Editor's note: This is the final piece in James J. Cramer's three-part series titled Slouching Toward a Multiple. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2!
This most recent quarter we began to see some profitability from some dot-com companies. Don't get me wrong, the multiples on an
Art Technology Group
, for example, are still absurd. The Street thinks Art Technology Group could earn 22 cents next year and you have to pay $60 for that stream, which is a phenomenal multiple on earnings. But it has a multiple! It will eventually lose the dreaded NM (stands for Not Meaningful) in research reports.
, which sells for 40 and change, could earn 9 cents next year. Again, an absurd multiple, but a multiple nonetheless.
Having a multiple will put a floor on these stocks. If Vignette get cuts in half from here, but its earnings continue to flower, you could make a case that it might make 30 cents in 2002. That kind of growth, from one cent this year, to 9 cents next year to 30 cents (all hypothetical mind you) in 2003 might make some growth guy say, "Hey, this one isn't expensive using traditional growth-company analysis."
Can these companies all make money? Absolutely not. Many of them have infrastructure designed only for growth because when these companies come public that's all the market wanted. Now the market has pulled a bait-and-switch on these companies and they have to show great revenue and near-term profitability. Only the most nimble companies, with the best management and the finest business models will be able to pull that off. I figure that means that, of the 300-some companies that came public, some 30 of them can pull this off.
Amazingly, that's probably about the same ratio of companies that would have made it to the public stage before the mania. In other words, I think you would predict that nine-tenths of the companies that got their start from 1995 on would NOT be public or make it eventually to the public markets. They wouldn't have if it weren't for the insane and highly combustible combination of sliver offerings (where only a small fraction of a company's stock is brought public to preserve the biggest pop), newly minted daytrading firms that played this game to the hilt, low commissions from online trading and, of course, the voracious appetite of companies like
to buy private companies before they came public. That cocktail allowed the Net lunacy to go on unchecked until the recent deflating of the balloon by the missed estimates and energized competition. It gave you a superheated form of capitalism that rushed companies to the market before they were ready, with the idea that they could figure it out and make it worth your while.
Now we are spending our time at
searching for new stocks with earnings multiples -- no matter how great -- that can make them without sacrificing strong growth. They do exist. Only the best can pull it off. Surely, however, there are companies that came public during this era that will be among the best. They weren't all a giant shell game or Ponzi scheme.
That's going to be the test going forward. Hopefully, we will find them together.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund was long Cisco. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at