In early 2000, tech (along with media and telecom) stocks could do no wrong. They were one decision stocks that took the whole market up with them… until they didn’t as 2000 continued. Reality has a nasty habit of intervening.
Now, once again tech is the safety blanket of choice. Financials and industrials not working out like you hoped? That’s OK, tech will never hurt you. At least not the biggest ones… mostly.
One trend I’ve noticed is that the tech stocks seem to do great as long as you don’t introduce any numbers into the conversation. They can levitate on dreams. Even when they report good numbers, though, they can’t seem to go up. I think the average large tech company reported quite nice numbers last quarter, but they couldn’t go up on them. They went up beforehand and afterward, but around earnings cruel reality seemed to turn dragons back into windmills, and squires back into peasants.
I bring this up because we’re going to get another bout of reality in a few weeks. We’ve been through this frankly amazing few months for tech stocks. Apple not selling high-end phones like they hoped? Facebook seeing lower engagement, particularly with youths, and in trouble with Congress? Tesla sounding a lot more like a carnival barker than a business? Netflix levering up on the business of buying a dollar of content to sell it for 50 cents? Amazon may be subject to sales tax? I guess I worry too much, because nobody else is. It’s worked so far, so why worry?
For how long can this last? I don’t really know, but even if you believe something to be true really, really hard, that doesn’t actually make it true. An unfortunate truth is that while discounted cash flow models can be very useful if used honestly, they can also be reverse engineered to produce the happy result you’d like to see. I think we’re seeing a lot of that lately. Most large tech companies have been seeing estimates rising pretty quickly, and I generally don’t see why, except that it’s convenient to justify the soaring prices.
To be fair, comps for most of these large tech companies are relatively easy for this quarter, but there’s a limit to how much that matters, and comps only get harder from here. Hopes and expectations are really high, and concerns get pushed to the background when there’s the appearance of easy money to be made. There aren’t many people who are willing to push back on such a nice move, but it sure does pay to be first.
Much like 2000, there are just a handful of tech stocks driving the market. Those few stocks are also responsible for making growth look much better than value for another year. That’s actually been a generally reasonable idea, as the economy keeps looking a little better and a little better. My question is have we learned nothing? Do people think we can continue that forever? The good times create the seeds of the bad times. More mathematically, the comps keeps getting harder, the hill gets steeper, not to mention the problems mentioned above with tech stocks, plus trade wars and so on. As the year has gone on, a lot of growth stocks have started to fall by the wayside. Will those remaining several tech stocks continue the impossible dream, or will the pull of numbers drag them back with the rest?
It’s good to dream, but in the stock market, being the first person to regain your senses is a great lesson in pain avoidance.