Head hunters and mutual fund executives expect the turnover rate among portfolio managers to remain unusually high at least until midyear.
As more investors pour money into portfolios, mutual fund companies earn more money that they can spend on attracting better managers.
And the press, which has done plenty to turn stock-pickers into celebrities, has no doubt helped spur this year's frequent jumping.
"We live in an era of free agency, and people are being bombarded with opportunities," said James A. Greenawalt, president of the distribution arm of Zurich-Kemper Investments Inc.
Over the past two weeks First Union Corp. has lured managers to its Evergreen Keystone Investment Services from fund company rivals Pioneer Management Group and Northstar Investment Management. And late last year, there were three well-publicized defections from Fidelity Investments.
Many portfolio managers are meeting with executive recruiters, hoping that their track records during the stock market's five-year bull run will get them even bigger bucks than they're already getting.
"A lot of people have things in the works," said Herbert I. Hunt, president of H.I. Hunt & Co., a Boston-based executive recruiting firm. "I would say the executive search business is probably enjoying one of the best first quarters in recent history."
The turnover, which could cause a flight of assets to a competitor, is hardly being dismissed by fund company executives. Many companies now give out yearend bonuses in March of the following year in hopes to at least delay a manager's departure, Mr. Hunt said.
Some companies are promoting a team approach to their portfolio management. That way, the defection of the person at the helm doesn't get too much attention.
"Firms are trying to move away from the star portfolio manager, and have a backup plan in the event that people do change around," Mr. Greenawalt said.
Of course, many portfolio managers will stay put after getting counteroffers from their current employers. But it can be tough to match compensation packages that are 30% to 50% higher than a year ago, Mr. Hunt said.
He said the average manager gets $150,000 to $250,000 in base salary, plus extras, usually a percentage of either assets under management or new assets he or she has drawn into the fund.
Raiding portfolio managers is becoming such an integral part of the mutual fund business that even a stock market decline won't stop it, said Don Phillips, president of Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based company that tracks portfolio performance.
Consider managers who don't lose as much as their peers because they guessed right about a downturn in the market. "If the market tanks you'll have a whole new set of heroes," said Don Phillips, president, Morningstar Inc.
To be sure, investors have not shown a propensity yet to siphon significant dollars out of one fund to follow a favorite portfolio manager. Thus, fund company executives say they are hardly panicking.
"The first example of this was when Peter Lynch left (Fidelity's) Magellan," Zurich-Kemper's Mr. Greenawalt said."People asked if they should take their money out, and most people said 'let's see what the next portfolio manager will do."'
But investors do feel some impact. "Turnover of portfolio managers tends to create a cost from turnover in the portfolio," said Charles T. Bauer, chairman of Aim Management Group. "The (new) manager may not like a few stocks, so you have transaction costs when he changes them."
Even more important is that now the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun to allow fund companies to tout in its advertising a portfolio manager's track record at his former employer. Such ads should further fuel the "star" status of portfolio managers, and probably increase raiding, observers said.
What bothers some observers is that just because a portfolio manager performed well at one company with a particular strategy in one portfolio, doesn't mean the new company will apply the same disciplines and investment strategy as the old one.
Thus, a manager's reasons for picking stocks may change, subtly, but enough to affect his fund's performance.
Fund company executives like to point out that most investors often don't even know that the manager of a particular portfolio has left.
But if investors don't keep abreast of such changes, financial advisers do. And they often have favorite managers.
For instance, the departure of Warren Isabelle to First Union has complicated the relationship between Pioneer and Gerald Thomas, president of the brokerage at Chicago-based St. Paul Bancorp.
"He was why we wanted to work with them," Mr. Thomas said. "We we're trying to build a broader presence with Pioneer."