THE DAY AHEAD: It''s hip to be bear on dot-coms

Larry Dignan
3 min read

COMMENTARY -- The dot-com trends are stacking up against even the leaders. Here are some recent developments to ponder.

It's hip to be bear

Talk about sentiment changes. Lehman Brothers analyst Holly Becker made her name by going bearish on Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN), a few weeks after her bond colleague did it, and zapping Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO).

Now she has zapped eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY). Becker downgraded eBay to "neutral" from "buy" and said eBay's 2005 sales projections are a wee bit optimistic. The other knock about eBay is that it doesn't look like much of a takeover target these days since the valuations of Yahoo and AOL have fallen.

Simply put, eBay is just too expensive. Becker's call on eBay would have been laughed off Wall Street a year ago, but bearish in cool this year. Becker can whack shares with the best of 'em.

Stock price vs. potential

Does a plunging stock price hurt day-to-day dot-com operations?

Exhibit A: Dot-com A's shares fall below $5, but the company's business model could actually work if given time. But since the stock has fallen, no one cares and institutions can't invest. Suddenly, analysts aren't out there telling the company's "story." No sell-side story coupled with no press means advertisers, shoppers, subscribers and users are wary. Revenue goes away. Losses grow, and unless the company has enough cash it folds.

"It all feeds on itself," said Kathleen Heaney, an analyst with Bluestone Capital. Heaney, who covers a bunch of dot-coms in the $5 and under club, said some dot-coms focused on specific niches can survive -- if they can weather the current storm. For the record, Heaney has no idea what it'll take to break the cycle. Neither does anyone else.

E-tailing worries?

According to Neilsen/NetRatings, consumers initially delayed their annual pilgrimage to e-tailing sites. Part of the malaise can be attributed to a slowing economy and lower capital gains. But a lot of it has to do with consumer confidence. Dot-coms are tainted by daily layoff and closure stories. According to Webmergers.com, 60 percent of the dot-com dead are e-tailers.

E-tailing traffic has picked up, but it'll be interesting to see how it unfolds as the holidays approach.

You'd think fewer competitors would help leaders such as Amazon.com and eToys (Nasdaq: ETYS), but the average Joe may not be that discerning. Some folks think all dot-coms are folding, not just some of them.

So much for fourth quarter heroics

The common assumption -- until recently -- was that a seasonally strong fourth quarter would save the tails of a host of companies supported by online advertising.

That assumption has been shot down. Media companies are saying advertising isn't holding up in old media or new.

Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget reckons that dot-coms are seeing little if any advertising jump in the fourth quarter. The first quarter will be even worse. "We would therefore remain cautious about adding new money to online-advertising driven stocks until Q1-Q2 (when we should have better visibility)," he said in a research note.

Shares of Yahoo and struggling online advertising companies such as DoubleClick (Nasdaq: DCLK) are hurting. Blodget said online advertising firms are being hit by the exodus of dot-coms, falling ad rates, and changes in revenue and pricing models.

Buy me, please

WebMergers.com, which tracks the dot-com swoon, said in a recent report that business closures have accelerated in November. Why aren't some of these companies being bought?

WebMergers.com cited a few reasons:

  • There's no business model and the assets are lacking.
  • Dot-coms waited too long to raise more cash, became desperate and lost their leverage. In other words, do mergers and acquisitions when your company is strong.
  • VCs don't play Cupid. Venture capitalists are too busy with their portfolios to shop companies. Besides, VCs may have cashed out already.
  • Bricks and mortar companies are too busy gloating. Why save a dot-com when you can watch it die? Bricks and mortar companies are sitting on the sidelines. TDAIN

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