The big returns for mutual-fund investors during the third quarter came from overseas funds that substantially outperformed a U.S. market hit hard by...

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NEW YORK — The big returns for mutual-fund investors during the third quarter came from overseas funds that substantially outperformed a U.S. market hit hard by high energy prices and the effects of two hurricanes.

World equity funds — including gold funds and a variety of global and international funds — saw average returns of 11.66 percent. U.S. diversified stocks funds saw, on average, just 4.27 percent returns for the quarter, according to fund-watcher Lipper’s preliminary statistics.

“I think it tells you a lot about the confidence you can have investing overseas,” Don Cassidy, senior analyst at Lipper, said yesterday. “And maybe a little about the kind of quarter we had here at home.”

The vast majority of assets invested in mutual funds are in U.S. diversified funds, which had $3.18 trillion in assets as of Thursday. World equity funds, on the other hand, has $818 billion in assets. So fewer investors benefited from the gains internationally. That could change, however, if inflation rises in the United States.

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“You get inflation, and that’ll prompt a lot of investors to look overseas, even in their 401(k) plans,” Cassidy said. “Those funds can be volatile, certainly, but it’s best to grit your teeth, put a little money in there and not look at it every day.”

Funds focused on Latin-American companies outperformed all other categories, posting an average returns of 28.47 percent as of Thursday. Gold-oriented funds were second with a 20.94 percent average return, and Japanese mutual funds had an average return of 19.71 percent.

Returns from U.S. diversified funds were meager by comparison. With the Standard & Poor’s 500 index at a four-year high at the beginning of August, investors were looking forward to strong returns. However, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the subsequent jump in oil prices sent stocks lower for the quarter and hurt U.S. equity fund returns.

Multicap growth funds saw average returns of 6.13 percent, followed by midcap growth funds with an average return of 5.48 percent. Bear-market funds had the worst average returns for all U.S. funds with a 2.5 percent return.

“There wasn’t really anywhere to go this quarter,” Cassidy said. “And there’s still a lot of caution out there.”

Much of the market’s uncertainty in the third quarter was due to high energy prices. A surge in crude-oil futures, nonetheless, boosted energy company stocks and, as a result, mutual funds focused on natural resources led all sector-specific funds with a 23.22 percent average annual return. Utility-sector funds saw average returns of 8.12 percent, while telecommunications funds had average returns of 7.23 percent.

International funds led the quarter’s top individual performers. ProFunds’ UltraJapan fund returned 41.54 percent in the third quarter, followed by ING’s Russia fund with a 36.62 percent return and ProFunds’ Precious Metals fund with a 34.97 percent return.

The American Heritage Growth fund, a midcap fund, was the quarter’s worst performer, with a 16.67 percent negative return, followed by the smallcap Frontier Equity fund with a 13.04 percent negative return and the Internet Infrastructure Holdrs Trust had an 11 percent negative return.