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Is Japan now creating the world’s best Internet stock bubble?

February 25, 2000

Is Japan now creating the world's best Internet stock bubble?

The extraordinary rise in “dot-com” Internet stocks has been described as a “giant Ponzi Scheme” by former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich. Others, prosaically, have described it as the 21st-century equivalent of the Dutch “tulip mania” in the 1600s.

At some point, sober-sided economists say, the bubble has to burst — particularly since so many e-commerce companies lose money year after year. But while investor enthusiasm might be understandable — or at least forgivable — in the United States, Japanese investors should still have vivid memories of their own stock market bubble bursting a decade ago.

Nevertheless, even as the country is struggling to get out of its economic doldrums, Japanese investors are in the throes of an e-commerce boom that destroys the old adage: “Once bitten, twice shy.”

Need an example? The stock of Yahoo Japan — the Japanese offshoot of the Silicon Valley-based web company — is currently trading on Japan’s over-the-counter exchange at more than one million dollars per share. That’s right, dollars — not yen. For every share of this risky Internet stock, an investor could buy 50 shares of Warren Buffett’s famously expensive, but universally coveted Berkshire Hathaway shares.

Nobuo Tanaka, Japan’s representative for trade, industry and energy affairs at the embassy in Washington, reports that only four or five shares of Yahoo change hands each day. Then, in another sign of Internet-induced mania, Mr. Tanaka himself — abandoning his carefully chosen diplomatic language — had just one word for Yahoo’s stock price: Insane, he said, insane.