My mom called the other day to chat about the market. Now you don't know my mom, so you have no idea how unusual that is. My mother is 73 and had no money to speak of in the stock market until a few years ago, when I finally broke my rule about no financial advice to family members and insisted that she participate in one of the greatest bull markets in history.

In deference to her age, however, I suggested a couple of

T. Rowe Price

funds -- because they're conservative, low-priced and low-risk. And that's the problem. While everyone in the whole world is crowing about outsized stock market gains, my mom wants me to explain how she wound up losing money last quarter. (This is a particularly touchy subject, since I put my mom's much-younger sister into the

(VFINX) - Get Report

Vanguard 500 Index fund. No complaints there.)

Amy Granzin of fund tracker

Morningstar

hit the nail on the head in a recent analysis of T. Rowe Price: "Though T. Rowe looks golden by every traditional measure of risk, investors

have begun to recognize opportunity cost as a less-obvious but significant hazard."

How significant? In 1998, the average T. Rowe Price domestic equity fund underperformed the

S&P 500

by 16 percentage points, according to Morningstar. At

Janus

, the Highfliers "R" Us shop, the average domestic equity fund bested the S&P by 13 points. A preference for stocks with earnings and an emphasis on growth at a reasonable price instead of growth at any price have cost T. Rowe Price dearly in the current market, Granzin points out.

Plenty of investors agree, and they're voting with their checkbooks. Net inflows into Janus total $16.6 billion so far this year, on top of $9 billion last year, according to

Financial Research Corp.

Meanwhile, only $346 million has made its way to T. Rowe Price this year, following $3.5 billion in 1998.

My mom's ready for life in the fast lane, too. As I try to argue her out of it, I'm beginning to realize what she went through when I was a teenager. I may be too square for my own mother, but I still like the conservative policies that made me choose T. Rowe Price in the first place. A couple of comparisons:

  • Average tenure: 6.7 years for a T. Rowe Price manager vs. 3.7 for Fidelity.
  • Average price-to-earnings ratio: 30.8 for T. Rowe Price vs. 44 for Janus.
  • Concentration: 25% of assets in top 10 holdings, on average, vs. 50% for Janus.
  • Turnover: 30% vs. nearly 100%, on average, industrywide.

I'm not going to argue the fact that right now the market clearly rewards risk-takers -- the ones placing the biggest bets on the stocks with the most momentum, no matter how pricey or how scant the earnings. And those gutsy bets should probably be part of everyone's portfolio to varying degrees. Perhaps you need to re-evaluate and rejigger. But please, as tempting as this summer rally is, consider that if you've been cautious all along, this could be one of the worst times to abandon a conservative stance.

You may think I'm crazy when I tell you my reservations have more to do with the weather than with any economic or market fundamentals. In a word, summer -- at least for investors -- stinks. Remember the meltdown last August as the Asian contagion spread to Russia and Latin America? There were rough patches in the previous two summers as well.

In fact, a recent study by Yale Hirsch, who chronicles a number of seasonal and cyclical stock market trends in

The Stock Trader's Almanac

, found that for the past 49 years, the summer months spanning May through October have dramatically underperformed the winter months running from November through April. A $10,000 investment kept in the market just during the six winter months beginning November 1950 (taken out at the end of each April, reinvested each fall) would be worth $340,575 now. A $10,000 summertime stake would have grown to just $11,136. The fact that last winter's 21.5% gain is not far behind 1970's record 24.9% winter gain doesn't make me any more comfortable.

So don't get me wrong. I'm sorry I didn't put some of mom's money in the Vanguard 500 Index or something racier, like the

(JANSX)

Janus fund. Maybe I will a few months from now, when summer squalls no longer threaten. In the meantime, I guess I'll just duck her calls for a while.

Anne Kates Smith is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report in Washington. At time of publication, Smith had no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks or funds.

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