A friend of mine is a therapist in Berkeley, Calif., afternoons and evenings, and an investor the rest of the time. Not surprisingly, the time she's spent over the last couple of years sitting in front of her computer trading stocks has been more lucrative than counseling, and, not surprisingly, most of that financial gain has come from riding the U.S. tech stock bull. Now she is starting to look overseas for new opportunities. Her latest buy was
, the Indian Internet access company.
As I sat admiring the fruits of her investing savvy -- an impressive collection of contemporary black-and-white photographs -- it occurred to me that when Berkeley therapists looking for the next
are playing companies like Satyam, the Asian Internet boom is really underway. After all, Satyam may be a major Internet player on the subcontinent, but it's hardly a household name for Americans.
Moreover, with an estimated 75 Asian Internet companies expected to go public this year, the number of U.S. investors in Asian tech companies will only grow. Well-known Asian IPOs of note have performed spectacularly:
, owner of the
portal, is up 133% since it came to market in July, and Satyam rose from its initial price of 41 in October to 198 in January. It has since split 4 for 1 and trades at 74 15/16.
To be sure, there are plenty of reasons for being bullish on the region. The smaller Asian economies look strong and most seem to have recovered from the crisis of 1997-98. The growth of technology in general, and the Internet specifically, in Asia is the
Next New New Thing
, to crib an expression from
Michael Lewis. Technology usage -- from cell phones to computers to Internet hookup -- is growing from Seoul to Singapore. The 1.2 billion people in China make an especially enticing market and the nation is opening to foreign investment, however grudgingly.
Yet it's important to remember that while the opportunities are great in Asia, the dangers have not disappeared.
In two of the most important Asian economies -- Japan and Korea -- the governments appear to be sliding on reform efforts, which could hobble growth. China's growth seems to have slowed somewhat and there's the constant possibility that the government could crack down completely on the Internet.
Nonetheless, by getting into Asia tech now, investors can expect huge gains over the next few years. The easiest and most obvious way is through an Asian mutual fund that focuses on tech. As
wrote earlier this week, these are few and far between. There is only one that focuses on tech exclusively in Asia, the
Matthews Asian Technology Fund
, which was released earlier this year. However, several others have positions in Asian tech companies, including the
Dresdner RCM Global Technology, which was up 232.4% last year;
Warburg Pincus Japan Growth, up 221.8%; and the
Japan Small Company Fund, up 271.7%.
Is it wise, however, for the average investor, like my friend, to try to pick individual companies? Only if the investor has a stomach for risk, says Burt Rothberg, a market strategist at
Medley Global Advisors
. Rothberg says the key companies to look out for are the ones building the infrastructure of the Internet and e-commerce in Asia, not the portals or content providers, like chinadotcom, which have gotten the attention. He notes that in much of Asia there is no system to handle credit card transactions. "How can you do e-commerce?" he asks. (He's keeping an eye out for a company to provide such a system, but doesn't know of any yet.)
, a Chinese telecommunications company partially owned by the government, and which, like its competitor
, will be listed in Hong Kong this year. He expects it will also be listed on the
. He's wary of portals like chinadotcom, although is intrigued by the potential offerings of Web sites
later this year. See
piece on the buzz about Sohu's IPO.
The retail investor may have more information at his or her fingertips than ever before, but putting money in overseas companies is inherently risky -- especially when those companies have little or no track record. Investing in U.S. tech companies that have never made a dime of profit and watching their stock can be a hair-raising experience (if exhilarating at the same time). Doing the same for a company based in Hong Kong, Taipei or Bombay can be downright scary. However, the Asian tech tsunami is not likely to end soon. Are you willing to ride it?
David Kurapka's Trade Winds column appears Wednesdays and Fridays on TSC. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he does not own shares in any companies or mutual funds mentioned in this column. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at
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