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Socially-Responsible Exchange Fund Weighed

If there is a stock index to track, chances are good that there is an exchange-traded fund based on that index. So far, however, there is not an exchange-traded fund that tracks a socially-responsible index of stocks. But, that may soon change, according to industry analysts and executives.

At least one socially-responsible fund company has filed with the SEC for an exemption that would allow it to develop an exchange-traded fund that would be based on its own index of socially-responsible stocks, said Gary Gastineau, managing director of structured investments for John Nuveen Co. of Chicago.

"I'd heard that there is one in the pipeline," he said. A socially- responsible exchange-traded fund could be easier to market because it appeals to a more focused group of investors, Gastineau said.

"It's easier to market to those groups versus letting the entire world know [about your product]," he said. "You can market more efficiently. It's easier to sell it to a group ... You know where some of these folks are and you can go to them and sell in a group." Moreover, socially-responsible investing has become much more popular with investors and institutions in recent years. Assets under management in socially-responsible funds rose from $12 billion in 1995 to $154 billion in 1999, according to the Social Investments Forum of Washington D.C., a non-profit group that tracks social investing. And the number of socially-responsible funds has skyrocketed from just 55 in 1995 to 175 in 1999, according to the organization.

As long as an index is recognized, is popular with investors and can be re-balanced, it is a suitable index for an exchange-traded fund, said Deborah A. Fuhr, vice president and head of global marketing for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

"I could see [this type of product] being appealing," she said. "Social investing has been getting attention. You see institutions interested and it is playing to unlimited potential." Increasingly, state-sponsored retirement and pension plans are adding socially-responsible investment options to their line up of funds, she said.

Fuhr has also heard that a socially-responsible firm is in the process of developing an exchange-traded fund, but she declined to name the firm. Any firm that wanted to develop such a product would need a strong background in indexing, she said. That could prompt a partnership between a socially-responsible fund firm and a large firm with a strong background in indexing or possibly an exchange, she said.

Based on the strength of their indexes, the two companies most likely to develop an exchange-traded fund are Domini Social Investments of New York and Calvert Group of Washington D.C., said Steve Schueth, chairman of the board for the Social Investment Forum of Washington D.C.

Domini's Social Equity Fund is based on the Domini 400 Social Index, an index that covers 400 companies that meet specific criteria. With $1.3 billion in assets under management, the fund is one of the largest social- index funds available, according to Schueth. Schueth believes there is a good chance a socially-responsible exchange-traded fund will be introduced sometime in the coming year.

The Calvert Group is intrigued with exchange-traded funds and has explored the idea of developing such a product, said Elizabeth Laurienzo, a spokesperson for the company. But, it has not sought approval from the SEC to do so, she said.

Earlier this year, the Vanguard Group of Malvern, Pa. launched the Vanguard socially-responsible index fund based on the Calvert Group's social index. Vanguard was poised to issue an exchange-traded share class on several of its index funds based on the S&P 500 earlier this year, but a legal dispute with McGraw-Hill over licensing to use the S&P index has held that up. Vanguard is currently focused on resolving the case and will not comment on the possibility of any additional exchange-traded products, said John Demming, a spokesperson for the company.

Domini is interested in creating an exchange-traded fund, but will not comment on future product development plans.