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Mania Makes the World Go ‘Round, as Internet Shows

Most Americans, it’s safe to say, did not purchase shares of Theglobe.com Inc. on Friday, when the provider of free World Wide Web pages began trading for the first time.

But somebody--at least one investor, somewhere--paid $97 a share early Friday for the New York-based company, which had sales of just $2.7 million in the first nine months of this year and losses of $11.5 million.

By the end of trading, Theglobe.com had made history. The shares ended the day at $63.50 apiece on Nasdaq, a 606% gain from the stock’s initial offering price of $9 on Thursday. That made it the biggest first-day gainer ever among U.S. initial public stock offerings.

Of course, the buyer who paid $97 for the new stock probably finds cold comfort in Theglobe.com’s entry in the record books: That person has a 35% loss so far--if he or she didn’t sell before the closing bell Friday.

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Well before last week, the word “Internet” was rarely spoken on Wall Street without the word “mania” immediately following it. Theglobe.com is just more of the same, albeit with bigger numbers: A money-losing young company whose livelihood is tied to the Internet sees its stock soar amid frenzied buying that has no apparent basis in the firm’s near-term business prospects.

Two days before Theglobe.com went public, an Internet consulting company called EarthWeb Inc. made its stock debut, selling 2.1 million shares to investors at $14 apiece. That stock ended its first day of trading at $48.69, for a 248% gain. By Friday’s close, the price was $67.

And in between the EarthWeb offering and Theglobe.com’s stock sale on Friday, a small, money-losing (you sense a pattern here?) Santa Barbara-based telecommunications company called AvTel Communications Inc. on Thursday announced plans to introduce high-speed Internet access in that city and several surrounding communities.

Although AvTel’s technology is not at all proprietary--the company is just another Internet service provider, really--its announcement drove its stock up from $2.25 to $31 on Thursday (yes, that’s a 1,278% gain), at which point the Nasdaq market’s regulators suspended trading while asking for “additional information.”

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The numbers are becoming so large in this latest Internet stock trading craze that it’s hard to imagine that the money changing hands is real. It feels more like a big Monopoly game, complete with multicolored play currency.

But the money is real. And much of it appears to be put up by individual investors, not by major institutional players.

Indeed, Wall Street traders say the Internet stocks are now a favorite playground for individuals who do their investment research on the Net, actively discuss these stocks in Net “chat” rooms and trade furiously via online brokerages at super-low commission rates.

And why not? One of the cardinal rules of investing from Peter Lynch, the Fidelity Investments legend, is to invest in what you know. Millions of Net-savvy individual investors can argue that what they know is the Internet--and that the Net is still in its infancy.

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No one can quantify the Internet’s ultimate commercial potential, but it must be vast, most reasonable people would agree. Thousands of new users get online daily, worldwide. Tens of millions will get online in the years to come. So how could growth-oriented investors ignore these stocks?

Of course they shouldn’t be ignored. But how many buyers of AvTel Communications on Thursday did legitimate research into the company--as opposed to simply rushing in on what sounded like stock-moving news, in the hope of making a fast buck?

Similarly, we could probably count the “long-term investors” in Theglobe.com on one hand, given that more than 15.6 million shares traded Friday. That’s more than five times the 3.1 million shares that were issued to the lucky investors who got a piece of the deal at the offering price of $9 a share.

So in effect, each issued share changed hands five times in one day. (In reality that isn’t true, because some shares might have turned over 10 times and others not at all. But you get the point: A lot of people got into, and out of, Theglobe.com in a matter of minutes or hours on Friday.)

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All of this activity, and the huge price swings of Internet stocks as this mania has ebbed and flowed in recent years, have made for both big winners and big losers among individual investors.

We could fill pages with commentary from Wall Street veterans who believe that the action in Internet stocks is insane. People shouldn’t be paying such prices for the stocks of these companies, most of which haven’t yet earned a dime--and might never--plenty of veteran investors will tell you.

And they’re probably right. But then, a lot of people shouldn’t be going to Las Vegas, yet they do.

Like Vegas, the Internet stock mania is a game with legal tender. And like every mania before it, this one will most likely end badly for a lot of the players--which is pretty Vegas-like as well.

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But is there real harm being done in this game, in the big picture?

The appetite for Internet-related stocks is providing the capital that the companies involved need to develop the Net’s full potential.

Surely, much of that capital will turn out to be used in ventures that don’t provide a decent economic return. In that sense, some people would argue, the capital will be “wasted"--and the investors who put up that capital will lose.

But like it or hate it, that’s the nature of our capitalist system: Many investors take risks that don’t pay off well or at all.

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Most investors are searching for what Lynch used to call a “10-bagger"--a stock that provides a return of 1,000% or more over time. (AvTel was a 10-bagger in one day, but we’ll see where the stock is a week from now.)

Well-known 10-baggers in our era are stocks like Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Coca-Cola. By definition, they’re going to be few and far between. And in their infancy, they were almost a total gamble--just like today’s Internet stocks.

Without a crystal ball or a true psychic friend, you can’t know for sure how an investment will turn out. So growth-oriented investors take their best shots in the industries they believe have the greatest potential to generate rising sales and earnings.

Among new industries today, the Internet must qualify on the far end of the “great potential” spectrum. How strange is it, then, that the sector spawns recurring stock manias?

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Charles P. Kindleberger, in his book “Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises,” notes that speculative manias often are generated by a “displacement” of the old order.

What is a displacement, exactly? Kindleberger defines it as “some outside event that changes horizons, expectations, profit opportunities, behavior--some sudden advice many times unexpected.”

What is the Internet if not all that?

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A History of Manias

Internet-related stocks are only the latest investment to capture the public’s imagination and spur wild bidding. Charles P. Kindleberger, in his book “Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises” (John Wiley & Sons, 1996, third edition) provides a long list of assets that were, at least for a time, the objects of speculative manias. A sampling:

Metallic coins, Holy Roman Empire, 1618-23

Tulips, the Netherlands, 1636-40

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British government debt, Amsterdam, 1763

Country banks, Britain, 1750s, 1793 and 1824

Sugar and coffee, Hamburg, Germany, 1799 and 1857

Canals, Britain, 1793 and 1820s; France, 1823

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Railroad shares, Britain, 1836 and 1847; France, 1847 and 1857; U.S., 1857 and 1873

Public lands, U.S., 1836 and 1857; Argentina, 1888-90

Copper, France, 1888; U.S., 1907

U.S. farmland, World War I to 1921, again in 1970s

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Building sites, Florida, 1925; U.S. Southwest and Southern California, late 1980s

Gold, worldwide, 1979-80

* Source: Charles P. Kindleberger

Tom Petruno can be reached by e-mail at tom.petruno@latimes.com.

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