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Investors Will Be Seeking Safety, but Not All Will Desert Biotech

In times of fear, investors get defensive.

That's a familiar saw on Wall Street, so when equities trading does resume following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, health care investors are likely to flee risky biotech stocks for safer havens in the large pharmaceuticals.

"When trading resumes, it's going to be ugly," says Mike King, Robertson Stephens' senior biotech analyst. "Biotech is a high-risk group and at times like this, investors typically move from high risk to low risk."

This initial investor reaction is not expected to last long, especially since biotech and big pharma stocks are less affected by general economic conditions. And some fund managers say sharp investors could stand to gain by picking up great stocks at momentarily depressed prices.

In Europe, GlaxoSmithKline rose 11% in London trading Wednesday, while French-based Aventis gained 7.3% in Paris. If U.S. trading follows this pattern, the stronger drug firms such as Pfizer (PFE), American Home Products (AHP)and Merck (MRK) might benefit.

"People are going to look to defensive stocks like drugs and oil as areas of strength," says Jeff Leerink, chairman and CEO of Leerink Swann & Co., a health care investment bank. "But I also think you'll also see a flight to quality in biotech stocks."

One biotech fund manager, strategizing on what to expect when trading resumes, believes shaken consumer and investor confidence might bring about the market capitulation everyone has been seeking all year.

"The greatest returns are made by buying at times of maximum pessimism," he says. "If investors believe that we have reached that level, then they're better off buying rather than selling."

Unfortunately, it's hard to know just how investors are feeling. If they act like Americans in other times of crisis, they may surprise everyone. That's especially true if some of the bullish sentiment floating around Internet stock chat boards catches on.

One retail investor, IcemanDos, posted his plan of action on the Yahoo! Finance chat board for IDEC Pharmaceuticals (IDPH).

"While I would much rather put a gun to the head of the perpetrators and pull the trigger, such thoughts of revenge are fantasy. So, I will 'retaliate' by not selling a single share of any of my equities. If I could, I would prevail upon every shareholder of every company to do the same, and by doing so, thwart the next calculated phase of this terrorist attack on our country."

American investors, you gotta love 'em.

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