If the stock market were a football game, right about now a TV camera would be focusing on the ubiquitous fan waving a big letter D in one hand and a fence in the other.

"Defensive" is now a word appearing all over the market commentary map, from Jim Cramer on down. A Google news search reveals that 801 articles containing the words "stock," "market" and "defensive" appeared in the last 30 days, with all but 19 during the most recent week.

Some frightening air pockets in late February and early March, coupled with rapidly escalating volatility, have jolted many investors out the equanimity that had been developing over several months of steadily elevating share prices. Enthusiasm for emerging-market and small-cap funds has been evaporating, leaving many investors wondering where to hide from the carnage.

Although cash remains the ultimate refuge during a recession-induced bear market, few economists other than Alan Greenspan have been talking about an imminent contraction. So rather than focusing on bond or money-market funds, it would seem to be an appropriate time to examine mutual funds in an equity sector that would appear to offer some insulation from overall market weakness. For defensive exposure to the stock market, the higher dividend yields provided by many of the funds in the equity income category would logically and hopefully cushion some of the impact in case the one of these downdrafts turns really ugly.

Equity income dipped lower during the five trading days ended March 15, albeit slightly less than the overall market. The average of the 666 equity income funds tracked by TheStreet.com Ratings slipped 0.29% during the period vs. a setback of 0.75% for Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. (We count each share class of a fund as a separate entity.) As has been the case in recent weeks, the period included a session with a major downdraft.

The lists of the 10 best- and 10 worst-performing equity income funds are both composed of ETFs and closed-end funds. Open-end equity income funds were also screened but didn't make either list.

10 Best-Performing Equity Income Funds
Performance for the week ended Mar 15
Fund Ticker Rating Fund Type 1 Week Total Return Dividend Yield (%)
Tortoise Energy Infrastructure Corp TYG B+ Closed-End Fund 5.66 5.61
Claymore MACROshares Oil Down DCR U ETF 4.39 1.08
First Trust Energy Income&Growth FEN A Closed-End Fund 4.30 5.37
Kayne Anderson MLP KYN A- Closed-End Fund 3.36 5.71
Tortoise Energy Capital TYY A Closed-End Fund 3.32 5.22
Kayne Anderson Energy Total Ret KYE C+ Closed-End Fund 2.41 6.70
Eaton Vance Tax Advantage Div Inc EVT B Closed-End Fund 2.12 5.98
Rydex S&P EquityWeight Utilities ETF RYU U ETF 1.42 0.47
BlackRock Pref & Corp Inc Strat PSW D Closed-End Fund 1.34 7.28
S&P 500 GEARED Fund GRE C+ Closed-End Fund 1.27 13.75
Source: Bloomberg

The three top performers are all energy-related, with the top performer, ( TYG) The Tortoise Energy Infrastructure Fund (TYG), primarily invested in publicly traded master limited partnerships in the energy sector. The fund gained 5.66% for the period. Its biggest holding, at 16.8% of its portfolio, is Magellan Midstream Partners ( MMP), which jumped 3.5% during the five trading days ended March 15. Markwest Energy Partners ( MWE), which accounts for 8.8% of TYG's holdings, sprinted ahead 4.2% for the period. The fund is highly leveraged and therefore was able to climb more than its major investments.

In second place was the Claymore MACROshares Oil Down Fund ( DCR), targeting the inverse of the price of crude, which advanced 4.39%. It was followed by ( FEN) First Trust Energy & Growth , which gained 4.30%. Its largest holding, at 12.1% of total net assets, Energy Transfer Partners ( MMP), rose 2.65% for the period.

In all, five of the top 10 performing funds were energy-related.

The leaders list contains five funds with graded by TheStreet.com Ratings in the A and B ranges, equating with buy recommendations. They are kept company by two funds in the C range, designating a hold rating, and one fund with a D, which assigns it a sell status. Two of the funds are unrated, as indicated by U in the Rating column.

10 Worst-Performing Equity Income Funds
Performance for the week ended Mar 15
Fund Ticker Rating Fund Type 1 Week Total Return Dividend Yield (%)
RMR Preferred Dividend Fund RDR D+ Closed-End Fund -5.36 9.41
United States Oil Fund USO U ETF -5.11 N/A
iShares GSCI Commodity-Indexed Tr GSG U ETF -3.64 N/A
iShares DJ US Home Constr Idx ITB U ETF -3.34 0.68
Claymore MACROshares Oil Up UCR U ETF -2.98 0.99
SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF XHB U ETF -2.91 0.70
BlackRock Enhanced Equity Yield EEF B Closed-End Fund -2.66 10.03
Nuveen Equity Premium Income Fund JPZ C+ Closed-End Fund -2.32 9.04
Liberty All-Star Growth Fund ASG E Closed-End Fund -2.22 10.93
S&P 500 Covered Call Fund Inc BEP B+ Closed-End Fund -2.18 10.06
Source: Bloomberg

The list of the bottom 10 performers also contained two oil-related funds, both ETFs. The United States Oil Fund ( USO) tumbled 5.11% for the period, while the Claymore MACROshares Oil Up Fund ( UCR) retreated 2.98%. With both an upside and a downside fund, Claymore MACROshares had ETFs playing both sides of the petroleum pricing game, thereby landing one on the leaders list and one on the laggards roster.

The laggards list contains two buy-rated funds with grades of B by TheStreet.com Ratings. There is also one fund with a C-plus grade that rates a hold. The list also contains one fund at D-plus and one with an E, making both sell recommendations.
Richard Widows is a financial analyst for TheStreet.com Ratings. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.