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THINK BIG: CONSIDER SMALL-COMPANY STOCKS

It's a good time to buy small-company stocks. At least that's what managers of some small-capitalization funds believe: They've reopened their funds to new investors.

Small-company stocks have lagged larger stocks since the end of 1993, as investors have sought safety in owning shares of bigger companies. But from late 1990 until the end of 1993, the Russell 2000, a small-stock index, gained nearly twice as much as the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, a large-stock index.Moreover, since 1926 small stocks have returned an average of about two percentage points more annually than their larger brethren, according to Ibbotson Associates.

Here's a look at some of the small-cap and medium-cap funds that have reopened recently:

- John Hancock Special Equities (800-225-6020) has returned an annualized 15.1 percent over the past three years.

Manager Michael DiCarlo buys rapidly growing companies that also sport sky-high price-earnings ratios. Most of his stocks are medium-size.

Investors have a choice between Class A shares, with a 5 percent front-end load, and Class B shares, which tack on an extra 0.7 percent in expenses annually.

- MFS Emerging Growth (800-654-0266) has returned a sizzling annualized 23.4 percent over the past five years. But most of the fund's great returns were achieved with far less than the $1.4 billion currently in the Class A (5.75 percent front-end load) and Class B (extra expenses of about 0.8 percent annually) shares.

The fund owns mostly medium-size stocks.

- Nicholas Limited Edition (414-272-6133) is built for tiny stocks.

The no-load fund closed to all new investments four years ago with just $175 million in assets. But it has underperformed the average small-company fund over the past three years.

David Nicholas, 34, who has taken the reins from his father, Albert Nicholas, plans to close the fund again when assets grow to only about $220 million.

There's little evidence yet, however, that young Nicholas is as skilled a stock picker as his father.

- T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Value (800-638-5660) has beaten the average small-company fund by almost four percentage points annually over the past three years, and with substantially lower risk.

Manager Preston Athey, 45, looks for undervalued small companies. The fund's average stock has a total market value of only $127 million.

Price's team of stock analysts and the fund's small size of only $410 million make this no-load fund a good bet.