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INVESTING: QUARTERLY REVIEW & OUTLOOK

A Guide to Using Morningstar's Data on Top-Rated Funds

Understanding these tables will help you judge your holdings and make new selections.

April 09, 2001|From The Times Staff

Our tables on these pages are designed to help you pick new mutual funds and assess the performance of funds you already own.

As with selecting a good diamond, there's a system you can use to find good funds.

Instead of the four Cs--cut, carat, color and clarity--fund investors must consider the four Rs: returns, ratings, risk and ratio of expenses to assets.

Our lists of funds on these pages are fund tracker Morningstar Inc.'s top-rated funds, according to its proprietary rating system.

Here's an explanation of the four Rs and how these funds came to be ranked highest by Morningstar:

* Returns. Obviously, before selecting a mutual fund, you'll want to look at its track record. Past performance isn't a guarantee of future returns, but it can be an indication of competence and consistency.

Performance return figures are simple to look up in our charts. Under the header "Total % Return" you'll see three figures.

The first shows the fund's return in the first quarter (Dec. 31 to March 30). The second shows the return over the last year, meaning the 12 months ended March 30.

The third shows the fund's annualized return over the three years ended March 30. In other words, it takes the fund's total three-year net return and calculates what that worked out to on an annualized basis.

Note that some highly rated funds that suffered big losses in the first quarter, as the bear market deepened, still show strong returns over the three years. That reflects the hot performance of many stocks, especially tech shares, in 1998 and 1999.

By comparing each fund's return with its category average for any given period, you can see whether the fund did better or worse than the average fund.

There's another way to measure longer-term performance. Look at the second column in each table--the "3-yr Rnk" column.

This shows how a fund ranks by return over the last three years, expressed by the percentile in which its performance ranks within its category. A "1" means a fund ranked in the first percentile in its category; a "99" means the fund ranked at the bottom in its category.

* Ratings and Risk. These two Rs are intertwined, based on the different rating systems that Morningstar uses to judge funds against their peers.

Category ratings, which you'll see as the first column of each table ("Cat Rtg") assess a fund's "risk-adjusted" performance over the last three years relative to other funds in its specific category.

The ratings are 1 to 5, with 5 being the best.

What does risk-adjusted mean? Morningstar judges each fund's overall performance against its downside volatility. The idea is that you don't necessarily want to earn the highest returns if a fund also is extremely volatile, swinging wildly in terms of returns.

High volatility increases the chance of loss if you need to sell at a bad time.

So Morningstar believes that consistency of performance, as well as above-average performance, is important in judging returns--and whether a fund is a good choice for the typical investor.

You're probably more familiar with the rating system shown in the third column of our tables--Morningstar's famous three-year star rating ("3-yr Star" in the header), which also has a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 being the best.

As with the category ratings, the star ratings are handed out on a bell curve: The highest-rated 10% of funds get a 5, the next 22.5% get a 4, the next 35% get a 3, the next 22.5% get a 4 and the lowest 10% get a 1.

What's the real difference between the category rating and the star rating? In awarding stars, Morningstar compares a fund not with others in its specific category but with others in one of just four much broader fund groupings: domestic stock funds, international stock funds, taxable bond funds or tax-free bond funds.

What this means, in effect, is that specific categories of funds that are out of favor in a given period, relative to the broad market, will tend to have more funds with lower star ratings.

Conversely, categories with high returns in recent years, relative to the broad market, will tend to have more funds with higher star ratings.

Thus, many technology funds continue to rate five stars--despite the huge losses over the last year--because the funds' three-year gains are high compared with the average general stock fund.

The obvious problem with star ratings: They are backward looking; they don't necessarily tell you which fund categories may be just starting to shine.

In this dicey market, the category rating in our tables might be more valuable than the star rating because the former tells you which funds have performed best in their specific category, rather than relative to the broad market.

* Ratio of expenses. Our tables show each fund's management fees in the column labeled "Exp Ratio." That measures annual fund expenses as a percentage of assets.

The average for each category is shown at the bottom of each table.

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