10 ways to play the new Net boom
Web companies are on fire again. Here's the smart way to invest without getting burned.
SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE) - It's time to say hello to the new Net boom. And believe it or not, it's a boom you'll very likely want to invest in--even if you think (as we do) that Google at $400 a share is too scary to consider.
The Internet, as you well know, didn't vanish along with all the over-hyped dot-coms of the late 90s. Today the Net is fulfilling many of the visions its wild-eyed prophets were preaching about just a few years ago. All the impossibly cool applications that seemed so elusive in the late 1990s -- Internet phone calls, (legal) downloadable music and movies, high-speed Web access on cellphones, online bill paying -- are a taken-for-granted part of daily life. (This is an excerpt from a story in the May 1, 2006 issue of FORTUNE. To read the complete story, click here or go to www.fortune.com.)
Driving this transformation is the extraordinary growth in the number of people with access to high-speed Internet connections. In 2000 just five million Americans had fast Internet access at home. At the end of 2005 that figure was 73 million, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Those speedy connections have supercharged the online experience, and people are doing exactly what you'd expect: spending vast amounts of time with their eyes glued to computer screens. More important, companies have finally figured out the long-sought key to "monetizing" those eyeballs, mainly by selling advertising, but also by charging for music and video downloads, not to mention for the access itself.
The not-so-surprising result is that the Internet industry isn't just back, it's better than it was before. Google isn't merely a ubiquitous (and free) research tool, though it certainly is that. Google, the online advertising company, generates billions of dollars in profits. (Yes, billions, and yes, profits.)
The iPod isn't just the hottest toy on the planet. It's a product that pumped $4.5 billion of sales into Apple's (Research) coffers last year -- and wouldn't be such a success if it weren't tied to Apple's digital jukebox, iTunes. The iTunes Music Store has sold more than a billion songs online in the past three years.
We know what you're thinking right about now: If there's a boom underway, then the Wall Street crowd must be fixing to sell us something. After all, we've been down this path before. But the investing landscape is very different this time.
In Boom 1.0, any company with buzz and a business plan rushed to go public long before it had any profits. Now standards for IPOs are higher. And with tough reporting requirements imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate-governance law, fewer companies are even attempting to go public.
Another crucial difference for investors: Today's Net stocks are far more reasonably priced than the highfliers of the dot-com era. For instance, at $400, Google (Research) trades for about 33 times Wall Street's estimates of 2007 earnings of $12 per share. That's rich but hardly stratospheric. Compare that with shares of Internet Capital Group (Research), which at their peak in 2000 traded for well over 400 times the company's 2001 sales.
We set out to find the best ways for investors to participate in the new Net boom. Even if you have no intention of committing fresh money, understanding this landscape is an increasing imperative for every investor and every business. A company doesn't have to be a dot-com or a "Net stock" to be a beneficiary--or a casualty--of this boom.
We looked at five key areas: big tech, pure Net plays, infrastructure firms, broadband providers, and media conglomerates. In the end we identified seven stocks--as well as three mutual funds--that seem poised to profit.