Yep, those battered tech stocks are in the bargain bin -- in Neiman Marcus, that is.

A pragmatist might argue that if you were eager to invest in tech at Nasdaq 5000, you should be thrilled to do so now at Nasdaq 1900 -- particularly because the sector has shown life over the past month. Well, this week's Big Screen soaks that pragmatist with a bucket of icy water.

The upshot: If you're thinking tech companies are looking cheap and are considering sinking some (or more) money into a tech fund, remember that it's a long-term bet, and that collapsed earnings make these shares downright pricey despite the last 18 months' downward march.

"A stock that's way down can still be expensive," we're reminded by Chris Traulsen, a tech fund analyst with Chicago-based fund tracker Morningstar. "Yes, share prices have fallen for a lot of these stocks, but so have their growth rates. The question to ask is, have their valuations fallen? The answer is often no."

To prove our modest point, let's look at the top 15 holdings in the

Nasdaq 100 Trust Shares

(QQQ) - Get Report

, the popular exchange-traded fund. The portfolio tracks the Nasdaq 100 Index, a basket of the 100 biggest nonfinancial stocks traded on the Nasdaq. These 15 stocks, including giants such as

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

,

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

and

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

, account for about half the market cap represented in the index, which is down 45% over the past year.

The bonny 1990s imbued many of us with a "buy on the dips" reflex, and it's not surprising if folks are feeling that itch now. After all, the Nasdaq 100 has rung up a 17.4% gain over the past 30 days, tripling the

S&P 500's

bounce. But a look at valuations reminds us that a stock can still be expensive despite a long tumble when earnings fall.

And fall they have, thanks to a sagging economy and wilting corporate demand for tech products. The average tech stock is trading at about 60 times its estimated earnings per share over the next 12 months, which is about twice the forward

price-to-earnings multiple of the S&P 500, according to Morningstar. Many of the battered tech titans on this list are trading at similarly high prices, since it might take years for them to match their dot-com-inflated 1999 earnings.

"The sweeping generalization that tech stocks are cheap because they've fallen this much is a fallacy," says Traulsen.

Chip titan Intel, for instance, might look intriguing in light of its 48% fall since the Nasdaq's peak last year. But the company's earnings have fallen some 70% over the past year. Consequently, its shares trade at 66 times the company's expected earnings over the next 12 months.

Networker Cisco has also seen its earnings fall even faster than its share price. In the company's 2000 fiscal year it earned 36 cents a share, according to Morningstar. But then it lost 14 cents in its following fiscal year. Now the stock, down 70% over the past 12 months, trades at an eye-popping 94 times what it's expected to earn in the 12 months.

While these figures are bleak, they don't imply that you should simply give up on the tech sector. Valuations typically look sky-high when a sector bottoms. As tech specialist Bill Schaff notes in this week's

10 Questions interview, there isn't much reason for tech stocks' recent pop, but companies will eventually start working on networks and new tech projects over the next couple of years. So for the patient, there is justification to be a tech believer, as long as you're not expecting a turnaround anytime soon.

Outsize
Tech makes bigger moves, both up and down

Sources: Morningstar and Baseline/Thomson Financial.

The bottom line is that it's fine to be buying shares of a tech fund if you want more tech exposure. But if you do, remember that many of these companies aren't screaming buys. So it's probably best to invest a set amount each month to reduce your risk as the sector goes through its inevitable ups and downs. And as usual, you should only be investing money you won't need for at least five or 10 years. If that's your time frame, then these stocks might turn out to be bargains -- but they're far from cheap today.

Ian McDonald writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to

imcdonald@thestreet.com, but he cannot give specific financial advice.