Thursday We're Gonna Party Like It's 9999

Seymour expects this case of Y2K-inspired hype to have little effect on anything. Plus, more on the countdown.
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When you wake up two days from now, on Thursday morning, keep a couple of numbers in your head: 112 and 9999. The former is the number of days we'll have left till Jan. 1, 2000. The second is a short-form abbreviation for Thursday's date, Sept. 9, 1999.

Y2K worriers say both could be important. The first because, since most polls show very few of us have done anything to get ready for possible Y2K problems, the notion of just 112 days left ought to get you going on whatever preparations you have decided are appropriate. The second because "9999," like "666," has a powerful meaning for some. (Remember

The Omen

?)

For years, computer programmers have used 9999 as a kind of shorthand, a computer-memory trick to mean "null value" or "disregard," or as a failure test, or as a place to stash comments. If a program executes, reads a value of "9999," then tests it against that stored "9999" and finds an error, that program -- that whole system -- is likely to just stop. No cataclysms, just ... nothing.

Should you be worried? No, despite the hysteria you'll be hearing today and tomorrow, in the latest round of Y2Krap.

I have to tread carefully here: I've written

my share of Y2K Worries Ahead stories. But I hope I've avoided the kind of "the sky is falling!" stuff that seems to have been clipped right from the tabloids.

For example, we've had more than one of these "critical dates" earlier this year. April 9, for example, the 99th day of the year -- "9999" in another form. The sky fell? Excuse me; I didn't notice. Or July 1, 1999, the first day of FY2000 for many publicly held companies. Hmm: Did you hear about any big problems? Me neither.

Small ones? Sure. In fact, I've been searching all year for the kind of nuisance-level Y2K problems I've long predicted will bedevil us -- and I've found some. In Stockholm, taxi meters wouldn't work correctly. In Minnesota, a 100-year-old woman received a letter directing her to report to a local kindergarten for classes. In Hong Kong, the harbormaster's computers froze up.

But

serious

problems? Nada ... yet.

I appreciate what could happen Thursday. But I think, based on the generally good experience we've had so far, that it isn't going to be a witching day. And that feeling is backed up by experience with our

Seymour Group

consulting clients over the three years-plus we've been working on Y2K issues: Though the possibility of a serious "four-nines" problem is certainly real, I have yet to see a single episode, in all the code we've tested and fixed, of a 9999 problem.

So I'm going to wake up Thursday morning feeling pretty good. And probably roll over and go back to sleep for a while.

All that good news aside, I am still worried about a few things Y2Kish between now and the first of the year -- or rather, through the first 60 days or so of the new year. In probable declining order of importance to investors, they are:

  • International problems: The World Bank says that of 139 developing countries, only 39% even have a plan to deal with Y2K problems, let alone are actually doing anything about them. I think we're going to see some serious economic disruptions in a large number of foreign countries, including several that are extremely important trading and/or political partners of ours, including Russia, China, Italy, Brazil, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Want to know more? A largely unpublicized government document may help. On Sept. 15, the State Department is planning to release its every-two-year Consular Advisory, which this year, for the first time, will include assessments of each country's Y2K readiness and Y2K-related security issues. This could be extremely valuable. (Of course, it could also be a useless, wishy-washy punt, because the State Department is always worried about irritating our friends abroad with negative comments in this report.) You can also check the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site for updates on Y2K issues from time to time over the next week or so for more information. It has a dazzling list of links to other, international Y2K-related sites. In this massively interconnected world, I expect to see serious ripples from these problems in countries whose economies are linked to ours. At minimum, long before year-end I'd be out of issues listed on such foreign exchanges as Brazil's Bovespa, the Borsa Italiana and Russia's Micex. At the same time, on the positive side, I think the dollar is going to be a popular destination for funds fleeing Y2K-challenged countries. So I look for rising equity and bond markets here through the end of the year, with foreign inflows more than matching money fleeing because of domestic Y2K worries and dollars taken out of the market to be stuffed under mattresses, real or metaphorical. This isn't just a fungibility problem, of course, but also a supply-chain issue. If I were a U.S. manufacturer relying on parts from suppliers in countries on the troubled list, I'd worry a lot about whether all my just-in-time plans were going to take a hit. This certainly includes PC makers, the automakers and many, many other, unexpected industries. (For example, many of the popular generic drugs dispensed in the U.S. are made abroad. Will the big pharmaceutical companies be able to keep their supply pipelines full?)
  • Electricity shortages: I know, you've heard from me on this before. But I persist in thinking our biggest domestic Y2K problem will come from interruptions in electric service around the country, and I think it's worth pointing out again that if the electricity is off, essentially everything is off. This isn't just a matter of not being able to use your computer, but of elevators, clocks, maybe telephone systems, our health-care infrastructure, so much more. No power, no work. I think we will see spotty, erratic, scattered electrical outages ... and that they will be unlikely to last long. But in the mishmash of for-profit, investor-owned utilities, co-ops and municipal utility companies we have in the U.S. -- and especially, with so many small, local utilities that have minimal ability to handle outages in the best of times -- some problems are inevitable.
  • The lawyers: One of the most painful parts of the Y2K experience will be the sound of lawyers sucking dollars out of more productive areas of the U.S. economy. The popular guess puts the ultimate legal costs of Y2K problems -- judgments, settlements and legal fees -- in excess of a trillion dollars. I have no idea how far off that number is -- seems to me it could as easily be high as low -- but whatever the number, it's a lot of dough essentially down the drain. That hurts, and none of us have an answer for it. The lawyers aren't necessarily to blame -- after all, we're the ones who hire them. But it's going to be a hell of a problem.

I should say that while I'm hardly alone in feeling better than I have before about the scale of possible Y2K problems, there are good people who still think bad things may happen.

Ed Yardeni

, for example. Dr. Ed, the chief economist for

Deutsche Bank Securities

in New York, thinks there's a 40% chance Y2K problems will bring on a yearlong worldwide recession.

You should check out Dr. Ed's Web

site for the details of his forecasts, which he keeps cheerfully updating as we near New Year's Eve. If you do, note that one of his scenarios envisions an economic boom early next year, if Y2K turns out to be a nonevent. Interesting reading.

There are, of course, many other Y2K-related Web sites; you can find them by searching with your favorite Web search engine. But consider carefully the advice doled out on Y2K Web sites: There's a lot of heat, but often not much light, out there.

I'll be back with another Y2K update in a couple of months, around the first of November. But fair warning: There may be a lot less you can do then -- if you decide to make some preparations for possible Y2K disturbances and interruptions -- than if you start today. 'Nuff said?

And now for some unalloyed good news.

You say you've burned through your summer-reading stack of

Tom Clancys

,

Stephen Kings

and maybe

Patrick O'Brians

-- Jack Aubrey still rocks, right? -- and you're looking for some post-Labor Day replacements?

Then pick up

Scott McCartney's

new

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer

(Walker & Co., $23), the story of how the first real computer came into existence. I spotted McCartney on last weekend's wonderful, nonstop

C-Span2

book-TV show and was at my nearby

Barnes & Noble

(BKS) - Get Report

an hour later to pick up the book. (No

Amazon

(AMZN) - Get Report

for me when I succumb to my venal

I-want-it-right-now!

instincts ... but yes, when I got home I did check Amazon.com, and they have the book in stock, for $16 -- seven bucks less than I paid in bricks-and-mortarland. Ahh, the high cost of impatience.)

Don't mistake this for a nerd-read; it's compelling, fascinating stuff. No matter how much you think you know about the early days of computers, you'll learn a lot, and get some laughs, from McCartney's exploration of how

Presper Eckert

and

John Mauchly

built the

ENIAC

at the University of Pennsylvania -- and more, how accurately they foresaw the future uses of these machines. Don't miss the great story of how

Walter Cronkite

played a role in putting essentially useless blinking lights on these early, hulking beasts ... starting a trend that continues today.

Unfortunately, of course, Eckert and Mauchly never got to participate in the riches of this fabulous business -- a court decision denied their patent on the design, claiming the ideas behind it had been given to them by John Atanasoff, another researcher. And they also have suffered the ignominy of being largely overlooked by historians.

No more, thanks to McCartney.

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are consulting clients of Seymour Group, or have been recently. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at

jseymour@thestreet.com.