Go into any one of the 2,600 Wal-Mart stores and 485 Sam's Clubs, and you'll see banners inviting you to cash your tax rebate check for free, exchange your rebate check for a "shopping card" for future purchases or present your rebate check at the cashier to cover your purchases.

It's the American way. But despite a wrenching decline in new investment cash moving into mutual funds this year, the nation's investment industry has been strangely silent about reaching for the $38 billion in checks of up to $600 that taxpayers are receiving from the government.

The reticence is puzzling. Net cash flow into equity mutual funds was down by 78% in the first half of the year, compared with the first half of 2000. Yet recent economic data indicate that middle-class Americans are in a mood to pay off debts and save, rather than spend.

Clearly, investment companies have a story to tell taxpayers with rebate checks in their hands.

Analyst Don Cassidy at mutual fund tracking service Lipper Inc. estimates, based on average historical performance of 1,000 largest equity mutual funds, that a $600 check placed in an equity fund could produce nearly $4,000 in 18 years, when your baby is ready for college.

Cassidy estimates that if two pairs of grandparents each gave their $600 rebate checks to a grandchild, the child would be a millionaire at 65.

Finding a place to put the money, however, isn't as easy as collecting it from the government.

From the Morningstar database of more than 13,000 mutual funds, there are 337 domestic equity funds listed that are available without a sales charge and with a Morningstar rating of at least three of a possible five stars. Only 37 of those funds could be purchased with an initial investment of $600 or less.

For most people, however, the available number of funds is less than that, because some of the low-initial-investment funds are available only to customers of the fund organization.

This story appeared on Financial Planning Interactive and was adapted from a story appearing in the Chicago Tribune.

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