January 13, 2000 5:30 PM PST

Wall Street not worried about Microsoft swap

Can anything hurt Microsoft's share price?

Headlines yesterday and today were dominated by speculation that the Justice Department may seek to split Microsoft into two or three parts.

How did investors react? The shares gained $2 today to close at $107.81.

Yet after the markets closed Microsoft 2.0: Gates
steps aside for regular trading today, Gates announced that he plans to step down as chief executive and that Microsoft's current president, Steve Ballmer, will take over the post.

In after-hours trading, shares in the software giant initially fell. However, they soon recovered and were trading at $108, according to Island, a finance firm that tracks late trading.

"Ballmer is a terrific manager and leader," said William Epifanio, a J.P. Morgan Securities analyst. "He's been president for a while, so we expect this will be a low-risk transition."

That's good news for investors, and not just for those holding Microsoft stock.

The company is considered a bellwether in the technology industry. With a market capitalization of more than $558 billion, Microsoft stock accounts for about 11 percent of the entire value of the Nasdaq market.

"I don't think there will be any fundamental change to the company," said Paul Dravis, an analyst with Banc of America Securities. "During the last few meetings in Redmond (Wash.), you got a sense that Ballmer was taking more of an active role in managing the company."

Ballmer is viewed as a strong, motivational leader who has the confidence of many investors on Wall Street. He was promoted to the position of president just 18 months ago.

Although the timing of the announcement may have been unexpected, Wall Street wasn't shocked by the decision, analysts said.

"I think it's a good move and not totally surprising," said Epifanio, adding that the change may have already been factored into Microsoft's share price.

He noted that it may be hard to distinguish the contributions of Gates and Ballmer as their vision for the company is very similar. Yet there are differences between the men on an operational level, Epifanio said.

"Gates is clearly a planning and product-type of executive. And Ballmer is (a) kick-the-doors-down and get-sales-results (executive)," he said.

Gates can clearly afford the break, analysts added. The world's richest man added a total of $38.2 billion to his paper wealth last year.

 

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