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This Stock's a No-Brainer

The Internet may prove to be the greatest human invention of all time. Investing in Internet companies in 2000, however, may prove to have been one of history's greatest follies.

Yet 2000 was a heady year for Internet investment. Guides such as Greg Kyle's 100 Best Internet Stocks to Own showed you "how to get in on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Kyle predicted that there would be 430 million Internet users by 2003, and that by 2005, "consumers will spend $150 billion shopping online."

In fact, those estimates proved conservative. By 2003, nearly 600 million people were online. In 2005, shoppers spent more than $175 billion on the World Wide Web.

Time to cash in
But even though Internet usage blew away expectations, you would have been a big loser if you'd invested in Kyle's 100 best Internet stocks. How much of a loser?

It almost pains us to tell you.

Had you invested $1,000 in each of his 100 Internet names back on April 20, 2000, for a total investment of $100,000, you would have had -- drumroll, please -- $37,814 through October 2006. That's a total return of negative 62%.

You were more likely to pick a company that would go bankrupt (18) as you were to pick a company that simply increased in price (13)!

To the moon!
Even the success stories struggled with their valuations. Shareholders who bought in April 2000 made a fair profit (50%) on F5 Networks (Nasdaq: FFIV  ) . Shareholders of Wit Capital Group, which became Soundview Technology, found 42% gains when Schwab acquired their company.

There were, of course, some amazing returns. You would have done quite well buying Verio, which was acquired in 2000. Verio shareholders scored a cool 117% on that deal in about a month.

But even the big winners can't change the fact that 18% of Kyle's companies went bankrupt. And many of the companies that survived, including Earthlink (Nasdaq: ELNK  ) , VeriSign (Nasdaq: VRSN  ) , and E*Trade (Nasdaq: ETFC  ) , were cut in half -- or worse.

What went wrong -- and why
Most of the companies profiled in the book were profitless -- and burning through capital at a rapid rate. Indeed, many of the companies shouldn't have been worth a dime ... let alone billions of dollars.

See, Internet companies at the turn of the century were expected to generate massive cash profits. They didn't. A stock's value is nothing more than an estimate of its ability to generate cash profits over time. Before long, "market share," "network effects," "eyeballs," and "B2B business models" were exposed as Northern California euphemisms for "no cash."

The value of valuation
That's why valuation is such a critical component of investing. As the Internet mess illustrates, taking a top-down investing approach -- starting with the best, fastest-growing industry -- will lead to failure. Show us that industry and we'll find you a stock operating therein that's going down in flames.

That's why we advocate a bottom-up investing approach. Start at the company level and work up from there.

It's also why there are no no-brainers in investing. Just to repeat: Although the Internet has been even more successful than Kyle imagined, the stocks he profiled were mostly disasters.

China = the new Internet
When an earlier version of this article was published, we made the case that the lesson of the Internet was as timely as ever -- and not because of the burst housing bubble. Why was it timely? China.

After all, the Chinese government was concerned enough about a bubble to triple the tax on stock trades last summer. According to The New York Times, that move was "aimed at braking what many business executives and economists inside and outside China now see as a stock market bubble."

The Chinese index was up 130% in 2006, and another 97% last year. According to data from Forbes, Chinese stocks, as measured by the Shanghai and Shenzhen 300 Index, were trading for 52 times earnings last fall -- at a time when the S&P 500 was going for a P/E of 17. And according to Bloomberg, "Domestic [Chinese] investors opened about 49 million trading accounts [in 2007], nine times the total for 2006."

The more things change ...
Not even a decade later, investors assumed that picking the right place to invest trumped picking the right companies to invest in. The lesson has been just as painful this time around -- Chinese stocks are down 50% since last fall.

While "buying China" was a sucker's bet back then, things are a bit different now. Have a look at a handful of high-growth companies, their late 2007 multiples, and today's multiples:

Chinese Company

Nov. 1, 2007, P/E

Current P/E







JA Solar Holdings (NASDAQ:JASO)



Data from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Although these stocks may still look expensive compared with their American peers, the recent malaise in the Chinese market means that you can buy into the country's great growth story at the best prices in recent memory -- which is a major reason why our team at Motley Fool Global Gains just came back from a research trip to Asia.

If you'd like to see our team's top ideas from that trip, we offer a 30-day free trial without obligation to subscribe. Click here for details on this special offer.

This article was first published Sept. 28, 2007. It has been updated.

Neither Brian Richards nor Tim Hanson owns shares of any company mentioned. Schwab and Sina are Stock Advisor selections. The Fool's disclosure policy does a lot of spelunking.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2008, at 7:47 AM, jdubrox wrote:

    Why don't you create a less leading title? You, like so many Fool writers title your articles "This is the one stock you have to own," and "Buy this stock NOW," and then in your article just blab on about the economy and how you feel about having missed an opportunity in China back in '95, etc. It's a disgusting feeling for readers to be misled toward reading your article just by the title they see show up on their articles agrigator.

    Please, show some respect and don't mislead readers. It's people like you that have me no longer clicking on Fool articles. At the very least, you've done a good job driving away advertising revenue.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2008, at 8:51 AM, garjhr wrote:

    Amen !!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2008, at 9:06 AM, outoffocus wrote:

    And for crying out loud, just admit you were wrong and stop bashing Etrade. Etrade's stock stop dropping 6 months ago. Just because you recommended Etrade last fall only to find out you were wrong does not mean you can rub salt on the wounds for the next 5 years. At least ETFC has learned from their mistakes. I swear if I see another article from the Fool talking about what happend to Etrade 6 months ago I'm gonna scream. Come up with some new material for goodness sake.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2008, at 2:22 PM, Erlymorn wrote:

    This article has zero value for investors. It's more of a spam vehicle for newsletters than anything else.

    It's one thing if Fool's picks are profitable, but when their "next hathaway" stock is steadily dropping down 32% over the last 6 months, it kind of makes you wonder...

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