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It hardly qualifies as a 1999-style party, but for the first time in a while the initial public offering market is making some noise.

This year already has seen more than 180 new issues come to market, and the deals are still flowing. Thursday saw pricings in rural telecom provider

Iowa Telecommunications

( IWA), Dallas-based insurer

Specialty Underwriters


and biotech researcher

PRA International

( PRAI). This morning, shares in media tech player


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are due to start trading.

While this year's output amounts to just a fraction of the 486 IPOs that bubbled forth in the peak year of 1999, it's a huge improvement on the last three years. Between 2001 and 2003, fewer than 85 new issues came forth annually. And most IPOs are gaining on their first day, if only modestly, pointing to a healthy market, observers say.

"The current market has been the best in three years," says Linda Killian, portfolio manager for the


IPO Plus Aftermarket fund, a mutual fund that invests primarily in new issues. "That might not be saying much considering where we have been, but it is definitely a reflection of what is going on in the economy."

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Killian says the average first-day pop for 2004 IPOs has been in the 15% to 20% range. She calls that "sensible," since buyers of risky IPOs should be compensated for taking a chance on an unseasoned company.

Those gains are a far cry from the returns IPOs provided in the late 1990's, when hot Internet offerings often doubled or tripled on their first day. Killian's fund, for instance, returned 115% in 1999, when the market was ripe. Killian and her partners started the fund in 1997, at the dawn of the Internet boom.

Unfortunately for Killian and her shareholders, those returns burst along with the tech bubble. After peaking in 1999 with over $200 million in assets, the fund lost money as IPO action dropped dramatically. The fund lost 42%, 52% and 22% in consecutive years. By last year it was down to less than $20 million in assets.

The fund broke its string of losses last year, when the markets rebounded and optimism returned. The fund rose 52% in 2003, handily beating the

S&P 500

return of 28.7%. This year, the IPO Plus Aftermarket fund is up 6.4%, trailing the broad index by less than a percentage point.

"During the go-go years we had terrific returns, but it was tougher to manage money because investors were clamoring for quick profits," says Killian. "You knew when it was going to turn downward but you did not know when."

Killian says the IPO market is far more balanced these days, although some of the abuses of the past are returning as the market gains strength. She says the so-called hedge fund flippers who were driven out when the IPO flow dried up are now creeping back in, increasing the competition for hot offerings.

Flippers are investors that buy shares of an IPO and sell them immediately after the stock opens higher. During the bubble, scores of small hedge funds would receive IPO allocations from brokerage houses and flip them for huge gains. Later, they would direct some of the gains back to the broker as payment.

The other difference Killian sees between today's market and that of the late 1990s is the diversity in offerings. During the heyday for IPOs, the majority of new issues were technology related and that was reflected in her portfolio. Nowadays, the fund's portfolio is fairly diversified, with less than 15% in technology shares. The rest of the portfolio includes 12% in health care, 26% in business services, 14% in consumer services and 10% in energy, as well as a few other sectors with moderate weightings.

The breadth of offerings is set to continue, with about 25 companies expected to come public by year-end. Some of the prominent names on deck include industrial resin manufacturer

Borden Chemical

, which is being underwritten by

Morgan Stanley

( MWD) and

Credit Suisse First Boston

, and

Eye Care Centers of America

, which is being birthed by

Bank of America

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Merrill Lynch

( MER).

One of the notable technology names set to go public is semiconductor testing solutions provider

Cascade Microtech

, which is backed by testing and measurement giant


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. Oregon-based Cascade originally filed for an IPO in the fall of 2000, but withdrew its offering plans two years later. Cascade refiled to go public in March 2004 following the successful IPO of one its key competitors,


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. FormFactor went public at $14 a share and now trades close to $26.

And while one company in particular keeps getting credit for the flow of the IPO pipeline, Killian says that was more the machinations of the press than the market itself.



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undeservedly got credit for spurring the IPO market this summer, but it was going to happen anyway," says Killian. "The economy works at its own pace."