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It may not be as exciting as the Academy Awards, but even mutual funds get their chance to take the stage and compete for top honors among their peers. This time around, Standard & Poor's is taking their shot at ranking the best funds in the business. Earlier this month, the rating firm released its list of finalists for several fund categories. The winner will be decided in just a few short weeks, but I thought I'd offer my take on who is most qualified to take top honors in some of the more important categories.
And the award goes to ...
Category: Domestic Equity Large Cap
Finalists: Becker Value Equity (BVEFX); Dreyfus Appreciation Fund (DGAGX); Jensen Portfolio J (JENSX)
My pick: Jensen J
The low-down: All three of the finalist funds are very different from each other (a large value, large blend, and large growth fund, respectively), so it makes direct comparisons a bit difficult. However, I think the Jensen fund edges out the competition, here. Expenses are the lowest of the three, and this fund has beaten over 90% of all large-cap growth funds in the past 10 years. The portfolio tends to be rather concentrated, but management's unique approach has led to success over the long run.
The management team here looks for companies that have had a return on equity in excess of 15% every calendar quarter over the past 10 years as well as reasonable valuations. Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT ) and industrial players like Praxair (NYSE: PX ) and Emerson Electric (NYSE: EMR ) are among the companies meeting these stringent qualifications that the team likes right now. This isn't a high-octane growth fund, so it won't lead the pack during momentum-heavy market environments, but it should serve moderate growth investors just fine over the long haul.
Category: Domestic Equity Mid Cap
Finalists: Fidelity Low-Priced Stock (FLPSX); Meridian Growth (MERDX); Vanguard Selected Value (VASVX)
My pick: Meridian Growth
The low-down: Meridian Growth is simply one of the best mid-growth funds around. Lead manager Rick Aster has been with the fund since its 1984 inception, and he has put up an annualized 12.4% return in that time. Over the most recent 20-year period, the fund ranks in the top 2% of all mid-growth funds.
Aster looks for more established mid-sized companies with dominant market share, such as insurance firm Brown & Brown (NYSE: BRO ) , rather than less time-tested firms. Because the fund holds more financially stable names like these, it tends to hold up better in market downturns like the one of 2008. Thanks to this fund's low-risk profile, it's a safe bet for mid-cap investors of all risk tolerances.
Category: Domestic Equity Small Cap
Finalists: Janus Triton T (JATTX); T. Rowe Price Diversified Small-Cap Growth (PRDSX); T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Stock (OTCFX)
My pick: T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Stock
The low-down: The Small-Cap Stock fund isn't flashy, but it gets the job done. The other two fund finalists both feature expense ratios above 1.15% and a manager or management duo that's been with the fund for roughly four years, compared to Small-Cap Stock's 0.95% price tag and 18-year manager tenure. Those are two major points in Small-Cap Stock's favor.
Lately, manager Greg McCrickard has focused on economically sensitive companies suffering from cyclical downturns that he believes have the financial strength to see them through tough times and rebound down the road. Financials and industrials make up the largest sector allocations here. One favored stock is Infinity Property and Casualty (Nasdaq: IPCC ) , which boasts a P/E ratio about half that of the industry average and has beaten the return of the benchmark Russell 2000 Index in the past one-year period. You won't shoot for the moon with this fund, but you will get market-beating performance at a reasonable price.
Category: International Equity
Finalists: Dodge & Cox International Stock (DODFX); Oakmark International I (OAKIX); Scout International Fund (UMBWX)
My pick: Dodge & Cox International Stock
The low-down: Picking a winner in this category is a bit more difficult. All of the fund finalists are excellent foreign fund options and would make fine selections for any international investor, but I think the Dodge & Cox fund wins out, here. This fund boasts one of the best management teams in the business with one of the most reasonable annual expense ratios.
Much was made of Dodge & Cox's stumble in 2008 when it was caught holding a large stash of troubled financials that were soundly routed in the crisis. However, the fund has since rebounded and has led the benchmark MSCI EAFE Index by more than 10 percentage points a year since the beginning of 2009. Outside of developed markets, the fund also holds a decent slug of emerging market names that should help boost gains in the future. If you're looking for a solid, value-oriented foreign fund, Dodge & Cox International is one of the best choices in this space.
Of course, just because a fund didn't make the short list of S&P's fund finalists doesn't mean it's not a great choice. If you'd like our take on which funds take home the gold, check out the Fool's Rule Your Retirement service. You can start your free 30-day trial and see all of our Champion Funds recommendations today with your trial access to Rule Your Retirement.