You probably wouldn't guess it, but financial-sector funds lead every other fund flavor over the past five years.

The category's 17.9% annualized gain during that stretch, compared with 15.3% for the

S&P 500, merits our attention. After the average financial-sector fund gained 27% last year, you might be wondering if it's time for the sector to cool. Well, no one runs more money in financial-sector portfolios than Jim Schmidt, manager of the $2.6 billion

(FIDAX) - Get J Hancock Financial Indust A Report

John Hancock Financial Industries fund and the $3.2 billion

(FRBAX) - Get J Hancock Regional Bank A Report

John Hancock Regional Bank fund, as well as

closed-end funds focused on the banking sector.

Talking With: Jim Schmidt

Fund: John Hancock Financial Industries Fund

Assets: $2.6 billion

1-Year Return:
-4.2%/Trails 95% of Peers

5-Year Return: 15.4%/Trails 71% of Peers

Expenses:
5% sales charge/1.4% annual expenses

Top-Three Holdings:
American International ,
Citigroup ,
Fifth Third Bancorp

Sources: Morningstar and jhancock.com. Sales charge is the maximum on Class A shares.

Six interest rate cuts have boosted bank stocks, but a sagging stock market has kept brokerage and asset-manager shares -- and Schmidt's Financial Industries fund -- down. The veteran stock manager admits financial stocks aren't nearly as cheap as they were a year ago, but he argues for more gains in financial stocks, two more rate cuts and a modest market recovery.

1. What's the case for owning financial stocks today?

Schmidt:

The case is based on better relative earnings compared to the market. Outside of the brokerage business, our companies' earnings are up while the average company's aren't. Even though financial stocks are up, I wouldn't say they're overvalued. A year ago I might have said they were undervalued, but I'm not sure I can say that today.

Also, I think consolidation activity will continue among the banks. You'll probably see more deals between banks and brokers. The new merger accounting rules are in effect now and, I think, will be good for helping merger activity. Under the new rules you won't have to amortize goodwill created in a merger against earnings. So, you'll be able to do some of these transactions without diluting your earnings.

2. What do you see in terms of consolidation over the next 12 months or so?

Schmidt:

It's been quite slow this year, but I think we'll see some pickup. You have resistance on the part of sellers, but both time and higher prices clear that up. The one negative that has held back bank consolidation is that there aren't as many buyers as there used to be. The people that were the real acquirers, like

First Union

undefined

,

Bank One

(ONE) - Get OneSmart International Education Group Ltd Sponsored ADR Class A Report

,

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Bank of America Corp Report

, have fallen on leaner times.

The buyers now are

BB&T

(BBT) - Get BB&T Corporation Report

,

Wells Fargo

(WFC) - Get Wells Fargo & Company Report

and

Fifth Third

(FITB) - Get Fifth Third Bancorp Report

. They're out there, but there aren't as many of them.

Streaky
Financials were the rage in 1997 and 2000, but this year has been tough

Source: Morningstar. Returns through July 19.

Who out there has a solid, if niche, business that could fit nicely within a bigger company?

Schmidt:

There are attractive businesses, with good franchises in the banking area, like

Commerce Bancshares

(CBSH) - Get Commerce Bancshares, Inc. Report

in Missouri and

Cullen/Frost Bankers

(CFR) - Get Cullen/Frost Bankers, Inc. Report

in Texas. They each have good market share and are the last one standing in their area. They'd be good candidates, if the right deal comes along.

3. Many of your companies' earnings hinge on the stock market, so what's your outlook for equities?

Schmidt:

It has been an unusually bad period in the market. I don't remember a time in the last 15 years where you could have bought a diversified set of stocks and two years later still been under water. I just don't think a period that bad can last forever.

We'll see the

Nasdaq recover. Suppose it even recovers to 2600, that's barely half of where it was at the peak, so I'm not asking for much, but I am just saying a little better market. Then I think some of the things that are being hurt, like securities transactions and

IPOs, will start coming back. You'll have more people with a positive experience in the market, but now anyone who has done anything has been hurt in the last year, and it's pretty hard to get people interested in a lot of equity-related products.

4. A recovery should be a salve for brokerages and asset managers, right?

If you are a mutual fund company or brokerage firm, a good equity market is the best thing for you.

When interest rates get cut, on average the brokers are the best group of all. If you look over history and you take every time the

Fed cuts rates, the financials tend to beat the market two-thirds of the time, and the brokerage stocks are the best group of all. But then, usually, lower rates means a better stock market, too, and it hasn't this time. You need a better market for brokerages to go up. The market doesn't have to go back to where it was. In other words Nasdaq has gone from 5000 to 2000; it doesn't need to go back to 5,000, but it needs to go up.

How about asset managers?

Schmidt:

The story here is similar to the brokers, but I think that the negative on asset managers is that the recovery is going to be a little bit slower. In three months we could see just as many mergers as we saw a year ago,

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driving brokerage earnings up through advisory fees. But it's very unlikely that the mutual fund balances will be back in three months to where they were a year ago.

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5. What's your interest-rate outlook?

Schmidt:

I think we'll see at least one more cut, maybe two. Only if the economy were really in the dumps would you see more, but I don't think that will be the case. If they do two more 0.25% cuts, then I think there's no need to do anything because the economy will slowly recover. So, we don't have much more to go in downward rates, but I don't think it's like a "V" in rates and then they head back up. I think, for maybe six months to a year, there won't be any changes in the

fed funds rate.

6. Before this year the Financial Industries fund was keeping pace with more diversified financial funds, but it's had a rocky 2001. What happened?

Schmidt:

One thing is that we have a fair chunk of brokerage stocks and asset managers, and they've had a poor year. And then we had more of the large-cap financial names among our big holdings in the beginning of the year, like

American Express

(AXP) - Get American Express Company Report

,

Merrill Lynch

(MER)

and

American International Group

(AIG) - Get American International Group, Inc. Report

. And this year has been more of a small-cap year. I'd say in 2000 the Financial Industries fund did well because we had those bigger names, but this year some of these big caps like AIG haven't had a bad year, the stocks just haven't performed as well as many of the smaller names.

7. You invest in the fund companies, but you also work at one. With cash flows to funds well off last year's record pace, it looks like the number of funds might shrink. Do you think that will happen?

Schmidt:

I think so, and I'm surprised there hasn't been more in a way. Mediocre funds that have assets but a middling track record don't have a very bright future as far as distribution. Someone will buy them just to take the assets and no expenses. You know,

at a lot of large-cap growth funds, you can manage $1 billion or $10 billion with the same staff. You don't need any extra people.

8. Let's play some word association. I'll name some companies, and you can give us your opinion and let us know if the fund owns shares. Let's start with Citigroup (C) - Get Citigroup Inc. Report.

Schmidt:

I like it and we own it. They've done a good job of integrating complex businesses together, and it has been one of the more successful mergers.

Washington Mutual (WM) - Get Waste Management, Inc. Report? The bank's shares are up 96% over the past year.

Schmidt:

One of our favorites. It's a big holding with good management that's really benefited from lower rates and been a good story. One negative is the potential for them to do acquisitions. They're in a good position to buy someone, so you might open the paper and find out that Washington Mutual bought someone and the stock is down two points, and that's a risk you have to live with.

Merrill Lynch?

Schmidt:

Merrill Lynch we still like, although brokerage stocks, including Merrill, have hurt us. When I say we still like it, it's because they've continued to be able to gather assets this year even in a tough environment and I'm assuming there will be a recovery in investment banking later in the year. If I am wrong on the market coming back, then we won't do so well with Merrill.

Charles Schwab (SCH) ?

Schmidt:

They're not quite as positive because their business is slow. Investment banking can almost turn on a dime, and Merrill is one of that business's leaders; Schwab's business is individual trading, and that's just down. Schwab is good in electronic brokerage, but that may never get back to quite where it was at the beginning of last year.

Does the fund own Schwab?

Schmidt:

Schwab is a small holding, much smaller than it used to be.

Smaller every day?

Schmidt:

Yeah, I guess so. We've been net sellers. Everyone has less Schwab than they used to, but we've been net sellers.

Stilwell Financial (SV) , which owns Janus?

Schmidt:

We don't own Stilwell. That's a good example of the dynamic I was talking about. Things might get better for Stilwell's inflows later in the year, but it's going to take a long time to rebuild their assets to where they were at the peak last year.

9. Cash flows into funds tend to chase performance and often miss the boat. Did most of the funds' recent flows come this year, even though financials were a safe harbor in 2000?

Schmidt:

It's a surprising thing they were still in negative outflow. It's not a lot, but it's surprising that

they were in negative flow at all, particularly the bank funds that had a very good year and a good long-term record. I guess people don't get as excited about financial stocks when they do well as maybe some other groups. And I don't know if I can fully explain it, but

can say in all past downturns, once financial stocks started doing better, we started to see positive flows. This time it really hasn't happened.

10. If you had to pick three companies today -- based on their management, their products and their current valuation, what three would you choose for a five-year holding period?

Schmidt:

I'll go with Cullen/Frost in Texas. I like the management, one of the sizable independent banks left down there, and, I think, over many years that will do real well. Then I'll choose

Aflac

(AFL) - Get Aflac Incorporated Report

-- but this year

it hasn't really been a favorite, but we'll stay with it. In the brokerage business, I'm going to go with

Lehman Brothers

(LEH)

. Lehman tends to sell cheaper than the other firms, but they've done a very good job. They've traditionally been thought of as a bond trading house, and that gets a lower multiple, but they've made a lot of inroads in investment banking and they're strong over in Europe. And maybe Lehman will get taken over -- I don't know for sure, but it's a possibility, too.

Ian McDonald writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to

imcdonald@thestreet.com, but he cannot give specific financial advice.