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Personal Equity Plans: In need of a buzz?

MOST investors understand the idea behind stock market funds that channel their holdings into a single geographical region, such as Europe or Latin America, or even a single country, such as Japan.

But the notion of theme-based investments is less popular. These funds choose stocks on the grounds that a particular industrial sector will benefit from a powerful global trend - an ageing population, technological developments or privatisation, for instance. Recent strong-performing thematic funds have been based on technology, financial services and utilities.

If you are looking for a way to bring a little excitement into an already substantial portfolio then they could provide the buzz. But be warned - these funds are narrow-focused, specialist and volatile investments.

Take the clutch of technology funds now clustered at the top of the one-year performance tables. Aberdeen Prolific Technology grew by more than 200 per cent over the five years to 1 January 1999. Reuters Hindsight says that in the 12 months before that date it increased in value by 37 per cent and was ranked fifth in the International Growth sector, closely followed by Henderson's Technology fund in sixth place.

Both were beaten by Scottish Equitable's technology fund, which put on 39 per cent and ranked third, while SocGen's new Technology launch has also performed strongly in its first few months.

Paul Kleiser, who manages the Scottish Equitable fund, agrees that technology funds are inherently volatile. "They tend to be either right at the top or right at the bottom of the sector," he says but adds that if you can live with that the outlook is good in the long term.

The telecoms industry's success has just spawned a new launch from Johnson Fry - the first fund manager to introduce a fund focusing on telecoms stocks around the world. The joint manager, Andrew Whalley, also runs JF's specialist utilities fund; he considers that although telecoms share prices have already seen considerable growth, it remains a key growth area.

But the tables can turn, even on chart-toppers. Framlington's Healthcare fund, which invests in small healthcare and biotechnology stocks with a bias to the US, has grown by 581 per cent over the last 10 years but lost almost 13 per cent in the 12 months to the end of 1999.

Another area to attract the attention of fund managers looking for global potential is financial services. The sector has had some pretty rocky periods over the last 12 months as world markets have been through the mill, but managers still point to strong underlying fundamentals.

One important factor is the west's ageing population which, coupled with a decline in state support, is pushing us all towards pensions, insurance and investments to see us through old age. Spotting trends in merger activity and new technology is also important.

Philip Gibbs, at Jupiter Financial Opportunities, views Ireland as one of the fastest-growing areas; Bank of Ireland is among his largest holdings.

The Jupiter fund has performed impressively over the last 12 months, with growth of over 33 per cent. It ranks 10th in the international growth sector. But some rivals have fared less well: S&P Financial Securities lost investors' money over the 12 month period; Edinburgh Financial just about broke even, while Framlington Financial gained less than 10 per cent.