From The Economist
There comes a time in every great bull market where the dreams of investors collide with changing facts on the ground. In the subprime boom it was the moment when mortgage default rates started to rise in 2006; in the dotcom bubble of 2000-01 it was when the dinosaurs of the telecoms sector confessed that technological disruption would destroy their profits, not increase them. There was a glimmer of a similar moment when Meta (the parent company of Facebook) reported poor results on February 2nd, sending its share price down by 26% the next day and wiping out well over $200bn of market value. That prompted a further sell-off in technology stocks.
Along with low interest rates, a driver of America’s epic bull run of the past decade has been the view that big tech firms are natural monopolies that can increase profits for decades to come with little serious threat from competition. This belief explains why the five largest tech firms now comprise over 20% of the S&P 500 index. Now it faces a big test.
Since listing in 2012 Meta has exemplified big tech’s prowess and pitfalls. For a glimpse of the caricature, consider the American government’s antitrust case against it first launched in 2020. It describes an invincible company in a world where technology is perpetually frozen in the 2010s: “this unmatched position has provided Facebook with staggering profits,” America’s Federal Trade Commission wrote in its lawsuit.
Examine the firm’s fourth-quarter results, though, and its position seems rather vulnerable and its profits somewhat less staggering. It comes across as a business with decelerating growth, a stale core product and a cost-control problem. The number of users of all of Meta’s products, which include Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is barely growing. Those of the core social network fell slightly in the fourth quarter compared with the third. Net income dropped by 8% year on year and the firm suggested that revenue would grow by just 3-11% in the first quarter of 2022, the slowest rate since it went public and far below the average rate of 29% over the past three years—and below the growth rate necessary to justify its valuation.
Meta’s troubles reflect two kinds of competition. The first is within social media, where TikTok has become a formidable competitor. More than 1bn people use the Chinese-owned app each month (compared with Meta’s 3.6bn), a less toxic brand that is popular among young people and superior technology. Despite attempts by Donald Trump to ban it on national-security grounds while he was president, TikTok has shown geopolitical and commercial staying power. Just as the boss of Time Warner, a media behemoth, once dismissed Netflix as “the Albanian army”—an inconsequential irritant—Silicon Valley and America’s trustbusters have never taken TikTok entirely seriously. Big mistake.
The second kind of competition hurting Facebook is the intensifying contest between tech platforms as they diversify into new services and vie to control access to the customer. In Facebook’s case the problem is Apple’s new privacy rules, which allow users to opt out of ad-tracking, in turn rendering Facebook’s proposition less valuable for advertisers.
So are Meta’s problems a one-off or a sign of deeper ructions within the tech industry? Strong results from Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft in the past two weeks may lead some to conclude there is little to worry about. Apple’s pre-eminence in handsets in America and Alphabet’s command of search remain unquestionable. Yet there are grounds for doubt.
The competition between the big platforms is already intensifying. The share of the five big firms’ sales in markets that overlap has risen from 20% to 40% since 2015.
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Even in e-commerce, where Amazon remains pre-eminent, serious challengers such as the supermarket giants (Walmart and Target) or rival online platforms (Shopify) are making their presence felt. In any case, Amazon’s thin margins and vast investment levels suggest that consumers may be getting a better deal than investors. Although a strong showing from the cloud division divulged on February 3rd may buoy the e-empire’s market value by more than half as much as Meta lost, the cloud business is unlikely to stay as lucrative for ever. Alphabet, Microsoft and Oracle are already trying to compete away some of Amazon’s lofty cloud margins.
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The second change involves how investors and governments think about big tech, and indeed the stockmarket. The narrative of the 2010s—of a series of natural monopolies with an almost effortless dominance over the economy and investment portfolios—no longer neatly reflects reality. Technology shifts and an investment surge are altering the products that tech firms sell and may lead to a different alignment of winners and losers. And, as in previous booms, from emerging markets to mortgages, high returns have attracted a vast flood of capital, which in turn may lead to overall profitability being competed down. Given the enormous weight of the technology industry in today’s stockmarkets, this matters a great deal. And the mayhem at Meta shows it is no longer just an abstract idea.
Link to the rest at The Economist
PG recently signed up for Walmart’s Free Delivery service. So far, he’s been able to get some ordinary household items delivered that are substantially less-expensive than the same/similar items offered on Amazon for PG’s Prime Account.