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SMALL-STOCK FUNDS SHOW BIG DIFFERENCES

SHARE SMALL-STOCK FUNDS SHOW BIG DIFFERENCES

The 1995 bull market on Wall Street has demonstrated that there can be big differences among small-stock mutual funds.

Traditionally, funds that specialize in the stocks of smaller companies have been thought of as a single, well-defined category, seeking high returns through investments in young companies during the years of their greatest potential growth.While "small-cap" funds have long been recognized as more volatile than their blue-chip counterparts, the patience and risk-tolerance they require has generally been well rewarded.

These generalizations have pretty much held true in the 1990s. But this year in particular, it's become increasingly evident that small-stock funds come in a variety of flavors that cater to very different tastes.

Consider two funds in the "small company growth" category that operate within the same family - the Fidelity Small-Cap Stock Fund and the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund.

Fidelity Small-Cap, as of July 31, had 36.5 percent of its money in technology stocks and just 4.6 percent in the finance sector. Fidelity Low-Priced, on the same date, had only 15 percent of its assets in technology, and 14.2 percent in finance stocks.

Furthermore, Low-Priced had better than 21 percent of its portfolio in foreign securities, while Small-Cap's foreign commitment stood at less than half of 1 percent.

Aided by its heavy weighting in technology, Small-Cap chalked up a 32.48 percent return through the first eight months of this year, while Low-Priced posted a more modest 21.44 percent gain.

As Morningstar Inc. of Chicago evaluates it, Small-Cap fits the description of a classic small-capitalization growth fund. Low-Priced, by contrast, falls into the different category of "small-cap value" funds that specialize in looking for overlooked and undervalued stocks.

"To get something cheap, one can't look where everyone else does," says analyst Laura Lallos in the firm's monthly newsletter Morningstar Investor. "So it's no surprise that value funds more frequently invest in companies that are not widely held by many other funds.

"Small-company growth funds tend to share similar performance characteristics. In contrast, fewer small-company value funds behave alike.

"Having a bounty of stocks to choose from also helps small-cap value funds create their own identities. There are many more tiny little companies languishing with value prices than there are solid fast-growing small companies suitable for growth portfolios."

As the pattern at Fidelity suggests, small-company growth has generally been the better place to be this year - and indeed over the past 10 years. Since the mid-1980s, by Morningstar's reckoning, the average small-company growth fund has posted a 14.4 percent annual return, against 12.1 percent for small-company value.

Looking back over 15 years, however, small-company value has the edge, 13.7 percent to 11.8 percent (although Lallos cautions that only a handful of today's funds have been operating that long).

The same characteristic that has hindered small-cap value returns this year - low exposure to high-tech stocks - would stand to benefit those funds if the technology boom in the market were to cool.

So small-cap value funds might have particular appeal for growth-minded investors who are worried that the technology mania has gone too far.