Dear Dagen: What's a Good Substitute for the Exclusive DFA Funds?

DFA's index-like funds are available only through carefully screened financial advisers.
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I need some help in finding mutual funds as described in the book

The Prudent Investor's Guide to Beating Wall Street at Its Own Game

. I have found the perfect funds at Dimensional Fund Advisors, but these funds are only available to institutional investors. -- James H. Robertson Jr.

James,

For those investors who haven't heard of DFA, think of

Vanguard

with a few potential

Nobel

laureates hanging around the soda machine. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for individuals to get their money into this firm's collection of low-cost, index-like funds.

DFA's approach starts with the oft-cited efficient-market theory, the same hypothesis that is the basis for all index investing. That is: An investor can't consistently outperform this relatively efficient, fairly priced market by picking stocks.

"The firm does not have a strategy of trying to beat the market," says Kenneth French, professor of finance at the

MIT Sloan School of Management

and a consultant to DFA.

It sounds like the same old mantra of passive investing. However, the funds you will find at this Santa Monica, Calif.-based firm don't track the more familiar, well-recognized indices. Yes, DFA does offer its

(DFLCX) - Get Report

U.S. Large Company fund, the obligatory

S&P 500

index fund. But for other asset classes and styles, these folks shun the popular indices.

For example, the firm believes that with small-caps, you can lose a portion of your return by trying to replicate a recognizable benchmark like the

Russell 2000

. In an area with higher trading costs and poor liquidity, a manager is at the mercy of the market if forced to buy a known list of names on an index.

Instead, the firm takes a more academic approach to determining the benchmarks for its funds, most of which are small-cap- or value-oriented.

For its small-cap product line, DFA uses as benchmarks indices created by the

Center for Research in Security Prices

at the

University of Chicago

, usually referred to as CRSP or "crisp."

Look at the firm's first fund,

(DFSCX) - Get Report

U.S. 9-10 Small Company, launched in 1981. This fund invests in stocks with market capitalizations falling within the smallest 20% of companies on the

New York Stock Exchange

and also invests in stocks of companies with comparable market caps that trade on the

Nasdaq

and the

American Stock Exchange

.

DFA has deconstructed the market to come up with a list of building-block funds that can be used to construct a portfolio. Among the firm's 30-plus offerings, you'll find a selection of small-cap funds; a

(DFLVX) - Get Report

U.S. Large Cap Value fund; funds investing in the Far East, including a

(DFRSX) - Get Report

Pacific Rim Small Company fund; a variety of European portfolios, including a

(DFUKX) - Get Report

United Kingdom Small Company fund; an

(DFEVX) - Get Report

Emerging Markets Value fund; and several bond funds.

"Asset allocation is the entire ballgame," says Weston Wellington, vice president at DFA.

The firm's value strategies are rooted in the research of Eugene Fama, a famed University of Chicago finance professor, and MIT's French, who argued that value stocks (defined by low price-to-book ratios) tend to outperform growth stocks over time.

Fama and French are just two of the prominent names from academia who work closely with the firm, which was started in 1981 by David Booth and Rex Sinquefield, both University of Chicago business school alumni. Fama, often mentioned as Nobel candidate, is director of research and a board member. French acts as a consultant. Nobel-winning economists Merton Miller and Myron Scholes are fund directors.

Fortunately, the firm's expenses are a lot lower than the average IQ of its leaders. DFA goes to great lengths to minimize expenses shouldered by its investors. The cost of trading can obliterate gains in areas like small-cap stocks. Not surprisingly, DFA's trading operation is designed to minimize these costs, which include fees paid to brokers and the market impact. The firm can use its hefty size ($32.3 billion in assets, at last count) to negotiate favorable prices for stocks it is trying to buy and sell.

You also won't be seeing any multipage newspaper ads or trade show gift giveaways. "There is not a lot of marketing hoopla," says Robert Horowitz, a financial adviser at Stamford, Conn.-based

New England Investment Management

. The firm's plain-paper annual report from last year includes no nifty graphics or pie charts.

DFA funds' annual expense ratios, which include nontrading costs, such as operating expenses and the firm's management fee, also are very low. The

(DFJSX) - Get Report

Japanese Small Company fund carries an expense ratio of 0.74%, compared with 1.76% for the average Japanese fund tracked by

Lipper

. Expenses for the U.S. 9-10 Small Company fund are 0.59%, compared with 1.75% for the average micro-cap fund.

DFA funds' returns, in some cases, appear roughly comparable to those of Vanguard's index funds. Through June 30, the five-year average annual return for DFA's U.S. Large Company fund is 27.6%, compared with 27.8% for the

(VFINX) - Get Report

Vanguard 500 Index fund, according to Lipper. DFA's Large Cap Value fund's annual 23.1% return over five years also slightly lags the 23.5% return of the

(VIVAX) - Get Report

Vanguard Value Index fund.

Returns stack up better for the U.S. 9-10 Small Company fund. Through June 30, it has delivered an average annual return of 12.9% over the past 10 years, making it the No. 1 micro-cap fund for that period.

The firm is picky about who can invest because it does not want fast, short-term money flowing in and out of the funds, which can push up transaction costs. "We have major institutions as clients, and they don't like to see high turnover and hot money," Wellington says. That's part of the reason the funds are not sold directly to individuals. Plus, limiting the number of individual investors helps keep administration costs to a minimum.

DFA only started allowing individual investors into the funds in 1990. The minimum investment is $2 million, according to

Morningstar

. But the only way someone like you or me can get in is through a selected group of financial advisers. Keep in mind, though, that many advisers won't take clients with less than $100,000 to invest.

The firm works with more than 100 advisers, who must go through a screening process ("We want to work with people who share our beliefs," says Wellington) before they can offer the funds to their clients. "These advisers have to behave like institutions," Wellington adds.

But don't despair. DFA isn't the only stop on the highway if you are looking for a low-cost, low-turnover, broadly diversified collection of index funds.

For individual investors, there are the many varieties of passive index funds at places like Vanguard and

Charles Schwab

, says John Bowen, co-author of the book you cited in your question.

"I would argue, for most investors, those are sufficient," says Bowen, who offers the DFA funds through his firm

RWB Advisory Services

in San Jose, Calif. But "if you do have over $100,000 to invest, then you may want to consider working with a financial adviser."

Vanguard's funds may not track the same areas or indices as the DFA funds, but they are well run and cheap.

"I tell my students to go to Vanguard," says French. "I own Vanguard as well as the DFA funds."

I can't argue with that.

Send your questions and comments, along with your full name, to

deardagen@thestreet.com.

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