A mutual fund devoted to investing in casket manufacturers and funeral parlors is six feet under. So are two funds devoted to the golf industry. Other specialized funds, such as one that invested in sports interests, have also died out.
All that is left of many of the funds are dead links on the Internet and phone numbers that lead to recorded disconnection notices. Analysts and even some executives involved with the funds seem to remember little about them.
Whenever the market is strong on Wall Street, these specialized niche funds start popping up, analysts say.
"It's essentially a gimmick," said Peter Di Teresa, a senior analyst at Morningstar who has tracked unusual niche funds, partly for professional reasons, but mostly out of curiosity. "It's a sign of a bull market. People were just looking for any angle for selling a fund."
Such funds are usually scoffed at by mainstream fund companies, analysts say. Many of the niche funds of the late 1990's, beleaguered by volatility and lacking economies of scale, fizzled within years, according to analysts.
"It's probably a good indicator that you certainly never saw any major fund company getting into this area," Di Teresa said.
Yet these specialty funds continue to emerge when favorable markets whet investors' appetites for innovative products. Mainstream investment company executives usually regard niche funds skeptically, said Andy Washburn, vice president of AXP Funds Marketing at American Express Financial Advisors.
"You hear people quip that we must be near a market top if we're coming out with a [niche] fund," he said.
The list of recent unsuccessful specialized funds is short and strange. One of the golf-related funds, Golf Value Trend Links Fund, started in January1999, said Jeff Provence, who managed the product. It did not attract enough assets and was turned into a technology focus fund in August 2000, he said.
Another product of the genre, the Golf Associated Fund, was also abandoned within a few years, Di Teresa said.
Then there was the Pauze Tombstone Fund, which was founded in the mid-1990's and invested in the death services industry. Its assets peaked at nearly $5 million before it was liquidated in May 2000 with less than $1 million under management, said Philip Pauze, the fund's founder. He did not remember exactly when the fund started. Pauze is the chairman of Pauze Swanson Capital Management of Houston, which manages a family of funds, including balanced funds, a corporate bond fund, a money market and a large-cap equity fund.
Many of these niche products were widely covered in the popular press, including in publications such as Forbes. Pauze said he took at least two calls a day from reporters when the Tombstone Fund first opened. Nearly 100 stories were written on the subject, he said.
Despite the publicity, most of the funds are gone, not because the economy slipped, but because they could not attract enough assets, said Di Teresa.
"As you can imagine, they didn't make that much money," he said. Because the funds did not garner enough assets to achieve economies of scale, fees and operating costs were high, Di Teresa said.
Volatility did not help either. Some funds, such as those devoted to golf, invested not just in golf product manufacturers such as Calloway, but in companies that sponsored professional golfing events, such as Kemper, which hosts the Kemper Open. That diversification made the funds similar to diversified, large-cap equity funds, Di Teresa said. Even so, they did not attract enough assets, he said.
But for other specialized funds, such as Tombstone, assets are invested so narrowly that one ripple in the industry can shut down a fund. The Tombstone Fund was liquidated partly as a result of two major funeral industry companies failing as a result of lawsuits, said Di Teresa. But "investors weren't buying it anyway," he said.