Is one of the market's most aggressive bulls heeding the persistent growl of the bear?

After a year as the world's hottest mutual fund company,

Janus

is voluntarily turning off the cash spigot at three of its funds:

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Worldwide,

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Global Life Sciences and

(JAOLX)

Olympus . (See our

earlier story.) Many industry watchers interpreted the move -- coming after a few tough months for the growth-oriented fund company -- as a sign that Janus feels the market may be in for a sustained downturn, with few places to plant a mountain of new cash.

"They've built up extraordinary expectations in the minds of investors, and they are unsustainable,'' says Philadelphia fund consultant Burton Greenwald. He adds, "The closing of these funds sends a message: These may be treacherous times ahead.''

There isn't unanimity of opinion on Janus' move. Some feel the closing of three Janus funds indicates the fund group may have lost confidence in the fast-charging sectors that fueled its heady 1999. Others said people should interpret the move as merely a response to a massive inflow of money and not an alarm bell for the broader market. Either way, such a move by the industry's top dog in a jittery market has drawn close scrutiny.

Janus, for its part, isn't suggesting any major change in strategy or outlook. "By proactively closing these funds now, we are controlling the flow of cash into them," Jim Craig, Janus' chief investment officer said in a statement. "This ensures that the portfolio management team can maintain the flexibility to find the most dynamic companies around the world in which to invest."

The three funds Janus is closing on May 10 have taken in $11 billion during the first three months of 2000, not all of which has been put to use in stocks. Indeed, cash in the three funds has ballooned to high levels relative to the competition: Global Life Sciences has a 29.7% stake in cash; Olympus has 24%; and Worldwide is at 14%, according to Janus.

"If you want to rotate the portfolio or you're thinking about new directions, it's easier to do than if you don't have $10 billion being thrown at you,'' says Neal Epstein, vice president of equity research with New York's

Putnam Lovell DeGuardiola & Thornton

, an investment bank focusing on the asset management business.

Shuttering the funds could help the company make portfolio shifts without battling a cash deluge. The company's girth makes it difficult for any of the funds to move in and out of positions with any stealth. Even the smallest of the three, the Global Life Sciences at $3.4 billion, has a hard time investing in small, emerging biotech firms without tipping off competitors.

Janus' recent lackluster performance also may have been a motivation behind the closings. Because of its preference for turbo-charged growth stocks, it has suffered more than most amid the

Nasdaq

slide. Many of the funds that blew the lights out on performance in 1999 have slumped down to the bottom percentiles over the last three months.

Given its recent weakness and market uncertainty, it's inconceivable that Janus wants to look at other vistas now. It would take months to steer the funds into less growth-oriented stocks without disrupting the market. For example, in mid-April, when Global Life Sciences made a move away from biotechs into pharmaceuticals, it put pressure on the entire biotech sector, according to one of the fund's competitors.

The middling performance hasn't swayed investors from their love affair with the growth powerhouse. Seven of the top-selling funds of this year, through March, belong to Janus, according to

Financial Research

.

Greenwald and Epstein applauded the Denver growth giant's decision to close the funds to new investors because it protects existing shareholders from a cash deluge. And it could also be beneficial to new investors, that won't be piling into successful funds after the managers run up a wave of unrealized capital gains for them to pay right at the outset.

Janus indicated that its bench isn't deep enough to sustain new funds or a major expansion of its current offerings. "We do not hire managers from the outside,'' says spokesman Stephen Steineker. "And we want to train analysts to become portfolio managers in the Janus style. It takes time to bring them through the ranks.''

But the closing may not have as much to do with capacity as it does with Janus' conviction in the growth style that investors have come to expect. If it runs into trouble down the road, the company doesn't want to be holding tons of cash from shareholders who have unrealistic expectations, says fund consultant Geoff Bobroff of East Greenwich, R.I.

"I think they're saying they're concerned about the market and they're going to put a stake in the ground, cautioning investors,'' he says.

Some of Janus' earlier moves have been prescient. Its introduction of

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Strategic Value in March, the company's only value-oriented fund, anticipated the changing investment winds. In October, when Janus first announced plans to launch a value fund, value investing was on no one's hot-sector list. But now, it's the company's

hottest offering.

Given current market volatility, some industry officials suggest a style tweak may be afoot. The closings "might be preparations to swing their whole strategy to a value approach,'' says Syl Marquardt, research director at the Boston-based

John Hancock

funds.

But others say it is unlikely that Janus will morph into a value shop any time soon. "They have a certain growth style of investing, and I don't think they're going to reinvent themselves as a value manager,'' says

Cerulli Associates

analyst Jim Folwell, who's been watching the situation closely as a shareholder of the Global Life Sciences fund.

The fund closings, which mean seven of 15 Janus equity funds are off the market, did result in one nearly unanimous conclusion:

Orion

, a Janus offering that will launch at the end of June, with a focused style similar to the

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Janus Twenty, will draw even more waves of investors eager to buy into Janus.