A Woman Who's Running With The Tigers

If you want to know how hungry U.S. investors are for Asian stocks, ask Kara Tan Bhala, portfolio manager of the $1.3 billion Merrill Lynch Dragon Fund. On Dec. 23, Merrill opened the fund to new investors for the first time in six months. In one hour, $240 million flooded in, prompting an overwhelmed Merrill to shut the doors again.

Given Asia's red-hot performance in 1993, it's not hard to love the region's dragons and tigers. With Tan and her two analysts in Princeton, N.J., picking stocks in nine countries from South Korea to India, her 20-month-old, open-ended fund soared 88% in 1993. Although January has been less kind to Dragon--it's down 5% since the first of the year--Tan's faith in the region's strength is unwavering. "I'm buying whenever I see weakness," says Tan, 38. "I love these markets. They're risky but exciting."

Although 36% of Dragon's assets are in Hong Kong, where Tan favors blue chips, she sees even greater values elsewhere. Tan is high on her native Singapore, where she favors IPC Corp., a computer maker that plans to move into China and Vietnam. She also likes neighboring Malaysia. And China is occupying an increasing amount of Tan's attention. She worries that Beijing will probably clamp down on inflation this year, but that hasn't stopped her from buying into Shanghai Dajiang, a big poultry producer.

LOTS OF HOMEWORK. Tan got into the Asian money game after earning a master's degree in management from Oxford University, returning to Singapore to be an analyst for James Capel & Co. That led her to New York's Fiduciary Trust Co. International and then to Merrill, which lured her away in 1992 with more money and an offer to run a mutual fund. When not on the road to Asia, she commutes between Princeton and Williamsburg, Va., where her Indian-born husband, Raj, is a law professor at William & Mary University. In her spare time, she's finishing a master's in philosophy at New York University. "If my performance goes bad," she says, "I can always teach." True. But if Tan's forecasts for Asian growth are right, investors aren't likely to let her get near a blackboard any time soon.