Stock funds

Funds can be broken down by their investment strategy. Here are some of the most common categories and sub-categories.

Index funds

In an index fund, the manager sets up his portfolio to mirror a market index -- such as Standard & Poor's 500-stock index -- rather than actively picking which stocks to purchase. It is surprising, but true, that index funds often beat the majority of competitors among actively managed funds. One reason: Few actively managed funds can consistently outperform the market by enough to cover the cost of their generally higher expenses.

Growth funds

These invest in the stock of companies whose profits are growing at a rapid pace. Such stocks typically rise more quickly than the overall market -- and fall faster if they don't live up to investors' expectations.

Value funds

Value-oriented fund managers buy companies that appear to be cheap, relative to their earnings. In many cases, these are mature companies that send some of their earnings back to their shareholders in the form of dividends. Funds that specifically target such income-producing investments are often called equity-income or growth-and-income funds.

Growth-and-income, equity-income, and balanced funds

Growth-and-income funds concentrate more than the other two on growth, so they generally have the lowest yields. Balanced funds strive to keep anywhere from 50 to 60% of their holdings in stocks and the rest in interest-paying securities such as bonds and convertibles, giving them the highest yields. In the middle is the equity-income class.

Sector and specialty funds

Rather than diversifying their holdings, sector and specialty funds concentrate their assets in a particular sector, such as technology or health care. There's nothing wrong with that approach, as long as you remember that one year's top sector could crash the following year.

International

Funds that invest outside the U.S. come in three basic flavors. The first, international funds, typically buy stocks in larger companies from relatively stable regions like Europe and the Pacific Rim. Global funds do likewise, but they can also invest heavily in the United States. Emerging market funds invest in riskier regions, like Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia.

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