As technology stocks cool off after their hottest run ever, the stocks that paced the pack uphill are leading it down.
Omnipoint Corp., the Bethesda mobile-phone company whose stock was the top performer in the Washington region last year--gaining 1,195 percent--is one of the worst performers so far this year--dropping 15 percent in the first three trading sessions.
"So what? They're still up tremendously," said analyst Tom Burnett, the founder of Merger Insight, a New York research firm that advises institutional clients on stocks of companies involved in takeovers.
Even after leading this week's tech-stock pullback, Omnipoint stock is still up 920 percent from a year ago, when it was just $10 a share.
Last year's big gains still far outweigh this week's losses for nearly all of the technology stocks that have been whacked in the post-New Year's sell-off.
The decline slowed significantly late in the day yesterday. The Nasdaq composite index, down as much as 166 points in the morning, regained much of that ground before the close of trading and finished down 24.15 at 3877.54.
Analysts blamed the week's decline on the usual suspects: the threat of higher interest rates and profit-taking by investors who scored big gains last year but waited until after the first of the year to sell, so they can put off paying taxes on their profits until April 15, 2001.
Both those factors are involved in the Omnipoint slump, but Burnett said that over the long term, what matters most is the planned acquisition of Omnipoint by VoiceStream Wireless Corp. of Seattle. "Nobody cares about anything but the VoiceStream transaction," which is scheduled to be completed next month, he said.
Rather than wait for the two companies to combine into a new nationwide wireless network, some investors who made big money in Omnipoint stock over the past few months cashed in their profits this week. Unloading almost 1.5 million shares, sellers have driven Omnipoint shares from their high of $120.61 1/2 on New Year's Eve to $102 at the close of yesterday's trading.
VoiceStream shares have fallen in parallel--from $142 to $118.75--as have stocks of other mobile phone companies, which are considered vulnerable to an interest-rate hike because they must borrow heavily to build their systems.
Shares of the region's other mobile phone company, Nextel Inc. of Reston, fell more than $2 yesterday to $92.56 1/4 but are still up more than 250 percent from a year ago, when they were around $26. The stock of mobile-phone maker Qualcomm Inc., which dropped $17 on Tuesday, fell an additional $5.62 1/2 yesterday to $156.43 3/4.
"The whole group has had such a terrific run-up over the last few months that profit-taking is long overdue," said analyst Eric Melloul of Argus Research Corp. in New York.
Shares of another local communications company, PSINet Inc. of Herndon, fell $1.87 1/2 yesterday, to $60.12 1/2, and are off $6 in the last two days. PSINet also could be hurt by higher interest rates because it uses junk bonds to finance construction of its Internet system.
But the pattern of investors selling stocks that took a big leap last month seemed to explain more of yesterday's losses than any actual threat from higher interest rates.
American Mobile Satellite Corp. shares, up 301 percent last year, fell 43 cents, to $17.50, while the stock of Micros Systems Inc.--up 125 percent last year--dropped $3.81 1/4, to $58.28 1/8.
But not all hot tech stocks suffered. Shares of Cysive Inc., a Reston provider of Internet software and services, jumped $14.25, to $72.25, yesterday, and MicroStrategy Inc., the Vienna specialist in analyzing data, recovered the exact amount it lost the previous day. MicroStrategy stock--up 560 percent last year--dropped from $208.50 to $196 on Tuesday and then bounced back.
Once-hot Internet stocks, however, remained out of favor. America Online Inc. of Reston fell $2.75, to $74.25; Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon slipped $8.56 1/4 to $216.56 1/2, while industry leader Yahoo Inc. fell $32.50, to $410.50, and is down almost $65 for the week.
These declines, however, did not discourage analysts who consider the companies strong long-term investments, such as Argus's Melloul. He issued a new "buy" recommendation on Yahoo last week just before it tanked, and yesterday he put out a new "buy" on Omnipoint.
Most wireless communications stocks have come down sharply, but that's not necessarily bad for investors, he noted yesterday. "The hit that sector has taken in the last two days has made the Omnipoint shares attractive again," he said.
CAPTION: Omnipoint (This chart was not available)