Internet fund might not be your father's mutual fund, but it could be your grandmother's.
Jeanne Ramsey, 72, says, "I'm just a dumb, blond Long Island housewife." But from thousands of options, she managed to pick a fund that returned more than 216% last year. The affable Dix Hills, N.Y., grandmother, who has invested in stocks and funds for 50 years, has owned shares of the Internet fund for about 14 months.
When you imagine a typical shareholder in the aggressive fund, you probably picture trendy, Gen-X types who watch
on TV. But at a meeting of Internet fund shareholders in New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel Thursday, many looked like
Murder She Wrote
For many of the senior ladies at the meeting, the fund is a local business that made good. The Internet fund was an idea hatched in 1996 by Larry Doyle and a fellow commuter. Doyle's mother, Margaret, a retired schools superintendent, ran the fund's operations as president out of a suburban home in Babylon, N.Y., until the fund took off in 1998. Her other son, Peter, is now chief investment strategist of the fund's adviser,
Kinetics Asset Management
Esther Smith, a self-described "ageless" senior from nearby East Northport, got in her car and drove to Babylon to buy shares after the fund finished 1998 as the industry's top performer with a 196% return.
"It was one town over, so I just cruised over there and bought some," she says. She complains that her stock portfolio, with holdings like
, has not kept pace with the fund, her first fund investment.
Smith convinced Laura Adams, an "intrigued" friend and fellow retiree, to invest. Word-of-mouth and personal contact were big factors for this group of investors.
Ramsey says Peter Doyle's mother turned her on to the fund. "She said the stocks they were buying were a good idea," she says.
Dorothy Baronholtz, a New York City senior who prefers to let a reporter speculate on her age, bought shares after seeing the fund in a newsletter from investment pundit
. Then she recommended the fund to her daughter and Nilsa Mangual, another senior citizen at the meeting, both of whom now own shares.
Although most of these women appear to have committed the cardinal sin of buying a fund after it topped the charts, they haven't had a comeuppance yet. Last year's triple-digit return was good enough for a top-20 finish.
But things might not be as good as they seem. The fund tops all others over the past three years with a 127% average annual return, according to
. But since the June 1999
departure of high-profile manager Ryan Jacob, it has posted a 55% return and lags the average technology fund and the other major Internet funds by at least 30 percentage points.
The senior ladies at the meeting don't seem to mind. None expressed concern over Jacob's departure, and Jacob didn't come up in a question-and-answer session. "I can handle it. I said goodbye to
before, you know" says Baronholtz.
"I'm ecstatic. I own one fund and it's the best around," says Smith. But she admits, "When it goes down, I get very nervous." She could get more nervous down the road with tech stocks at sky-high valuations. The fund lost more than 11% in last year's third quarter; its worst quarterly loss is more than 21%.
Ramsey dismisses the sector's risk. "I'm not nervous, no way. We've just started to tap
the sector's growth potential. I won't live to see the end of it." She's particularly excited about the sector's global growth possibilities, a key point in Thursday's shareholders meeting.
Throughout his presentation, Peter Doyle, like most portfolio managers and candidates for office, did his best to stay "on message." Again and again, he stressed that the "winners" will be big or small companies with proprietary content or technology that will keep imitators and competitors at bay. Another main point was that returns on investments in overseas Internet companies might match the Net's boffo early returns in the U.S.
The other speakers -- executives of companies held by the Internet fund -- hammered the point as well. George Blumenthtal, chairman of British cable operator
, expects demand for broadband cable to explode in Europe, providing individuals and businesses with phone, Net and television access through one cable.
Thomas Guilfoile of
says his firm has partnerships with Internet and media partners worldwide, and a stock offering is planned for the
unit in March or April.
While the senior ladies are excited at what these folks had to say, they admit the specifics on infrastructure, "n-tier applications," and "vertical markets," escape them.
More than one wondered if the firm could keep its focus as it added funds. (Kinetics has
added five new funds, four focused on Internet subsectors and one on
health care.) They complained that the firm's statement accuracy and customer service have underwhelmed as the fund shop has bloomed.
The puny, local hero company isn't so small or local anymore. Kinetics' offices are now in White Plains, N.Y., an hour's drive from Long Island. The homegrown Internet fund that had $149,754 at the start of 1998 now has more than 100,000 shareholders and $1.4 billion. And now there are six stock funds to run instead of one. Kinetics also added a money-market fund in the past couple of weeks to make cash management easier.
But it seems the siren song of the last two years' success will keep them appeased. As Doyle and the other speakers extolled the virtues of the growth that lies ahead, an older woman who appeared to be sleeping actually turned out to be listening and nodding subtly.