Are you wondering when the current tide of creative destruction from the FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet née Google) will recede so we can go back to our old ways of investing in what we know? Like brick-and-mortar retailers, television and radio assets, movie production companies and advertising?
If you’re one of the holdouts waiting to wade back into Amazon’s wake, you’re missing the whole point of the current market. I am not saying it is different this time. I am saying the opposite: Progress happens. It is just happening faster than the disrupted old-line companies can adapt.
As Verizon and AT&T scrape along at new annual lows in spite of massive dividends, IBM and AutoZone go down in spite of massive stock buybacks, and Blue Apron and Snap face lethal disruption before the ink is dry on their prospectuses, you have to ask yourself this important question:
Is there anything worth owning besides the FANG stocks?
This is a battle that’s going on up and down both Wall and Main streets. In 1999 the NASDAQ soared 85 percent, only to fall by 77 percent over the next few years. Believe it or not, tech stocks are just now getting back to year 2000 levels. No one wants to go through the latter part of that parabolic move. But we see how new companies, which are asset-light, have found complete acceptance by consumers with their internet-based business models. And every day, a highly regarded company’s’ stock is taken out to the woodshed.
“Today’s winning hand is no more than a function of how much of your portfolio you’re willing to commit to the same mega-cap tech stocks.”
Even the “Amazon-proof” stocks have been getting body-slammed: Costco and Ulta Beauty come to mind. And now Amazon has its own aircraft, which could, at least theoretically, compete with UPS and FedEx.
Today’s winning hand is no more than a function of how much of your portfolio you’re willing to commit to the same mega-cap tech stocks. Value plays look more like permanently displaced companies, and it’s changing the investing landscape in ways that need to be pointed out.
Just take a look at the iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY), a popular dividend strategy ETF — it’s up about 5.46 percent year-to-date, according to Morningstar data through July 18. The Vanguard Mega Cap Index Fund (MGC) is up more than 11.3 percent year-to-date. The PowerShares Buyback Achievers Portfolio (PKW) is at least holding up with a year-to-date return of about 7.9 percent. But the PowerShares NASDAQ Trust (QQQ) is up more than 21 percent this year. The more the large-cap tech stocks comprise an index, the better the index is performing. Netflix, the N in FANG, smashed subscribership growth expectations and is adding fuel to their meteoric rise.
Crushed underneath the weight of FANG stocks
When I started writing this piece, I was looking for reasons to be bullish, and I found what I thought was a good one: price discovery. In other words, even as tech stocks went up a lot, there were many stocks going down and proving (or so I thought) that investors were doing the due diligence of buying and selling based on valuation. But I fear now that what I found wasn’t the kind of price discovery I wanted, but more like the kind that spells doom for an awful lot of companies. Many more than I think investors are prepared to accept. After doing the homework, what I really saw was the stock market getting crushed underneath the weight of FANG.
Near term, I see very few places to find returns outside of this group, unfortunately. And if the domestic economy slows further, that could actually make this group more attractive to investors because it could be the only source of growth. Their growth will become even more valuable from a scarcity point of view.
One day these mega-cap tech companies will hit the wall of large numbers, unable to post such impressive year-over-year growth, and their premium valuations will have to be adjusted lower. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that day, though. In 1999 tech reached 34 percent of the S&P 500. Today it’s a little under 23 percent, a little lower if you take out Amazon, which is a retailer and considered a member of the consumer discretionary GICS by Standard and Poor’s. These companies have a long runway of other companies to eat — for breakfast, lunch and dinner — before they get to the end of the market-share buffet.
Since the most popular indices are “market-cap” weighted, the biggest companies represent bigger proportions of the index they’re in, and that means these stocks get a greater proportion of index purchase money. To adopt Yogi Berra’s style of phraseology, The bigger they get, the bigger they get. This is why the CRSP US Mega Cap Index and the S&P 500 are nearly equal in performance over the last five years; it’s real-world data that displays the mega-cap domination of the major averages.
Aside from the quality of the mega-cap tech stocks, which is arguably the best we’ve ever seen, it makes sense that in the tech-centric world we’re in today, the IT sector would dominate the major benchmarks. In 1999, China wasn’t the second-largest economy in the world. Both China and India weren’t tech buyers and users to the extent they are now. I recall when the front cover of Barron’s had a bomb with a lit fuse and the caption “Amazon.bomb.” Today Amazon is one of the greatest American companies of all time, even receiving accolades this year from Warren Buffett.
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I recently recommended scaling out of some of these giant winners because there are undoubtedly similarities to the tech bubble of 17 years ago. But the meaning was: Lighten up, because the only way to avoid a bubble is to have taken profits before the big, bad event. But where else could you invest? I see a few values that are worth owning now while waiting for better times. Big banks, big oil, industrials, defense and a few consumer discretionary companies, like restaurants. But I don’t expect quick returns. Big pharma is another area in which I see potential long-term upside, but the sector retains political risk that should remain heightened for years to come.
I was a much younger advisor during the dot-com bubble. Now I’m in the 50-plus crowd (I recently hit the big 5-0) and I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One in particular is that you have to participate in the market you’re in, not the one you think we should be in. At least participate to the extent you and your clients are comfortable with.
Diversification still means something to me. I will continue to advise my clients to remain diversified, because no trend or style in the stock market will last forever. But even if the large tech stocks were to come crashing down, à la the tech wreck of 2000 to 2003, the business landscape they leave behind isn’t ever going back to what it was.
The perennial “shrink to grow” strategy adopted by disrupted companies is a last-ditch effort that has a poor track record of long-term success. Sears/K-Mart is a good example. And if low fuel prices and interest rates aren’t helping now … well, I’m not optimistic. Maybe it’s fitting that on Thursday, in a rare sign of big box store thinking outside of the box, Sears announced that it is testing a different strategy: It’s going to sell Alexa-enabled appliances on Amazon. Based on how the stock is jumping on the news, investors appreciate the “If I can’t beat’em, I’ll join ’em” strategy.[“Source-cnbc”]