund was among the five nominees for 2003 Domestic Stock Manager of the Year for a variety of reasons. The fund managed to stay true to its value-oriented, price-conscious approach to stock-picking and still post a 32.3% return for the year -- topping the

S&P 500

by nearly 4 percentage points. And that was in a year that favored some of the more speculative tech names that Dodge & Cox has studiously avoided. Heading into a year that will almost surely see a renewed yen for quality companies that look reasonably valued, Dodge & Cox looks primed to beat the market again by taking a divergent tack from the S&P 500. Some of the firm's biggest holdings, including

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

,

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

and

Schering Plough

(SGP)

, are coming off a tough year and look poised to recover (Sony has been on the rise).

There's another reason to expect Dodge & Cox Stock to outperform the market: It almost always does. The fund's average annual return for the past 20 years is 14.69% -- handily beating the S&P 500's 12.36% annual return during the great 1982-2000 bull market. Meanwhile, the fund has many other virtues: a 0.54% expense ratio, a deep bench of managers and a long tradition of putting its shareholders' interests first. Non-Dodge & Cox Stock investors take note: The $22.7 billion fund is closing its doors to new investments on Jan. 16, so if you want in, you better hurry.

There are a few other domestic stock funds that look especially good to me this year and might make the year-end nominations cut from Morningstar -- they also are funds that look good year in, year out. One is the

(PRGFX) - Get Report

T. Rowe Price Growth Stock fund, managed by longtime skipper Bob Smith with an eye on growth at a reasonable price. Smith managed to return 31.2% in 2003 while shying away from more speculative names; his "safe growth" holdings such as

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

,

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

and

UnitedHealth

(UNH) - Get Report

may do well if the market shifts more toward high-quality stocks.

A dark-horse Morningstar Manager of the Year pick may come from the world of sector funds -- most likely, a fund that focuses on a sector that does especially well in 2004. Two sectors that lagged behind the big 2003 rally despite solid earnings improvement were energy and health care. If health care takes charge in 2004, two worthy choices for laurels would be

(VGHAX) - Get Report

Vanguard Health Care, run extraordinarily well by Ed Owens since 1984 with an eye toward safety and diversity within the sector. If energy leads the next bull run, perhaps one of the actively managed funds that I highlighted in

an article last week will garner a nomination. It's unlikely -- but I do think it likely that all of these funds are worth considering for 2004 and beyond.

International Equity Fund Manager of the Year: Matthews Asian Growth & Income

Any offering from the Matthews Asian Funds family deserves awards, but the

(MACSX) - Get Report

Matthews Asian Growth & Income fund is a personal favorite. (Unfortunately, it closed to new investors in November after its assets quadrupled to $800 million in 2003.) The fund, managed by firm founder G. Paul Matthews since its 1994 inception, offers a brilliant solution to the volatility of investing in Asia: It balances the risk of Asian growth stocks with a blend of dividend-paying stocks and convertible bonds from companies in the region. Skipper Matthews, a pioneer in investing in Asia, has turned in results nothing short of extraordinary: The fund has had only one down year since 1996, and its five-year average annual return of 21.5% ranks it No. 1 among all Asia ex-Japan funds, according to Morningstar.

Another worthy choice for International Stock Fund Manager of the Year would be the

(SGOIX) - Get Report

First Eagle Overseas fund, impressively run by Jean-Marie Eveillard since its 1993 inception. The skipper, who successfully managed four First Eagle funds, takes a value-oriented approach to stock-picking, which has meant lagging a bit in go-go markets, but the long-haul results are top-notch. The firm's one-year (37.5%), three-year average annual (19.03%), five-year average annual (17.29%) and 10-year average annual return (12.29%) all rank in the top 5% of its class. Eveillard plans to step down from the fund in January 2005 and turn the reins over to co-manager Charles de Vaulx -- perhaps Morningstar will honor Eveillard's final year. Even if they don't, investors have been well-served honoring Eveillard with their money.