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Nashville Scene Roller Coaster Ride

What's a tech-stock investor to do?

By James Hanback Jr.

MAY 1, 2000:  It was only a matter of time before the euphoria ended and reality settled in for the long haul. Over the past few weeks--even the past few months--we've watched helplessly as volatile technology stocks swept the NASDAQ to dizzying record highs and dramatic, worrisome lows. No doubt, investors in technology stocks and tech-heavy mutual funds have recently felt like children on a see-saw that's pumping just a little too fast, feeling the exhilarated head rush of the upward movement, followed only too quickly by the stomach-twisting G-force of a big sell-off.

Announcements in the Justice Department v. Microsoft case--on top of interest-rate hike worries, on top of inflation worries, and announcements by several Internet-only companies that cash flow isn't so hot--raked the NASDAQ and knocked around the already embattled Dow Jones Industrial Average in a not-so-friendly way.

Some Internet companies fell below their IPOs, even with recent news that one Internet company, America Online, made it into Fortune magazine's big leagues. Others, like drkoop.com and peapod.com, had some commentators wondering if they'll still be around by 2001.

The big questions that the media have been asking of their various financial experts, though, is, "What does this mean? Have tech stocks had their day?"

Some respond that the honeymoon with technology is over, and that investors are beginning to realize that simply because a company is labeled tech does not automatically make it a good investment. Others say that tech stocks were overdue for a correction, and that more corrections could be on the way. Still others say this is a temporary setback in the wake of the Microsoft trial and general nervousness among investors about what's going to happen to the software giant.

It may also be that investors are finally realizing that one can no longer lump all tech stocks under one "technology investment" heading. There are simply too many different types of technology industries, each vastly different from the last. In spite of the cash-flow problems Internet-only companies may be having, hardware and software companies are making money (Sun Microsystems, one of Microsoft's arch-rivals, has been one of the media darlings in that department recently), proof that not every single tech stock on the market was dragged down with all the recent selling.

So, what's a regular guy investor to do? Being Regular Guy Investor myself, it's a question with which I've been wrestling. Although I've yet to be the nervous type when it comes to my investments, I must admit that the dizzying ups and downs have had me worried. I've sought out every opinion I could find on the subject on the Net, and I've tuned in via broadcast.com to local financial guru Dave Ramsey's show while at work. The link to the broadcast.com feed can be found at Ramsey's site, http://www.daveramsey.com.

I'm no guru. As I write this, the Dow, the NASDAQ, and the S&P have dipped from bullish mornings to bearish afternoons and then back again. "Stock Market Volatile," stated the article on Netscape's Netcenter page. "[S]ome nervous investors retreated. Others looked for bargains. Analysts say New Economy stocks aren't home free." Chances are that by the time you read this article things could have turned around and back again, especially after new announcements that the government may pursue a Microsoft break-up, and that a Goldman Sachs analyst recently removed MSFT from his list of recommended stocks.

Frustrating? Sure. But throughout these changes, I have been reminded of a few things about investing, and more than a few things about the Internet. Among them:

1) In spite of its reputation for pornography and its almost complete shift of focus from the Information Age to the E-commerce Age, the Internet is still an invaluable source of free insight and opinion on practically any topic (although much of the time without expert guarantees, of course).

2) Yes, it's been mainstreamed for a while now, but as a marketplace, the Internet is still young. Why aren't Internet-only companies making money hand over mouse? Those businesses can answer that better than I can, although I must wonder if we all rushed too hard to get involved in this Next Big Thing we call e-commerce. Yes, more people shopped online last Christmas than the Christmas before, but e-shoppers still made up only a fraction of the total holiday shopping numbers. The Internet may be ready for the shoppers, but all the shoppers may not really be ready for the Internet.

3) If you've got money to invest, and especially if it's invested in ever-changing industries like technology, you should be aware that you're not always going to receive bodacious 1990s bull-market-of-bull-markets returns. In fact, you may even lose money sometimes, although mutual funds are said to provide their best returns over extended periods of time (note that mutual funds, for Regular Guy Investor, at least, seem to be recommended over single stocks because of their automatic diversity and, therefore, more stable performance).

So, again, what's Regular Guy Investor to do in these times of extreme ups and downs? I think this one's just going to wait and see.

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