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Is Total Return Totally Confusing?

Many fund marketers have been anxiously developing "total return" products that will appeal to gun-shy investors in the current market climate. However, what does "total return" really mean in the context of mutual funds?

In Wall Street Words, author David Scott defines total return as: "the sum of dividend or interest income and any capital gain." He adds, "Total return is generally considered a better measure of an investment's return than dividends or interest alone."

Russ Kinnel, director of fund analysis at Morningstar, admitted, "It certainly is generic enough that you could rationalize putting damn near any strategy under total return.'"

The Securities and Exchange Commission agrees: "The term total return is not a defined term here at the Commission, so it's not clear what the substance of that term is," said John Heine, spokesperson for the SEC.

In reality, total return mutual funds run the gamut from stocks to bonds, domestic and international, and even some sector offerings, such as real estate and utilities.

PIMCO has gained a lot of ground in the market with its total return product, a bond fund managed by ace bond-manager Bill Gross. American Skandia has tapped Gross's management skills for a total return fund of its own, as has Enterprise, which released its total return offering last week.