We're often told to focus on the long term in evaluating funds, but taken to the extreme that advice can be harmful.

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To illustrate our point, this week's Big Screen sifts through big-, mid- and small-cap growth funds to unearth some that have a sparkling record over the past decade -- yet have limped along over the past five years. How is that possible?

Well, U.S. stocks have averaged almost a 13% annual gain over the past decade, so a lot of funds that have been around that long look pretty good. A $10,000 investment growing at that 13% clip would be worth more than $37,000 after 10 years, according to Chicago research house Morningstar.

But stocks are actually in the red over the past three years and only narrowly lead bonds over five. So focusing solely on a fund's bonny gains over the past 10 years might lead you to a fund or manager who isn't much help when Wall Street's gutters are filling with rain.

To find some examples, we screened each growth-fund bin for funds that topped their average peer over the past decade, but trailed the pack over the past one, three and five years. In each case we ranked the funds we found by their returns over the past 10 years and pulled together a top five list (only four mid-cap growth funds made the dubious cut). All of these funds aren't necessarily losers -- yes, I own two bowsers on the list -- let's check out some that look like runners who went too fast at the start of a race.

Falling Down
These growth funds look good over the long term, but not inside of 10 years.
Fund 10-Year Return 5-Year Return 1-Year Return
Large-Cap Growth Funds
(PNOPX) Putnam New Opportunities 13% 3.6% -38%
(PINVX) Putnam Investors 11.2 4.8 -29.4
(MGOFX) MFS Growth Opportunities 10.4 4 -32.8
(AGRFX) Alliance Growth 10.2 2.1 -33.2
(FRGRX) Dreyfus Founders Growth 10.1 2 -28.7
Avg. Peer 9.8 5.8 -28.4
Mid-Cap Growth Funds
(AAGFX) AIM Aggressive Growth 13.5 4.3 -29.9
(PVISX) Putnam Vista 12.1 5 -37.7
(PBHGX) PBHG Growth 10.9 -2.5 -41.9
(SEGAX) SunAmerica New Century 10.5 1.9 -34.4
Avg. Peer 9.7 6.4 -26.8
Small-Cap Growth Funds
(TAEMX) John Hancock Small Cap Growth 11.4 5.1 -22.6
(TSGUX) Consulting Group Small Cap 11.3 2.3 -23.9
(POPAX) PIMCO Opportunity 11.1 2.3 -22.9
(SREMX) WM Small Cap Stock 10.3 6.6 -33.9
(SDSCX) Standish Small Cap Equity 10.3 5.4 -22.3
Avg. Peer 10 6.9 -16.9
Source: Morningstar. Returns through Feb. 6.

Even a quick glance at this list leaves you wondering how Boston fund behemoth Putnam Investments ended up with $309 billion in its coffers. Thanks to poor stock picking, just six of the Putnam's domestic stock funds topped their average peer in the three years ended Dec. 31, according to Morningstar. For the same reason, three broker-sold Putnam funds are on our list: ( PNOPX) New Opportunities, ( PINVX) Investors and ( PVISX) Vista.

The New Opportunities fund, which I own from a stint working for Putnam in the mid-1990s, has aged about as well as Keith Richards. Dan Miller rang up big gains soon after the fund's 1990 launch, but rather than shutter the fund as it grew large, Miller and co-managers began focusing on stocks of bigger companies. Well, that hasn't worked out. The large-cap growth fund leads the category average over the past 10 years but has lagged its average peer in five of the past six years. It's also a member of our Ima Loser Fund Club.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Growth funds rode tech stocks up and then let gravity take over
Source: Morningstar. Returns through Feb. 6.

For its part, the Putnam Investors fund hasn't fared much better. The fund, run by a trio of managers who came on board in 1995 and 1996, has trailed the average large-cap growth fund in each of the past three years. The mid-cap growth Vista fund hasn't fallen as hard though it has trailed its average competitor in two of the past three years.

The ( AGRFX) Alliance Growth fund is another good example of a fund that looks great from afar, but is far from good. Its 10.2% annualized gain over the past 10 years does beat its average peer and that's good. Actually, given the broker-sold fund's more recent funk, its long-term record is amazing. It's trailed its average competitor in each of the past four years. Tyler Smith, who ran the broker-sold fund from 1990 through 2000, handed the reins to Alan Levi and Jane Mack Gould at the start of last year.

The broker-sold ( AAGFX) AIM Aggressive Growth fund has rung up a 13.5% annualized gain over the past decade that trounces more than 90% of the mid-cap growth funds out there. But the fund, where Robert Kippes has led the management team since 1992, has lagged behind its peers in five of the past six years.

Given that funds we've highlighted are all primarily sold through advisers, one would hope that their recent failings haven't gone unnoticed or unpunished by the folks who trusted them with their clients' money.

That said, not all of the funds on this list should be vilified. The broker-sold ( TAEMX) John Hancock Small Cap Growth fund, which I own in an old 401(k) account from a stint working for that Boston firm, has performed about average since lead manager Bernice Behar and co-manager Anurag Pandit took over in 1996. While the pair doesn't deserve a parade, they haven't trumped Putnam on the downside. The same might be said of the broker-sold ( SREMX) WM Small Cap Stock fund, where manager Linda Walk made the list mostly thanks to a big 33% fall over the past 12 months.

The bottom line is that given perennial manager and market shifts, it's good for a fund to have a solid long-term record, but that should be where your research starts -- not where it ends.

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.

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