NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Can you believe it's been four years since the Nasdaq hit its peak?
That's right. On March 10, 2000, the Nasdaq closed at 5,048.62. With that in mind, I think it's time to pull a Ronald Reagan and ask, "Are tech investors better off now than they were four years ago?"
It's hard to imagine anyone who's thrilled to see the Nasdaq trading 60 percent below its all-time high. Many large tech stocks are even worse off than that. What's more, investors should not hold their breath for a return to the "5 Large" level anytime soon.
Tech investors not as delusional now
Here's some sobering math. If the Nasdaq were to surge 50 percent a year (like it did last year) for the next three years, it would not reach 5,000 again until sometime in early 2006. Of course, a 50 percent increase in the Nasdaq is not exactly the norm.
Even if the Nasdaq has several consecutive years of 20 percent gains -- which would still be above the normal historical rate of return for stocks -- it wouldn't hit 5,000 again until the beginning of 2009.
(It looks like readers have done this math as well. So far, in our CNN/Money poll, two-thirds of respondents said they don't expect the Nasdaq to reach 5,000 again until 2006 or later.)
Fortunately, not all tech stocks have been crushed in the past four years. Several large caps, particularly those with heavy consumer exposure, are actually higher now than they were four years ago.
Online auctioneer eBay (EBAY: Research, Estimates), video game software leader Electronic Arts (ERTS: Research, Estimates) and anti-virus software developer Symantec (SYMC: Research, Estimates) are three examples of well-known techs that have performed well since 2000, thanks to continued sales and earnings strength.
And it seems that tech investors have learned some valuable lessons during the past few years. The biggest is that techs are not immune to the twists and turns in the overall economy.
"In the late '90s investors believed that tech was such a great secular growth story that cycles didn't matter," said Arnie Berman, chief investment officer of Technology Focus Associates, an independent tech research firm catering to institutions. "In this rebound, the only thing that matters is the economic context."
With that in mind, the recent pullback in tech stocks is probably not just healthy but warranted, given the weak February employment report Friday.
Valuation matters? Imagine that.
In addition, tech investors seem to be paying more attention to valuation these days. Shares of Amazon.com (AMZN: Research, Estimates), for example, have pulled back this year in part due to valuation concerns. Chip and chip equipment stocks have done the same, despite improving fundamentals at companies such as Intel (INTC: Research, Estimates), Texas Instruments (TXN: Research, Estimates) and Applied Materials (AMAT: Research, Estimates).
Back in March 2000, the S&P 500 technology sector was trading at 48 times earnings estimates for the following four quarters while the Nasdaq 100 had a P/E of 105, according to First Call. Now, the S&P 500 technology sector is trading at about 27 times forward earnings estimates and the Nasdaq 100 has a P/E of about 28.5.
That's not cheap, but it's somewhat reasonable given the industry's long-term growth prospects. "Tech stocks are probably a little pricey. But they're not stupid pricey," said Barry Ritholtz, market strategist with Maxim Group, a money management firm.
Ritholtz added that one encouraging sign of a change in the market's view toward techs is that the Dow is currently trading at about 5.2 times the level of the Nasdaq. Ritholtz said the Dow-Nasdaq ratio has averaged about 5 since 1980. But in March 2000, the ratio was just 2, which really illustrated how absurd tech valuations had become.
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Sure, there is still the occasional fluffy stock that shoots up for no really good reason. Last week, it was little-known search engine Mamma.com (MAMA: Research, Estimates). This week's wacky stock might be BAM! Entertainment, a tiny and unprofitable video game software developer.
Shares of BAM! (BFUN: Research, Estimates) skyrocketed nearly 40 percent as of midday Tuesday on more than 35 times their average trading volume just because the company put out a press release saying that it will be the distributor of a "Starsky & Hutch" game for Nintendo.
So speculation and day trading are still alive and well in 2004. (Although I've got to admit that the "Starsky & Hutch" game sounds cool...especially if you can play as Huggy Bear.) But collectively, investors don't seem to be falling for the trap that all techs are created equal. Stock picking, as opposed to sector picking, seems important once again.
"There's no unilateral belief about tech stocks. People are confused and somewhat justifiably," said Berman.
Most tech investors' portfolios may not be better off than four years ago, but it does look like investors have wised up a bit since March 2000. And that's a good thing. Nobody wants to live through three years like 2000-2002 again.
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