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Mutual Funds to Match Your Lifestyle

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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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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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