PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- Lenka Hruzikova says she's not a gambler, but she's laid down a week's salary in Czechoslovakia's latest and biggest game of chance -- voucher privatization.
"If you're lucky you can get something from this," says Ms. Hruzikova, a 30-year-old teacher. "But I don't want to be dependent on this money -- it's like a game."
The privatization, a government-sponsored giveaway of billions of dollars worth of stock in state-owned companies, has created a tidal wave of interest here as today's deadline for registering approaches.
More than 8.4 million people --nearly three-fourths of Czechoslovakia's eligible adults -- have registered to participate in the program.
Conversations in Prague are dominated by the investment process: One man says he thinks a producer of raw materials would be best; another says he'll invest in Czechoslovakia's trademark crystal factories; everybody agrees that breweries are a safe bet, but with so much interest, their stock will fetch a high price.
Exact prices won't be known for some time. At the outset, Czechs and Slovaks will pay 1,000 crowns (about $35, or a bit more than the average weekly salary), to buy a booklet containing vouchers worth 1,000 investment points.
Booklet holders can then trade their points for shares in one or more of the nearly 1,500 enterprises being privatized. Share prices are set somewhat randomly at first, but will go up or down according to demand.
For example, after the government issues its first set of share prices, registered investors will make their preferences known. Companies with attractive share prices (either because they're in industries' perceived as attractive or are perceived to be worth more than the government's estimation) will be oversubscribed and the government will raise their share price enough to balance supply and demand.
In several rounds of this first wave of privatization, the government hopes to find buyers for all shares of the 1,500 enterprises. A second wave is already planned to follow some months later, with another 1,000 to 1,500 companies moving from government to private shareholder ownership.
Further, it's hoped that a sophisticated computer system, now being used to track all the registrants and their company preferences, can be adapted later as an electronic stock market, similar in concept to the automated over-the-counter markets in the United States.
Meanwhile, many people apparently feel they don't know enough about the companies and markets to buy shares in individual companies. They are being exposed to another staple of U.S. individual investors -- the mutual fund. Funds have sprung up to accept registrants' investment points. The funds then buy shares with all of the points they receive, like a mutual fund. About half of those who have bought books have invested them with the funds.
Indeed, it is the funds that have given the program its biggest boost. Before the funds began advertising, about the first of the year, there was scant interest in voucher privatization. Finance Ministry officials were publicly saying they expected four million Czechs and Slovaks to sign up, but in private, they acknowledged that they would have been happy with half that many.
Then one fund -- Harvard Capital & Consulting, run by a Czech emigre with a bachelor's degree from Harvard University -- began aggressively advertising that it would guarantee investors a 10-fold return in one year. That set off a bidding war among the more than 400 funds that have popped up. Some are now guaranteeing 11 or even 15 times the original investment, while others immediately pay out two times the 1,000-crown cost of the booklet to anyone who signs up.
There is no apparent government oversight of such extravagant claims, but the funds say they've been able to get the financing so far to make good on their up-front payments. "In December it was quite clear that people didn't believe privatization. They thought it was a fraud, it was just some extra tax, there was some hidden liability," says Viktor Kozeny, the 28-year-old president of Harvard Capital & Consulting.
"I think we are seen as the catalyst of the privatization. After the official campaign [advertising the program], which was a total failure, we came up with a few key concepts, which really caught the attention of the people."
Officials at the Finance Ministry, which is organizing the privatization, were clearly caught off-guard by the surge of interest.
They also began to worry about the potential influence of the funds. With investors acting individually, they said, insider trading would not be a problem, because no one individual could control more than his or her 1,000 investment points. But with some funds controlling the vouchers of nearly 500,000 investors, such concerns became more pressing. In response to the success of the funds, the ministry has ruled that no fund may control more than 20 percent of any company.
Some funds -- Harvard in particular -- have been accused of strong-arm tactics in getting people to sign up. That has led the government to give anyone who earlier signed up for a fund the right to rescind that decision and invest in another company or fund.
Despite the guaranteed returns offered by the funds, many here still regard the process as little more than a crap shoot. Indeed, even Dusan Triska, who oversees the program for the Finance Ministry, acknowledges that the program has "a very high degree of uncertainty."
For individuals like Ms. Hruzikova, who two and a half years ago couldn't have imagined becoming a shareholder in the companies she "owned" as a citizen in a socialist state, the uncertainties can be overwhelming. At the same time, however, for Ms. Hruzikova and more than 8 million others, the voucher privatization is a guessing game that's not to be missed. "If you really know where to put" your investment points, she says, "I think you really can make some money."