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2000 exuberance now looks irrational

But analysts say Dow could hit new all-time high in a few years

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Traders conduct business on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor's main room on Wednesday. Five years ago this week the Dow closed at 11,722.98, an all-time record high that stands to this day.

Traders conduct business on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor’s main room on Wednesday. Five years ago this week the Dow closed at 11,722.98, an all-time record high that stands to this day.

Richard Drew, Associated Press

NEW YORK — The millennium started with such promise.

Investors began 2000 having enjoyed four years of amazing stock market gains, fueled by the rise of the Internet and explosive growth in a variety of technologies. The economy was growing at an explosive rate. Everybody was in the market.

On Jan. 14, 2000 — five years ago this week — the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 11,722.98, a record high that stands to this day. The other major indexes would follow in March. The Nasdaq composite index topped out at 5,048.62 on March 10, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose to 1,527.46 on March 24.

Few were prepared for the bottom to fall out, with the indexes eventually tumbling to five- and six-year lows, or for the market's recovery to take so long — approaching those 2000 highs again could take years, especially for the Nasdaq.

Moreover, questions remain as to whether investors have truly learned anything from the bursting bubble.

"Around 1999 and 2000, anybody who wasn't in the market at that point decided, 'Wow, look what I've been missing out on,' and piled in," said Chris Johnson, director of quantitative analysis at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati. "And the market then chewed everybody up and spit them out. Have we learned from that? I doubt it."

An infectious enthusiasm permeated the investing community in early 2000. From the end of 1995 through early 2000, the Dow soared 132 percent, propelled by the enthusiasm over technology and the Internet. Those who had gotten in on the craze were, of course, patting themselves on the back, and few had the discipline to get out before it was too late.

Shortly after March 2000, the decline began, exacerbated over the next few years by a litany of bad news. A disputed election. Bankruptcies. Corporate shenanigans at WorldCom and Enron. 9/11. The recession. War in Afghanistan.

October 9, 2002, would be the final day of reckoning on Wall Street, with the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500. The final tally: the Dow had fallen 37.8 percent from its high, the S&P 500 lost 49.5 percent, and the tech-heavy, startup friendly Nasdaq tumbled 77.9 percent.

Billions of dollars simply . . . evaporated.

So did some investors.

"We found that the newer investor, the person who had only been in the market in the mid-1990s, they're the ones who exited the market, and we may not get them back," said Ken Janke, president of the National Association of Investors Corp., an investor education company that sponsors investment clubs.

Many others did come back, however, and the impressive gains in 2003 — a 25.3 percent rise in the Dow and a 50 percent rise in the Nasdaq — showed that the market could recover. Still, for many investors, stellar returns may have created an unrealistic picture of a stock market that historically has gained only about 8 percent to 10 percent a year.

"Talk about unreasonable expectations," Johnson said. "After 2003, we had people saying, 'OK, the market's back. Where are the returns?' It doesn't work that way. The whole idea of disciplined investing for the long term took a big hit."

That's not to say nobody paid attention. For many, the bubble illustrated what happens when you hold on to stocks for too long, ignoring sound investment decisions in favor of what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan famously called "irrational exuberance" — and that term was coined back in 1996.

"You got to keep emotions out of it," said Conrad Ladd, who took most of his investment club's assets out of tech holdings by early 2000 — over the objections of some members.

"The members of our club who worked for the tech companies were way too enthusiastic," Ladd said.

But because the club had reduced its exposure to risky stocks, "when the bubble broke, we lost some like everyone else, but we weren't as vulnerable as we could have been," he said.

Still, a recent poll of American investors showed that the lessons of the dot-com bubble may not have sunk in entirely. According to NAIC's Voice of the American Investor Poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, 22 percent of the 1,110 investors polled said real estate was the best investment, followed by 16 percent favoring pharmaceuticals and 14 percent eying technology.

Those are pretty high percentages, considering that earnings at technology companies — apparently still the darlings of the investing public — have flattened considerably, while the pharmaceutical industry has been rocked by allegations of shoddy research and heightened risks of serious health problems in its products. And real estate, while still enjoying historically low interest rates, is booming with eerie similarity to the dot-coms of the 1990s. And those rates will inevitably rise.

"I would like to think people have learned something, but then you see polls like this and, well, we obviously have more work to do," Janke said.

Yet investors can take heart. Analysts agree that the Dow could reach a new all-time high within a few years, even with moderate economic prospects and earnings growth potential through 2006. The S&P 500 could follow suit in that same time frame.

A new high for the Nasdaq is a much tougher prospect. The Nasdaq is still 58.6 percent off its 2000 high as of Wednesday's close, and the technology and biotechnology corporations that helped create the bubble have either matured into value-oriented companies with realistic profit expectations, or have gone under. By the time the Nasdaq is poised for a new run higher, the entire character of the Nasdaq may have changed, with new sectors and innovations supplanting tech and biotech as market leaders.

So when might we see Nasdaq 5,000 again?

"Next question," Johnson said, laughing.