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Financial panel looks in crystal ball at Net economy

Don't hold your breath for most Internet stocks to rebound, a group of top stock analysts and investors say, as they consider the outlook for the battered sector.

Don't hold your breath for most Internet stocks to rebound, a group of top stock analysts and investors said today at a panel discussion that considered the outlook for the battered sector.

Last year was "the anomaly--a year where things got incredibly euphoric and companies went public at earlier stages than ever before," said Henry Blodget, one of the panelists and a well-known financial analyst at Merrill Lynch. "(But) it's been an incredible value-creation period, even given the volatility."

The panel was jointly hosted by CNET News.com and the University of Pennsylvania's Knowledge@Wharton. Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at the Wharton School, moderated the panel, which included Blodget, venture capitalist Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Ventures, and Banc of America Securities' equity portfolio managing director Thomas McManus.

The group was asked to draw lessons from the whirlwind rise and fall of the Internet sector, which has lost some 85 percent of its market value since early 1999. The sell-off has hit companies across the board, leading some start-ups to shut down for lack of capital and shaving billions in market capitalization from relatively established players, including online retailer Amazon.com.

Opinions varied on the effects of the current market downturn, but all of the panelists took a decidedly historic perspective about the market today.

Before 1995, a company going public in the software or online sector was an average of 6.7 years old; the overachievers were a little more than 4 years old, Winblad said. "Then we zoom forward to 1998 and 1999, and you've got a bunch of 2-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby.

"Now the public market is not going to let 2-year-olds go public," she added. "This means that companies (going public in the future) will be more fully baked and...will know more about their predictive performances. We'll have management teams that have worked together longer. They will have customers...They'll own a place on the market maps, and they'll have some numbers to determine the fundamentals of the company."

Until then, "the public investment market and institutional investors are standing at the sidelines and waiting for things to sort themselves out," Winblad said. "And there's a lot more sorting out to be done."

McManus said that the recent dot-com shakeout has been the most severe. "The public market basically ballooned for technology companies, and investors put a technology mantle on companies that weren't really technology companies," he said. "They were just using technology to sell books."

Michael Cohen, a financial analyst with Alpha Analytics, said the downturn was the first of many in a "boom-bust cycle." The Internet phenomenon will take decades to play out, he added.

The imbalance in Internet stock valuations had to eventually find equilibrium, McManus said. In the future, investors will have to be more knowledgeable.

"We've underestimated the value of professional stock picking," McManus said. "People need to go back to looking at mutual funds."

Most of the panelists agreed that most Internet stocks will not regain their all-time-high valuations in the short or long run. But some Internet companies are "ideally positioned" to regain their market values, Blodget said, much as companies in the PC industry, including Microsoft, Intel and Dell Computer, rebounded after a downturn in the '80s.

Blodget and Winblad said that several strong Internet companies have been grouped with the bad and as a result have seen their valuations plummet with the overall market. When investors see which companies are left standing after the market downturn, these companies will emerge as the new leaders.

Some of the companies will not survive, but those companies that have strong leadership and good products, such as Oracle and i2 Technologies, will stand the pressure in the long term, Winblad said.

The sorting-out period for private companies "will all happen in the next 65 days," Winblad said. "No one wants to be doing this in January." As for public companies, they are trying to get bad news out of the way now.

Mark Goldstein, chief executive at Kmart subsidiary BlueLight.com, said, "The strong are going to be stronger, and the weak probably won't make it."

Winblad denounced the emergence of what she called "theme park" investing, in which investors just look at the category into which a company falls rather than researching the merits of the company itself or understanding the company's business.

"This is why Amazon is being challenged, because it is in one of the themed graveyards," Winblad said, adding that investors gloss over important facets of a company's viability. "I don't think anybody remembers the name of the CEO at TheGlobe.com.

"We need to move away from theme-based investing--that's not the same as sector-based investing. We need to understand why companies have a unique value proposition (and ask): Should they belong on the market? Do they have a definable competitive advantage? And (we need to) start looking 'al a carte' at each, individual company."

How will the giants fare?
Cohen said that out of shares of Amazon, Yahoo and America Online, the online retailer will perform the worst over the next 12 months. But its future remains strong, he said.

Yahoo, which has been hit on the market because of reports of declining ad revenues, seemed to be the favorite among the panelists. Internet advertising is still so new, and in five years, Yahoo will garner a small amount of its revenue from Internet advertising, Blodget said. Winblad added that Yahoo "stands above the rest" with a strong management team and a culture focused on profitability.

"We have to ask ourselves...what are the metrics of success for the surviving dot-coms?" she asked. "How are the analysts going to measure the metrics of success for an emerging dot-com leader?"

Some of the panelists said that a flurry of mergers will result from the dot-com shakeout. "The most interesting mergers will be at the top of the pile, not the bottom," Winblad said. "If something looks like a dead company, smells like a dead company, and acts like a dead company, it's dead."

The panelists were asked to name the biggest factor weighing on investors in the next several months. Cohen said that on the economic side, one of the biggest risks to the market is the high cost of oil. As a result, interest rates could go up and take the whole market down, he said.

Winblad mentioned a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule that will require publicly traded companies to disclose company information to public and institutional investors at the same time, as opposed to the previous method of just advising institutional and private investors.

Blodget added that this could affect the way companies operate and ultimately contribute to the market's volatility.

When asked what the next big thing would be, Winblad answered with encouraging generalities for future technology advancements: "The edges of the Internet are wobbly...It (may be) harder to get on the map, but there are lots of opportunities to build new stuff that's needed today, let alone tomorrow."