Hey tech fund managers, have any of you seen the new new thing?
There was once a time when investing in technology meant more than picking sides in the seemingly apocalyptic struggle among
for sole domination of the Internet.
Yes, back during the bubble, investors went off in a thousand different directions searching for the next great tech breakthrough, or, to use a term coined by author Michael Lewis for his book about Internet pioneer Jim Clark: "the new new thing." Of course, most folks would like to forget those wild and wacky years and, most especially, the money they lost.
But while retail investors may have given up the search for the new new thing to focus instead on their new new condo, McMansion or co-op, technology fund managers are still charged with scouring the public investing world to find companies with the power to transform. Except this time, they are looking for some profits and maybe a decent multiple as well.
"A lot of people want to find the next killer 'app' or the next big earthquake in tech, but there are smaller revolutions going on," says James Morrow, portfolio manager for the $1.9 billion
Fidelity Select Technology fund. "You just have to find them, which isn't easy."
Morrow sees those revolutions forming in advanced materials for semiconductors, energy conservation and Web-based software. And in the case of the first two, he says the twain could soon meet as both technologies are refined.
"Semiconductors are hitting the wall in terms of Moore's law," says Morrow, referring to the observation made by Gordon Moore, co-founder of
, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would continue to double every year for the foreseeable future.
With only so much more memory able to be stuffed on the head of a chip, Morrow says the advanced materials used in the creation of those chips are the next big thing in semis. He cites
MEMC Electronic Materials
as leaders in the space. (Morrow declined to say whether he holds in his portfolio any stock he named for this article.)
MEMC not only services the chip industry, but it also supplies granular silicon to make cells for solar panels, which Morrow sees as part of the energy conservation revolution.
"They use the same technology for making solar panels as for chips, so this opens up a huge market considering the recent push to reduce energy consumption in the face of higher prices," says Morrow, who highlights switch maker
, fuel-cell supplier
and alternative-energy technology provider
Energy Conversion Devices
as potential leaders.
Morrow also expects big things from Web-based applications, and sees a push toward service-oriented architecture. And he's not the only tech fund manager keeping an eye on this space. Jeff Rottinghouse, portfolio manager for the $45 million
T. Rowe Price Developing Technology fund, also sees the future in hosted software.
"In the past, companies would buy their
software, for example, complete with tons of consultants to help install it, but the new trend is to rent software and access it remotely on the software companies server," says Rottinghouse. "Wouldn't you rather pay a monthly subscription fees which you can cancel at any time?"
Among Rottinghouse's top picks in the burgeoning area are software providers
Ultimate Software Group
Aside from software, Rottinghouse looks for companies making the metaphorical transition from analog to digital.
"It's not just music that is being switched to a downloadable format. All forms of media are being delivered differently now," says Rottinghouse. "Navigation in autos is now done via digital maps instead of fumbling through the glove compartment for an ancient Exxon map."
Speaking of navigation, Rottinghouse likes global positioning-system designer and manufacturer
, as well as
, which deals in digital maps.
Chris McHugh, portfolio manager for the $15 million
Turner Technology fund, is another fund manager who is positioning himself for big things in the GPS arena. He favors
, which supplies Garmin, among others, with its chips.
"The technology is really starting to take off both on the consumer side and manufacturer side as more automakers make GPS a standard," says McHugh.
And what about Ryan Jacob, portfolio manager for the $100 million
Jacob Internet fund?
Jacob -- whose volatile fund has returned 46% annually since the bull market began in 2003, the best in its Morningstar class -- likes companies in the WiMAX space, which has been characterized as the next-generation WiFi. Though the high-speed wireless technology is far from standardized, fans like Jacob say WiMax has the potential to supplement WiFi's "hot spot" coverage with a much broader signal that reaches miles instead of feet. Jacob names
and Tel Aviv-based
as the biggest potential beneficiaries of this faster line to homes and offices. (Jacob's fund holds 3% of its assets in
, or just over 1.2% of its outstanding shares.)
Nevertheless, even as he searches the tech world for the new new thing, Jacob surprisingly returns to a pair of not so oldies but goodies.
"Yahoo! and Google may not surprise anybody anymore, but they trading 45 and 30 times this next year's earnings, respectively," says Jacob. "Those are not big premiums to own the leaders in search and advertising, which is still a growing area itself, especially when their fundamentals are still intact."
For those folks who are truly weary of the Yahoo!/Google war, though, Stuart O'Gorman, portfolio manager for the $26 million
Henderson Global Technology fund, offers a compromise. He suggests investors look abroad to
, which has been called the South Korean Yahoo! because of its 70% share of the portal market.
"Only these guys can search in a Korean character base," says O'Gorman. "And they are three years behind the U.S. market in terms of search while trading at 19 times 2007 earnings."
Unfortunately, NHN shares only trade on Korea's domestic exchange, which is fine for a global fund manager like O'Gorman, but hard for retail investors to access.
Sometimes, the new new thing may just be too far, far away.