As the NASDAQ approaches historic highs, Apple’s market cap exceeds that of the Bovespa (the Brazilian equity index) and young social media companies like Snapchat have nosebleed valuations, there is talk of a tech bubble again. It is human nature to group or classify individuals or entities and assign common characteristics to the group and we tend to do the same, when investing. Specifically, we categorize stocks into sectors or groups and assume that many or most stocks in each group share commonalities. Thus, we assume that utility stocks have little growth and pay large dividends and commodity and cyclical stocks have volatile earnings largely because of macroeconomic factors. With “tech” stocks, the common characteristics that come to mind for many investors are high growth, high risk and low cash payout. While that would have been true for the typical tech stock in the 1980s, is it still true? More specifically, what does the typical tech company look like, how is it priced and is its pricing put it in a bubble? As I hope to argue in the section below, the answers depend upon which segment of the tech sector you look at.
A Short History of Tech Stocks
My first foray into investing was in the early 1980s, as the market started its long bull market run that lasted for almost two decades. In 1981, the technology stocks in the market were mainframe computer manufacturers, led by IBM and a group of smaller companies lumped together as the seven dwarves (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Honeywell etc.). Not only were they collectively a small proportion of the entire market, but of the list of top ten companies, in market capitalization terms, in 1981, only one (IBM) could have been categorized as a technology stock (though GE had a small stake in computer-related businesses then):
During the 1980s, the personal computer revolution created a new wave of technology companies and while IBM fell from grace, companies catering to the PC business such as Microsoft, Compaq and Dell rose up the market cap ranks. By 1991, the top ten stocks still included only one technology company, IBM, and it had slipped in the rankings. However even in 1991, technology stocks remained a small portion of the market, comprising less than 7% of the S&P 500. During the 1990s, the dot-com boom created a surge in technology companies and their valuations, and while the busting of that boom in 2000 caused a reassessment, technology has become a larger piece of the overall market, as evidenced by this graph that describes the breakdown, by sector, for the S&P 500 from 1991 to 2014:
[drizzle]There are two things to note in this graph.
- The first is that technology as a percentage of the market has remained stable since 2009, which calls into question the notion that technology stocks have powered the bull market of the last five years.
- The second is that technology is now the largest single slice of the equity market in the United States and close to the second largest in the global market. So what? Just as growth becomes more difficult for a company as it gets larger and becomes a larger part of the economy, technology collectively is running into a scaling problem, where its growth rate is converging on the growth rate for the economy. While this convergence is sometimes obscured by the focus on earnings per share growth, the growth rate in revenues at technology companies collectively has been moving towards the growth rate of the economy.
The Diversity of Technology
As technology ages and becomes a larger part of the economy, a second phenomenon is occurring. Companies within the sector are becoming much more heterogeneous not only in the businesses that they operate in, but also in their growth and operating characteristics. To see these differences, let’s start by looking at the sector and its composition in terms of age at the start of 2015. In February 2015, there were 2816 firms that were classified as technology companies, just in the United States, accounting for 31.7% for all publicly traded companies in the US market. Some of these companies have been listed for only a few years but others have been around for decades. Using the year of their founding as the birth year, I estimated the age for each company and came up with the following breakdown of tech stocks, by age:
Note that 341 technology companies have been in existence for more than 35 years and an additional 427 firms have been in existence between 25 and 35 years, and they collectively comprise about 41% of the firms that we had founding years available in the database. While being in existence more than 25 years may sound unexceptional, given that there are manufacturing and consumer product companies that have been around a century or longer, tech companies age in dog years, as the life cycles tend to be more intense and compressed. Put differently, IBM may not be as old as Coca Cola in calendar time but it is a corporate Methuselah, in tech years.
The Pricing of Technology
The speedy rise of social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin from nothing to large market cap companies, priced richly relative to revenues and earnings, has led some to the conclusion that this rich pricing must be across the entire sector. To see if this is true, I look at common pricing metrics across companies in the technology sector, broken down by age.
To adjust for the fact that cash holdings at some companies are substantial, I computed a non-cash PE, by netting cash out of the market capitalization and the income from cash holdings from the net income. While it is true that the youngest tech companies look highly priced, the pricing becomes more reasonable, as you look across the age scale. For instance, while the youngest companies in the tech sector trade at 4.34 times revenues (based upon enterprise value), the oldest companies trade at 2.44 times revenues.
How do tech companies measure up against non-tech companies? After all, any story that is built on the presumption that tech companies are the sources of a market bubble has to backed up by data that indicates that tech companies are over priced relative to the rest of the market. To answer this question, I looked at the youngest (<10 and=”” companies=”” oldest=”” tech=”” years=””>35 years) relative to the youngest (<10 and=”” companies:=”” div=”” non-tech=”” oldest=”” years=””>
The assessment depends upon what part of the technology sector