Newcomers to the tech-stock investing game (and other nonbelievers) constantly ask the same question: When will this market fall apart?
Guess what? It already has, and in just two short months, as represented by the tale of two current e-deals,
Considered promising until only recently, business-to-consumer player
delayed its offering last week so it could lower its price to 10 from a previously planned range of 12 to 14. The shares started trading Tuesday and closed down a hair, at 9 7/8. To close below the offering price always has been a sin investment bankers try not to visit on their clients. For a "Net" stock to do so represents a paradigm shift, the ending of an era.
The good news, at least from the perspective of those continuing to play the tech-stock game well, is that even as one segment of the market has collapsed, another has arisen to take its place. In short, companies that merely are consumer-oriented Web operations, while not necessarily toast, quickly are losing their ability to participate in the giddy returns we've come to associate with the Internet. Meantime, a whole new market of Internet companies with a business-to-business e-commerce, networking or fiber-optics allure glides along.
That's why, as
forecasted here last week, shares of B2B software supplier
soared from a steeply increased offering price of 35 to 221 3/4 Monday. They fell back Tuesday to 209 3/16.
In other words, Net stocks are dead; long live Net stocks.
As noted, what's
about WebMethods is that it has fast growth, fat gross margins and screams out the hottest buzz phrase of the moment, B2B. What's
about VarsityBooks.com isn't so much that its gross margins are minimal, that its founders decided to sell a few shares in the IPO, or even that it's not building a sizable business, which it is (we'd seen that sort of thing before). No, the problem with VarsityBooks.com is more that its time -- defined as the period when high-risk, money-losing, consumer Net companies flew -- had come and passed.
There's more to the story. With the hundreds of venture-backed companies and the slavish attention paid to them by the media, it's easy to see what such young companies are up against. It's not a mystery that
are all out to get VarsityBooks.com. But they can't all make money, and they can't all exist even a few years from now.
There's a similar story for a host of recent business-to-consumer disappointments, including
and even No. 2 Web retailer
, whose shares have been losing steam since its Feb. 8 IPO. Each is well funded, each had prominent investment bankers and each is a segment leader. But those once-important factors don't matter now.
"Given the enormous amount of venture capital invested, each category is quickly getting five to 10 well-funded start-ups, and the public investor's visibility into who these companies are is better than it ever has been," says Bill Brady, head of corporate finance at
Credit Suisse First Boston
in Palo Alto, Calif. Of the companies cited, Brady's colleagues (who formerly toiled at
Deutsche Morgan Grenfell
and a predecessor to
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
before that) financed Egreetings. Perhaps his group's biggest claim to fame was leading the 1997 IPO of
"When we took Amazon public nobody even knew who the No. 2 online bookseller was," says Brady. He says it is inevitable that there will be "massive consolidation" of the larger consumer Net players and a shakeout of the smaller players "before it's clear who the leaders will be."
The upshot is that every coming consumer deal now is in question. So watch for two things from here on out: stepped up merger activity and very large IPOs that raise tons of bucks for the issuing companies but that don't make public investors much, if anything.
The biggest case in point will be Seattle-based online retailer HomeGrocer.com. The company -- funded by
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
and Amazon.com and banked by Morgan Stanley -- aims to raise about $242 million, according to its recent federal filings. That would give HomeGrocer a valuation of $1.1 billion, a considerable discount to the $4.7 billion competitor
With Webvan's shares still slumbering below their offering price, the relatively low valuation HomeGrocer.com seeks speaks volumes about the current climate. Its bankers understand that to ask for less now is prudent. As both companies are being measured on their future performance, HomeGrocer already has taken into account the consumer slump.
If only the two could figure out how to position themselves as B2B players.
Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. 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. He welcomes your feedback at