If the internet bubble bursts tomorrow, there will still be a clear winner from the dot-com craze.
It won't be the scores of internet entrepreneurs who have tuned their e-ideas into quoted companies. Their paper wealth is as virtual as the businesses they have created. Nor will it be the institutions and retail investors who have piled into the tech stocks. Their gains could be wiped out in a matter of days.
The real winners in the boom will be the City bankers.
A week hasn't gone by this year without news of another dot com planning to float. While the bright, young, casually dressed entrepreneurs have made all the headlines, the investment banks have been quietly mopping up handsome fees for floating these new companies.
Lastminute.com's float last week, for example, generated £7.95m in fees for its five advisers. The exact fee structure is a closely guarded secret. However, it is understood that its lead adviser - Morgan Stanley Dean Witter - netted at least £4m.
Andrew Cornthwaite, head of European internet investment banking at Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB), said: "The dot coms have really shaken things up. Two years ago, there were virtually no IPOs [initial public offerings] in London. Now there has been a radical change in the number of companies coming to the market to raise equity."
In Europe, three major banks have been battling it out to become dot-com top dog.
The bank which has done the biggest deals is Goldman Sachs. In 1999 it acted as lead manager on seven European floats, which raised £1.97bn for its clients. It is estimated to have generated between £69m and £110m in fees. Goldman Sachs is set to beat that record this year, having advised Dutch internet service provider, World Online, on its float last week. This raised a staggering £1.78bn, being Europe's largest internet float.
CSFB has acted as lead adviser on five top dot-com IPOs - that have included Freeserve and Interactive Investor International - raising £579m for its clients. The work of CSFB is estimated to have generated between £20m and £32.42m in fees.
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter is playing catch-up. While it has capitalised on the dot-com craze in America, it has floated just two in Europe - Lastminute.com and StepStone - both this year. This raised £234.5m for its clients and generated between £8.21m and £13.13m in fees.
Most floats need co-managers who publish research and drum up potential investors. Here, Cazenove has put its blue-blooded UK stockbroker image to good use to win co-management jobs, including Lastminute.com. One investment banker said: "Cazenove is often brought on because of its pukka blue-chip status. This contrasts nicely with the big American banks."
As well as making good money for the banks, the dot-com craze has made stars out of the bankers. Mary Meeker, Morgan Stanley's internet analyst, has been dubbed the "net queen" for her keen grasp on the net market. The US-based banker was duly wheeled out to pitch for the Lastminute.com float which, according to one insider, helped to swing the deal. However, her superstar status comes at a price, as she is said to have earned $15m last year.
As if the flood of new IPOs wasn't enough for the banks, they've racked up their rates, too. A consortium of investment banks advising on a dot-com IPO will usually get 7 per cent of the capital raised from the market. Of this, between 50 per cent and 80 per cent will go to the lead manager - Morgan Stanley, for example, in the case of Lastminute.com.
But for an old economy float, say in the FT-SE engineering & machinery sector, bankers would normally charge 2 to 3 per cent.
A senior corporate financier said: "There are two reasons for the higher fee. Firstly, the trend of dot-com floats came from the States, where 7 per cent is the norm. In Europe, this fee level has just stuck.
"Secondly, the banks are pricing in risk into their fees. While tech stocks are still soaring, many dot coms are volatile, to say the least."
A gaggle of market sages has turned its fire on dot-com stocks.
Alastair Ross Goobey, chief executive of Hermes, the pension fund manager, has attacked pension funds for acting like a herd while piling into overvalued stocks.
Maverick billionaire investor Warren Buffett has recently warned that picking the long-term winners among tech stocks is near impossible.
And Merrill Lynch revealed last week a survey which found that 73 per cent of fund managers expected high-tech stocks to nose-dive.
Even the queen of the internet herself, Ms Meeker, has said that 90 per cent of net stocks are overvalued, and in the first quarter of this year there will be a shake-up.
With just 12 days left in March, the shake up could be just starting. Last week tech stocks fell simultaneously in Europe, Asia and the US. This hit the FT-SE 100's new entrants, including ARM Holdings, Sema Group, COLT Telecom, Sage Group and TeleWest.
Even Lastminute.com - probably the most hyped dot-com IPO - had a rotten week. Having soared 28% on its first day's trading, it fell back to its 380p initial offer price on Thursday and closed at 391p on Friday.
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