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Fund managers complain about the buttinskis who corner them at weddings or their kids' soccer games to pick their brains about one stock or another. Now you can be that buttinski, on a grand scale.

But instead of combing tony suburbs or slumming in the sketchy bars around Wall Street, let's just look at the ebb and flow of big-cap growth funds' ownership of the 20 most widely held stocks in accounts at

Merrill Lynch

. These 20 stocks include bellwethers such as




Cisco Systems



General Electric





, to name a few.


here to check out the full roster and their year-to-date performances -- 11 of the 20 are under water. Also, 13 of the 20 saw a drop in the percentage of growth funds owning their shares. However, it may come as a surprise that the stocks being sold out of funds don't necessarily match the stocks in the red for the year so far.

Here's why we should look at big-cap growth fund managers' tastes: They're usually judged and paid based on quarterly and annual returns, so they only buy stocks they think will go up soon. Tracking the managers' ownership of a stock can help give you a fairly clear idea of whether or not they see good things on the horizon.

Many of these stocks are a significant part of the

S&P 500

, the yardstick for many growth funds -- so if there's a sharp drop in the percentage of pros owning these shares, it might raise a flag for investors.

"Large-cap growth managers represent the consensus of where safe, predictable, above-average growth can be found in the U.S. market," says John Rekenthaler, research director at


. "This is a measure of blue-chip fashion and it's about as good a measure as there is. It tells you what the pros think of the most admired companies in America."

And what these big-cap growth pros think matters, if only because they control over $532 billion, more than any other stock-fund category, according to


. While they can't single-handedly carry a big-cap stock north, they're certainly players worth watching.

Let's start seeing where these growth managers are placing their bets, starting with the tech stocks on this list of 20 faves.

As you can see, bellwethers such as networker Cisco, chipmaker



and software titan Microsoft are in the majority of growth funds, but that doesn't mean managers are necessarily gaga for all of these stocks these days.

We can see signs here of a battle that's become familiar:

Old Tech vs. New Tech. Many managers are dumping Old Tech companies, those that depend on the maturing PC market for much of their growth, in favor of New Tech shops, those that rely more on the increasing pervasiveness of the Internet for their growth.

That might explain why



and software titan Microsoft are in a smaller percentage of funds than they were on Jan. 1. Microsoft's ongoing dust-up with the government probably hasn't boosted managers' confidence either. IBM and Microsoft are down 18.8% and 47.5% for the year, according to



On the other hand, the percentage of growth stockpickers choosing the likes of more Net-centric shops like software concern




Sun Microsystems


has risen sharply. Two stocks that demonstrate that the New Tech vs. Old Tech theme isn't an absolute are sizzling data-storage shop



and more PC-related chip shop Intel. Fewer growth funds owned EMC shares, up more than 64% for the year, and more growth funds held Intel, nearly flat for the year.

The slip in

America Online


believers mirrors a similar drop in the number of funds owning

Time Warner


, indicating managers haven't seen either stock as a winner prior to their much ballyhooed merger.

Lucent Technologies'


consistent inability to post earnings that meet analysts' estimates is probably stoking most managers' ire for that communications networking behemoth's stock.

In a miserable year for telecom stocks, growth funds have ratcheted down their exposure to three of individual investors' four favorite phone stocks.


, down a whopping 54% on the year, has been booted from many growth funds' portfolios. On Jan. 1 the telecom shop was in 30% of big-cap growth funds and on Sept. 30 that had dwindled to 8%.

SBC Communications


, up 12.4% on the year, and

Verizon Communications


, down 19%, lost ground in growth funds to a lesser degree. Perhaps most interesting is the jump in growth funds holding shares of Finnish wireless heavyweight



. The stock, one of last year's darlings with a 220% return after a 251% gain the year before, is down more than 19% this year. The rising percentage of fans in the pro ranks implies they haven't thrown in the towel on the stock.

Individual investors' three favorite health care stocks are in the black.

Johnson & Johnson


is up slightly for the year, while



and Pfizer are each up more than 30%. But growth managers might be seeing a cloud on their horizon.

Both Johnson & Johnson and Merck have fallen from being in about half of growth funds on Jan. 1. Pfizer, on the other hand, has held on to its position in the majority of big-cap growth funds. Compared with many of its competitors, many of Pfizer's key drugs are further from their patent expiration, the date when generic drugmakers can step in and make the same product more cheaply.

Given the way that rocketing oil prices have boosted energy stocks, it's no surprise that more growth managers held



shares on Sept. 30 than at the start of the year. It's also not a surprise that the percentage of pros holding blue-chip conglomerate General Electric has held steady. The firm's shares have gained 1.9% in a tough year.

While the percentage of fund managers holding sagging retailers

Home Depot


, down 44% on the year, and



, down 33.5%, has dropped, many pros have held on to their shares in the companies. Both are still in the majority of growth funds, indicating managers aren't bearish enough to dump their stakes in the retailing behemoths.