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Investors would have been better off owning the shares of mutual fund companies over the past 18 months than the funds they sell.

The stock market returns of companies such as Franklin Resources Inc. and T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. roughly tripled the average U.S. stock fund's gain since the end of 1995 -- a period that corresponds with record net inflows to mutual funds.

Shares of Franklin Resources, the largest U.S. publicly traded fund company, were up about 120 percent in the 18-month period and shares of T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., the second largest, were up more than 105 percent.

By contrast, the average U.S. stock fund rose an estimated 40 percent in the same period. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index -- a popular benchmark for U.S. stocks -- gained about 50 percent.

Just a few of the biggest U.S. fund groups are publicly traded since most are closely held. Some medium-sized fund companies such as Eaton Vance Corp. and Liberty Financial Cos. do offer publicly traded shares and the returns on their stocks are almost as big as those of Franklin and T. Rowe Price.

Bear's voice heard for last time
It's a tough market for bears. One of the most prominent, Paul Franke, is discontinuing publication of his newsletter, Maverick Investor, because fewer and fewer folks want to hear portents of doom.

He leaves with a flourish. "I currently recommend that investors withdraw a majority of their funds from stocks . . . and place them into 'safe' capital preservation areas," he writes. Those cash havens include: CDs at insured banks, Treasury securities and gold and silver. In the last category, he urges you to buy Barrick Gold, Homestake Mining, Newmont Mining and Battle Mountain Gold.

Rich taking on most credit card debt
Americans have almost doubled their credit card debt since 1988. Yet they get bombarded with offers to acquire additional credit cards.

Peter S. Yoo, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, looked at this trend and says increases in credit card debt are largely attributable to increased average credit card debt per household, not from an increase in households with access to credit cards.

He found that upper-income households account for most of the growth of credit card debt. Lower-income households increased their access to credit cards and their average debt at a faster rate than the total population. But wealthy people account for about three-quarters of the total credit card debt.

Foreign investing more popular
More people are going global with their investments, a new Scudder/Gallup Mutual Fund Investor Poll shows. The poll of U.S. households that own mutual funds found that 6.7 million families now have international investments. That amountsto 29 percent of the U.S. mutual fund households. The figure is up from 26 percent in 1994.

The poll found that 3.1 million domestic fund owners are planning to make foreign investments and 20 percent of investors who did not own international funds at the time of the poll indicated they intend to diversify abroad within a year.

The poll, based on 1,000 telephone interviews, found that 400,000 households joined the worldwide market in 1996.

Time sharing has wide appeal
Time share ownership isn't just for the rich.

The median household income of U.S. time share owners is $71,000, says the American Resort Development Association. The range is wide, with 10.6 percent of the owners reporting household incomes under $40,000 and 11.6 percent reporting incomes of $125,000 or more.

The median age of owners is 50 and nearly 85 percent are married couples.

The number of U.S. households owning a time share reached 1.77 million. In 1996, 218,000 interval weeks sold at an average price of $10,000 per week, ARDA said.

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