Buy now, pay later.

That uniquely American phrase could be the "bargain" that investors are in for if they pile into the depleted shares of software stocks at this point.

While most of the bad news is probably out for now -- warnings from at least 30 software companies in recent weeks helped ensure that -- there's little good news on the horizon. Official earnings reports coming out this week will likely just rehash what most firms said in their preannouncements: Our numbers stink, and we don't know when they'll get any better.

Companies due to report this week include

Veritas

(VRTS) - Get Virtus Investment Partners, Inc. Report

,

i2 Technologies

(ITWO)

,

Siebel Systems

(SEBL)

,

Microsoft

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,

SAP

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,

Commerce One

(CMRC)

and

Ariba

(ARBA)

.

Combine companies' unexciting results with the nice little what-was-I-thinking rally from last week, and you've got a pretty good scenario for software stocks remaining, well, soft for a while.

"Basically, I'm a believer that if the fundamentals aren't improving, or are staying the same or getting worse, then the stocks can't go higher," says Tom Berquist, enterprise software analyst at

Goldman Sachs

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. In his view, software companies could see an unusually slow June quarter -- their second-most important quarter of the year -- due to the tight spending environment. That means recent gains could be wiped out down the road.

"A lot of the stocks that have gone up 10%, 15% or 20% over the last few weeks, I don't think people are thinking yet what June will look like. If the June quarter is weak on a sequential basis, then things could go lower than where they are now."

Which isn't to say investors couldn't find an entry point into leading software stocks like

Oracle

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, i2 Technologies,

BEA Systems

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or Siebel Systems, even if those stocks are still pricey. It just means don't expect to buy them now and make money -- or even still have all the money you invested -- in the next two months.

Ian Toll, a software analyst at

Credit Suisse First Boston

, sees another reason not to buy software stocks right now: Despite the shearing that most software shares have taken over the last six months, they're still not cheap.

Toll looked at average historical valuations for major software companies over the past 10 years. Any way he sliced it, be it on a forward price-to-earnings basis, relative price-to-earnings comparison or even a price-to-earnings-growth metric, he found that software companies in the

S&P 500

are now trading at about average historical levels: 30 to 31 times forward PE, 1.45 to 1.55 times the relative forward PE of the S&P 500 as a whole, and 1 to 1.2 times forward price-to-earnings-growth ratios.

While trading at an average historical level might not sound expensive, think about it this way: They're still way above their historical lows. And if analysts continue to slash their earnings estimates, the stocks could become more expensive, even if their share prices don't rise.

"Our point was just that we haven't reached historical trough valuations," Toll said. "Given the fact that we're in an environment where visibility is very poor, and the risk to further

earnings numbers cuts for the next three quarters continues to be high, we're not at the point now where you can feel extremely comfortable that we have touched bottom."

In other words, invest at your own risk.

Now, before all this makes you want to shun software altogether, consider two potentially bright spots in the overall picture.

Computer Associates

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actually preannounced an

upside surprise on Monday. And Siebel, due to report quarterly results Wednesday, never warned that its numbers would be horrendous. If Siebel's numbers are in line, or even -- imagine -- better than estimates, that one-two punch in the face of the software bear could help buoy other software shares.

But don't bet on it. After being overtly bullish just two months ago, CEO Tom Siebel has been talking a lot lately at investment conferences about a global recession and technology companies that will go out of business. Given those remarks, even if Siebel makes its numbers, the company probably won't have anything nice to say about the future.

"Siebel is certainly going to be influential. These guys are very strong in terms of execution, so if they sound a note of caution, then investors might think 'Gee, if Siebel can't get through this, how can anyone else?'" says Jim Pickrel, software analyst

at J.P. Morgan Chase

, who rates Siebel a buy. "I think it's a bit too early to say in software that things will get no worse." (His firm has done underwriting for Siebel.)

So go ahead if you feel compelled. Buy now. Just be prepared to pay later.