piped up in force after a
screed appeared here recently, questioning the natural-gas company's prodigious stock run-up on the prospects for its Internet business. They shouldn't be so worried. Share of Houston-based Enron are up 3% to 74 since that article appeared, despite the ineluctable logic that, if the shares of Internet companies with which Enron compares itself have come down, so should Enron's.
The Enron bulls gave some good feedback, including one note from an Enron contractor who says his recent dealings with the company on a telecommunications-related project revealed Enron to be a first-class outfit. Enron is building a network to supply broadband services to its customers. The Enron contractor says that in comparison with another client, the
, there is "a night-and-day difference in organization, attention to detail and professionalism." Score one for Enron.
Another Enron defender notes that management and cash are what separate Enron from its high-multiple competition. "To me the two biggest questions the Internet start-ups have, seasoned management and access to capital, are already answered at Enron," writes my pen pal. "Therefore, the Enron situation is quite different;
won't be doing a piece about
the company running out of money."
Good point. As of year end, Enron had a total of $7.3 billion in current assets, including such liquid assets as trade receivables and $288 million in cash. And it does have an executive suite long on management skills and knowledge of the commodity-trading environment. But it's not alone.
CEO George Conrades, for example, was a veteran of
before joining the start-up. Akamai ended March with $213 million in cash.
No, the issue isn't how good Enron may or may not be, but whether or not it deserves billions of dollars of valuation for its nascent businesses. After all, despite Akamai's cash and management credibility, its shares have plunged to less than 100 from a peak of 345 in March.
Other readers wanted to know if Enron's competitors hadn't also enjoyed rising stock prices and multiple expansion of late. Yes and no.
One energy analyst, who didn't want to be quoted dissing Enron, figures that Enron's $1.60 per share of projected profit in 2001 -- excluding the start-up costs for the Internet businesses -- makes the core of the company valued at between $40 and $45 per share. That gives Enron a multiple of between 25 and 28 times next year's earnings, not the multiple to next year's earnings of 46 it enjoys now. In comparison, direct competitor
, trades for about 23 times next year's earnings forecast, while
El Paso Energy
are stuck around 13 to 15 times projected earnings. "Enron has a helluva trading business," says this analyst. "But the margins are tiny." After all, that's the nature of a trading operation. The middleman only gets a slice."
What amazes me is that people have suspended their disbelief, and not just about Enron," says this analyst. But to repeat the point, the suspension at Enron continues even as it comes tumbling down a wee bit elsewhere.
One wonders what will become of the legions of retired analysts, investment bankers, corporate executives and cashed-out entrepreneurs who've become venture capitalists in the last 12 months. With the IPO window open barely a smidgen, these refugees from their real jobs will have fewer exit strategies (read: opportunities to jettison investments) for their fledgling portfolio companies. Even more worrisome: The sharpies who've gone only recently to so-called mezzanine funds, the kind that specializes in investing in soon-to-go-public companies. How many of those investments are under water?
What's easier to grasp now is the move toward tech-oriented leveraged buyout funds. The latest tech-world biggie to make such a move is John Marren, formerly the investment banker responsible for the semiconductor deals at
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
. Marren, 37, is joining
Texas Pacific Group's
San Francisco office to help that old-line buyout firm get its arms around tech.
Marren was a sell-side research analyst (at the old
and then Morgan Stanley) before becoming a banker. He'll help keep TPG in the hunt against the increasing number of tech-oriented LBO funds, including
Silver Lake Partners
and a fund headed by veteran banker Sandy Robertson and a predecessor of Marren's at TPG.
Random musings on worms, viruses and other nasty bugs
Does anyone else think it's stupid that every time there's a virus scare, the shares of leading, publicly traded antivirus makers go up? If there's so much value generated by increased sales from dealing with each crisis, why don't these shares stay up? It's kind of like a tiny, falsely applied
Principle: People who aren't even using the products bid them because of the assumption someone else is. Shares of
, the carved-out public unit controlled by
, spiked up 37% in the two days since the "I Love You" bug made its debut. Shares of rival
moved up a more modest 6%, though shares of
, another antivirus specialist, jumped 18%. Even shares of network-security juggernaut
inched up 2%.
Viruses come and viruses go. Don't be surprised if these stocks dribble back down when the scare recedes -- and jump again the next time a virus rears its ugly head.
Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at