Sorting men from dot-com boys

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 12:00am

Your correspondent has a sad confession to make. He has consulted his media adviser, his software adviser, his communications adviser, all to no avail.

He just doesn't Get It.

Of course he may not be the only one who doesn't Get It. The whimsical expression on the face of Hong Kong and China Gas chairman Lee Shau-kee at a gathering on Monday to announce a new sort of Internet link on the company's gas pipelines suggests he doesn't Get It either.

Your correspondent may be wrong here but that look appears to say, 'well I can't seem to get this share price up any other way so if the punters are willing to pay silly prices for anything with the letter 'i' in front of it, let's give it a try so long as we don't sink any serious money into this thing.' If that is really what he thinks, then let's remember that here is a man who Got It magnificently in his own business of property development and has billions to prove he was more tuned in than almost anyone else to what was happening in his own generation.

Let's refine that perspective on Getting It. This column is primarily about money because your correspondent, although effectively retired, finds that markets fascinate him.

Getting It has to be more than acceptance that the Internet is introducing a revolution in our commercial arrangements with widespread social effects.

If this is the only message of the Get It brigade and its only call to action to get on to your keyboard then spare us your thoughts on the obvious, boys. The most notable social effect so far is the spread of pornography.

That's been a real Internet winner.

How will society change? There is the truly intriguing question and it comes loaded with rewards for the right answer and the person bold enough to bet on that answer.

Mr Lee was bold enough to invest in his answer when a big question like that came up on Hong Kong's social development 30 years ago and Bill Gates of Microsoft was when a big question more closely related to the Internet arose 20 years ago.

Talk of rewards for Getting It.

But all the hype surrounding that letter 'i' makes it seem that the simplistic Get It message is enough now. Is it about a keyboard connected to a modem jack? Yes? Then throw all your money into it.

A simple fact of commerce everywhere, however, is that new technologies offer big rewards to the first people to exploit them but thereafter margins go steadily down as efficiencies improve and more competitors enter the field.

Society as a whole is a big winner of this but not necessarily the people who seek to exploit society through the new technologies. The irony they face is that the tougher life becomes for them the better it becomes for everyone else.

All the evidence at hand suggests that it is already happening in the Internet and that investors beguiled by 'i' hype are mistaking the social benefits of this new technology for its investment rewards.

Yes, there will still be winners among them. Some will be able to keep up with the leading edge of new technologies. A very few will luck on to the as yet unknown answer to the big question of where it is all going.

But most of these winners, still far fewer than the losers, will be people who cash in their 'i' stocks in time to put the money into enterprises that offer a proper return on investment.

And here is an idea for an alternative of that nature. Mr Lee's corporate flagship, Henderson Land, has still got plenty of answers left to the big question of his day.

Our population is booming, the economy is recovering and people have plenty of money to hand but we still live in shoeboxes of which there is only a meagre new supply on hand, while prices have come down to levels of seven years ago.

Let's talk about a beckoning investment opportunity.

Got it?