High-Tech Stocks Lose Some Steam

Analysts cautious on earnings-growth prospects

TECHIES, beware. ''High-tech'' mania is running into static.

Last week, a number of high-technology companies saw their share values plummet, as investors scrambled to shift their dollars elsewhere. During the middle of the week, the Nasdaq Composite Index, which includes many high-tech stocks, was pummeled by sell-offs of such stocks. Yet, ''high tech has been a primary driving factor in the stock market this year,'' says Larry Wachtel, a vice president at Prudential Securities Inc.

There are now two major questions involving high-tech companies, analysts say.

* Will weaknesses in the high-technology sector push the United States stock market into a correction? Probably not, Mr. Wachtel says. Investors are instead ''turning to defensive stocks, such as consumer companies and pharmaceutical firms.''

* Is there room for additional weakness in high-technology issues? ''Yes,'' Mr. Wachtel says, although ''some selected high-technology companies may still be profitable in the months ahead.'' The trick is to identify those firms.

For Wall Street, the issue is hardly moot. During 1995, investors have poured between $4 billion and $5 billion into high-tech mutual funds alone. The top performing US mutual fund for much of the year has been the Fidelity Select Electronics Fund. Other hot funds include the Seligman Communications & Information Fund and the T. Rowe Price Science & Technology Fund. The technology sector includes more than 1,000 publicly traded companies. And more than 100 high-tech firms start up each month.

Moreover, investment houses and financial firms, enamored by the high-tech market, have been bringing unique new services to market. In just the past few weeks, for example, the American Stock Exchange has begun trading stock options on the latest industry stock index: The Morgan Stanley High-Technology 35 Index.

Technology stocks are not cheap. According to Kathleen Hartman, an analyst with Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based financial services firm, price-to-earnings ratios are averaging just slightly less than 30 for stocks in speciality high-tech funds, compared with an average P/E multiple of around 16 for the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. ''When you start pushing 30, that's a warning,'' she says.

She also notes that if you buy into a hot high-tech fund now, you will face a very high capital-gains distribution later this year, given the massive run-up in high-tech earnings. Her recommendation: Wait until after the distribution to buy into these funds, such as in early 1996.

Arthur Bonnel, who heads Bonnel Growth Fund, remains a believer in selected high-tech stocks - and the US equities market in general. The Bonnel Growth Fund, for example, has shot up some 48 percent since its inception in October 1994. That is compared with a gain of around 25 percent for the S&P 500. By Mr. Bonnel's reckoning, high-tech stocks represent 35 to 40 percent of his portfolio of 113 different firms.

Bonnel says some high-tech companies, along with non-high-tech firms, will continue to post earnings gains, given slightly slower US economic growth, and a modest drop in interest rates. ''We have high-technology stocks in our portfolio because we are looking for growth, and this has been one of the areas where there has been growth.''

Still, Bonnel concedes that the growth in earnings of high-tech firms could slow.

That view is widely shared. Market watchers who follow buy and sell patterns by corporate officials notice that insiders in high-tech companies have been selling more shares of their stocks than they've bought in recent months. And a number of investment houses are pulling back slightly from high tech.

Greg Smith, a market strategist for Prudential Securities Inc., has cut the recommended high-tech component of his ''model portfolio'' for investors from 21 percent to 20 percent. But he sees selective profitability, such as companies linked to educational and entertainment products.

Experts say that if you want to invest in high tech, you should consider buying into a family of mutual funds, where you can quickly shift assets into alternative funds or money-market accounts. The big problem, Ms. Hartman says, is that if you buy high-tech fund shares now, you are probably coming in ''very late'' in the earnings cycle.

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