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Mutual Funds to Match Your Lifestyle

Are you looking to invest in a mutual fund? Are you worried that the portfolio of stocks and bonds selected by the fund managers won't accurately reflect your core beliefs? Fear not; if you dig hard enough, you can probably turn up a niche fund that meets both your need for a solid return and your personal ideology (or lack thereof). Take one of these, for example:

The Vice Fund

Perhaps the most well-known niche fund is the Vice Fund, which ignores moral qualms and shoots straight for the seedy core of the stock market. The fund focuses on four sectors: defense/weapons, gambling, tobacco, and booze. As the fund's website proudly boasts in all caps, no other fund concentrates solely on these four sectors. As fund manager Charles Norton told the Financial Times in 2006, "[N]o matter what is happening in the world economy, people will continue to drink, smoke, gamble and nations will need to defend themselves. As a result, in general these companies tend to be steady performers in good times and bad—they are mostly insulated from economic slowdowns." In short, the fund has targeted four areas of the economy where it thinks demand is fairly inelastic whether for reasons of addiction or necessity as a hedge against market downturns. It works, too; for 2006 the fund had returns of over 23%.

So are the portfolio managers gun-toting, chain-smoking drunken gambling junkies? Not quite; the Vice Fund is built on an investment strategy, not a lifestyle choice. In the same interview with the Financial Times, Norton revealed that he's a suburban family man who doesn't smoke and rarely drinks or gambles. We can still hold out hope that he owns a tank or rocket launcher, though.

Ave Maria Mutual Funds

Of course, for every demonic financial instrument like the Vice Fund, there's a counterbalancing angelic fund that traffics in virtue. One example comes from Ave Maria Mutual Funds, which ave-maria.jpgtouts itself as "America's fastest-growing Catholic mutual fund family." "Virtue funds" like these only hold assets in companies that meet certain moral and/or religious criteria in addition to being deemed solid investment opportunities. According to Ave Maria's website, the fund managers first pick stocks and bonds they'd like to hold, and then the potential assets go through "a proprietary moral screening process developed by our distinguished Catholic Advisory Board" that eliminates "companies connected with abortion or pornography, or that offer their employees non-marital partner "˜benefits.'" According to the fund's most recent annual report, its heaviest holdings are in Gentex Corporation, a company that makes personal protective equipment for military and law-enforcement groups, which sounds like something the Vice Fund would be equally interested in.

The Timothy Plan

Ave Maria is certainly not alone, though. The Timothy Plan family of funds has a similar timothyplan.giffocus on Christian ideology, but with decidedly more fundamentalist rhetoric. According to the Timothy Plan's site, it is America's fist pro-life, pro-family, biblically-based mutual fund. It also claims, "If you are concerned with the moral issues (abortion, pornography, anti-family entertainment, non-married lifestyles, alcohol, tobacco and gambling) that are destroying children and families you have come to the right place."

What companies can't make a Timothy Plan fund's portfolio? Good question, and luckily the plan's website has a "Hall of Shame" outlining what godless companies don't make the cut. Usual suspects like Playboy and Anheuser-Busch are frowned upon, but so are many other groups one doesn't normally think of as child-and-family destroyers, including AmEx, Borders, both Coke and Pepsi, Prudential, Starbucks, and drug companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Pfizer. (No word on whether these pharmaceutical companies are also excluded from the prescription drug coverage on the Timothy Plan's employee health benefit.)

Amana Mutual Funds

Christians aren't the only religious investors with their own funds, though. The Amana Funds make all of their investments amana.jpgbased on sharia, or Islamic law. These principles are in some ways fairly similar to the Christian funds: no companies that make a significant amount of their income from pornography, liquor, and gambling. However, there are some other restrictions unique to the Islamic funds, including an avoidance of pork-processing companies, and since usury, or riba, is forbidden in Islamic law the funds have to avoid investing in interest-gathering financial institutions like banks. Having to avoid interest also effectively cuts the funds off from buying bonds and companies that have too much debt on their books. Moreover, since excessive portfolio turnover could be considered a form of gambling, fund managers don't swap out assets as frequently as other funds. Amana's turnover rates are just around 14%; estimates of normal mutual funds' annual turnover rates run as high as 85%.

Amana also helps its investors prepare for the Hajj, a Muslim's holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Part of the preparations for this journey include getting one's personal finances in order and clearing any debts they might owe, so Amana offers guidance to hopeful pilgrims. While services like these, as well as the underlying ideology, the funds obviously offer a unique opportunity for Muslim investors. However, the fund's strong performance (manager Nicholas Kaiser's picks regularly trounce their less-pious competition) has made it almost as attractive for non-Muslim investors looking for a place to put their money.

Socially Conscious Funds

Not all virtuous funds have religious underpinnings. Some just aim to invest in companies that meet certain social or environmental standards. Such funds generally look for companies that have good track records when it comes to human relations, environmental issues, product safety, corporate governance, and other issues.

Where does one find such companies? You can consult KLD's Domini 400 Social Index, which includes 400 companies that pass muster as socially responsible. (As you'd expect, companies heavily engaged in areas like weapons, gambling, tobacco, and nuclear power don't make the cut.) According to the index's literature, it includes 250 companies from the S&P 500, but since its creation in 1990, the Domini 400 has cumulatively outperformed the S&P 500, which means all those socially responsible companies must be doing something right.

However, the Domini 400 is an index, not a fund that you can invest in. Companies like Calvert pick up that slack, though, by offering funds that only hold companies deemed socially responsible. Calvert touts its trademarked "Double Diligence" research process that first finds attractive opportunities, then scours the companies' track records to decide if they're truly socially responsible enough to make the portfolio.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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