It takes a money manager with the supreme self-confidence of Alberto W. Vilar to head for a vacation in Salzburg, Austria, when the technology stocks he's been buying for 25 years are heading into bear-market territory.
Still, Vilar's Amerindo Technology Fund is the top technology fund so far this year among 99 tracked by Bloomberg Fund Performance, and it's No. 6 of 9,683 U.S. mutual funds. Vilar is confident Amerindo's 11 percent drop in the past month is a passing phase.
"The Internet is on a par with the great technological developments that have transformed the economy in the last 150 years," Vilar said in a telephone interview from Salzburg, where he was attending the city's music festival. "Along with the automobile, telephone, electricity, steel and railroads, the Internet is a global-economy-transforming event."
This, then, is where Vilar places his bets. And they are big bets. Before it began to scale back on some of its larger holdings in the second quarter, the fund had 25 percent of its assets in Yahoo Inc. and 23 percent in eBay Inc. On June 30, its entire $170 million portfolio was concentrated in 18 companies.
"I may spend half my time finding six winners," he said. "Any two stocks could be 50 percent of my portfolio. We are very loyal to our stocks."
Since it began trading in December 1996, Amerindo Technology has racked up an average annual return of 41 percent. That conceals the fact that it rose 85 percent last year and fell 18 percent in 1997.
"Volatility is our middle name," Vilar said. "We are not for everyone, and we say that in black and white."
Vilar earned his confidence the hard way. At 58, he's one of the few high-tech money managers to have been through real bear markets. He developed a strategy that he believes will serve him well in even the grimmest times.
"We are a large crossover investor," Vilar said, explaining that he buys stakes in private companies for individual clients. "We invest in companies two to three years before they come public. We get to understand the company." When these companies do go public, he is in a position to buy a lot more of the ones he likes for his mutual funds.
Potential investors in the fund should consider these factors:
* Contents. Vilar's current favorite is Ariba Inc., which he discovered before it sold 5 million shares on June 23 at $23 each. Within three weeks, the stock rose to $138. Though it has since dropped to $90, it is still more than three times its initial offering price.
Ariba is a business-to-business Internet auction site. Vilar favors the Internet as a business tool rather than a retail plaything.
He also began buying the stock of MP3.com Inc., an online promoter and distributor of music, in the company's early stages, and he was an early fan of eBay, which is still his second-largest holding.
"EBay is a technology that didn't exist a year ago," Vilar said. "Your poor Aunt Sally left you with a Tiffany lamp you hated, but I collect them and you didn't know you could sell it to me. That's what eBay does."
Vilar's tech fund is really an Internet fund by another name. It's an industry he began making investments in five years ago, before it became the flavor of the month.
"We discovered it five years ago as a natural succession to the first two waves of technology--the mainframe generation that lasted 25 years and the client-server generation that followed it," Vilar said.
* Risks. Vilar said he is confident the recent decline of many Internet stocks will be short-lived.
The long-term perspective should be that "we've been through the first inning," he said, and the fourth quarter will see the start of a "major uplift for a long period of time."
* Performance. The Amerindo fund has fallen 17.7 percent in the past month, more than twice the plunge in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. Over the past 12 months, though, the fund has soared 175 percent, more than eight times the rise in the S&P 500.
Two years ago the fund lost 18 percent when the S&P 500 was rising 33 percent. Last year Amerindo soared 85 percent, almost triple the rise in the S&P 500.
The fund's size has fluctuated almost as dramatically. The fund had $45 million in assets at the end of last year, said Keith Brown, Amerindo's director of product development. A surge in prices of stocks it owns, and inflows, have pushed that to $175 million as of Wednesday.
* Leadership. Vilar said his age is "a competitive advantage over a lot of guys these days," meaning that he experienced firsthand the dark days of the early 1970s, as well as the collapse in 1987.
Vilar was born in Cuba and came to the United States after Fidel Castro seized power. He began his investing career with an emerging-growth firm, Burnham & Co., which later became part of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc.
Having studied science and engineering, "I saw what the semiconductor was all about" and how it would revolutionize the economy, he said. He began buying small-cap stocks in the industry and has tried to be first into each new wave of technology since.
Twenty years ago he formed Amerindo, investing initially for pension funds and private individuals. In 1996 he launched the Amerindo Technology Fund.
* Costs and taxes. The fund paid no income distribution or capital gains last year, though there are currently some capital gains in its portfolio, Brown said.
* Objective: Amerindo Technology Fund seeks long-term capital appreciation, investing at least 65 percent of its assets in technology companies or "companies that may benefit from the commercialization of technology advances," its prospectus says.