Fund geek that I am, I always look forward to seeing Morningstar's choices for fund manager of the year . I have only one minor grievance with the Morningstar awards: Since it's a backward-looking laurel, there's no way to profit from it.

With that in mind, for today's column I humbly submit my early nominees for 2004's Manager of the Year. Hey, sportswriters are expected to make preseason predictions, why shouldn't financial journalists be required to the same?

I base my early nominations on some hunches about the direction of the markets in 2004. The key themes will likely be: a flight to quality; dividend-paying stocks; value over growth; and the continued ascent of Asian markets. Of course, as the fund scandal continues to unfurl, firms that look out for us little folks will again draw the attention of Morningstar -- and more investor dollars.

Of course the odds are pretty slim that I'll pick the eventual 2004 winners out of the universe of thousands of mutual funds. However, hopefully, this list will ameliorate the one grievance I have with the Morningstar choice: By calling them early, I'm making my prediction that these funds are poised to outperform the pack in 2004.

Domestic Stock Manager of the Year: Dodge & Cox Stock

As they say, it's an honor just to be nominated, and the 10-person management team of the outstanding ( DODGX) Dodge & Cox Stock fund was among the five nominees for 2003 Domestic Stock Manager of the Year for a variety of reasons. The fund managed to stay true to its value-oriented, price-conscious approach to stock-picking and still post a 32.3% return for the year -- topping the S&P 500 by nearly 4 percentage points. And that was in a year that favored some of the more speculative tech names that Dodge & Cox has studiously avoided. Heading into a year that will almost surely see a renewed yen for quality companies that look reasonably valued, Dodge & Cox looks primed to beat the market again by taking a divergent tack from the S&P 500. Some of the firm's biggest holdings, including AT&T ( T), Sony ( SNE) and Schering Plough ( SGP), are coming off a tough year and look poised to recover (Sony has been on the rise).

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