Harbor International bets an earnings slowdown will help growth stocks.

    The notion that growth stocks should benefit from a slowdown in corporate earnings growth may seem counterintuitive, but that's what Spiros "Sig" Segalas is betting will happen in 2005.

    Segalas, manager of the $6.4 billion Harbor Capital Appreciation Fund and co-founder of New York-based investment manager Jennison Associates, says the deceleration of earnings growth for S&P 500 companies during the second half the year is likely to continue in 2005. Although he believes the economy will continue to expand at a modest pace, the year-to-year earnings comparisons won't look as stellar as they did in 2004, when companies were coming off of depressed earnings levels. "In 2005, the comparisons are going to get much tougher," he says. "Fewer companies, particularly cyclicals, will see the earnings gains they did in 2004." 

    A rising tide of earnings growth that lifted a lot of boats helps explain the market's recent preference for value stocks, he adds. Mature cyclical companies enjoyed a strong rebound with the upturn in the U.S. economy, and investors took notice of their relatively inexpensive prices and uncharacteristically vibrant earnings growth.

    But this year, he figures, growth stocks will rotate into favor as earnings growth rates for companies in the S&P 500 Index return from last year's high levels to a more normal historical range of 7% to 8%. At the same time, he estimates that companies in the portfolio should be able to sustain earnings growth at an average rate of 15% to 18%. 

With the element of uncertainty that accompanies a presidential election year now in the past, Segalas thinks that the market "is entering a very positive period for quality growth stock managers." If he is right, the preference for staid value stocks that the market displayed for most of 2004 could well shift in favor of saucier companies with above-average earnings growth, strong balance sheets, and other characteristics he favors. And with valuations between value and growth stocks narrower than they were a year ago, Segalas and others who favor the latter group say they have more buying opportunities.

    The market's eye for value in 2004 represented a marked shift from the previous year, when a favorable climate for growth stocks helped the fund realize a 30.5% total return. Says Segalas, "If you had told me in 2003 that technology, health care and other traditional growth groups would lag energy and utility stocks for most of 2004, I'd have been surprised."

    A preference for the seemingly safe territory of inexpensive value stocks is not all that unusual after a decimating bear market, Segalas points out. "There have been three massive bear markets in this country where the market fell around 50% from its high to its low, and the last one was from 2000 to 2002," he says. "They were all traumatic experiences that left investor confidence shaken. So when the stock market started to rebound, growth stocks lagged badly." While the 2003 rebound for growth stocks came as a pleasant surprise, he believes it was an "aberration" from the traditional pattern.
    But 2005 promises to be a more predictable and sustainable transition year. "Growth fund managers have more of a struggle when S&P 500 earnings are growing at a rate of 20% or more," he says. "But when earnings start growing at a more sustainable, slower rate, then by definition fewer companies are growing. And I think we do a good job identifying companies that will grow well above average."

    Segalas has spent much of his investment career trying to do just that. He started out as a research analyst with Bankers Trust Co. in 1960, and was soon promoted to vice-president and manager of the bank's commingled, aggressively managed growth fund. In 1969, he co-founded Jennison Associates LLC, a firm with a focus on large-company growth stocks and the subadvisor to the fund. He has managed Harbor Capital Appreciation Fund since 1990.

    For a stock to be included in the portfolio, it must demonstrate superior absolute and relative earnings growth, and be attractively valued in comparison to its growth prospects. Segalas also likes to see improving sales momentum, a high level of unit growth, a strong market position with a defensible franchise, and a strong balance sheet. He believes strongly in doing his own research, and won't buy a stock unless he or one of his firm's analysts has visited the company. Segalas may sell a stock if the company does not meet growth expectations, fundamentals deteriorate, it reaches or exceeds its price target, the reason for buying the stock no longer exists or he wants to make room in the portfolio for a better idea.
    The portfolio usually owns about 60 names, and most positions account for between 1% and 3% of assets. About 30% of the fund is invested in the information technology sector, with another 19% in health care and 17% in the consumer discretionary sector. Although an average market capitalization of $56 billion identifies Harbor Capital Appreciation as a large company offering, Segalas says companies with market capitalizations in the $5 billion to $10 billion range, and plenty of room to grow, are his buying sweet spot. He'll occasionally go lower than that level if he sees the potential for extraordinary, sustainable growth.  "As a growth manager, you have to be careful not to end up with a group of mature companies that used to be growth stocks," he says.

    While Segalas usually doesn't invest in initial public offerings or very young companies, he did make two exceptions in 2004. He bought shares of Google when the company held its widely publicized Dutch auction initial public offering. Although he labels the investment as "speculative," he maintains Google bears little resemblance to the companies that went public in the bubble days of the late 1990s. Aside from growing its ad revenue, the company is monetizing its technology by quietly introducing new features, such as a downloadable personal search engine for PCs. "This is a real company with substance," he says. "It went from nothing a few years ago to $1 billion in sales in 2004, and we think it can reach $4 billion in sales in 2005." He believes earnings will increase from an estimated $250 million last year to $350 million in 2005.

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