Growth-stock investing never dies, it just relocates.
That useful point of view permeated recent commentaries from T. Rowe Price Group Inc., the old-line Baltimore mutual fund company enjoying some lively growth these days.
Having lagged value stocks ever since the end of the 1990s, large growth stocks are "poised to regain market leadership," Price argued in the current edition of its quarterly T. Rowe Price Report to shareholders. The trick lies in choosing what to deem a growth stock.
"You have to be careful that the companies you are investing in really do possess long-term growth characteristics," said Larry J. Puglia, manager of the $8.1 billion T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth Fund.
The newsletter said the glitter has dimmed at many former growth favorites in numerous industries, including pharmaceuticals, technology, food, beverages and household products.
"A lot of the companies today operate in ex-growth industries," said Robert W. Sharps, manager at Price's Institutional Large-Cap Growth Fund. "You have to be selective and look for companies that haven't already consolidated their industry and don't already have massive share of their market and very high margins. That might include sectors like biotechnology, HMOs or Internet-oriented companies -- stocks like eBay, Yahoo, Gilead Sciences and UnitedHealth Group."
Where else? The letter mentioned energy and other commodity producers, propelled by "dramatic change in demand from China and India that seems durable."
To some readers, it may sound obvious that the names of tomorrow's growth stocks are likely to be different from yesterday's. That point often gets lost, though, in static analyses of growth vs. value investing. If you define growth as "high-priced stocks past their years of greatest glory," chances are that category will almost always underperform.
T. Rowe Price has a long history in growth investing. Founder Thomas Rowe Price Jr., who started the business in 1937, helped define the whole idea. Sixty-eight years later the Price fund group, with $135.3 billion in assets in stock and bond funds, is the sixth-largest in the United States, according to the consulting firm Financial Research Corp. in Boston.
Here in 2005, if you searched for an archetypical growth stock, you could do worse than looking at the publicly traded Price Group itself. Despite some turbulent times in the boom-bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the management company's share price averaged an imposing 22.7 percent annual return in the 15 years from the end of May 1990 through May 2005.
That more than doubled the annual advance of 10.6 percent by the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index over the same stretch. (Disclosure note: I own shares of two Price funds in a retirement account. My job precludes me from taking any position in Price Group stock.) This discussion also sheds light on a basic issue in investing -- the challenge of trying to discern the next emerging trend in the markets.
Recent history shows that the answer to this riddle is often hidden in plain sight. Key themes such as technology in the 1990s and China in the 2000s don't suddenly explode onto investors' computer screens. They spend years in gestation, right before our eyes.
Computer technology was a hot-and-cold market story all through the 1980s before becoming a mania in the '90s. As for the new emerging markets of the '00s, I can recall meeting a fund manager in the early 1990s who showed me a slip of paper he carried in his wallet. It read: "Don't sell China for 10 years."
As the managers at Price suggest, it's never enough to decide in some abstract way that you want to be a "growth" investor. Then you have to ask a more demanding question -- how growth investing may have changed since the last time you looked.