If trying to pick the Next Big Thing of the new millennium is making you queasy, imagine how your grandfather felt.
Today's high priests of investing are chanting about fibre optics, packet-switching, E-tailing and biotechnology.
Your ancestors no doubt listened to equally spirited debates over the potential for cotton oil, steamships, leather, sugar, and rubber.
Some of those wondrous opportunities crumbled into rust-buckets.
And some -- the really well-chosen ones -- are still paying off today.
We've singled out some of the investments we wish had been passed down through the family like an antique pocket watch.
This admittedly subjective list isn't all-inclusive, and getting maximum returns would require an exquisite sense of timing. Ask anybody who paid $150 (U.S.) for a share of Coca-Cola Co. in 1973: The stock plummeted, then took nearly 10 years to reach that level again. But the investor with enough grit to hang on would have had a return of about 4,200 per cent today.
And if the group seems unpatriotic with its firm grounding south of the border, scroll down to Cisco Systems Inc. for a comparison with Canada's leading light, Nortel Networks Corp.
The list includes many clear standouts in returning shareholder value and offers lessons about the originality and business acumen needed to succeed.
It is also notable how often the maverick vision of one person -- Sam Walton, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Andrew Grove, Michael Dell -- created seismic shifts in the way business was done.
Some of these demi-gods have created investments that soared beyond investors' wildest dreams in a moment. Others have taken decades to build solid wealth.
Here are the stock picks we wish we had made: General Electric Co.: When Charles Dow first published the Dow Jones industrial average on May 26, 1896, it consisted of a dozen stocks that reflected the times at the turn of the last century.
Of that original 12, only General Electric still ranks in the index today.
The other 11 in the original Dow lineup folded or changed form.
GE rose from the laboratories of Thomas Edison, who invented the incandescent light bulb, the first electrical-distribution system and the first batteries.
Mr. Edison left another legacy: he pioneered the modern concept of research and development.
GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., went on to provide all things for generating, transmitting, and using electricity. In recent years, hard-charging chairman and chief executive officer Jack Welch has become a legend with his audacious push to turn GE from a lumbering manufacturing holdover of the post-war era to a post-industrial portfolio of businesses -- each one moving at the speed of light.
Today the company is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable in the world. It makes jet engines and railway locomotives, refrigerators and plastics. Its NBC television network makes Friends, Frasier and The West Wing.
Mr. Welch is now thrusting into electronic commerce with customary zeal.
And when it comes to stock growth, GE has been no slouch: The company boasts a market capitalization second only to that of Microsoft Corp.
If you find some yellowed GE share certificates hidden behind an oil painting, you've earned 81,300 per cent from 1896 to 1999. Standard Oil Co. (New Jersey): The Standard Oil Trust organized by John D. Rockefeller in 1879 was broken up by anti-trust action in 1911. Over the century, the separate entities evolved into companies such as Chevron Corp., and Amoco Corp. The grand-daddy New Jersey arm became Exxon Corp., which gained notoriety and a sea of bad publicity in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef off the Alaska coast. The tanker ship released 40 million litres of oil into the Pacific, wiping out hundreds of thousands of seabirds and other wildlife. But the disaster did little damage to the long-term stock trend.
Exxon capped off 1999 by paying $81-billion for Mobil Corp. -- another descendant of the original trust -- to form Exxon Mobil Corp.
Standard Oil of New Jersey entered the Dow in 1928 when it was trading at $45.87. By 1996, taking into account share splits, that share had grown 121,100 per cent.
Haloid Co.: Warning -- If you stumble upon some crumbling share certificates of a curiosity called Haloid, do not throw them away. You won't find the company listed on any stock exchange, but the securities are exchangeable for shares in a household name: Xerox Corp.
Chester Carlson, a patent lawyer and part-time inventor, made the first xerographic image in his makeshift laboratory in New York on Oct. 22, 1938. He spent years trying to sell his invention, but business executives and entrepreneurs didn't believe there was a market for a copier when carbon paper worked just fine.
In 1947, a humble Rochester, N.Y., maker of photographic paper finally purchased the rights to Mr. Carlson's technology..
The company became Haloid Xerox Inc., then Xerox Corp. in 1961 after the first automatic office copier to use plain paper revolutionized office work.
Xerox was later annointed as one of the Nifty Fifty shares that soared in the late 1960s.
One hundred of the original Haloid shares, purchased for $20 each on April 17, 1936, would equal 108,000 of today's Xerox shares, for a value of $2.4-million. Unfortunately, the stock has dropped sharply since last summer when it reached $63.15. Still, at the stock's current level in the $22 range, the gain is a respectable 120,000 per cent. Sears Roebuck & Co.: The birth of the consumer culture also gave rise to the department stores spreading through every city and suburb. Sears further gained from the symbiotic relationship between retailing and the rise of consumer credit. The Sears charge card encouraged people to charge more purchases than they ever had before -- making the retailer the envy of rival merchants and some bankers too.
Sears shares have been sliding since 1998, but the stock has rung up a 231,000- per-cent return between its debut on the Dow in 1924 and the end of 1999. Procter & Gamble Co.: The consumer products behemoth began life as a humble maker of soap, candles, oils and glycerine in 1837. Now the company that makes Pampers diapers, Crest toothpaste and Tide detergent -- along with a shopping cart full of other household names -- is revered by the likes of GE CEO Jack Welch for its awesome marketing power.
In May of 1932, P&G joined joined the Dow. The rise since that date has been a whopping 73,300 per cent. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.: A sort of folksy mythology has grown up around the late Sam Walton, a Five and Dime shopkeeper who became the world's most successful merchant.
Mr. Walton established Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., in 1969. As his rivals were invading the suburbs, he scouted locations in heartland America while piloting his own plane.
Despite the Jimmy Stewart image, Mr. Walton had a shrewd grasp of the merits of low-margin, high-volume discounting, and a mean competitive streak.
His evangelical bent inspired legions of store "associates" with Wal-Mart fever.
In his autobiography, Mr. Walton acknowledged the media's fondness for portraying him as an eccentric hillbilly. He drove a pick-up truck, he insists, because it was the most convenient way to haul his bird dogs around.
Wal-Mart disappointed investors in February of 1996 when, after 99 quarters of record earnings, it announced its first decline in quarterly profit.
That fall from grace led the company to put even greater effort into sharpening its competitive edge.
Wal-Mart continues to expand internationally, but emerging markets such as China, Argentina and Indonesia are proving tougher than Nebraska and Iowa.
Wal-Mart shares, which were first offered to the public in 1970, hit a low point in 1975. An investor who purchased the stock then would have a gain of 336,000 today. Nifty Fifty: Investors who got in early on the fabled Nifty Fifty -- a cadre of large-cap growth stocks driven up to dramatic price-to-earnings ratios from 1968 through the early 1970s -- enjoyed a very profitable run. These stocks were the last to fall, but ultimately fell furthest, when the economy slowed and the bear market arrived in 1973.
The list included the big league stocks of the day: Coca-Cola, Pepsico Inc., Walt Disney Co., McDonald's Corp., American Express Co., International Business Machines Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., Polaroid Corp., Avon Products Inc., Gillette Co., Xerox, GE, and a pack of other seemingly-invincible names.
The strategy was to avoid the crash-and-burn concept stocks and buy and hold these blue-chip stalwarts, regardless of their nosebleed valuations.
The strategists who read the tea leaves of the current two-tiered market often look to the Nifty Fifty of the early 1970s for a cautionary tale about following the herd. Coca-Cola: One of the banner names of the Nifty Fifty, Coca-Cola saw its shares soar to $150 in 1973 before the downturn came. Invented by an Atlanta pharmacist in 1886, Coke became one of the most powerful icons on the planet.
Over the years, however, the company's arteries had hardened. By the 1980s, Coke was struggling to maintain its supremacy over Pepsi and other rivals, and the stock languished for the better part of 10 years. Much of the credit for Coke's success in the modern era has been handed to Cuban-born Roberto Goizueta, who took over as chief in 1981.
Despite a fiasco dubbed New Coke in 1985, for the most part, Coke thrived under Mr. Goizueta's 17-year stewardship before his death in 1997 as he overhauled and reinvigorated the business. The shares took off again, soaring 5,300 per cent between 1974 and 1998. The stock has tumbled since reaching the $90 range in 1998 to the $60 level at the end of 1999. Intel Corp.: If you missed out on buying GE in 1896, you had another shot at buying a world-altering stock with Intel in the 1970s.
The integrated circuit has done for the past 20 years of the century what electricity did for the first 80 -- spawning new industries and generating untold riches.
Founded in 1968, Intel was a startup maker of integrated circuit-memory products in 1971 when it introduced the microprocessor and the promise of powerful computing for the masses.
Intel's inventions spawned the personal computer revolution; the rapacious demand for PCs in turn drove Intel's growth and the company gained a virtual monopoly.
Intel founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were the master inventors: Moore's Law was created in 1975 when the co-founder predicted that the power of a computer chip would double every 18 months.
Andrew Grove was the strategist who kept the entire industry moving at a torrid pace with his unswerving focus on making Moore's law a reality.
Mr. Grove's successor, Craig Barrett, has taken the reins in a less friendly corporate environment: Increased competition, price wars and the commoditization of the chip have led him to try to broaden the business.
Intel shares have defied most of the laws of stock appreciation: The shares have jumped 119,700 per cent between 1973 and the end of 1999. Applied Materials Inc.: Intel not only ushered in the era of the PC, its California headquarters became the epicentre of Silicon Valley. The race to build faster and smaller chips generated success for other high-tech startups. Just down the road from Intel in Santa Clara, Applied Materials CEO James Morgan gained near-heroic stature by trouncing Japanese rivals in the business of making machines that turn silicon wafers into semiconductors.
Like many young industries, the chip equipment business has seen its share of boom and bust over the past three decades, and investors in Applied Materials have experienced something of a wild ride.
Last month the shares of the 32-year-old company took a dive after Applied made sales and profit forecasts that disappointed some investors looking for more growth. But analysts say demand for chip equipment is exploding as the quest for smaller and faster only intensifies, and the semiconductors are used in a broader array of products. Wall Street believes that market breadth will help to smooth out some of the wild price gyrations.
Despite the volatility, investors who bought the shares at their trough in 1975 and held on have now tallied a return of 315,800 per cent. Microsoft Corp. -- In 1981, IBM introduced the first personal computer based on an Intel microchip. The second half of what has come to be known as the Wintel juggernaut was Microsoft.
The story is legend by now: Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University to set up Microsoft with his buddy, Paul Allen, and cobbled together a software program that provided the basic functions for IBM's new PC.
Microsoft then licenced MS-DOS to all comers, spawning the clone industry.
In the 1990s, it was the stellar growth of Windows software that made Microsoft the most valuable company on earth and Mr. Gates the wealthiest man.
Today, on the fringes of Seattle, the Microsoft campus is teeming with millionaires. One of the software maker's biggest challenges is hanging onto talent that has enough stock options to retire with tremendous riches before the age of 40.
In recent years Mr. Gates and his lieutenants have been driven to distraction by the U.S. Justice Department, which deemed the company a rogue monopolist and put its executives on trial. The case is still before the courts.
Microsoft's market capitalization, which stood at a staggering $606-billion at the end of 1999, is now the largest in the United States.
Microsoft shares have been enjoying a millennium rally of their own. The recent runup brings the return since the stock began trading in 1986 to 61,975. Cisco Systems Inc.: The San Jose, Calif., outfit makes the routers and switches and other networking gear that links computers. About 80 per cent of all Internet traffic passes through a Cisco router before reaching its destination.
Cisco has grown at breakneck pace with an astonishing streak of more than 40 acquisitions in the past six years.
Recently the company paid a jaw-dropping $7.4-billion for tiny Cerent Corp., which tallied all of $9.9-million in sales for the first half of its last fiscal year.
Cisco has also paved the way for business-to-business E-selling with its own customers. By processing orders over the Internet, Cisco saves massive amounts of money and time.
Cisco boss John Chambers has identified Nortel Networks of Brampton, Ont., as one of the companies he would like to crush in the coming convergence of computer and telephone networks.
Nowhere is the difference between Canadian and U.S. equity investing more clear than in the relative performances of Nortel and Cisco shares.
Cisco has a 10-year return of roughly 66,000 per cent.
Nortel -- Canada's high-tech star -- has advanced 1,200 per cent over the decade. Dell Computer Corp.: If you bought only one stock in the 1990s, Dell was the one to pick.
Michael Dell launched his revolution by selling mail-order computers from his University of Texas dorm room in the early 1980s.
"The whole idea that people would leave their office to go buy some office equipment is ludicrous," Mr. Dell said.
The boy wonder undercut the industry's heavyweights on price and loaded up on service and support.
Some early stumbles, such as attempting a run at the retail market and making a line of notebook computers that flopped, caused the company to report a loss in 1993.
But Mr. Dell reorganized, recruited some grizzled veterans for the executive suite, and sales have continued into the stratoshpere.
Dell shares have established their own torrid pace of steep runups and regular stock splits. An investment in Dell during a dip in 1990 has yielded a stellar 86,250 per cent.
TIME MASKS UNEVEN GROWTH: THE CASE OF COCA-COLA
Coca-Cola's stock market price has risen 8.300% since the beginning of 1970 -- that's an average annual compound rate of 15.9% -- but this growth has not been steady. The chart shows how the average rate has varied from one five-year period to the next. It peaked in the record half of the eighties and has been slowing down in the nineties.
1970-75 -1.8% 1975-80 +5.1% 1980-85 +18.2% 1985-90 +31.9% 1990-95 +27.1% 1995-2000 +18.9%
A semi-logarithmic scale has been used so that equal percentage price moves look the same at all points. Prices have been adjusted for splits.