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New Year Investment Ideas: Investment Advice for 2004

It's a new year and along with all of the personal hopes and expectations it brings come some financial dreams as well.

At this time last year, the pros were telling fund investors not to expect double-digit kinds of total returns from their investments. They were wrong--- big time. In 2003, the average U.S. diversified stock fund had the highest total return recorded this century: As of December 24, the average stock fund in that grouping was up 30.61 percent, according to Lipper.

The year 2004 might well be one in which total returns don't run into the double-digits, then again, we'll have to wait twelve months to see. In the meantime, I asked three different equity fund managers -one an international fund manager, another a quantitative manager and the third a bottom-up stock picker--about their views for the coming year. Here are their comments:

Edmund Harriss, of Guinness Atkinson Asset Management, is portfolio manager of two world equity funds, the Asia Focus Fund and the China & Hong Kong Fund. While international funds had been the focus of most late-trading or market-timing allegations, this fund family's record is a clean one. "In common with all providers of international funds, we have received a request for information from the SEC but we have taken great care for many years to eliminate opportunities for market-timers," says Harriss.

Pleased with the returns on both funds (the Asia Focus Fund was up nearly 58 percent as of December 12 and the China & Hong Kong fund ahead over 64 percent), Harriss's outlook for 2004 is a positive one. "Asian markets are still not expensive both on fundamental grounds and by comparison to their own history despite the strong run they had this year (2003).

What's the advice he'd give the new or seasoned fund investor for the coming year? To use mutual funds rather than " rifle-shooting" individual stocks because of the diversification funds provide and because many of the smaller and medium-sized companies his funds invest in aren't always listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

"International funds make sense to US investors when they give exposure to economies that are growing faster than their own and where there is value," says Harriss. " And Asia, in particular China, is enjoying profitable economic growth that is faster than growth in the US."

Dick Cancelmo is portfolio manager of the Bridgeway Balanced Fund which is another fund family that has not had any involvements with any market-timing or late-trading allegations.

Unlike Harriss, who is a citizen of the UK and doesn't invest his own money into the funds he manages because of the tax disadvantages, Cancelmo does own shares of the fund he manages. "Bridgeway managers are prohibited from owning stocks so our main source of stock market exposure is through our own funds," he says.

This quantitative fund manager is also pleased with the fund's total return in 2003( as of Dec. 26, it was up 17 percent) and plans on keeping the same disciplined approach to investing in the new year. He says that there have been no major changes in the fund holdings and feels this is a huge positive in that "we have tremendous discipline to adhere to our quantitative focus."

The advice that he gives fund investors is simple: "Don't chase performance! You need to have a written asset allocation plan that you can implement and keep in place for the long haul."

Kevin Callahan, portfolio manager of the Century Small Cap Select Fund, is also part of a fund family that has not been involved in any of the late-trading or market-timing allegations. And, yes, he does invest his own money into the fund he manages.

Century's investment approach is a bottom-up one, meaning he focuses on analyzing a company's fundaments one-by-one rather than approaching the investment decision on a macro basis. " As a result, " says Callahan, "we spend a lot of time visiting companies at their headquarters and conducting field research.'

The fund was up 46 percent as of Dec. 26, and Callahan is "cautiously optimistic" about 2004. He thinks the outlook for both small-cap and large-cap stocks will be similar in the new year. "I expect the market to be relatively flat to modestly higher with the higher quality stocks outperforming lower quality stocks."

His investment advice? "First and foremost, investors should focus on the long term. The stock market tends to go through cycles and investors need to be mindful of this trend. Second, I encourage fund investors to do their homework and if an investment approach is difficult to understand, then be cautious. The keys to investing include being disciplined, objective and doing your homework."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Here's hoping that you have a happy and healthy new year, and that your 2004 investment decisions are wise ones.

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