Sentiment travels quickly in the hyperkinetic world of the global capital markets. Just a week ago, the talk of the town was all about the Great Rotation. After weeks, months…nay, years! of underperformance, value stocks looked poised to unseat the great megatrend in growth stocks.
Remember one week ago? Facebook tanked as investors found reasons aplenty not to like the company’s earnings report, which suggested that stupendous revenue growth in the mid-40s would turn into not-quite-as-stupendous revenue growth in the mid-20s, and fat profit margins in the mid-40s would become somewhat less obese (though still hefty) profit margins in the low 30s. Facebook’s woes came on the heels of an earlier subdued outlook by Netflix and was followed by more downbeat headlines from Twitter (apparently being the official platform for the communication of US government policy doesn’t add much in the way of monetary value…). Suddenly FAANG nation (and its fellow travelers like Twitter) was in trouble! Rotation to value in three…two…one…
Blessed Be The Fruit
And then there was Apple, and the $1 trillion market capitalization that swiftly dispatched away all that talk of a Great Rotation from growth to value. As the chart below shows, growth (in green) has recovered quite nicely, thank you, in the space of the past three days.
The only thing financial pundits love more than talking about a market rotation is talking about big round numbers, and they don’t get bigger or rounder than $1 trillion. Value rotation, we hardly knew ye!
The Unsolved Mystery of Value Investing
Now, the fact that we have to bide our time for awhile longer before value stocks come back into favor does not do anything to solve the big mystery of what, in the name of all that is good and wholesome, ever happened to value stocks in the first place. After all, the “value effect” is supposed to be one of the fixtures of long term investing. The value effect holds that investing in stocks whose market price is lower than their fundamental value pays off. Over time, you are more likely to perform well by buying and holding out-of-favor names that are mispriced by the market than you are by getting into a hot growth name that everyone else is chasing.
The logic behind the value effect seems impeccably tight. But the numbers tell a different story. Over the last thirty years, the value segment of the Russell 3000 stock index, a broad measure of US stocks, actually underperformed the broader index. Not by much – the Russell 3000 Value returned an average annual 10.38 percent compared to 10.53 percent for the Russell 3000. But still – that’s a 30 year span of time, nearly one third of a century. And the numbers don’t improve. The value index underperformed growth over most time periods since then, with the gap between them increasing. Over the last five years a growth investor outperformed her value counterpart by more than 5 percent on an annual average basis.
The Software That Ate the World
The value conundrum is occupying quite a bit of our research brainpower here at MV Financial and we plan to come out with a more in-depth research piece on the topic some time in the coming weeks. One way of looking at the mystery is supplied by Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and founder of Netscape (hi, kids! That was a browser we used back in the days when we used to dial into our AOL accounts. See “hissing modems”…). Back in 2011 Andreessen penned an article called “Why Software Is Eating the World.” The premise was that software platforms were encroaching into the central business value propositions of practically every industry sector, with the lion’s share of rewards falling to those companies most adept and developing and deploying technology solutions for their markets.
At the time Andreessen’s article was dismissed by many as so much Valley technobabble, but it has stood the test of time. Just look at what happens on any given day when, say, Amazon threatens to enter the retail pharmaceutical business or buys Whole Foods. Competitive industry dynamics these days do appear to be about little else than the deft execution of hard-to-imitate software platforms.
If Andreessen’s thesis is behind the growth stock megatrend, then investors will not be too happy when the FAANG sharks and their extended court of growth stock pilot fish do run out of upside. The result may be less an orderly reversion to mean while value stocks run for a while, and more a winding down of this historically long bull market. We are not suggesting that this is imminent, but it does bear watching. Meanwhile, detective work on the Case of the Missing Value Effect will continue apace.
In the stock market, as in life, all is not equal. In the case of the S&P 500, the inequality derives from that simplest of mathematical formulas: share price times number of shares outstanding – i.e., market capitalization. The importance of any industry sector – from the standpoint of its influence on the total market – is simply a function of the market caps of all the companies in that sector added up. Simply put: the larger the market cap of an individual company or industry sector, the more impact their price movements have on the broader index.
Market Cap Economics 101
Investors have been getting a crash course in market cap economics over the past several weeks as the most dominant sector – and that sector’s most dominant constituents – have battled some unusually strong headwinds. Information technology – one of ten primary industry sectors in the S&P 500 – makes up just under 25 percent of that benchmark index’s total market cap. That is by far the largest single sector: financial institutions, the second largest, make up just 14.3 percent of total market cap at current values. Moreover, the four largest companies in the S&P 500 tech sector – Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft – account for 11.1 percent of the total. Add in Amazon – widely considered a tech company although formally listed in the consumer discretionary sector – and you have five companies with a collective market cap of 14.1 percent of the S&P 500 – nearly as much as the entire financial sector. That explains why the following chart has so many investors on edge today:
The main tale of woe has centered around just one of these behemoths, Facebook, which is caught in the crosshairs of a rapidly evolving controversy over its data privacy policies. The story of Cambridge Analytica, a secretive data firm with an affinity for right wing politics and a 2016 mission to help get Trump elected, has been given thorough coverage in mainstream media outlets and does not need rehashing here. The issue is why this story, which at first glance would appear to be company-specific, has thrown such a wet blanket over the entire sector. As the chart above shows, the decline of the tech powerhouses in late January and early February was more or less in line with the market, while the sector’s decline in March has been relatively far more severe.
The answer is that, while Facebook has one business model, Alphabet (Google) another and Apple another still, issues like data privacy and network effects (which can potentially lock in users and lead to concerns about monopolistic practices) affect all the so-called “major platform companies.” In a sense, these recent developments are the flip side of the very reason for which investors have been in love with these companies for so long. Their platforms have radically changed the way a majority of Americans go about spending their days and nights. Actively managed investment funds, seeking that elusive (and probably illusory) “alpha” to beat the market, have swarmed into the so-called “FAANG” stocks like moths to a flame in the belief that these platforms are nearly impervious to competitive challenge.
Beware the Grim Regulator
If the tech heavies have in the recent past seemed like a free lunch, the recent travails are a reminder that free lunches don’t exist. Readers of US economic history know that the best laid plans of monopolists past have been dashed by regulatory push-back. It is by no means clear that a grim reaping is in store for the platform companies, but neither is it clear that they will continue to be given free reign to operate with no fundamental changes to their business models. As global companies, they are at the mercy not only of regulators at home, but arguably more antagonistic ones in the EU and elsewhere. It may be a stretch to imagine Facebook as a regulated utility (a theory which has surprisingly garnered considerable recent press coverage), but it’s worth remembering that strange things do sometimes happen.
In a practical sense, the uncertainty around tech adds a variable to the volatility equation that has become a constant companion in 2018. The CBOE VIX has not fallen below 15 since the original spike in early February, and currently hovers just around 20, the level considered to be a high-risk threshold. We’re seeing lots of those strange days when stock indexes spike up in morning trading and then plummet in the trading day’s final 30 minutes – signs of a jittery market with knee-jerk algorithms calling the shots.
Amid all of this, there is still little in the way of change to the dominant narrative of steady positive growth, a strong jobs market, solid corporate earnings and inflation kept in check. That may be sufficient to yet hold the downside in check. But those volatility variables, including the fog of uncertainty around that market cap-dominant tech sector, are keeping us very busy with our scenario analytics as the year’s second quarter beckons.