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With Nasdaq soaring, is 2012 tech's breakout year?

By Daniel Wagner

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 11:32 a.m. MST

Last year, some of the best-performing stocks were consumer staples and utilities — lower-risk industries where demand is consistent even the economy is slow. This year, utilities in the S&P are down 3.7 percent, while tech companies are up 6 percent.

The move out of so-called defensive stocks, the ones you want to own in a slow economy, is a sign that investors are willing to embrace risk again.

"You're getting this big market rotation," Vogelzang says. "People made money last year in the boring, stable industries, and they're saying, 'Hey, I better get on this economy train while I can.'"

Tech companies learned hard lessons from the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and the 2008 financial crisis, says Gebaide of Innovation Advisors. They hold more cash than most types of companies and carry less debt. That leaves them less vulnerable to bankruptcy or a loss of investor confidence.

Given its twice-stung discipline, tech is positioned to drive the economy — "perhaps the best it has been as a sector in the past 20 years," Gebaide says.

The biggest threat to the industry, Gebaide says, is a slowdown in the early investment that helps startups grow into viable companies. Those early dollars used to offer massive returns to savvy investors when a good pick went public.

Today, the upside for venture capitalists is limited because far fewer companies are going public in big stock offerings. The bar is much higher after dot-com era debacles like Pets.com. Before underwriting a deal or buying chunks of stock, banks and investors want to see millions in annual revenue and established customer bases. It's tough for younger tech companies to meet those standards.

Peter Falvey, managing director of Morgan Keegan Technology Group, says there's plenty of capital, entrepreneurship and good ideas to keep companies' bottom lines — and stock prices — rising.

Falvey's group specializes in tech mergers and acquisitions — the kinds of deals that allow IBM or Oracle to bring a small competitor's product to a wider audience and add to their own earnings. Last year was the best for M&A in his group's 11-year history, and this year's deal pipeline already is stronger than last year's was at this time, he says.

A company like IBM "has huge amounts of capital and a global customer base, plus complete hardware-software services," Falvey says. "Once you put a small company into that machine, IBM can do really well with it."

The industry's earlier downturns also helped big companies by weeding out smaller players. The number of publicly traded tech companies has decreased by a third since 2000, Gebaide says. Now the big dogs can pick and choose more carefully, acquiring only businesses that are almost certain to increase their profits.

To be sure, high-tech companies are higher-risk investments, and they could lose value quickly if the market tanks because of a debt catastrophe in Europe or something unforeseen.

"People love tech until we get an economic shock, or negative economic statistics start to come out," Vogelzang says. "Then all of a sudden, people will say, 'Whoa, I need to go buy some utilities again."

But investors should take tech's success at this stage as a promising sign, says Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist with Schaeffer's Investment Research. He says higher-risk bets like tech stocks tend to rise as the market enters a phase of long-term growth.

Housing, tech and small-company stocks all have risen faster than broad indexes since October, Detrick says. Those sectors are sensitive to improving economic data, he says.

"When you start to see tech taking charge, that's definitely a potential step in the right direction for future gains, potentially for the whole year," Detrick says. "Those are the sectors you want to see lead a bull market."

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