Square, venture capital and the late-1990s Internet bubble

a bubble deflating

Internet payments company Square came to market yesterday.  It has a two-letter symbol, SQ, and trades on the NYSE, not NASDAQ.  But the most salient fact about the offering is that the IPO price was a lot below the private market value that venture capital investors had placed on SQas little as a year ago.

At the same time, the small number of mutual funds which have been aggressive venture capital buyers in Silicon Valley have been, more or less quietly, writing down the carrying value of their non-public company holdings.

What we’re seeing is, I think, a smaller and much more benign–both for the economy and for us as stock market investors–analogue of the deflation of the Internet mania of the late 1990s that started in early 2000.

the late 1990s and the internet

I remember noticing in 1998, that earlier- and earlier-stage companies were coming to market successfully.  Some were little more than concepts.  Take Amazon (AMZN), for example, which IPOed in mid-1997.  The pre-offering roadshow that I saw emphasized that investors had made gigantic fortunes on buying unknown companies like Microsoft during the personal computer era and that AMZN was a lottery ticket to a similar outcome in the Internet Age.  Of course, even a success like AMZN didn’t turn profit for its first eight years as a public company, surviving on the proceed from the IPO and follow-on debt offerings.

I thought at the time, and unfortunately committed my theory to writing, that we were seeing a fundamental change in the role of the stock market in capital formation.  Portfolio managers were gradually taking on the role previously played by venture capital.  So, I mused, managers of mutual funds like me might have to think about reserving a small place–no more than, say, 5%–of their portfolios for developing companies that they normally wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole.

Not my finest intellectual hour.

today’s bubble deflation

The slow escape of air from the venture capital bubble that is now going on will not have much effect on publicly traded companies, I think, for several reasons:

–the amount of money involved in this speculation is much smaller

–investors of all stripes still wear the scars of 2000-2001, so they haven’t been anywhere near as crazy this time around

–the people who are losing money now are, or represent, wealthy, seasoned speculators, not retail investors

–maybe most important, much of the original internet froth surrounded highly capital-intensive efforts to build a global physical internet transport infrastructure.  Names like Global Crossing and Worldcom come to mind.

Yes, too much physical capacity did get built back then, and some builders were highly financially leveraged.  But also dense wave division multiplexing, a technological breakthrough in technique (basically, putting glorified prisms on each end of a cable), made it possible for each fiber optic strand to carry 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x ( in 2015 the number is 240x)…  more traffic than initially anticipated.  Thanks to DWDM, suddenly, despite the rapid growth of internet traffic, an acute shortage of signal transport capacity turned to mind-boggling glut.  The transport industry was facing collapse as customers played a ton of potential suppliers against each other for lower prices.  Naturally, new construction–and related orders for all sorts of high-and low-tech components, dried up completely.   So did investment, employment in civil engineering   …and the stocks.

In today’s software world, there’s no equivalent, other than perhaps the market for software engineers.  And there are no signs I can see of recession in this arena.  Quite the opposite.


the holiday retail season: Millennials vs. Boomers

Conventional wisdom in the US has long been that 30-somethings want a house, a car and clothing suitable for work.  Fifty-somethings want a vacation home, jewelry and a cruise.

As the Baby Boom generation became more important, therefore, an investor wanting exposure to consumer spending should have shifted away from homebuilders and carmakers and toward high-end specialty retail, luxury goods and hotels and cruise lines.

Of course, there were other secular forces at work, as well–the move from the cities to the suburbs and the dismembering of the traditional department store by specialty retail, just to name two.

Today we’re in the early days of another significant demographic change.  Millennials now outnumber Boomers in the US.  Millennials only earn about half what Boomers do.  And they were hurt much more severely than the older generation by the recession.  But they’re on the up escalator, while Boomers as a group will see their economic power wane as they retire.

Playing the aging of the Boomer generation had two aspects to it, one positive and one negative.  The positive side was hard–finding the small, relatively obscure companies like the Limited or Toys R Us or Home Depot/Lowes or Target or (later on) Coach that would catch the fancy of the Baby Boom.  The negative side was easier–avoiding the losers who didn’t “get” what was going on.  These included American carmakers and the department stores.

In 3Q15 corporate results, we’re already beginning to see the new generational change begin to play out.  Home improvement stores are doing surprisingly well.  Large retail chains are reporting relatively weak results.  What strikes me about the latter is that the worst-affected seem to be the most heavily style-dependent and the firms that have put the least effort into their online presence.  In contrast, I’m struck by how many small online, even crowdsourcing, alternatives to bricks and mortar there now are to buy apparel.

How to play this emerging trend?

The negative side is easy– avoid the potential losers, that is, firms whose main appeal is to Boomers and companies with a weak online presence.

The positive side is, as usual, harder.  Arguably, many of the winners–Uber, and the sharing economy in general being an example–aren’t yet publicly traded.  Absent a pure play, my best idea is to invest in the winners’ onlineness.  The easiest, and safest, way to do so is through an internet or e-commerce ETF.


One other point:  for many years, economists have tracked the activity of Boomers as a way to estimate the health of the economy.  To the degree that they, too, fail to adjust quickly enough, their assessments, like department store sales, may understate growth momentum.

a saturated market


Let’s say that a market is the total of all actual and potential customers for a product or service.


saturated market is one where virtually every potential customer has been turned into an actual one.  At that point, sales gains for a given company can only come from:

–the (slow) growth of the population,

–replacement demand (which can be stimulated by the creation of new versions),

–the sale of maintenance or accessories, or

–taking market share away from competitors.

effect on sales and profits

As a company’s products approach market saturation, sales growth typically slows.  In the terminal phase, expanding as fast as nominal GDP becomes an aspirational goal.  The competitive environment also changes dramatically in a saturated market.  Sales become more costly to obtain, since rivals’ marketing efforts no longer simply expand the market for everyone, but become specifically targeted at taking sales from competitors instead.  This forces every market entrant to spend even more money to defend its present customers.

effect on the stock price

For a growth stock, which is most often trading at an overinflated price earnings multiple as this growth downshift is occurring, the increasing saturation of key markets is especially problematic.  It typically starts to weigh on the PE long before actual saturation occurs.  ESPN, the largest source of earnings for Disney (DIS), and Apple (AAPL) are current examples.



The AAPL case is straightforward.  The global market for $600 cellphones is almost completely saturated.  The main demographic cohort in the US that still uses flip-phones is the over 60 (over 70?) crowd.  Technically speaking, one might argue there’s still room to grow.   But for every consumer-oriented technological innovation in my career, this group has been especially resistant to change and tough to crack.  AAPL has never gotten much traction in Europe.  There’s lots of domestic competition in greater China.  The result of worries about an end to growth is the principal reason AAPL shares trade at a sub-market multiple.


Several years ago, ESPN attempted to expand abroad–a clear signal that it regarded the US market for sports entertainment broadcasting to be saturated.  It was unsuccessful.  Since then, as I see it, DIS has been redirecting cash flow from ESPN to expand its parks and movies businesses.  To my mind, this is the sensible course of action for it.  For a one-product company, which many growth companies tend to be, this is not an option.


Tomorrow:  saturation in the e-commerce market in China

falling sales, rising profits…

…are usually a recipe for disaster on Wall Street.  Yet, in the current earnings reporting season, a raft of companies are reporting this presumably deadly combination   …and being celebrated for it, not having their stocks go down in flames.

What’s happening?

the usual situation

First, why falling sales and rising profits don’t usually generate a positive investor response.

To start, let’s assume that a company reporting this way is maintaining a stable mix of businesses, that it’s not like Amazon.  There, investor interest is focused almost solely on its Web Services business, which is small but fast growing, and with very high margins.  AWS is so valuable that what happens in the rest of the company almost doesn’t matter.

Instead, let’s assume that what we see is what we get, that falling sales, rising profits are signs of a mature company slowly running out of economic steam.

So, where does the earnings growth come from?

Case 1–a one-time event.  Maybe the firm sold its corporate art collection and that added $.50 a share to earnings.  Maybe it sold property, or got an insurance settlement or won a tax case with the IRS.

All of these are one-and-done things. How much should an investor pay for the “extra” $.50 in earnings?  At most, $.50.  There’s no reason to make any upward adjustment in the price-earnings multiple, because the earnings boost isn’t going to recur.


Case 2–a multi-year cost-cutting campaign.  AIG, for example, has just announced that it is laying off 20% of its senior staff.  Let’s say this happens over three years, and that the eliminations will have no negative effect on sales, but will raise profits by $1 a year for the next three years.

How much should we pay for these “extra” $3 in earnings?  Again, the answer is that the earnings boost is transitory and should have no positive effect on the PE multiple.  So the move is worth, at most, $3 on the stock price.

Actually, my experience is that in either of these cases, the PE can easily contract on the earnings announcement.  Investors focus in on the falling sales.  They figure that falling earnings are just around the corner, and that on, say, a stock selling for $60 a share, the non-recurring $.50 or $1 in earnings is the equivalent of a random fluctuation in the daily stock price.  So they dismiss the gain completely.

why is today different?

I don’t know.  Although early in my career I believed that earnings are earnings and the source doesn’t matter, I’m now deeply in the only-pay-for-recurring-gains camp.

I can think of two possibilities, though:

–Suppose Wall Street is coming to believe (rightly or wrongly) that we’re mired in a slow growth environment that will last for a long time.  If so, maybe we can’t be as dismissive as we were in the past of the “wrong kind” of earnings growth.  Maybe company managements that are able to deliver earnings gains of any sort are more valuable than in past days.  Maybe they’re on the cutting edge of where growth is going to be coming from in the future–and therefore deserve a high multiple.

–I’m a firm believer that most mature companies formed in the years immediately following WWII are wildly overstaffed.  I also think that even if a CEO were willing to modernize in a thoroughgoing way–and I think most would prefer not to try–it’s immensely difficult to change the status quo.  Employees will simply refuse to do what the CEO wants.  As a result, this makes companies showing falling sales prime targets for Warren Buffett’s money and G-3 Capital’s cost-cutting expertise.  In other words, such companies become takeover targets, and that’s why their stock prices are firm.

the record of active fund managers in Europe

I’ve been reading the Indexology blog again.  A few days ago, the topic was the performance of actively managed equity funds managed by European fund managers over the past ten years.

The numbers are almost incomprehensibly bad.

In the “best” category, large-cap European stocks in developed markets there, 55% of the funds underperformed over the past year.  That result deteriorates pretty steadily as time progresses, with the result that on a ten-year view 87% underperform.   .and that’s the best!

The race for last place is almost a dead heat among Global, Emerging Markets and US.  Over the past year, 82% -83% of managers in these categories underperformed.  This result also deteriorates over time.  Over the past ten years, 97% – 98% underperformed.

This is the same pattern as for US active managers   …only worse.

The performance figures are after all fees–management, administrative, marketing…–except for the sales charges levied by traditional brokers.

More importantly, the figures for each period include all funds active during that time, not just the ones that made it through the entire period.  That’s key because over the past ten years about half of the funds active for part of the time were either shut down or (more likely) merged with other funds.  It’s possible that one or two of the defunct funds were great performers but  for some reason couldn’t be sold.  However, in my experience, the overwhelming majority would have been folded because the performance was bad.

Similar figures for the survivors confirms my belief.  The 10-year record for this smaller, hardier, group shows around half the funds outperforming their indices–except for the emerging markets category where over two-thirds of the surviving managers still underperform.

Why do clients put up with this?

One answer is that the absolute returns have been between 5% and 10% yearly in euros.  On the low side that means up by almost 65% over the past decade.  That’s not all that investors could reasonable have expected, but it’s not a loss.  So alarm bells don’t go off when holders get their statements.

Another is that they aren’t.  These sad figures for active managers are the biggest explanation for the popularity of passive products.


variations on growth investing

While I’m on the topic of investment styles, I figure I should say something about growth investing.

I started out as a value investor, concentrating on US companies.  After a few years as a securities analyst, I began assisting a superb value investor who was running a short portfolio, again all US.  A couple of years later, I changed jobs and started working as a portfolio manager in smaller Pacific Basin markets.  There, I was immediately attracted to smaller cap stocks, which at that time had the unusual combination of the best business models, the fastest growth and the lowest PEs in their markets.  What they didn’t have was a lot of market visibility, partly because they were so small and partly because the markets I was working in, like Australia and Hong Kong, were not very highly developed.

Yes, I continued to find stodgy old conglomerates where enormous value could be created by breaking them up and selling the pieces one by one, and others where an infusion of competent management could dramatically reverse declining fortunes. But I became more and more impressed by the raw earnings power of dynamic young firms.  It was only when I was describing my investment process in an interview for another job that I realized I was no longer a value investor.  I had become a growth investor instead!


My experience is that there’s a lot of confusion about what growth investing is.  In a sense, this confusion is aided and abetted by us growth investors ourselves, since no one wants to give away professional secrets, especially while he’s still working.

For example, the media talk about momentum investing, meaning buying stocks based solely on the fact that they’re currently outperforming the market.  This is an old offshoot of technical analysis, however, and has nothing to do with growth investing.

Then there’s “pure” growth investing, as practiced by the ill-fated Janus group in the 1990s.  Here the investor (that’s probably not the right descriptive) buys stocks based on accelerating sales and earnings, but without regard to price.  But doing so completely disregards a growth investor’s greatest challenge–knowing when to sell.  To my mind, this is pure speculation, not growth investing.

Growth At a Reasonable Price (GARP) is a genuine, if to my mind odd, growth variation.  Typically, a GARP investor sets a maximum PE ratio, say 25x the earnings likely over the next 12 months, as a maximum price he will pay for any stock, no matter how good the growth prospects.  I’ve sometimes been described as a GARP investor, rather than a “pure” growth disciple.  I find GARP too rigid, however.  For instance, holding firm to 25x would have ruled out Apple for much of its growth period, even though the footnotes to the financials made it clear that the company was using extremely conservative accounting (since changed) to record the profits from its iPhone business.


I think genuine growth investing has four facets to it:

–the growth investor buys the stocks of companies he believes will grow earnings faster than the market expects and/or for a longer period than the market anticipates (hopefully, both)

–decisions must be based on meticulous analysis and projections of the financials of the company, done by the investor himself, at least in large part

–judging when to sell is the key to success

–the PE paid should never be higher than the growth rate.


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