NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Seeking to attract nervous investors, fund companies have introduced a wave of absolute return funds. The new funds aim to produce positive returns nearly every year.

Recent entrants include Eaton Vance Option Absolute Return Strategies ( EOAAX), GRT Absolute Return ( GRTHX), and Loomis Sayles Absolute Strategies ( LABAX).

Fund tracker Lipper recently began reporting data on the absolute return category. During the three years ending in 2010, the category outdid the MSCI World Index, says Gabriel Burstein, global head of investment research for Lipper and Digital Ventures. "The absolute return funds have helped to control risks," he says.

The funds follow a wide range of strategies. Some sell stocks short, betting that prices will drop. Others aim to limit the downside by holding a wide range of securities, including futures, commodities and bonds.

Portfolio managers disagree about the definition of absolute return funds. Some managers say that all funds with long and short positions should be included in the category. According to Lipper's definition, absolute return funds aim to outdo a benchmark by a fixed amount. For example, Putnam Absolute Return 300 ( PTRNX) seeks to surpass Treasury bills by 3 percentage points.

The absolute return funds typically aim to achieve positive results even in years when stocks and bonds are falling. In contrast, many conventional funds don't necessarily aim to avoid losses. If the market drops 10% and a conventional fund loses 8%, then the portfolio manager is considered to have outperformed.

While the absolute category's overall returns have been competitive lately, investors should shop carefully because the results for individual funds have varied considerably. For every fund with promising results, others have proved extremely disappointing.

Some funds have lost money consistently. Among the laggards is Nakoma Absolute Return ( NARFX), which has been in the red for three years running. Dunham Monthly Distribution ( DAMDX) has made money in two of the last three years, but it has lost 0.3% annually during the past three years, trailing the S&P 500 by 2 percentage points.

Many absolute return managers seek to achieve difficult goals -- and they have failed to accomplish the task, says Nadia Papagiannis, a Morningstar analyst, who follows absolute return hedge funds and mutual funds. It is very hard to lower risks in downturns and produce competitive results in bull markets, she says. Of 870 absolute return hedge funds tracked by Morningstar, 85% lost money during the downturn of 2008. "Funds don't always provide downside protection when investors need it most," says Papagiannis.

One mutual fund that has delivered solid results is Akros Absolute Return ( AARFX), which has returned 2.0% annually during the past three years, slightly outdoing the S&P 500 while taking much less risk as indicated by standard deviation, a measurement of how much an investment bounces up and down.

Portfolio manager Brady Lipp buys stocks when they look cheap. He sells short when prices look overvalued. In 2009, he was an aggressive buyer, but lately he has turned cautious. The fund how has about half its assets in short positions, providing protection against a downturn. "There are tremendous risks in the economy," he says. "At some point stocks will correct because we are not out of the woods yet."

To limit risk, Lipp is buying some rock-solid blue chips that sell at modest prices. A favorite holding is Intel ( INTC), which has a P/E multiple of 10. The company continues to lead its semiconductor markets. Another holding is Microsoft ( MSFT), which commands a price-earnings multiple of 11. Lipp says that the company deserves a multiple of 14. "They have an incredible balance sheet and a dominant position in the market," he says.

To own a steady fund that sells short, consider Wasatch Long-Short ( FMLSX), which has returned 6.6% annually during the past five years, outdoing the S&P 500 by 4 percentage points.

The Wasatch fund aims to deliver equity-like returns while taking less risk than the S&P 500. The fund typically lags in bull markets, but it compensates by surpassing the benchmark in downturns. Portfolio manager Michael Shinnick can short up to 100% of his portfolio. Big short positions helped the fund lose less than the S&P 500 during the downturn in 2008. These days Shinnick is more bullish, with a short exposure of only 15%.

For his long positions, he looks for undervalued companies in growing industry groups. A favorite holding is Iron Mountain ( IRM), which stores documents for corporate clients. Shinnick says that domestic sales will only grow at a single-digit pace, but the company is expanding rapidly abroad as multinationals need to store more legal records. "People have talked about paperless offices, but each year there is more paper to store," says Shinnick.

To find candidates for shorting, he looks for overpriced shares. A current short is Salesforce.com ( CRM). Shinnicks concedes that the software company is growing, but the forward P/E ratio is more than 100, a steep price.

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Stan Luxenberg is a freelance writer specializing in mutual funds and investing. He was executive editor of Individual Investor magazine.

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