E-Business Commentary -- April Fool's Redux

It should come as no surprise that high tech is highly cyclical.

Last year around this time, I had lunch with some software executives who, only half tongue in cheek, chided me for having caused the dot.com collapse and the plunge in Internet-stock values. They pointed to an April Fool's column I had written in this space (E-liminated) describing the collapse of the Web under its own weight. In case you missed that piece, I forecast not only the collapse of the Internet, but mass confusion in the dot.com world. "The dot.com-heavy Nasdaq suffered a total wipeout, shedding more than half its value . . . . Hit hardest, of course, were the thousands of Internet companies. Many filed under Chapter 11 . . . ." Well, now we know what really happened, and truth be told, I wasn't that far off. No, the Web didn't come apart at the seams. There are more users of the Internet and more Web sites today than there were a year ago. What's different is that technology stocks across the board have shed a few trillion dollars in value over a year's time. A whole host of businesses founded on a Web-only model went into the tank -- as in the tank behind the commode. Admittedly, the economy at large is struggling with the slowdown. As reflected in the Dow Jones index, though, the broader economy has taken a lesser hit than high tech, which absorbed this torpedo midships. More recently, as we watched the Nasdaq continue to melt down, plunging below the 2,000 level, one of my colleagues asked me when I thought things would improve for high tech. People figure that since I write about technology and talk to tech-savvy people every day, I have some insight into where this stuff is headed. Hey, I told her, if I knew that, I wouldn't be here writing this column -- I'd be over at Golden Gate Fields, betting what's left of my emaciated 401(k) on the next Fusaichi Pegasus. Post-mortems on the economy are easier. It's not surprising that when there's a boom, high tech gets the biggest boost, because manufacturers, distributors, and retailers tend to have more money to spend on computers, software, networks, and automation. Likewise, when there's a pullback, tech gets hammered first and hardest as companies scale back or eliminate such purchases. That's why the high-tech industry is laboring under one of the biggest backlogs of finished goods in its history. The glut of chips, PCs, and network devices is so monumental that the blue-chip companies that once led the high-tech revolution -- and Nasdaq -- now are laying off staff. Who'd have thought Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. would be announcing layoffs of thousands of workers? What's the tech world coming to? Actually, if you look closer, there's nothing new here. High tech has always been a cyclical business. One of the most cyclical of all industries is semiconductors. Industrywide, the book-to-bill ratio, which had consistently run at 1.2 to 1.3 in recent years, plunged to .81 in January, meaning that orders lagged shipments by 19%. As of last August, almost no one predicted anything but stellar growth. Last summer and fall, the high-tech industry was experiencing such robust growth that it suffered from just the opposite condition -- shortages of key parts. Several manufacturers of electronic products were unable to obtain critical components and were forced to either slow or stop production altogether. Lead times to place orders for some particularly scarce parts had shot up to 18 months. That might be okay if you're placing orders for high-speed train cars or supersonic jets. But in high tech, 18 months is an eternity. Whole product lines come and go in less time than that. I don't have a crystal ball, nor do I have a Ouija board. But I feel comfortable going out on a short limb here to make a prediction. No, not that Nasdaq will recover by summer, fall, or even mid-2002. I'm not that April Foolish. What I will predict, though, is that high tech, like every other industrial sector, will continue to have its ups and downs, its boom times and busts. An obvious certainty? Yes. Until last year, though, it also was a widely forgotten truth.

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