"We're looking at a bullish part of the cycle and expecting to do well," says New Era's Ober. "Oil prices in the 20s to low 30s should be a great environment for us." Lead positions in his portfolio recently were Exxon, Ocean Energy and Royal Dutch. Besides big, diversified energy companies, Ober is hedging his bets by throwing in a few consumer cyclicals and industrials that would benefit from low energy prices.

The problem with natural resources funds is one of categorization, which explains why some of them obtained outsized performance last year while most lost money. Not only can't managers agree on what constitutes a common strategy for natural resources investing, others can't agree on what should be included in the category. For example, Morningstar and Value Line disagree on Oppenheimer Real Asset. The former says it is a natural resources entry, while the latter calls it an asset-allocation entry.

Most natural resources funds are not big bets on a war or disastrous economy as much as just an attempt to diversify slightly. Most of these funds, as proven by their performance last year, are not going to obtain outstanding returns in a down year, unless one calls losing less than others outstanding. That is unless one is buying a fund like Oppenheimer Real Asset and is prepared for a rocky ride that will include hitting a homerun when commodity prices or gold prices are rising at a faster pace.

The question an advisor should raise about natural resources funds isn't "Is this all there is?" but "Is this what my clients want?"

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