With Internet stocks off dramatically this year, Scott Degerberg, vice president of mutual funds at Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, is employing what might look like a contrarian strategy.
He rolled out a tech fund this week.
Bank customers and other investors are demanding more technology-focused funds despite weaknesses in the market, Mr. Degerberg said. In fact, Fifth Third's new offering nabbed $50 million of client orders before Monday's launching, he said.
Mr. Degerberg is among a growing group of fund managers launching tech-oriented funds.
Some are pressing banks to offer them or risk missing out when the sector rebounds. But unlike the dot-com boosters who carried the Nasdaq index to the heights last year, these fund managers are emphasizing long-term profitability rather than a quick buck.
"There is a long-term belief that this sector has promise," said William Belden, vice president of product management at the Northern Global Communications Fund, which was started May 15 by Northern Trust Corp.
"Industrial revolutions are not a five- to 10-year phenomenon," agreed Ian Link, portfolio manager of Franklin Templeton's recently launched Technology Fund. "This could last a generation, even 40 years."
The portfolios have attracted some interest. Through last week, $28 million had flowed into Northern's fund, said Mr. Belden. And Franklin's fund has taken in $30 million since its inception on May 1, Mr. Link said.
The timing for such products is not perfect, Mr. Link conceded. But he said his company's new offering meets a need to give clients more options.
Fund investment in technology companies that show promise to increase business productivity is likely to continue, said Jackie Reeves, an analyst at Putnam Lovell & Thornton in New York. Though the stocks may be unpopular now, many technology vendors have an important role to play in the U.S. economy, she said.
The market is cold - or at best ambivalent - to tech stocks now. The market for initial public offerings has nearly dried up, Ms. Reeves noted. But in time, she said, "the Internet will see tremendous improvements on the productivity side."
Opinions differ on how fund managers should respond to market conditions. Technology stocks are down - and in some cases significantly down - from their highs, indicating that some investors have lost their appetite for the sector. But there is also "a perception that the dip is a buying opportunity," Ms. Reeves said.
Others said they feel these portfolios would have been launched regardless of market sentiment. Funds are usually conceived long before their launching, said Bruce Brewington, a research associate at Putnam Lovell & Thornton in San Francisco.
Investors are generally lured into technology stocks because of the prospect for spectacular returns, said William Gillen, bank channel head at Eaton Vance, a mutual fund company in Boston.
Eaton still sees attractive growth opportunities in three related regions - one of which is technology - but the company is wary of the heightened risk that comes from concentrating in any one sector, Mr. Gillen said. Eaton's investment strategy for growth funds is to diversify among sectors, primarily technology, media, and telecommunications companies, he said.
This strategy has yielded positive returns. The company's Information Age Fund, a global growth fund, has had the highest returns relative to risk in its category for three years running, Mr. Gillen said.
It may prove fruitful to offer technology funds over the long term, said Mark Besson, head of funds at Bank One Corp. But he warned: "Just don't get hung up on the ones that don't make sense."