Are those annoying cell-phone calls that blare out in movie theaters, meetings and commuter trains getting you down? Take heart: If you owned phone stocks that have rung up fat returns in recent years, those rings -- as well as the rotary variety -- should be music to your ears.
Explosive demand for the equipment and services that transmit voice and data in the real world and over the Internet have lighted a fire under telecom stocks. Last year alone, the
Nasdaq Telecommunications Index
more than doubled, lapping the winded
more than five times. But like all things with a New Economy spin, the group can be dizzyingly varied and volatile.
On the one hand, you've got old-school types, many of which are trying to get hip in a hurry; witness
On the other hand, scrappy wireless shops are in the rumble, too; consider the merger rumors that swirled around
Many telecom funds have more than half of their assets sunk in networkers building out the Internet's bandwidth, which are labeled as tech stocks. If you already own a tech fund or a tech-heavy growth fund (see
' fat telecom
bet), a telecom fund might be redundant.
But if you're a telecom believer, and don't already have a stake in the group, there are telecom funds from which to choose. Unfortunately, that 18-fund pack isn't much easier to navigate through than the stocks they buy.
"There's a range of options out there, but be aware that many of these are really technology funds with a lot of risk," says
analyst Chris Traulsen, who covers the group.
Enter our inaugural
, the feature formerly known as Saturday Screen. Here are the six telecom funds that have beaten their average peer over the past one-year and three-year periods, ranked by their one-year return.
As you might imagine, most of these funds are among the more aggressive of the telecom crowd, which is pretty aggressive to begin with. Beyond these, we'll cover some slightly lower octane options, including graybeards and some of the many newcomers that didn't make the cut.
The most-aggressive funds on our list are probably
Fidelity Select Developing Communications and
Invesco Telecommunications. The average price-to-earnings multiple of both funds' holdings is above 50, which is well above the category's already steep 42.9 average, according to
. The S&P 500's average P/E multiple is a bit over 37.
Last year, the
fund, which sports a steep 299% turnover ratio, rocketed to a 122% return, driven by a big bet on large-cap tech stocks. Manager Andrew Kaplan focused primarily on telecom/semiconductor equipment stocks such as
and Net-infrastructure bets such as
. Problem is, Kaplan headed for the lucrative hedge-fund hills in February, and there's no telling where new manager Rajiv Kaul will take the fund.
Although rapid-fire management changes are Fidelity's M.O., with its Select funds in which analysts learn the portfolio-management game, solid performance is also a near-constant due to the firm's deep bench.
If you want to go the aggressive route, Traulsen suggests Invesco Telecommunications, where manger Brian Hayward has held the reins for three years. Hayward's focus also has been on big-cap techs: At the end of the first quarter, the average P/E of the fund's top five holdings was over 180. Hayward also has recently said that he's going to start investing in some pre-IPO companies.
Traulsen isn't the only one who likes Hayward's style. Over the past two years, the fund has grown from just over $300 million to more than $3 billion, which could make it tough for Hayward to move nimbly in the sector.
If you're looking for a less-aggressive telecom fund, you might check out
Gabelli Global Growth or
Gabelli Global Telecommunications, whose 38.4% three-year annualized return just missed the cut.
Both funds sport below-average P/E levels, but Traulsen says Global Telecommunications is best for more cautious investors. Co-managers Mario and Marc Gabelli typically have a value bent, buying stocks when their prices are attractive relative to the company's potential breakup value.
T. Rowe Price Media & Telecommunications, which recently lost manager Brian Stansky, is another possibility for risk-conscious investors because it has historically spread its assets broadly across the sector. Investors should, however, wait to see if new manager Robert Gensler favors a more-focused approach.
If you're looking for other less-aggressive options that focus more on regional Bells and service providers, you should probably peruse the utilities fund aisle. Traulsen points to
Fidelity Select Utilities Growth for do-it-yourselfers and
Fidelity Advisor Telecommunications and Utilities Growth for those who work with an adviser.
Both funds give you access to biggies like
and AT&T, if that's what you're after.
If your key criteria in a telecom fund is manager experience, and that often is important in a dynamic, technology-driven sector, take a look at
Flag Investors Communications or
On the Flag fund, Bruce Behrens has the longest tenure of any telecom manager. He's held the reins since 1984, and Liam Burke joined him as a co-manager three years ago. The fund didn't make our list because sagging top picks like
have sunk its recent performance. Over the past year, the fund is up 9.5%, trailing more than 70% of its peers. Still, the fund's 21% annualized return over the past 10 years is tops in the group.
Firsthand Communications launched only last September, but highly regarded tech specialist Kevin Landis is at the helm. His
Technology Value fund is the top fund overall the past five years, with a 57.8% annualized return. Since Jan. 1, Communications leads the telecom pack with a 16% return, compared with a 7.4% loss for its average peer. If you've got aggressive tastes, this fund merits watching.
Of course, the same probably could be said of any fund in a category where returns, and volatility, have been ringing off the hook.