sizing up the market
In some ways, current trading in tech stocks reminds me of the internet boom of 1999. To be clear, I don’t think we are at anything near the crazy valuation levels we reached back twenty+ years ago. On the other hand, I’m not willing to believe we’ll reach last-century crazy, mostly because nothing in the stock market is ever exactly the same.
On the (sort-of) plus side, three-month Treasury bills back then were just below to 5% vs. 1.5% today and 10-year Treasury notes were 4.7% vs 1.9% now. If we were to assume that the note yield and the earnings yield on stocks should be roughly equivalent (old school would have been the 30-year bond), the current PE supported by Treasuries is 50+, the 1999 equivalent was 21 or so. This is another way of saying that today’s market is being buoyed far more than in 1999 by accomodative government policy.
On the other, the economic policy goal of the Trump administration, wittingly or not, seems to be to follow ever further down the trail blazed by Japan during the lost decades starting in the 1990s. So the post-pandemic future is not as cheery as the turn of the century was.
what to do
I think valuations are high–not nosebleed high, but high. I also know I’m bad at figuring out what’s too high. I started edging into cyclicals a few weeks ago but have slowed down my pace because I’m now thinking that cyclicals might get weaker before they get stronger (I bought more MAR yesterday, though).
With that shift on the back burner, what else can I do to make my portfolio better?
features vs. apps
Another thing that’s also very reminiscent of 1999 is today’s proliferation of early-stage loss-making companies, particularly in software.
The 1999 favorites were online retailers (e.g., Cyberian Outpost, Pets.com, eToys) and internet infrastructure (Global Crossing) whose eventual nemesis, dense wave division multiplexing, was also a darling.
The software losers were by and large undone, I think, not because the ideas were so bad but because they weren’t important enough to be stand-alone businesses. They were perfectly fine as features of someone else’s app. A number were eventually bought for half-nothing after the mania ended, to become a part of larger entities.
One 2020 stock that comes to mind here is Zoom (ZOOM), a name I held for a while but have sold. The video conferencing product is inexpensive and it’s easy to use. It’s also now on center stage. But there are plenty of alternatives that can be polished up and then offered for free by, say, Google or Microsoft.
Another group is makers of meat substitutes (I bought a tiny amount of Beyond Meat on impulse after reading about 19th-century working conditions in meatpacking plants). Same issue here, though. Where’s the distribution? Will BYND end up as a supplier, say, to McDonalds? …in which case the PE multiple will be very low. Or will it be able to develop a brand presence that separates it from other meat substitutes and allows it to price at a premium? Who knows? My reading is that the market is voting for the latter, although I think chances are greater for the former outcome …which is why I’m in the process of selling.
The first Tech bubble was a lot more fun than this one because it was so much more inclusive, and the companies were public. There were two IPOs or more every day, and all of the tech ones doubled. small and midcap investors could play, too. Now, you should put it all on MAGA (Microsoft Amazon Google Apple) and forget it. There are some fun playthings like Tesla and Beyond Meat but the great excesses are in the private market venture cap area.
I hope you and your family are doing well. I hadn’t thought much about private market companies back then, but you’re right that, unlike today, IPOing immature companies was a hallmark of 1998-99. Part of that was the guru status of Merrill’s Henry Blodget (later barred from the the securities business for his actions) and Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker. I don’t see any comparables now, although this may only be my current view from the sidelines. You also made me think about Ed Yardeni and the Y2K worries that computers would cease to function as 2000 rolled around. That caused a run on silver coins (9x face value is the highest price I remember) and horse-drawn plows. More fun is right.