NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In this time of extraordinary global turmoil, investors have unsurprisingly flocked to safe havens ... Internet stocks Amazon.com, eBay and Yahoo!
Shares of eBay are up 32.9 percent year-to-date. And it's the slacker. Amazon.com has surged 47 percent and Yahoo! has soared more than 50 percent. Since the Nasdaq's Oct. 9 nadir, the three stocks are up an average of 94 percent.
What in the name of Henry Blodget is going on here?
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To be sure, this triumvirate has more than survived the dot.com meltdown of the past few years. All three companies are continuing to post healthy gains in revenues and are solidly profitable as well. They have become the Internet's version of the Big Three.
Valuations are insane
The valuations are, to put it mildly, absurd. Amazon.com (AMZN: Research, Estimates) is trading at a whopping 87 times 2003 earnings estimates and Yahoo! (YHOO: Research, Estimates) sports a multiple of 82.5. eBay (EBAY: Research, Estimates) is the cheapest of the bunch, valued at a mere 68 times 2003 earnings.
"The recent run in the stocks reflects expectations for very strong first-quarter results and for estimates to come up materially after these companies report," said Steve Weinstein, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities who follows all three stocks but does not own any of them. Pacific Crest has no investment banking relationship with the companies.
So simply meeting Wall Street's predictions for the first quarter won't be enough -- investors are betting that this troika will smash estimates and give guidance for the year that is well above the consensus. Start listening for the "whisper" numbers, kids.
Net stocks are different! Yeah, right.
It looks like investors are once again falling for the line that burned so many the last time around: Internet stocks are different.
Here's some of the logic: Amazon.com and eBay should hold up better than say, Wal-Mart, because jittery consumers would be more likely to shop from the safety of their duct-taped home instead of venturing out to the local strip mall. And Yahoo! should benefit from the war because more and more people are checking out the Web for news about what's going on in Iraq. There's got to be a way to monetize those eyeballs.
This argument was silly before and it's silly now. Amazon and eBay will come under pressure if consumer confidence and, more important, consumer spending, sags. And that's a legitimate concern as the outlook for the economy is murky at best.
And Yahoo!, despite many steps to diversify, is still highly dependent on advertising -- ad sales accounted for 62 percent of the company's total revenue in the fourth quarter. A bet on Yahoo! at these levels is a gamble that the advertising market is going to continue to improve. That's a risk, considering the state of the economy.
Priced for perfection
First-quarter numbers probably will be pretty good. But that's just proof that these companies are viable -- not that they deserve valuations more than triple the market average.
Short sellers, investors who bet that a stock is heading for a tumble, seem to agree. The number of shares being held short, known as short interest, increased for all three companies in the past month.
Short interest inched up 1.3 percent for Amazon.com to its highest level since November.
eBay's short interest is at it highest point since September, following a 10.7 percent increase in the past month. Yahoo!'s short interest increased 9.3 percent in March after declining in February.
Simply put, the Internet's Big Three are priced for perfection. And in case you haven't turned on the TV lately, the world is far from perfect.