NEW YORK (AP) — They're hot, yet many investors have no idea what they do.
These mutual funds go by a few names, and it doesn't help that some are inscrutable like "liquid alts," but they generally fall under an umbrella known as alternative mutual funds. Managers of alternative funds pitch that they can offer smoother returns than traditional stock and bond funds because they have access to more trading tools and markets. And their popularity is surging, though they come with their own risks and generally higher fees.
Investors plugged a net $35 billion into alternative mutual funds over the last 12 months, according to Morningstar. That's more than went into bond mutual funds and nearly as much as into diversified U.S. stock funds. The growth is more striking in percentage terms because many alternative funds are still relatively young and small. Over the last year, total assets of alternative funds have grown by 30 percent, not including investment gains.
But the spurt of money doesn't mean widespread acceptance. Mention alternative funds even to savvy investors like financial advisers, and the default response is often a shrug.
Matt Straut should know. He's a sales manager for Wells Fargo Funds Management, who is traveling around the country to talk with investment advisers about alternative funds. But instead of trying to make a sale, he's focused more on helping them understand just what alternative funds are and if their clients would want them.
"We're almost in education-only mode," he says. "We're not placing any gauge on sales" because many advisers are in such an early stage of getting familiar with alternative funds.
Here's a look at questions investors should ask as they consider whether alternative funds are for them:
— WHAT DO THEY DO?
Many alternative fund managers use tools that are typically the province of hedge funds.
Brian Singer, for example, invests in everything from stocks to bonds to currencies with his William Blair Macro Allocation fund (WMCNX). And he invests not only when he expects an investment to rise in price but also when he's forecasting a drop. He does that through short-selling.
Now, for example, he isn't excited about U.S. stocks, which are more expensive after nearly tripling since early 2009. But he believes some parts of the market are pricier than others, particularly small-cap growth stocks. Late last year, he positioned the fund to benefit from a drop in their share prices. But he also made a trade that would profit if another part of the market, large-cap value stocks, rises.
Singer also invests in bonds -- his fund is shorting many types of bonds -- and in currencies, which he sees as some of the most fertile ground available. He expects gains for the Indian rupee and Malaysian ringgit, and he has investments set up to profit if the Australian dollar falls.