Henry Blodget's Amazing Amazon Call Was His Making. A Tech Star, Born From Good Stock

Posted: June 11, 2000

NEW YORK — In the gilded, mirrored lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, the East Coast's Internet elite preened. They congratulated one another on their latest deals, their latest hot hires, their latest victories on the squash court.

But slowly they became aware of a new presence. Eyes glanced in his direction. A few bold souls introduced themselves.

"There's Henry Blodget," some whispered.

"Have you met Henry Blodget?" those looking to curry favor said.

In this mini, modern-day Versailles, Blodget was king, and everybody wanted to hold court with him at the March conference.

People love him. They hate him. They recognize him in restaurants and on the street.

Tech investors do, anyway. Outside that realm, people say: "Who?"

But thanks to a prediction in late 1998 that online retailer Amazon would hit $400, Blodget is a phenom.

As the leading Internet analyst for Merrill Lynch, the world's biggest broker, he touches millions with his pronouncements on technology stocks. The Standard & Poor's 500 index of stocks, after all, includes such Internet names as America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

He also symbolizes the increasingly conflicted role of securities analysts, torn between producing honest research and research that will win investment banking business.

Did we mention that he's 34?

That passes for middle age in the Internet world, but there's no doubt that Blodget ascended to Wall Street's heights quicker than most.

He didn't plan it this way.

Blodget grew up on New York's wealthy Fifth Avenue. Dad was a commercial banker. Mom taught school for a while but then stayed home to raise her family.

The oldest of three, Blodget studied history at Yale University, graduated magna cum laude, and then, following a "make the world a better place" feeling, taught English in Japan for a year.

He came home, wrote a never-published book about his experience in Japan, and then tried his hand at journalism as a fact-checker at Harper's. That didn't challenge him enough. It also didn't pay enough.

"I was too concerned about where the next rent check was coming from," said Blodget, who is reported to earn as much as $4 million a year.

He took a job in corporate finance, helping companies go public, at Prudential Securities. In 1996, he joined CIBC Oppenheimer and started researching Internet stocks. Those were the early days of the Internet. Blodget at first was a skeptic.

"I think, along with everybody else, I looked at the valuations of Netscape and Yahoo and thought they were crazy," he said. "When Yahoo went public [in 1996], it looked like the biggest joke in the market. The stock was worth $1 billion on revenues of $1 million, and it was a list of Web sites."

But he watched revenues at some companies explode and stock prices grow. "Gradually, it dawned on me."

He would have remained a small fish in a sea of Internet analysts if not for a bold call on Dec. 16, 1998. Pestered by investors for ever-newer price targets on Amazon, the online retailer and hot stock du jour, he predicted the shares would hit $400. They had closed at $242 the previous day.

Blodget admits it was a fantastic target, the Wall Street equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the bleachers.

Amazon hit the target Jan. 6, 1999, just three weeks after Blodget's prediction.

"I was shocked by the amount of attention for that Amazon thing," he said. "It was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire."

Blodget quickly replaced Jonathan Cohen, who had been saying Amazon was trading at four times what it was worth, as Merrill's lead Internet analyst.

Merrill, lagging in the race to take technology companies public, needed a marquee analyst to lure clients who pay millions to enter the market. When they do, they want an influential analyst to sell the offering.

And so he became a star, besieged via e-mail, phone and in person for his thoughts, his musings, his latest recommendation.

It helped that Blodget is 6 feet tall and blond. He breaks out his aw-shucks grin frequently. Dressed in a white shirt and khakis with no tie, he looks as if he belongs on the cover of an Ivy League yearbook.

His is the perfect face for Merrill to put on CNBC, to use to court companies looking to go public and institutional investors eager to buy technology deals.

"Credibility with investors is a priceless commodity," said Neil Barsky, comanager of the MRG Nucleus Fund, a New York hedge fund. "The analyst is perceived as the secret handshake with the mutual-fund managers," who invest in the securities offerings.

His market-moving status worries Blodget.

"I am terrified that individuals who don't know the stock market buy these stocks without full knowledge that most of them could drop 50 percent in a matter of days or weeks - and that this would be normal behavior," Blodget said. "I cringe when I hear the way some of the things we've written or said translate" into sound bites.

The power to move markets had tech firms knocking on Blodget's door.

Blodget is the prototypical technology analyst - rainmaker on one hand, provider of supposedly objective investment advice on the other. When the two roles collide for any analyst, the results usually aren't good.

"Analysts have an extremely difficult time being objective about the stocks the investment banking side of the firm has done work for," said Kent Womack, a Dartmouth professor who has researched the subject. "You just can't trust them. You'd be better off doing the opposite of what they say on those deals."

That's why some who post messages in stock chat rooms call Blodget names. "Snake-oil salesman" is popular .

Blodget politely disagrees. Despite his reputation as an Internet bull, he has said from the start that most of these young companies will fail. Investors seeking to preserve capital shouldn't invest in Internet companies at all, he says.

But for everyone else, the opportunity is huge.

"The Internet sector has the highest risk/reward profile," he said. "If you are an aggressive investor, you should allocate a small percentage [up to 10 percent] of your portfolio to Internet stocks.

"But there is risk both ways," he said. "There is risk if you miss it, too."

In 1995, America Online was the only publicly traded Internet stock, and it was worth $1 billion. Today, there are 400 companies worth a total of $750 billion, he said.

"It's the most spectacular creation of market value the world has ever seen," he said.

Investors who listened to Blodget from the start have made a lot of money. But those who joined the bandwagon this year have lost a lot.

He recommended Internet Capital Group of Wayne when it was trading at $165. It closed Friday at $39.31, up 37.5 cents. Merrill has underwritten two offerings for ICG.

The stock has suffered as the market has soured on business-to-business offerings that seek to move corporate buying and selling onto the Internet.

"I'm OK with the long-term recommendation," Blodget said. "At Merrill, the long term is supposed to be three years, and if ICG continues to execute, I think the stock could eventually have a good run from here.

"We breathed some words of caution as the sentiment began to shift," he said, "but we obviously should have shouted them."

He is still high on Amazon, though it has fallen 31 percent so far this year. At $52.19, it is 24 percent below his famous target and almost 50 percent below the $100 target he set for it recently, adjusted for splits.

He is not happy about that, because an analyst is only as good as his last call. But he stays on message.

As a visitor leaves his office, he notices her Amazon backpack.

"Great!" he says, smiling broadly. "Keep shopping at Amazon!"

Miriam Hill's e-mail is hillmb@phillynews.com

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