New markets are waiting for a call, say tech funds

Things are looking up for the sector, but is it time for ordinary investors to get back in?
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The Independent Online

Tell a friend during a chat about finances that you've invested in a technology fund, and you might expect some mockery. But mention that it's your only individual savings account (ISA) fund, and their reaction will likely change to pity.

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary investors fell over themselves - many making their first-ever stock-market investment - to plough cash into technology funds in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The internet revolution seemed likely to generate huge profits for companies, and investors were eager for a share of the action.

As an example of the frenzy, January 1999 saw £5m invested in technology funds. But one year later, figures for the same month had rocketed to £238m.

When the tech bubble burst as stellar profits failed to materialise, plenty of start-up - and bigger- web companies went under and fund values plummeted.

Today, many people are still sitting on massive losses, even though global stock markets, and the technology sector itself, have rebounded sharply recently. If you had invested in a technology fund in the months leading up to March 2000, it is likely that you would have lost around 70 per cent of your money. Although many investors decided to walk away with the crumbs of their initial stake, others have stayed put and crossed their burnt fingers in the hope of a recovery. Investors still have £918m in the 18 technology funds that remain, according to Standard & Poor's ratings agency.

Whether a tech fund is worth buying today is a moot point. However, technology - a sector spanning many areas, from industrial microchip processors to video games - is gearing up to turn out plenty of new products for consumer and corporate customers.

Not surprisingly, the managers in charge of tech funds are optimistic. "Next year is expected to be a big one in terms of products," says Hitesh Thakrar, manager of New Star Technology fund. "We've not had so many products coming on-stream in one hit for at least five years."

The consumer market is a big source of demand as the digital media revolution gathers pace, says Hugh Grieves, manager of the SocGen Technology fund: "Flat panel TVs, wireless home networks, iPods and satellite navigation [in-car] systems have all become 'must-haves'."

Mr Thakrar points to the next generation of gaming machines, including the release of Sony's Playstation 3 next year. And, he adds, the outlook for corporate development is also bright.

Microsoft's new operating system Vista, to be released next year, should replace Windows 2000 and Windows XP computer programmes, creating additional spending on hardware and software as companies look to upgrade their systems.

And don't forget Google, Mr Thakrar adds: "The internet advertising cycle is in its early stages and Google will be one of the winners."

Economic progress in developing countries should benefit the sector. Local companies are investing in new software/hardware networks, while consumers - especially in India, China, Brazil and Russia - are buying their first mobile phones and computers.

But while the outlook has improved, independent financial advisers (IFAs) warn ordinary investors to approach with caution.

Technology is one of the highest-risk investment sectors, says Darius McDermott of Chelsea Financial Services. "The problems in 2000 were exacerbated because people were making technology funds the core of their portfolio, and expecting to double or triple their money in a couple of years," he adds.

Alan Steel of the eponymous IFA points out that it's usually a good time to invest when a sector is unpopular and it is therefore cheaper to buy its shares. If you have a technology fund, he reckons you should hold on to it - and he advises that a good fund could bolster a new investor's portfolio.

Mr Steel recommends the Artemis New Enterprise fund; Mr McDermott likes SocGen Technology.

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