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ONE AFTER ANOTHER, THE INstant millionaires and even billionaires have been appearing, brought forth by the stock market's magic. Last Aug. 9, Netscape, a Mountain View, California, software company, sold stock to the public for the first time. By the end of the day, the shares owned by chairman James Clark were worth $566 million. Netscape's technical whiz, Marc Andreessen, who is 24 years old, was suddenly worth $58 million. In November the net worth of Pixar chairman Steve Jobs increased more than $1.1 billion in a single day when the company, responsible for the computer-animated hit movie Toy Story, sold new stock on the open market. Dozens of other entrepreneurs have had similar experiences during the past year. Getting rich quick is one thing; these are cases of getting incredibly rich immediately.

The wealth comes from initial public offerings of stock, or IPOs, which are experiencing an unprecedented boom in the great bull market of the past two years. As the stock market has smashed records, more and more private firms, particularly technology companies, have decided to raise cash by selling equities to the public. More capital was raised in IPOs by emerging high-tech firms in 1995--$8.4 billion--than in any other year in U.S. history. And when an IPO is successful, the people who already hold shares in the company make out well. Sometimes very well. Sometimes unbelievably well.

Clark, for example, owns 32% of Netscape. Before the company went public, it was almost impossible to place a value on that stake. Now that Netscape stock is traded, it is easy to figure out: he has almost 20 million shares, and last week they were selling for $65.50. That makes Clark's stock worth more than $1 billion. On the day before the IPO, he simply owned a large piece of a company that had never shown a profit.

"I don't think there was ever a period when wealth was created so instantly through the market as it is today," says Alan Brinkley, professor of history at Columbia University. "Certainly there were many people who rose from modest wealth to vast riches over a lifetime at the turn of the century--specifically, those in railroads, steel, oil and the big, rapidly growing industries of the time. But it was nothing like the people today who are worth a few hundred thousand dollars one day and take their companies public the next and become billionaires."

In the past, the sudden creation of large fortunes was accompanied by great resentment on the part of the public, and great ostentation on the part of the new rich, which only made matters worse. Just think of the Gilded Age, or the 1920s, or--horrors!--the 1980s. This time things are different. When they work right, IPOs reward the people capitalism is supposed to reward--dynamic entrepreneurs, not rapacious monopolists or financial card-sharks. Among high-tech firms, the beneficiaries usually include employees far down in the hierarchy, who were granted stock options, often because the companies couldn't afford high salaries or generous benefits. Certainly, venture capitalists and investment bankers make money from IPOs, and they can be used to palm off lousy securities to the public. But at their best, IPOs are a Frank Capra movie, not Wall Street.

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