You can study the whole menu of 8,200 U.S. mutual funds right now without working up much of an appetite.
U.S. stock funds, bond funds, money-market funds, international funds none of the featured choices presents itself as something you can't wait to try.
Even after an April rally, stock funds are still mired in a slump that has cost investors in aggressive growth funds an average loss of 22 percent over the past year, according to Bloomberg data.
Bond funds have been a refuge over most of that stretch, gaining 7.5 percent. Not so in the last month, however in that period they have slipped 0.9 percent amid concern that Federal Reserve efforts to stimulate the economy might stir up inflation.
Yields on money-market funds, meanwhile, have suffered at the hands of that same Fed campaign, in which the central bank has lowered short-term interest rates by two percentage points since the start of the year.
Investors in the largest of all money funds, the $53 billion Fidelity Cash Reserves, were getting paid at a 6.2 percent annual rate six months ago. Now, according to money-fund tracker IMoneyNet Inc., the fund's annual yield slipped below 5 percent even before the half-point rate cut the Fed announced on April 18.
A lag effect is standard in money funds. Their yields follow trends in the money markets with a delay of several weeks as the securities the funds own mature and must be replaced with new ones. So money-fund returns will go lower still.Worldly woes
International stock funds? Forget it. The Bloomberg average of more than 750 funds investing outside the United States is down 21 percent since a year ago at this time. In this market, they have delivered practically none of their touted diversification benefits.
Fortunately, the financial markets aren't a restaurant, and long-term fund investors aren't called on to choose anything they are going to consume immediately. As any good contrarian investor knows, a fund or a market that looks unappealing now may actually be full of promise.
Ordering what looks good at the moment in stock-fund investing will often bring you indigestion. Ask anybody who loaded up on Internet and other technology funds a year or two ago. As Jack Bogle, retired chairman of the Vanguard Group, put it, "Some version of reality has now returned to the stock market."
If the funds that look the most alluring can turn out to be the most dangerous, then the opposite must also be true: an investment that gives an unappetizing appearance might in fact be just the thing to keep you well fed.
In the ideal, "you take more risk when the market is low and less when the market is high," said Sheldon Jacobs in his newsletter The No-Load Fund Investor. "Today's market risk is much less than a year or two ago."No razzle-dazzle
By presenting a uniformly drab appearance, the various choices may be doing fund investors a favor. When you can't pick funds to buy on the basis of what looks hot, you may be induced to think more productively instead about which ones suit your objectives.
And with no category of funds giving off much heat, it's easier to stay diversified. What the heck, you tell yourself, since nothing looks much better than anything else at the moment, I might as well spread my money around.
Said Richard Moroney, editor of newsletter Dow Theory Forecasts: "Any attempt to pick a market bottom in advance is little more than an educated guess."
For all we know, it's already too late to do that. With its usual lack of warning, the Nasdaq Composite Index rallied 33 percent in 15 days during April.
Things happen so fast in the 21st century markets, it might not be long at all before stock funds start to look appetizing again. When that day comes, though, expect to pay a higher price than at times when stocks aren't the most popular item on the menu.
Chet Currier is a columnist for Bloomberg News.
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