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The Day Ahead: The hunt for value

Barrett's stock challenge

The Dow's in a tailspin and the Nasdaq can't seem to cool off. If you don't feel comfortable buying Network Solutions at $500 (£310) a share, where can you find value? Value, of course, being a relative term.

Any moron could say Cisco Systems (is a good bet, but even it's trading at a price-to-earnings ratio of 191. These days, that's acceptable, but not exactly the kind of stock you want to buy now and tell your buddies about at the company Christmas party.

Yeah, you could pick Microsoft or Rambus, but where are those sleeper stocks that everyone wants to get on? Well, if it was that easy, I wouldn't be writing about stocks for a living, I'd be trading 'em. Inevitably, the first question people ask when you tell them you write about stocks for a living is: "What do you like?" Judging from some of the emails I've received lately, it's obvious that some readers haven't quite grasped the concept of conflict of interest.

I don't own any technology stocks. Neither do the reporters at CNBC or the Wall Street Journal, or any financial print or broadcast outlet. So any praising or bashing done here is with a clear conscious. Rather than take the easy road and mock the poor calls made by the leading analysts in the technology sector, I'm going to go out on a limb and nominate a few stocks to what I'll call the "All-Value" team. These aren't necessarily the stocks that I'd buy, but are the stocks I think could make nice gains, amid this frenetic buying spree regardless of the price of oil or what Alan Greenspan has to say.

It means that I'm willing to put my neck out for scrutiny this month and six months hence. I welcome the challenge.

Admittedly, I might be a bit late to the party on this stock, but I still like its potential. We're smack in the middle of an enormous buying cycle for chips, and Vitesse is making a name for itself in the telecommunications and automatic test equipment sector. This stock was trading at 20 3/8 in April. It closed up 2 1/2 to 87 9/16 on Friday after peaking at 115 11/16 earlier this month. It split 2-for-1 in October.

The P/E of 181 isn't terribly reassuring, but this surge in chip demand should continue through 2000 and early 2001. Analysts expect it earn 15 cents (9p) a share in its second quarter and 66 cents (41p) and 95 cents (59p) a share, respectively, in fiscal 2000 and 2001.

Elantec Semiconductor has also been on fire of late. It, too, merits serious consideration. There's been trouble lately, particularly in the wake of the Y2K hype, but this company is solid from top to bottom. Trading at only 24 5/8, it might be a gift from God. First Call consensus expects it to earn two cents (1p) a share this quarter and 23 cents (14p) a share in the fiscal year. It's a safe, inexpensive way to play the Internet software angle. A solid management team adds to the allure.

Let's now throw in a controversial pick. I don't care what everyone else says, this stock's a bargain right now. It was only a couple years ago that one couldn't mention Dell Computer without talking about Compaq. A bunch of managerial changes and the multibillion dollar purchase of DEC hasn't helped. But when these guys get their house in order, look out.

The iMac knock-offs have potential, and let's not forget about those high margin services sales they'll gobble up in the next few quarters. PC demand isn't going anywhere, and Compaq still has some fine products for the home and corporate market. A company as strong as Compaq doesn't just fold up its tent and fade away.

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