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DOES NETSCAPE `FEEDING FRENZY' SIGNAL SHARKS - OR CALM SEAS?

Is the stock market's glass half-full or half-empty? Netscape Communications' spectacular initial public offering this past week was used to argue both sides of the question.

Bears brandished the deal as a sign that the market has become too speculative, while the bulls said it confirmed that the sky is the limit for technology issues, a proven market leader."The feeding frenzy, such as we saw in Netscape, has in the past been one of those classic signals that a correction of some importance is close," said James Solloway, research director at Argus Research.

But he added, "I could be flat out wrong again. Maybe it's just another boost along the way to even more incredible performance."

But maybe not. The market fell on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with the Dow Jones industrials losing 25.36 on Friday to close at 4,618.30. The blue chip index slipped to its lowest level since July 5 and lost 65.16 for the week.

Some blamed Netscape, based in Mountain View, Calif., that developed the Netscape Navigator program, which allows personal computer users to browse through and manipulate data on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet, the global computer link.

Netscape's connection to the online business captured the imagination of techno-buffs, who already hold the stock market in thrall. The company began shopping 3.5 million shares at about $14 per share, increased the offering to 5 million and doubled the price to $28 by the time it went public Wednesday morning.

Netscape was sold to investors on the hope that it would be profitable in the next three to five years, "a dangerous strategy," asserted Ned Riley, chief investment officer at Bank of Boston. "Typically, investors use the rationale of a longer-term horizon to justify an outlandish situation shorter term."

Technicians offer up some statistics to support the fearful. The balance of market bulls to bears is the highest it's been since 1993, a sign to contrarians that the market is approaching a peak.

Advancing issues are losing their lead on decliners. At the same time, more volume changes hands in the more speculative end of the market, including the Nasdaq system, than on the Big Board.

"That's never happened before," said Gregory Nie, a technical analyst at Kemper Securities. "Back in the 1980s, that would have been deemed an indication of excessive speculation."

Still, overall trading volume has waned, making Nie and others cautious about making any sweeping statements about the market's future direction.

And the bulls can marshal nearly as much ammunition.

Stocks are not outlandishly priced, selling at under 15 times earnings, they said. Dividends are low at under 3 percent but are justified in some circles by the currently high level of company share repurchase programs and reinvestment.