California: where wealth stretches out to greet you

YOUR MONEY Investment tourists: if you want dramatic returns and you're willing to take a risk, head for Silicon Valley
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The Independent Online
Cross the Golden Gate heading south and, if you follow the highway along the coast, the views are spectacular. Sunset over the Pacific has its own special magic, say the locals, because - across the ocean - it is already tomorrow.

"When we were at school, we would stand here as the sun went down and wave," says Dr Anna Hendriks, standing on the shore. "And we would try to imagine: if someone on the other side could see us, and waved back, where would they be? Who would they be? Would they be Japanese or Russian? What would their life be like?"

Twenty years later, in the era of the Internet and global brands, she reflects: "Today their life will be more like ours than it would have been then. Mass communication and technology are bringing people closer together - but it also means that we are becoming more homogeneous. Cultural distinctions and heritage are being blurred by globalisation."

And that is something Dr Hendriks should know. For as a venture capital consultant, analysing start-up companies for their investment potential, she is one of those people who are powering the growth of new technologies in computing and communications.

The sense of being on the edge of tomorrow is never far from the surface in California, she says. "Whether it's the ocean, the earthquakes, or the constant inflow of people, there's a belief that somehow this is where we define what's happening next in the world."

And nowhere is that more true than in Silicon Valley - the cluster of towns to the south-east of San Francisco which is the world headquarters of the information revolution. Towns like Sunnyvale, Cupertino, San Jose and Mountain View used to be unfamiliar even to the rest of California, but today they are home to world technology leaders such as Apple and Adobe, Cisco and Cirrus Logic, Sun and Silicon Graphics.

Another thing that these companies have in common is a quotation on America's Nasdaq stock exchange - on which the majority of the technology hot stocks are listed. Only in America could you get TV pundits like "Demon" Dan Dorfman with their "shoot from the hip" stock market tips - instant information delivered in a style that may be incomprehensible to Europeans but which thousands of US investors believe is vital because the market is highly volatile. However, as Dr Hendriks points out, they are in fact contributing to that volatility: "People say they follow Demon Dan - and he certainly has the power to move markets. But if you look carefully, you find that what you get from all these pundits is short-term swings."

The hot stocks of the Valley are a world away from the stone pillars and vaulted ceilings of America's senior stock market, the New York Stock Exchange, known as the "big board". Its performance indicator, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is probably the most widely quoted financial statistic in the world, the benchmark against which other stock market indices are measured. And like its counterpart in London it has stringent listing requirements which mean, in essence, that only well- established companies with a profitable track record need apply.

Nasdaq, in contrast, has relatively liberal listing requirements: a product might not even have reached the prototype stage, far less been launched in the market, and the first profit may be a year away. But if you want investment with excitement then Nasdaq is the place to go.

Earlier this year that excitement centred on Internet stocks - companies such as Yahoo! whose search and index system is widely used to find information on the worldwide web. Founded in 1994 it made profits of $1m (pounds 640,000) last year, making it one of the few Internet stocks earning real money.

In the first morning of Nasdaq trading, Yahoo! shares rocketed from $13 to $36, sliding back to $26 by the afternoon and valuing the company at nearly $700m. This made instant multi-millionaires on paper out of the company's founders, Jerry Yang and David Filo, both of whom are under 30.

Not every day is like that, of course - but even on a quiet day, Dr Hendriks says, rises and falls of 10 to 20 per cent in Nasdaq stocks are not uncommon.

Interest in Nasdaq is not confined to the Americans. Increasing numbers of UK investors are now starting to play this market, lured by the prospect of dramatic capital gains. Many private client stockbrokers in the UK will deal on Nasdaq, although their terms will vary. ShareLink, the UK's biggest no-advice broker, offers the Liberty service for dealing in US shares, which is available until the market closes at 9pm, London time.

With the US, it is a case of you name it, you can invest in it - and someone, somewhere, will come up with an apparently convincing reason why. For those who want to be part of it, but without the thrills and spills involved in buying individual shares, there are a number of unit trusts (pooled investment funds) that invest in the US. Good performers currently include products from Fleming's, Friends Provident, GT and Hill Samuel.

GT's American Special Situations Fund is unusual among UK unit trusts in that the fund manager, Soraya Betterton, is based in San Francisco. She looks for companies that are developing new markets or products - and those that have attracted her attention in recent months range from Belden, a leading supplier of cable for computer networks, to Michaels Stores, a chain of more than 400 specialist craft shops across the US and Canada.

America: the big picture

"My fellow Americans", says the President, and at the last count there were 264 million of them, forming the most powerful economy and the largest investment market in the world.

Pension plans alone - often referred to as 401Ks after the relevant section in the tax regulations - amount to $255bn of investments. Most of this is in stocks, bonds and property - and almost 20 per cent is invested overseas.

However, that is chicken feed compared with the money pushed around by the federal government, which has revenues of about $1.258 trillion. That's pounds 1,258 thousand million or, in figures, $1,258,000,000,000.

GDP per head of population, at $25,850, is the highest of any big industrial country, and the US has more than one telephone for every two people - the highest density in the world. Compare that with China, roughly the same land area, where there is just one telephone for every 33 people.