The yields on some of the biggest money-market mutual funds will soon top 3 percent. That should be enough to get some investors excited...

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The yields on some of the biggest money-market mutual funds will soon top 3 percent.

That should be enough to get some investors excited about money funds again. Inflows into the safest form of mutual fund have picked up recently, as the Federal Reserve Board’s spate of interest-rate increases created a fivefold gain in the yield of the average money fund.

Average taxable money funds now sport their best yield since fall 2001, at roughly 2.7 percent; top performers are already north of the 3 percent line.

“There is no secret to money-fund yields; take the Fed funds target and subtract a half-point expense ratio,” said Peter Crane, managing editor at imoneynet.com, which tracks money-fund yields.

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“A year ago, money funds paid just under a half-percent, and now the average rate is just under 2.75.

“But with the Fed likely to raise rates two or three more times this year, you’re looking at the average money fund ending the year with a yield of about 3.5 percent. From where rates were, that’s huge.”

It’s also better than the return in a three-month certificate of deposit (CD) in a bank, and about the same as the average six-month CD, which is why safety-conscious savers have taken notice.

“It could pay to watch the money funds because their yields will continue to rise as the Fed raises short-term rates,” said Greg McBride of BankRate.com.

Few people expect to get rich loading up with money funds, but safe and boring with a reasonable return is a good bet for the cash portion of a portfolio.

Because it is easy to estimate the likely return — see Crane’s formula above — the key is finding a fund that captures as much of the gross gain as possible.

When interest rates were next to nothing, many firms waived all expenses on their money funds to ensure that the return did not go negative.

When rates started rising, many companies reinstated their costs, effectively taking the first two or three rate increases for themselves and leaving shareholders in the cold.

For investors looking to get back into money funds, or simply to goose the yield they are getting from a fund, the good news is that picking a money fund is simple.

Start by following human nature and look for issues with the highest yields.

This runs against conventional wisdom for stocks and bonds, where the typical warning involves shunning hot funds to avoid the potential for an overnight turnaround.

You can use a list of top current earners because the rules governing money funds make it so that virtually all are created equal. Typically, what separates a top money fund from the average is the amount of expenses charged to investors.

In a reasonable rate environment, waiving expenses is typically the way a fund firm attracts new money. Over time, however, many firms turn up the heat on that cash, raising fees toward the norm and hoping investors don’t notice and stay put.

Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist at CBS Marketwatch. He can be reached at jaffe@marketwatch.com or Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.