E-Business Commentary -- Play Money Vs Real Money

Dec. 21, 2004
Investors are learning hard lessons about the difference between hype and value.

For those who are accustomed to operating in the rarefied environment of high tech, sometimes it's useful to come down to earth and check out how the real world lives. And that's exactly what the high-tech industry is doing these days as the once-proud eagles of the stock market, having plunged from their lofty perches, learn to walk the earth with the rest of the critters. The difference is not merely altitude. More important is the distinction between what's real and what's out-and-out fantasy. For instance, when a respected software company with $1 billion-plus in sales watches its share price fluctuate more than $50 -- representing roughly a third of the company's value -- within a single day, that's make-believe. Call it stock manipulation, call it analyst hype, call it dot.com mania gone bad, call it what you will, but no major company's real value shifts by one-third in a few hours. This disconnect distinguishes the real economy from the play economy. In the real economy, people and companies are held accountable for real business actions. Profits and losses still count. By contrast, in the play economy, profits and losses are close to meaningless. Hype, fluff, puff, spin, and analyst euphoria are everything. Those who inhabit the play economy accept the idea that Amazon.com Inc., which has yet to figure out what the word "profit" means, is worth billions of dollars. And, by their notion of money, it is. The only question is, are we talking Real Money or Play Money? Play Money is the $2 trillion-plus hit Americans took when the tech-heavy stock market fell from orbit. Likewise, the same is true for the $2 trillion in gains the market racked up to get that high in the first place, much of it on speculation by day-traders and other short-term investors. Real Money is what companies pay their bills with. Real Money is what individuals pay their mortgages with. Real Money is a paycheck. Play Money is the $51 billion that JDS Uniphase Corp. lost in the fiscal year ended June 30, a record for any U.S. company. The world's largest manufacturer of parts for fiber-optic networks had to write off $39 billion worth of "goodwill" associated with a series of overinflated acquisitions that it paid for with still more Play Money -- its own stock. Real Money is the pay lost by the 16,000 employees JDS Uniphase laid off as a result of growing too fast in a fast-shrinking market for its products. Play Money is all the sales that high-tech firms booked that they themselves helped to finance. Lucent Technologies Inc., one of many high-tech firms that are struggling, was particularly deft at this practice. Play Money is the overinflated profit that Xerox Corp. had to restate due to accounting irregularities that are under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Xerox has portrayed its Mexico situation as an aberration, but the "blame it on Mexico" excuse didn't wash with the feds, who have widened their probe to include a range of Xerox accounting practices. "We discovered poor business practices and accounting improprieties in our Mexico operation that resulted in a $120 million aftertax charge," wrote chairman and CEO Paul Allaire in a letter to shareholders earlier this year. Ironically, at a time when high tech is getting sacked on every down, Xerox is still searching for a digital playbook. Real Money is the cash in your wallet. Play Money is the fallacious belief that a company's market cap makes it worth more than some nations' GDPs. But company stock is just that -- paper that even in the best of times can be acquired by another company with, you guessed it, more overvalued paper. Play Money is the shrinking value of your 401(k) on any given day. As long as you're not planning on retiring tomorrow, there's still time to pray that high-tech shares will rebound some day. Real Money is your bank balance. Remember, it was only a year ago that people laughed at you for keeping cash on hand-presumably because it wasn't "invested." Where are those folks now? Play Money is the value of your stock portfolio -- what's left of it, that is -- on any given day. Real Money buys stuff. Play Money resides in a computer. Real Money is green, smells like money, and is probably very happy, thank you, sitting around in a CD. And we're not talking about a compact disk, either.

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