It's easy to get excited about financial sector funds after last year's rebound, but it's a good idea to scope out a fund's price tag before you buy a share.

Screen Gems:
High Returns, Low Fees

Small-Cap Growth Funds

Mid-Cap Growth Funds

Large-Cap Growth Funds

Tech Funds

First, the excitement: Financial funds, which typically invest in stocks of banks, brokerages, insurers and money managers, might not get your pulse racing, but they can perform. Thanks to a rolling wave of baby boomers investing for their retirement, a booming economy and a stream of mergers and acquisitions, the average financial sector fund topped the

S&P 500

in seven of the past 10 calendar years, according to

Morningstar

.

Way, way back in ye olde 1997, they rang up a 45.8% return, compared with 33.4% for the S&P 500, and took in more money than any other sector-fund category. But then they fell off investors' radar screens in 1998 and 1999 when rising interest rates chipped away at financial stocks' earnings and financial funds' returns. Their 27% average gain last year, as the S&P 500 fell more than 9%, and falling interest rates have many investors wondering if they might be a good way to balance out a tech-heavy portfolio.

Party Like It's 2000?
Financial-sector funds have pulled back a bit since their powerhouse 2000

Source: Morningstar. Annualized performance figures through Feb. 12.

If you're shopping for a financial fund, or any fund for that matter, it's important to weigh its costs. Though a fund's fees might seem like a side issue, they can add up. For instance, you might not think there's much difference between a fund with a 1% expense ratio and one with a 2% expense ratio. But on a $10,000 investment earning 8% annually, that extra 1% will cut $7,000 off your return over 20 years, according to a report on mutual fund fees published by the

General Accounting Office

last year.

So, in winnowing the 36-fund field, the Big Screen looked for funds that beat their average peer over the past one- and three-year time periods, while also carrying an expense ratio lower than the category's rather high 1.71% average. In sifting other categories recently, we've also screened out funds that levy sales charges or loads, but we've left them in this screen because only two no-load funds made the cut.

With broader parameters, seven cleared our hurdles and here they are, ranked by their returns over the last 12 months.

Because the past three years covers a tough 1998 and 1999, the funds that stayed ahead of their peers and made our list are those with a risk-conscious streak.

One of the more aggressive is the no-load chart-topper,

(ICFSX) - Get Report

Icon Financial, though its volatility hasn't been any higher than its average peer's over the last three years, according to Morningstar. The fund, run by Craig Callahan, who has held the reins since its 1997 inception, has ridden a bank-heavy portfolio to an eye-popping 65.8% gain over the last year -- trouncing the S&P 500 and most of its peers. The fund, which carries a 1.58% annual expense ratio, also sports a 16.3% three-year annualized gain that beats more than 90% of its peers and leads the S&P 500 by more than five percentage points.

The other no-load fund on our list, the

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T. Rowe Price Financial Services fund, is a bit more diversified. Co-managers Anna Dopkin and Larry Puglia tend to spread the fund's money more broadly around the sector's different industries, focusing on stocks of shops where they see strong management and above-average earnings growth. The fund's 14.4% three-year annualized gain beats more than 90% of its peers, with less volatility over the last three years than its average peer, according to Morningstar. The fund's expense ratio is just 0.9%.

Among the load funds on our list, it's not a surprise to see a fund from

Mutual Series Funds

and one from

Davis Funds

. Both shops are known for their value investment style and financial stocks, which tend to trade at lower valuations than more aggressive tech fare, are a mainstay of value investors.

Ray Garea has gone his own way in running the broker-sold

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Mutual Financial Services fund since its 1997 inception. He focuses on the sector's dustbin, looking for stocks of companies that are out of favor but may be primed for a resurgence. This strategy has led him to focus on many mid-cap stocks, as opposed to big-caps, and it has also led to less volatility without hindering the fund's returns. Its 12.7% three-year annualized gain beats some 70% of its peers.

The fund isn't cheap though, charging a maximum 5.75% front-end sales charge or load on Class A shares and carrying a 1.40% annual expense ratio.

Lead manager Chris Davis has run the broker-sold

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Davis Financial fund since its 1991 inception. The fund also focuses on battered stocks where Davis and co-manager Ken Feinberg see unappreciated value. The fund hasn't fallen as far as its peers in down months over the years, according to Morningstar, and its 22.5% five-year annualized return beats more than 80% of its peers.

If you're looking for a slightly more aggressive approach, you might want to check out the

Fidelity

funds on our list. Rather than focus on one industry like Fidelity Select Insurance and other more specific Fido financial funds, it probably makes more sense to look at the Boston fund behemoth's broader financial funds.

If you invest on your own, check out the

(FIDSX) - Get Report

Fidelity Select Financial Services fund, which levels a maximum 3% front-end load, and if you work with a broker or adviser, look at the

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Fidelity Advisor Financial Services fund, which levies a maximum 5.75% sales charge on its Class A shares.

Fidelity's sector funds are a training ground for the firm's analysts and junior portfolio managers, so they change hands often. That said, the firm's deep corps of analysts have usually helped the young guns build solid track records.

Two solid funds that didn't make our list but might be worth a look are the no-load

(FSFSX)

Invesco Financial Services fund and the broker-sold

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John Hancock Financial Industries fund. Both funds spread their assets broadly around the sector and have steady hands at the wheel. Jeff Morris runs the Invesco fund, while the category's highest profile manager, Jim Schmidt, leads Hancock fund's management team. Both funds missed our cut due to a one-year return that slightly lagged its average peer.

If you're curious about what stocks propelled the stocks that did make our list, look no further. As usual we've tossed the portfolios of the funds on our list into a pot and sifted their cumulative top-10 holdings. There aren't many surprises, particularly at the top where you'll find financial giant

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

, the biggest financial stock measured by market capitalization.