High-spending silicon princes bitten by stock drop

With most of their money tied up in stock options - not salaries - tech workers alter their spending habits.

While he's on the job, computer programmer Dan Bartlett remains upbeat as he focuses on helping his company, Intraware Inc., develop new products for its Internet business.

But his mood sometimes turns melancholy when he comes home - a place that would have been much larger if stock in Intraware, like most high-tech companies, hadn't lost much of its value this month.

Mr. Bartlett had been planning to sell his 600-square-foot, one-bedroom condominium here and cash in some of his stock options to buy a more spacious house.

But Intraware's stock is down more than 80 percent from its 52-week high - even though it rose $3 a share during Monday's Wall Street rally.

In other words, the value of Bartlett's options has plunged about $1 million.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt," Bartlett says. "You certainly start to get apprehensive about major purchases at a time like this, so you put them on hold."

The steady three-week decline in technology stocks has reverberated to every corner of the New Economy. Dotcom companies on the fringes of insolvency have been forced to merge or fold, and investors have had their faith in Net stocks shaken.

Yet here in northern California, the headquarters of the tech revolution, the impact has been particularly acute. With much of Silicon Valley's wealth tied to stock options - not seven-figure salaries - the newly rich are now going without.

In the first two weeks of April, the market value of the 374 computer and Internet companies based in the six-county San Francisco Bay Area plunged by $766 billion, a 26 percent loss, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The sudden loss of so much paper wealth has already begun to affect workers' daily decisions - from whether to add on that new den to whether to buy an Armani suit.

Jim Saunders, a computer programmer at chipmaker Xilinx Inc., almost cashed in some stock options in January to finance the renovation of his recently purchased home in Mountain View, Calif. He held off because he thought San Jose, Calif.-based Xilinx's shares were headed even higher.

Now Xilinx's shares have plummeted by 30 percent since March, and Mr. Saunders has resigned himself to waiting.

"It just doesn't make any sense to do it now. I will wait a year if I have to," he says.

A dose of reality

Similar stories are unfolding all over the San Francisco Bay Area, where for years, the booming high-tech industry has made even rank-and-file workers feel like wheelers and dealers.

Enriched by their stock holdings, these high-tech workers have spent freely, offering 30 percent above the asking price for homes in frenetic bidding wars and paying cash for luxury cars.

The recent downturn does not mean the area's economy is damaged beyond repair, says Stephen Levy, director for the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, Calif.

"You have to put this in perspective. Most of these workers are well ahead of where they were a year or two ago," Mr. Levy says. "There is no evidence to link the stock market's fluctuations to the prosperity of these Silicon Valley firms. If anything, the real economy is looking better than it did just a half year ago."

Indeed, most of these stocks remain well above their values of a year ago. But this month's steep decline is a sobering lesson in market physics, especially for tech workers who settled for lower salaries in exchange for stock options, which give them the right to buy a specific number of shares in the future at a certain low price.

The options created tremendous wealth as tech stocks seemed to defy gravity over the past two years. At some Silicon Valley companies, such as computer networker Cisco Systems Inc. and chipmaker Intel Corp., literally thousands of workers have become millionaires - at least on paper.

Now, much of that money has evaporated in a matter of days.

"It's had a stunning effect," says Intraware chief executive Peter Jackson, whose company's market value fell from $1 billion on March 31, to $442 million as of Monday. "I run into some people in the hallways now, and say, 'Oh man, are you all right?' "

All go down together

It's not just stock in their own companies, either. In clubby Silicon Valley, many workers are heavily invested in other tech companies as well.

For instance, many of the workers at San Francisco e-commerce company Walker Interactive Systems bought shares in one of the company's business partners, Commerce One Inc., based in Pleasanton, Calif. That company's stock fell by 56 percent this month.

Until this month, it was common for Silicon Valley home sellers to field more than 10 offers from prospective buyers. One modest home in Sunnyvale, Calif., recently attracted 38 offers and sold for $100,000 above the asking price, says Barbara Money, branch manager for Coldwell Banker Real Estate in Sunnyvale.

"Now, we are only getting three or four offers for some homes, and in some cases, zero offers," Ms. Money says. "There is definitely a shift going on. We are seeing a quieting in the market."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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