The Straight to the Source method of mutual fund investing has put up some nice numbers lately.
In this fast-lane strategy, you invest in fund managers rather than with them, by buying the stock of a publicly traded fund-management company instead of the funds it manages.
Because the strategy can leave you low on diversification and high on volatility, it's a think-twice proposition for most conservative, long-term investors. On the plus side, though, Straight to the Source answers the complaints of people who think that funds are too dull and slow-moving, or that fund managers are overpaid.
Consider, for example, the recent action in the shares of T. Rowe Price Associates in Baltimore, the seventh-largest fund firm as ranked by Financial Research Corp. in Boston.
In the stock market's rally since Oct. 9, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has risen 20.5 percent. An index fund based on the S&P 500, such as T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500, got about the same result. Owners of an old standby among Price's managed stock funds, the T. Rowe Price Growth Stock Fund, saw their investments rise 20.7 percent over the same stretch.
Not bad -- but small potatoes compared with the performance of the common shares of T. Rowe Price Associates itself, which jumped 41.6 percent.
A similar effect shows up in the stock of Alliance Capital Management Holding LP, parent of the No. 22 fund company. It gained 46.4 percent while the Class A shares of the company's Alliance Growth Fund rose 16.6 percent.
This is a mere month we're talking about. What about the longer term? Over the 10 years through the end of October, Bloomberg data show Price's common shares with a return of 21.3 percent a year. The Price Growth Stock fund had a 10-year annual return of 10.4 percent; the S&P 500 index, 9.9 percent.
Of course, even those longer-term results are skewed. They came at a time of dramatic growth for the fund industry unlikely to be matched in the future.
"We believe long-term demand for asset-management services will be fairly robust," Guy Moszkowski, an analyst who follows money managers for Salomon Smith Barney Inc., said in a recent report, "though at much lower organic growth rates than in the 1990s."
This autumn rally suggests how much investors have come to see shares of growth-minded fund managers as proxies, or stand-ins, for the stock market as a whole.
Right now, said Moszkowski, "with price-earnings multiples and operating margins compressed, several of the equity manager stocks are quite leveraged to a stock market recovery."
Leverage always cuts both ways. In the brutal six-month stretch encompassing this year's second and third quarters, T. Rowe Price shares fell 35.2 percent, worse than the S&P 500's 28.3 percent loss and the Price Growth Stock Fund's 27.8 percent drop.
We can only shudder to think how awry a Straight to the Source strategy could go if some other type of financial services businesses started stealing the fund companies' thunder in the money-management game.
That risk can be hedged, though. Take a look-see at a financial-stock sector fund such as the T. Rowe Price Financial Services Fund, which owns a variety of bank, insurance, mortgage and, yes, money-management stocks.
On a list of Price Financial Services' 10 largest holdings as of midyear, we find both Franklin Resources Inc., which runs the fourth-largest fund group, and Marsh & McLennan Cos., whose Putnam Investments ranks fifth.
Since Oct. 9, the Price Financial Services Fund gained 25.3 percent, outpacing both the S&P 500 and the Price Growth Stock Fund while falling short of the gain in Price's own stock.
Any fund that owns bank and mortgage stocks has to contend with such other variables as fluctuations in interest rates. Still, it may show more benefit than most if money-manager stocks prosper.
If the stock market remains in a funk, quite likely none of the range of choices we've described here will work out very well. If the stock market gets healthier, on the other hand, funds and fund managers offer a wide range of possibilities. Who ever said fund investing was dull?