If the global asset management business were a baseball game, Vanguard Group would be trying to bunt its way to first base, and Amvescap would be swinging for the fences.

Vanguard, with its cautious, niche-oriented approach, and Amvescap, with its large scale ambitions, represent the two very different ways asset managers are positioning themselves to sell mutual funds to the world.

"Almost every group approaches the market in a slightly different way," said Diana MacKay, London-based European chief for Lipper Inc. "There's no right way of doing it."

Maybe not, but there are certainly different approaches: cautious versus aggressive.

In Europe, Vanguard has a skeleton crew of 10 people peddling a handful of funds aimed to corporate pension customers in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Assets under management are negligible so far.

Outside of a small presence in Australia, the company has steered clear of Asia.

Amvescap, on the other hand, has 900 employees in 23 countries outside of North America, along with $40.8 billion of assets under management.

All sides agree that the global asset management game is one worth playing. Mutual fund assets outside the United States, now estimated at about $3.3 trillion, will grow 13.5% a year through 2002, outpacing growth in the U.S. marketplace, predicts Cerulli Associates, a research firm in Boston.

But how to get in and how fast to move remain highly subjective. A major reason is that it is not clear how fast the pension reforms upon which most of the demand is predicated will unfold.

"We think there are a lot of unanswered questions in Europe," said John J. Brennan, head of Malvern, Pa.-based Vanguard, the world's second-biggest mutual fund firm. "The pace of change and the reality of it are very uncertain at this stage. We want to be sure our instincts are affirmed and, frankly, we're in no rush."

Playing to its strength of low fees, Vanguard is targeting the institutional market in Europe, and is staying out of Asia for now.

Amvescap, meanwhile, is going after institutional and retail business everywhere from Germany to Japan, and doing so with a sense of urgency.

"I think people underestimate the huge amount of effort that's needed to coordinate and manage across all the cultures of the world and all the time zones," said Charles Brady, the chairman of Amvescap. "It takes an incredible effort."

Mr. Brady is skeptical that asset management companies can quickly export the success they are used to in the United States or the United Kingdom to regions that are just getting acquainted with the idea of investing.

"The time to get ready for what's happening now was 10 years ago," he said recently.

What is happening, in a nutshell, is fear-driven pension reform. Governments around the globe that promised to pay for their citizens' retirements are now acknowledging that they cannot afford to do so.

So they are turning to the equity markets and the private sector to bail them out.

"The pension crisis overseas is extremely severe," said Donald H. Putnam, managing director and chief executive of Putnam, Lovell, de Guardiola & Thornton, a San Francisco investment banking boutique that specializes in asset management companies.

"An American solution has become the global answer," Mr. Putnam said. "The mutual fund format as a way for households to save is an idea that is really taking hold in South America, Asia, central Europe, and Western Europe."

Of course, the American asset managers will not have the field to themselves; they will face competition from the world's big banking and insurance companies.

But those companies cannot match the asset management expertise of the U.S. and U.K. firms that have honed their skills over the decades.

In fact, they are likely to seek out investing knowhow through acquisitions of U.S. asset management companies, Mr. Putnam said.

Industry observers say that letting private companies invest pension money should have a spinoff effect of encouraging more retail mutual fund investing.

The companies with the biggest ambitions for global asset management have already sunk billions of dollars into that pursuit.

Amvescap, the parent of AIM Management Group and Invesco, shelled out $1.3 billion last year to buy LGT Asset Management.

That instantly made the company, which is based in London but has its top brass in Atlanta, a serious player in Europe and Asia.

Merrill Lynch & Co. ponied up $5.3 billion in late 1997 to buy Mercury Asset Management Group PLC, an international investment group based in London.

The move brought Merrill an additional 200 fund managers and 1,300 employees in 19 offices worldwide, and made it the world's third-largest asset management company, behind Fidelity Investments and Barclays PLC.

Fidelity has also gone after foreign markets in a big way-it has more than $5 billion of assets under management in Japan.

But Vanguard is hardly alone in the niche-player camp.

A number of companies have chosen to focus on institutional clients alone, or to concentrate on building their business in selected countries.

Putnam Investments, for instance, is concentrating much of its effort on Italy, where it has a retail fund management and distribution partnership with Gruppo Bipop, an Italian bank holding company.

"There is absolutely no reason why a sensible, targeted approach can't be successful," Ms. MacKay said.

And companies that start out small are not necessarily fated to remain that way, because the overseas mutual fund markets are new and the dynamics are likely to change, she said.

For instance, there is little demand in Europe overall for retail no- load funds, which are sold directly to investors without advice-and without hand-holding.

But German investors are starting to show some interest, and if that catches on, companies like Vanguard could expand from the institutional into the retail market, Ms. MacKay said.

"Cost is not an issue for retail yet, but it is for institutional," Ms. MacKay said. "That may change."

One point that is beyond dispute is that the speed at which the world warms to mutual funds depends in large measure on how the world's stock markets perform.

The long U.S. bull market is helping to assuage doubts about this country's ability to comfortably retire its baby boomers.

But the success of 401(k)s and other retirement plans driven by a strong U.S. stock market may be causing undue optimism about how fast such investment vehicles will catch on overseas.

Talk of sweeping global pension reform is "early and outsized at this stage," Mr. Brennan said. "And it's being driven by the bull market."

Amvescap's Mr. Brady sounds a more confident note about pension reform.

"We've been able to fool ourselves that the pay-as-you-go system has worked, and you simply cannot make it work in the future," Mr. Brady said. "It's a watershed time."

But he agrees that the level of the markets is a big variable.

"You just don't have any control over where they might go," he said.

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