The top three questions a financial journalist hears: When will the bear market end? Can you give me a good stock tip? And (believe it or not), how can I build an ethical stock portfolio? That's the honest-to-goodness truth -- perhaps "altruism" should be added as a distant third emotion that influences the market, after fear and greed. The first two questions are hard to answer: I think we are in a "low-return environment" in the U.S. that will last for at least a decade, and I'm not much of a stock-picker. (Ask James Altucher, Arne Alsin, Jim Cramer or one of the many Real Money or Street Insight columnists who knows his stuff.) The third one is easy to answer, although it does come with some caveats: Consider socially responsible funds. This week's Five Winning Funds examines the stellar offerings from the world of socially responsible investing -- SRI funds, for short -- and it represents a bit of a change in my thinking. My old answer to question No. 3 was: Ethics are too subjective to consider in an investment portfolio. Microsoft ( MSFT) is ethical to some for treating workers fairly, but unethical to others who say its 800-pound gorilla tactics stifle competition. Or, General Dynamics ( GD) may be unethical to some because it makes weapons that kill people, but others may have no problem with the high-tech weaponry that helps protect America. Besides, there's no real proof that a do-gooder approach translates into better returns. My old advice: Make your investments to make money, and make the world a better place by volunteering. However, over the past few years, my answers have evolved. Recent studies, including one conducted by the SRI World Group for its
Social Funds Web site, indicate SRI funds have, in general, held up better than non-SRI funds during the three-year bear market. Thirty of 52 SRI funds topped more than half of their peer non-SRI mutual funds. That's not overwhelming and it's a short time horizon, but it does signal that SRI funds are as viable as other mutual funds. It also refutes the old line about SRI funds not doing well in bear markets because of their aversion to industrials, materials and "sin" stocks that hold up in downturns.