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IPO Outlook: Googly Eyed in 2004

The IPO market should build on its current momentum in 2004, after a pickup in pricings at the end of this year and with one of the most widely anticipated offerings in a decade on the horizon in Google. Despite all that, however, it remains too early to declare a full-blown turnaround in the new-issues market.

While deal-trackers anticipate that more than 100 new companies will come to market next year -- the first time since 2000 -- that is still significantly below the 500-plus deal watermark set in the heady days of 1999. Perhaps more importantly, IPOs these days have stiffer competition for investors' dollars.

"Filings have been on the rise compared to the anemic first-half showing, but I think that competition from exchange-traded funds, index funds and the existing supply of stock will limit the advance of issuance," said Richard Peterson, an analyst at Thomson Financial.

As underwriters rushed to book deals by the holidays, 21 IPOs priced in the first three weeks of December, making it the busiest month in over three years. New issues included the biggest deal of 2003, a $3 billion offering from insurer China Life (LFC), which has done well in the aftermarket. Other high-profile deals from online travel company Orbitz (ORBZ) and Korean game manufacturer Webzen (WZEN) have tumbled from their issue prices.

Meanwhile, a few big IPOs crammed into the week before Thanksgiving -- moving company Sirva (SIR - Get Report), IT outsourcer Synnex (SNX) and Pinnacle Airlines (PNCL) -- still are trading below their opening levels.

Next year, experts predict offerings from a broad range of sectors, including financial services and technology. They say the market will be wary of biotech issues, though, after several recent flops.

Paul Bard, an analyst at IPOHome.com, said growth companies in the technology sector could again start to dominate, following successful deals from Callidus Software (CALD) and entertainment-equipment maker Digital Theater Systems (DTSI). Each of those stocks is up since its debut.

Each of those firms was also recently profitable -- a trend that is likely to continue to make or break public offerings in 2004. "IPO investors are looking for the kind of growth they have not been able to achieve in the broader market," said Bard. "But they also want to see companies with a track record -- several quarters of top-line growth and earnings."

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