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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 21 News List

Microsoft accord relieves investors

ANTITRUST Those who bet on a favorable end to the US government's case against the top software company are now opening bottles of champagne


Microsoft Corp investors, who had already pushed the shares up 43 percent this year, said yesterday's antitrust settlement with the US Department of Justice validated their faith that the largest software maker would emerge with its growth prospects intact.

"It's a tremendous relief," said Larry Jones, chief investment officer of Durham, North Carolina-based NCM Capital Management Group Inc. Jones has been buying Microsoft shares this year as the company's legal prospects improved.

Microsoft is the best performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year. Investors bought shares as the company sought to overturn a breakup order and settle the case on terms that didn't hinder growth and product development. The US accord, which lets Microsoft pursue its Web strategy and build new features into the Windows operating system, gave investors a new surge of optimism.

"As bright as Microsoft's future was before, it's even brighter with this," said Michael Holland, who manages the Holland Balanced Fund, a US$60 million fund with 4 percent of its holdings in Microsoft stock.

"The legal process will be more rational from now on and Microsoft will be allowed to compete."

Holland said he bought "a chunk of his holdings" after an appeals court in June overturned a breakup of the Redmond, Washington-based company and removed the judge who ordered it.

With the major US legal concerns out of the way, the stock may rise to the low US$70s, said Marc Klee, money manager with the US$800 million John Hancock Technology Fund, which holds Microsoft shares. The shares fell US$0.44 yesterday to US$61.40.

Bill Rutherford, principal of Rutherford Investment Management, said a large jump is unlikely in the next few months, because the stock has already risen on speculation that a favorable settlement would be reached.

"The market has been anticipating a settlement since the Bush administration came in," said Rutherford, whose firm has about US$100 million in assets and holds about 100,000 Microsoft shares. "I don't think it's a stock anyone would sell, but you can't expect a big run-up."

The 18 states suing Microsoft haven't approved the settlement, although three leading state attorneys general immediately praised the agreement. A judge said she wants the states to take a position by tomorrow.

The EU's antitrust investigation of Microsoft for dominating the market for software to run corporate networks is still in progress. The company is interested in settling that case as well, CEO Steve Ballmer said..

Because Microsoft holds such a large part of the software market, Holland said Microsoft still faces legal scrutiny. The settlement is just "an important mile marker" in Microsoft's legal marathon, he said.

Still, many investors say the worst is over because important concerns were put to rest.

The settlement won't require the company to make significant and immediate alterations to the Windows XP program that went on sale last week, as investors had feared. The required changes can wait for the first collection of bug fixes Microsoft releases.

More important to Microsoft's plans for the next several years, the company will be able to proceed with an Internet strategy that involves adding new programs and features to the Windows system that already runs 90 percent of the world's personal computers.

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