Five Ways To a Winning Fund Season

Your investment portfolio might perform better if you put it through training camp.

Sports teams do it — football programs now are in the middle of their preseason regimen — and your portfolio is, effectively, a team that must work together to help you reach your goal and win the investment game.

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Athletic teams have a scheduled season, with a set period for training and exhibition play. "Mutual fund season," however, runs all year long, every year.

The good news is that you don't need a break in the action to determine which investments can contribute to a winning future and which should be cut. Funds can go through rigorous training and evaluation at any time, testing each fund's ability to meet your changing needs and carry you to the ultimate victory.

Before you size up the players, review your game plan, because that will determine the positions you need to fill.

Sizing up your fund team starts with your current roster of holdings, but should include some free agents — funds that might make your portfolio better in the future. Just as training camp is the time when many big-name athletes get replaced by younger, lesser-known players, it may be the time when you decide that a former star is past its prime.

Start your training camp by using a fund evaluation tool such as the "Mutual Fund Compare" feature from investment researcher Morningstar Inc. or the portfolio tracker from fund-data firm Lipper Inc., both of which are free of charge. These tools let you do a side-by-side analysis of your players and prospects while reviewing the portfolio as a whole.

Look for the same attributes a football coach values in finding the right mix for a team. Here are qualities you'll want in every fund you own:

1. Physical fitness

Practically every new dollar going into funds ends up in recent top performers. The problem is that most above-average funds revert to the mean over time.

It can be asset growth — where the fund gets out of shape for the job it's trying to achieve — or management changes or other conditions, but it comes down to a fund that no longer looks quite up to the task. Signs that a fund is fit for the long haul: low expenses; low turnover; stable management and consistent performance.

2. Attitude

Each player must share your mindset.

You don't just want to fill positions — you want a player who performs to your satisfaction. Some small-cap funds are hyper-aggressive, generating more volatility and risk than a more-conservative peer.

Defensive-minded investors prefer to protect assets, sacrificing some potential growth to gain consistency; offensive-minded investors want to run up the biggest returns possible.

3. Foot speed, quickness and stamina

Coaches test players to see if they can cover a set distance in a specific time. In funds, this equals performance expectations.

You may hold a fund to get representation in a category, like large-cap value, but you want to be sure the fund can keep pace with its average peer or an appropriate benchmark over time. If a fund has been great for the last six months but lousy for the last three years, it may not have enough agility or stamina to meet your goals.

This is where you size up potential replacements — those free agents — to see what belongs on the waiver wire.

4. Ability to meet your needs

This is a coach's decision. Over time, your needs and desires will change.

A fund purchased a decade ago may not be an appropriate pick today, particularly if you've become more conservative with age. More experienced investors may want further diversification rather than relying heavily on the same players.

Having a top fund in its class is terrific, but only if that asset category is appropriate for your needs, and only if the size of the holding fits your investment strategy.

5. Past performance

There's good reason to trust the issues you have won with in the past.

In evaluating past performance, closely examine volatility. You may have put up with an extremely bumpy ride from the bull market through the bear market and back, but that doesn't mean you'll want a repeat of this in the next market cycle.

If you nearly gave up on a player when the market was sour, consider whether you'll have the emotional discipline to stay the course the next time you need a clutch performer.

Ultimately, if you don't believe your portfolio team will allow you to remain cool and collected in a tight, difficult investment game, it's probably time to find new players that command your confidence.

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Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.