Wednesday, December 21, 2011

10 best funds for your 401k in '12

10 best funds for your 401k in '12

Finding funds that deliver
As Americans look back at 2011 and ahead to 2012, many are wondering what to do about their 401k retirement accounts and mutual fund investments. After a year like this one -- with lots of short-term fireworks but little overall improvement in the market -- it seems harder than ever to plot a way to get ahead in your nest egg.

Thankfully, you can still find opportunities in even a choppy stock market. You just have to know where to look.

Here are the facts: Many widely held mutual funds will never do anything other than track the market -- because they're tied to an index like the Dow Jones Industrials   or S&P 500 , and chalk up very similar returns. On the other hand, active managers free to make more choices often do even worse than the major indexes. Numerous studies and statistical analyses show that the average returns of mutual fund managers lag about 1 percentage point behind the stock market index that most closely resembles their strategy.

To get ahead, you have to pick either a better index to follow or a better manager to run the funds in your 401k.

With this in mind, following are the 10 best mutual funds to consider for 2012, with two picks each across five distinct investment classes: blue-chip stocks, midsized stocks, small-cap stocks, bonds and global investments. They may very well be available in your plan; if not, you can look for alternatives with similar traits, and ask that they be added. You're your plan, after all.

It may be tough to bolster your nest egg in the coming year, but here are a few investment suggestions that could help grow your retirement savings
Large stock funds
Winner: Vanguard Dividend Growth

Vanguard is the leader in low-cost mutual funds, even when you buy a fund with an active manager. Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund has a rock-bottom expense rate of 0.34% -- yet continues to outperform its benchmark, the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation Index. This is a good example of a well-run fund that consistently beats "passively managed" investments of a similar strategy.

Most important, that strategy is a good one for a volatile market. Dividend Growth is designed to provide investors with income by picking high-yield stocks across all industries. Current top holdings include Automatic Data Processing   and PepsiCo  , which both carry more than 3% in dividends. That means even if the stock does nothing, you'll get a 3% return on your investment via cash payments every quarter -- a perfect way to find profits in a market that may go nowhere for some time.

The fund gets Morningstar's top rating of five stars, though it does charge a small $75 trading fee on top of management expenses. Minimum buy-in is $3,000.

Runner-up: Wells Fargo Advantage Growth

A good second choice for IRA accounts or investors with more options is the Wells Fargo Advantage Growth Fund (SGROX). This is also an active fund that relies on managers making picks. It's pricey, with a 1.3% expense ratio, but returns are worth it. Wells Fargo Advantage Growth has tallied double-digit returns in 2011, more than twice the broader market, and over the past five years $10,000 would have grown into $15,000 -- while the S&P is largely flat. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but these guys have done well picking stocks in the past. This fund also gets Morningstar's five-star rating.
Midsize stock funds
Midcap stocks -- that is, those with a market capitalization of roughly $1 billion to $8 billion -- are attractive to many investors. These are stocks of decent size, from companies that still have significant growth potential ahead.

The challenge, of course, is picking the right stocks in this group amid high volatility, where big losers can offset any big winners in a midcap fund portfolio.

With almost $800 million under management, the Scout Mid Cap Fund  is a proven winner when it comes to picking stocks. This fund gets Morningstar's five-star rating, and it has a one-year return of more than 13%, better than double the market. Its five-year return averages more than 9%, which would have turned $10,000 into $15,000 since 2007 -- while the broader market is basically flat for that period.

With market volatility likely to remain high amid sovereign debt woes, high unemployment and the run-up to the 2012 elections, it could be more of the same for midcaps in 2012. Good managers with solid track records will be key. With a 1.04% expense ratio, the Scout fund is worth the price of admission if it can keep this record of success.

Runner-up: Vanguard Mid-Cap Growth

If you don't want to trust a manager, keep in mind that many actively managed midcap funds have underperformed the benchmark MSCI US Mid Cap 450 Index in recent years. So why not just buy the index itself via the Vanguard Mid-Cap Growth Index   fund? A rock-bottom expense ratio of 0.26%  gives you a cost-effective way to play midsize stocks.
Small stock funds
Winner: Fidelity Small Cap Discovery

Stock-picking is important with midsize companies, but it's even more important with up-and-coming outfits that are barely out of the startup phase. These smaller companies have virtually limitless potential but are also more likely to suffer in market shocks or fail completely due to missteps.

While previous profits are no promise of gains in 2012, it's worth noting the strong performance of the Fidelity Small Cap Discovery (FSCRX) fund since its current manager, Chuck Meyers, took over in early 2006. The fund's five-year annual return is more than 6.5% -- and impressively, since the 2009 market lows, Small Cap Discovery has more than doubled its investors' money, with a return of nearly 120%.

The broader market is up almost 50%, and small-cap indexes like the Russell 2000 are up by more than 60%, but they don’t hold a candle to this Fidelity pick.

The fund gets Morningstar's highest rating, and its modest 1.08% expense ratio is one of the best among actively managed small-cap funds. With a long-tenured manager with a history of beating his benchmark, this mutual fund is worth a look.

Runner-up:Intrepid Small Cap

The Intrepid Small Cap Fund (ICMAX) bests even the strong performance of Fidelity Small Cap Discovery when you go back five or 10 years. But it has a slightly higher expense ratio of 1.51%, and its current managers have been with the company for only a short time -- the oldest dating back to just 2009. So, they can't take all the credit for the Intrepid fund's long-term success. On the other hand, the fund has outperformed the benchmark Russell 2000 index over the last year and over the last three years, and it gets Morningstar's five-star rating. So there's reason to believe success will continue under the current team
Best international funds
Winner: Dodge & Cox International

There are eight managers of the Dodge & Cox International Stock   mutual fund, and normally that would throw up some red flags. Won't too many cooks spoil any strategy? Won't that drive up expenses because so many people are on the payroll?

Well, the team at Dodge & Cox seems to be an asset that allows the fund to pick stocks all over the world with due diligence -- with holdings now from Germany's Bayer  to Japan's Mitsubishi   It also helps that half the crew has been managing this fund since 2001, so it's not like this is just a farm team for would-be asset managers. The average annual returns of almost 10% over the last decade -- more than doubling their clients’ money in that period -- prove that these folks know their stuff. The benchmark MSCI EAFE Index -- that's Europe, Australasia and the Far East -- is up by half as much.

To top it off, expense ratios are low at 0.65% -- very reasonable among actively managed global funds, even with a $75 transaction fee. The fund gets four stars from Morningstar.

Runner-up: TCW Emerging Markets Income

The TCW Emerging Markets Income   fund invests in bonds of emerging market countries like Venezuela, Brazil and even Nigeria. Though there is obviously higher risk in government or corporate debt in these regions, the returns can also be much higher -- sometimes a yield of double digits. The fund's long-term track record speaks for itself, averaging annualized returns of more than 10% over the last 10 years -- which would have more than doubled your money. The expense ratio is a bit higher at 1.25%, and the risk is obviously greater, but the profits speak for themselves.

Best bond funds
Winner: Pimco Total Return

Pimco and its bond fund manager, Bill Gross, got some bad press this year, thanks to a disappointing start to 2011. Gross admitted it was a bonehead move to dump U.S. Treasurys just before bonds started to rally strongly. But you can forgive Gross given all the market turmoil of late and the government mayhem in Washington -- and of course, his impeccable long-term track record.

You can also be sure that Gross and the Pimco Total Return Class D   fund will be back with a vengeance in 2012. The mutual fund maintains its Morningstar five-star rating and has returned more than 6% annually over the last five-year and 10-year periods, even accounting for a mostly flat 2011.

With a modest expense ratio of 0.75% and one of the icons of bond investing at the helm since 1987, Pimco Total Return is a good fit for almost every portfolio in 2012.

Runner-up: BlackRock High Yield

"Junk" scare many investors these days because of their greater likelihood to default in an already tumultuous economic environment and difficult market for corporate and government debt offerings. However, when done right you can find enough big winners to offset any losers -- and that's exactly what the BlackRock High Yield Bond fund has a history of doing.

Garnering yields sometimes in the double digits on its bonds, BlackRock has more than doubled its investors' money over the last decade -- versus a measly 10% total gain for the broader stock market. The fund gets Morningstar's top rating and has a modest 0.75% expense ratio.
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