Loss-makers from nowhere grab fortune in the Internet gold rush

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a new and prestigious symbol listed on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday. It was "DSX" and it stands for DaimlerChrysler, the new combination of two of the world's most venerable car-makers - corporations with both track records and profits. But who cares, when you have TGLO to invest in?

Now, TGLO is the ticker symbol for a tiny New York outfit that calls itself theglobe.com. This is a company with almost no track record and, worse, no profits at all. So far, it has a history only of losses and its founders cannot even tell when they might make a profit. But theglobe.com is an Internet company so, naturally, you are going to shower it with your hard-earned money anyway. It stands to reason - or not.

Last Friday, the company, which offers help in creating personalised websites, made history with an initial public offering, or IPO, of shares in New York. Priced the night before at a modest $9 each, the shares at one point reached $97 during trading on Friday before finally settling at the market's close at $63.50.

That still meant an increase on the day of sevenfold or a breathtaking 606 per cent.

The IPO, engineered by the Bear Stearns brokerage house, thus became the most successful, in value-gain terms, ever seen on Wall Street. Indeed, during Friday, shares in theglobe.com each changed hands no fewer than five times, such was the frenzy among investors, many of them single individuals buying and selling the fledgling shares over their home computers.

What happened on Friday, however, was not an isolated incident of collective investor lunacy. Rather, it was just another illustration of the stunning clamour in the US, and also in Britain, for anything that is moving these days in the Internet industry.

Everybody seems to be harbouring the same dream - somewhere out there is the new Microsoft. If theglobe.com is it, they want to make sure that they have a slice.

What we have, in fact, is a contemporary version of the American gold rush. The Internet is the new Wild West. Just as in the days of the old frontier, there are dangers around every corner. But, for now, caution is taking second place to greed.

Already, however, a few are getting insanely rich. Take Michael Egan, 58, the former chairman of the Alamo rent-a-car company, who is now chairman of the New York-based theglobe.com. With 6.01 million shares in his pocket, by Friday night he had seen his stake in the company take on a value of $381.6m. That is not bad for a single day's work.

Theglobe.com, in fact, came on the heels of another company that also went public last week. Earth Web, also based in New York's aptly named Silicon Alley, offers Internet professionals a forum to chat on line about problems and new software products.

It debuted last Wednesday with an IPO share price of $14. By Friday's close it had risen fivefold to $48.69.

Its suddenly wealthy president and the chief executive is Jack Hidary, who founded the company in 1994 with his brother, Murray Hidary.

True, there has been a slight cooling in the enthusiasm for theglobe.com and Earth Web since last week. As some investors saw the chance for profit taking, theglobe.com saw its market value slip 23 per cent on Monday. Earth Web also suffered some slippage yesterday.

Even so, the ability of Internet stocks to defy gravity is a phenomenon that is shocking even to many of the professional analysts. "The valuations being ascribed to these very young companies makes almost no sense," said Lise Buyer, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston in New York. Consider this, for example - theglobe.com had a market value on Friday night of $622m, while in the first nine months of the year it made a loss of $11.5m on revenue of $2.7m. That means it was trading at a market capitalisation that was at 357 times revenue. The average US company trades at five times its revenue.

The success of the IPO by theglobe.com "would never have happened if you did not have the Internet feeding frenzy", said David Menlow, the president of the IPO Financial Network news service.

Indeed, it is not just the latest start-ups that are sucking cash. According to Goldman Sachs, Internet stocks as a whole shot up no less than 11.5 per cent just in the first 10 days of this month. That is more than double other sectors in a market which, admittedly, has been having an unexpectedly strong run since the downturn of early October.

Among the star performers is Bay Inc, an on-line auctioneer, which also recently listed and is now worth almost $5bn - about 733 times its expected 1999 revenue.

Since last month's market lows, Yahoo!, the browser engine, has seen its value soar by 72 per cent, while Amazon.com, the on-line bookseller, is up 139 per cent.

Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, who is also its chief executive, was sky- rocketing again yesterday.

This is, of course, all about expectations. More specifically, it is about the expectation that doing business on the Internet, and especially retail commerce, is about to boom.

Proof may come as soon as this Christmas season. Recent studies show that consumers in the US are poised to spend $2.3bn buying products via cyberspace, up from $1.1bn last year. According to the polling company Louis Harris, 43 per cent of all Americans who own computers will do some of their Christmas shopping on the Internet, compared with just 10 per cent a year ago.