Just like all corners of the world, the land of mutual funds features death and rebirth. And just as the birth rate and death rate can go up and down in relation to events such as blackouts and wars, births and deaths of mutual funds can follow expected patterns, too.

The folks at the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for mutual funds, report on fund trends regularly. Their latest data show that the total number of mutual funds dropped by more than 300 between September 2008 and September 2009. It's really a net loss, though -- meaning that a bunch of new funds debuted and many others closed up shop. Stock funds were down by 140.

It makes sense. Our recently turbulent economy and stock market delivered awful returns to lots of funds, and that caused many panicky investors to withdraw whatever money they had left in them, leading many funds to close. Between the end of 2007 and the end of 2008, for example, the number of shareholder accounts dropped almost 10%, to 264.5 million.

Golden needles in haystacks
With more than 4,500 stock funds (and more than 7,500 funds, overall), there are clearly more funds out there than we need. Heck, there are almost as many funds as stocks! In addition, the vast majority underperform the market, making a very good case for index funds.

Still, there are promising funds that have come out in the past few years, such as these:

Fund

Expense Ratio

2009 Return (YTD)

Appleseed (APPLX)

1.24%

57.8%

Artisan Opportunistic Growth (ARTRX)

1.43%*

43.1%

Baron Retirement Income (BRIFX)

1.35%

30.8%

Data: Morningstar. Returns as of Nov. 13. *Reflects fee-reducing subsidy.

The Appleseed fund is interesting in several respects. For one thing, it's very concentrated, holding fewer than 25 companies. Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) makes up 9% of its portfolio; SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE:GLD) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) are also among the fund's top holdings. Such focus can enhance gains, as big winners don't get diluted by scores of other holdings, but it can also enhance losses.

Appleseed is also focused on socially responsible companies, avoiding industries such as tobacco and looking favorably on sustainability in businesses. That can help some investors sleep better at night. And its managers are more value-oriented than growth-oriented, seeking margins of safety in their purchases.

The Artisan Opportunistic Growth fund will appeal to some investors because of its wide scope. It looks for compelling values among a wide range of market caps, with current holdings including EMC (NYSE:EMC) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY). It can invest up to 25% of its assets in non-U.S. holdings. It thus can offer more diversification than many funds, even though it shares a focused approach to hold between 30 and 50 different stocks.

The Baron Retirement Income fund combines two goals of interest to many investors: growth and dividend income. Dividend-focused funds aren't always on the lookout for great growth, settling instead for steady, sizable dividend payments. But this fund also seeks price appreciation from its holdings, going for companies like Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) and Airgas (NYSE:ARG) that pay modest yields but also have a good chance of growing steadily.

Final considerations
If you want to find great new funds on your own, perhaps heed the findings of researcher Aymen Karoui, who found a "positive connection between past performance of families and subsequent new fund performance." Some respected fund families are American Funds, Vanguard, Blackrock, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price.

Just be careful -- pay attention to factors such as expense ratios. A steep annual fee can take a big bite out of your returns, and new funds, which start out small, tend to have fees on the high side, until they grow and are able to spread their fixed costs over a greater asset base.

It's exciting to see interesting young funds. Risk-averse investors might want to steer clear for a while, though, until they establish a longer track record. But every great fund out there with a strong long-term record and long-tenured managers had to start somewhere. If you know the risks, these funds might be worth a closer look.