No matter how bad things get at struggling Socrates Technologies Inc., you can always go on the Internet and find good news.
A couple of weeks ago, after shares of the Largo computer consulting company had slipped to an all-time low of 56 cents a share, one of the regulars on Yahoo's stock bulletin board for Socrates, which trades on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol SOCT, posted this:
"I also have learned that there is a new development being addressed at SOCT that is totally awesome. I have only heard bits and pieces but if they put this plan to paper, which I am told is 50% complete, we could be out of the woods and on Park Avenue before the crystal ball drops in Times Square."
Awesomely enough, the prediction proved partially prophetic. Last Tuesday Socrates announced the acquisition of Networkland Inc., an Arlington company that also is in the business of helping companies set up computer systems, for $2.2 million in cash and stock.
But the news that was supposed to put Socrates shareholders on Park Avenue instead knocked another 13 cents off the price of the stock, which had recovered to 78 cents a share but dropped back to 65 cents after the announcement.
Disconnects like that happen a lot on the Yahoo message board devoted to Socrates Technologies. Though Socrates is one of the region's least successful and least visible publicly traded technology companies, it is the star of an Internet stock soap opera.
Following the discussion of Socrates on Yahoo provides a case study in how the Internet is changing the stock market, drawing investors to obscure companies they'd otherwise never know about.
Shunned by professional investors and analysts, the castoffs of capitalism can now develop an online following. Building a buzz in cyberspace stimulates trading in the stocks and generates profits for the Nasdaq "market-making" firms that deal in them. The additional trading, in turn, makes the stocks more volatile. That scares off long-term investors looking for steady growth, but attracts the traders who hope to make money on every price move.
The Internet bulletin boards also create new opportunities for stock manipulation. There are so many obscure companies and so many World Wide Web sites promoting stocks and investments that regulators can't possibly keep up with them all.
For regulators and investors alike, the task of evaluating Internet stock tips is made tougher by the routine use of aliases and screen names. While a couple of the regulars in the Socrates discussion group use what are presumably their real names, most hide behind handles reminiscent of CB radio users or graffiti artists: TamiamiTrail, Avenger 131, CDMS2, theblueheron, peanutinorbit.
And they could all be the same person. Every so often someone on the Socrates bulletin board fires off an allegation that someone else is using two or three different identities to fool folks. For example, are the Tom and Dick who sent in messages agreeing with Harry that the stock should go up just Harry using aliases to second his own motion?
Which raises the bigger question: Are Internet investor bulletin boards important enough to provoke people to play such games? They clearly are to the few dozen people who frequent the Socrates salon on Yahoo.
The Socrates of Yahoo is the subject of more than 6,000 messages, a daily dissection, discussion and debate about the company. Socrates' business is monitored so closely online that the ouster in June of Abbas Fathi as president and chief executive was reported on Yahoo months before it was announced. When the company closed its offices on Long Island and scaled back its operations in Tidewater Virginia, those developments also showed up on Yahoo long before they were disclosed by the company. The loss of customers, layoffs of employees, speculation about possible acquisitions all are reported on the Internet.
Some of the things one reads about on Yahoo concerning Socrates even turn out to be true.
Some. Not many. Probably not most.
After monitoring the messages over the past few months, I'd say the the number of messages conveying accurate information are far outweighed by those exhibiting abysmal ignorance.
After Socrates issued its quarterly financial report a couple of weeks ago, someone identified as cam4boy declared the numbers were good: "Revenues dropped 47%. They also at the same time reduced their loss 74%."
"Not so!," retorted CDMS2, accusing cam4boy of making an apples-and-oranges comparison by not taking into account changes in the company's business. "It does not take a rocket scientist to determine that Socrates actually increased their losses . . . not reduced them."
For every erudite analysis of the firm's financial statements, provided regularly by someone who calls himself Residuum, there are multiple messages, such as the wishful "It should break $1 tomorrow and more," posted last week under the name Highwaystocks.
Efforts to push the price of Socrates stock back above $1 a share now is the hot topic on Yahoo. The shares have been below that benchmark for several weeks, which could endanger the company's Nasdaq listing. When a stock stays below $1 a share for 30 days, Nasdaq issues a warning, but waits several months before dropping the stock from its computerized trading system.
Earlier this month one of Socrates' most belligerent boosters announced that he and others intended to start buying more of the stock to drive up the price and protect the Nasdaq listing.
"I will personally make sure that SOCT does not remain below $1 for over 30 days," the investor wrote Aug. 11. "My group will be in for 150,000 shares before Friday and the bleeding will stop."
The message was signed by Marty Dorf, the same person who had predicted that Socrates shareholders were bound for Park Avenue. Whether any concerted buying effort took place is impossible to tell, but the stock didn't jump and the bleeding didn't stop.
Dorf, who says he is retired from the military, and Residuum, who says he is a former Socrates employee, are the most outspoken participants in the tag-team mudslinging over the firm's prospects. Dorf threatened to blow up Residuum a few weeks back, prompting a string of messages urging Marty to stop drinking and start taking his medicine.
Residuum has his own prescription for the company: Fire the management, get rid of the board of directors and rein in the company's largest shareholder, retired Gen. Edward Ratkovic.
The general clearly has traitors among has troops because the company's most minute maneuvers are telegraphed to his enemies on Yahoo. But CIA-style information analysis is the most effective weapon of Socrates' critics.
Studying the company's latest financial report last week, Residuum found that even though Socrates has taken several million in write-offs for restructuring its business, the company expects to continue losing money and is concerned about running low on cash.
"It will be important to secure additional financing" the report disclosed. "Moreover, significant internal growth or additional acquisitions could create a need for additional working capital."
Since Socrates made an acquisition a few days later, the need for new financing is even more pressing. But finding money may not be easy because, the quarterly report revealed, the company is not in compliance with the terms of its existing loan agreements.
Steve Kaston, a Long Island financial consultant who serves as Socrates' investor relations director, said Friday the company is neither going to run out of cash nor continue losing money. With the acquisition of Networkland, the company is projecting that it will have $25 million in sales for the first half of next year and turn a profit, he said.
As for Yahoo, he said, "I don't read it all the time. I won't even comment on it." Some of the people on the bulletin board "just make stuff up," Kaston said, and some are trying to manipulate the company's stock.
"Small-cap stocks don't have the following on the street," he said. "They trade on shareholder emotions. The shareholders vent their emotions on these message boards. They're not fact finders, they're not researchers, they scare people to buy and sell stocks."
As the Yahoo regular known as Highwaystocks put it a few weeks ago, "Anybody can say anything on these boards. I'd say 90 percent of it is pure crap."
Those are damning assessments of the "information revolution" that the Internet is supposed to produce. The Net has given investors unprecedented access to the information they need to make intelligent investment decisions, but it has proven to be equally effective at propagating their most irrational emotions -- not the least of which is greed.