Question: Could you fill me in on the prospects for shares of Cablevision Systems Corp.? — R.L., via the Internet

Answer: The media company that owns Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Chicago Theatre has focused on growth this year.

One consideration for investors is whether its large long-term debt load will impair growth plans. Another is how competitive the rival video services offered by telecommunications firms such as Verizon Communications Inc. prove to be in the long run.

Cablevision provides television, voice-over-Internet protocol phone and Internet services to millions of customers in the New York area. It lately has made a significant capital investment to provide faster Internet-access speeds.

Cablevision Systems is buying Sundance Channel for $496 million to add viewers to its cable stable of AMC, IFC and WE TV. In addition, it is acquiring a 97 percent stake in Newsday, a newspaper on Long Island, N.Y., from Tribune Co. for $650 million to expand advertising opportunities and audience.

Chief Executive James Dolan has said he will "continue to pursue growth opportunities."

Shares of Cablevision (CVC) are down 8 percent this year following last year's 14 percent decline and a 21 percent gain in 2006. It lost $31.6 million in its first quarter on losses from financial derivative contracts, but its operating income and revenue were up.

Other Cablevision holdings include the New York Knicks, Rangers and Liberty professional sports teams; Rainbow Media Holdings in television and film; and the Clearview Cinemas chain.

Consensus Wall Street analyst rating of Cablevision shares is between "buy" and "hold," according to Thomson Financial. That consists of two "strong buys," four "buys" and nine "holds. The Dolan family owns 23 percent of shares but has 74 percent of voting power through a separate class of supervoting shares.

In an important step, Sony Electronics Inc., Cablevision and five other cable operators recently signed an agreement to create digital televisions using a technology standard without set-top cable boxes yet permitting pay-per-view services. That will require cooperation from electronics retailers.

Cablevision earnings are expected to rise fourfold this year versus an 8 percent increase forecast for the CATV systems industry. Next year's projected increase is 142 percent, compared with 18 percent expected for its peers.

The five-year annualized growth rate of 6 percent compares with 13 percent expected industrywide.

The firm is in line to receive $24.4 million from 16 individuals, including several current and former directors, to settle a shareholder lawsuit that alleged stock-options backdating. It is scheduled to receive another $10 million from its insurance carrier, also for plaintiffs.

Question: Please tell me if Northern Technology Fund is likely to do any better than it has lately. — C.P., via the Internet

Answer: It features low expenses, low turnover and lower volatility than most technology stock funds. Unfortunately, recent returns have been on the low side, too.

The $117 million Northern Technology Fund (NTCHX) is down 12 percent the past 12 months to rank near the midpoint of technology funds. Its three-year annualized return of 3 percent is in the lowest one-fourth of its peers.

"Northern Technology isn't a standout and has been doing pretty badly lately," said Greg Brown, analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. "They call it an 'innovation-based' fund, yet most tech funds are looking for innovation themes, and I don't see that as distinguishing it from its peers."

The fund held a number of smaller speculative tech stocks in 2006 and 2007, such as BMC Software Inc. and On Semiconductor Corp., which performed well. Later last year, however, it became more conservative and sold many of those to focus on larger, stable companies such as Intel Corp. and Medtronic Inc.

Matthew Peron, with the fund since late 2005, became lead manager in mid-2006 after longtime manager George Gilbert retired. Deborah Koch, who specializes in small- and mid-cap stocks, has been co-manager since mid-2004.

They have kept the fund more diversified than many of its peers by adding holdings in health care and industrial stocks. They seek companies with strong positions in large and growing markets, while paying attention to valuation.

"The move to a defensive stance isn't very timely or contrarian, since many portfolio managers are doing the same thing," Brown said. "They're probably going to miss out when the market does turn."

Technology hardware represents 44 percent of Northern Technology and software 28 percent, with health care the only other significant concentration. Top stocks include Hewlett-Packard Co., Apple Inc., Nokia Corp., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., International Business Machines Corp., Accenture Ltd. and Raytheon Co.

This "no-load" (no sales charge) fund requires a minimum initial investment of $2,500 and has an annual expense ratio of 1.25 percent.

Question: I've been told recently it is best to stagger the maturities of my bond holdings. What is the best way to go about this? — R.L., via the Internet

Answer: The reason for staggered bond maturities is because no one can predict future interest rates with precision.

"You first decide the longest maturity bond you wish to hold, since that will decide how long a ladder you'll have," said Marilyn Capelli Dimitroff, certified financial planner and president of Capelli Financial Services Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "You set up your ladder so you have money coming due periodically you can reinvest."

You are spreading rate risk while obtaining consistency, diversification and liquidity. This also protects you from call risk because staggered maturities mean all your bonds won't be called in at once.

You can, for example, buy bonds with maturities of one year, three years, five years and on up to as many years as you wish, she said. There is no one set way to construct your ladder. Although Treasury bonds are frequently used, a ladder can be built with any kind of bonds.

"If interest rates are good, you might want to extend your ladder to take advantage of them," Capelli Dimitroff said. "In a low-rate environment, you might fill in a lower rung to shorten your ladder."


Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, P.O. Box 874702, Tempe, Ariz. 85287-4702, or by e-mail at [email protected].