Funds you pick for the short term deserve careful consideration, too

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) Few investors give much thought to the money they set aside for short-term goals, or dare to hope for much of a return in the current interest rate environment. But depending your time horizon, you might be able to do better than you think.

For truly short-term goals, such as money you save to cover your annual tax bill or next semester's tuition, financial planners say your best bet is either a money market deposit account or a money market mutual fund. Although they pay paltry rates of interest, generally between 1 percent and 2 percent, they'll keep your principal safe and accessible, and returns are likely to improve as the Federal Reserve continues raising interest rates.

Money market deposit accounts offered by banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Money market mutual funds are offered by brokerages and mutual fund families, and are not FDIC insured, but are generally very safe because they invest in U.S. Treasuries. Because there's not a lot of difference between money market mutual funds, expenses are key, so if you go this route, look for one that charges less than 0.5 percent per year.

For sums held for three to five years or longer, there are probably better options. The three-to-six-month emergency cushion that financial planners recommend you save for living expenses if you lose your job presents an interesting conundrum, said Christine Benz, associate director of fund analysis with Morningstar Inc. Conventional wisdom has long been to keep this in cash or cash equivalents, such as the money market, she said.

But if all goes well, you'll never need this money, which has led some experts to suggest holding it in short-term bond funds. These tend to pay slightly higher yields, Benz said, and while they don't guarantee your principal will hold absolutely steady, fluctuations are likely to be quite low. Over the last two decades, the steepest drop in short-term bond funds was 3 percent a palatable risk for many investors in exchange for higher returns.

Ultra-short bond funds typically hold up better in rising-rate environments. Like money market funds, these tend to offer low returns, so expenses are an important consideration. Among analysts' picks at fund tracker Morningstar Inc. are Fidelity Ultra-Short Bond (FUSFX) and Payden Limited Maturity Fund (PYLMX). Fidelity's offering, while relatively new, has beaten the average taxable money market fund while keeping volatility in check; the Payden fund is noted for low expenses, a diversified portfolio and a solid track record. And because they rely exclusively on bonds, they're considered quite conservative.

''I would feel a little nervous ... about putting funds you might need in the short-term in equities,'' Benz said. ''However, if someone has more of a five-year horizon, I think you could argue for having some percentage of the portfolio in equities.''

For money you're saving for a big item, such as the down payment for a home you plan to buy in three to five years, conservative asset allocation funds might be a good place to collect your cash. These offer exposure to the money market, bonds and equities. Three picks from Morningstar include T. Rowe Price Personal Strategy Income (PRSIX), Vanguard Tax-Managed Balanced (VTMFX) and Vanguard Wellesley Income (VWINX).

Financial planners say you should at least try to outdo the rate of inflation, currently stable at about 2 percent. All of these funds do that while charging modest expenses. The T. Rowe offering holds 45 percent in stocks, 39 percent in bonds and the rest in cash, and yields 2.3 percent. The Vanguard Wellesley fund is more conservative, with 60 percent in bonds and 40 percent in stocks, yielding just over 4 percent. The Vanguard Tax Managed Balanced fund is about evenly split between stocks and bonds, yields 2.51 percent and is the cheapest of the offerings, with an expense ratio of just 0.12 percent.

''If you can't beat inflation, you might as well just put it in a jar in your backyard,'' said Steve Marbert, a certified financial planner in Augusta, Ga. ''I think 3 percent is a good number to use. You need at least that to compete with inflation, and you almost have to have a little bit in equities to do it. Diversification is the key. You can't just pick a bond fund and think that you're going to make money over a short-term time horizon.''

Aside from a down payment for a house, the idea of saving over several years for big purchases sounds almost quaint at a time when credit is so readily available. But Marbert and other planners say you can save thousands of dollars by following the lead of past generations that did just that.

Consider this: If you saved just enough money to buy one car outright, rather than taking out a loan for the bulk of the vehicle's value, you could then start saving for your next car by investing money in a conservative allocation fund where it could earn interest. That way your money would be working for you, instead of servicing an automotive loan. Over the course of a lifetime, this could save an average car owner upwards of $100,000, Marbert said.

''You're always better off if you're earning interest than you are if you're paying interest,'' Marbert said. ''So many people just go from payment to payment on cars, and as soon as they have it paid off, they get another car, and they never get ahead. So literally, over your lifetime, you're paying hundreds of thousands more than you would have it you'd saved and gotten ahead just once.''

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