buying an individual tech stock

This is just a brief overview:

–Buying any stock involves both a qualitative and a quantitative element.  That is:  What does the company do that makes this a good stock to own? and How do the numbers–the PE ratio, asset value, dividend yield and earnings growth–stack up?

–For value stocks, the numbers are more important; for growth stocks, the story is the key.  That’s because the primary element in success for value investors is how carefully they buy (because the ceiling for a given stock is relatively clearly defined).  For growth investors, it’s selling before/as the drivers of extra-fast earnings expansion run out of steam.

–Most tech stocks fall in the growth category.  My advocacy for Intel a few years ago was one of the rare occasions where a tech story is about under valued assets.

–In most cases, tech companies own key intellectual property–software, patents, industrial knowhow–that is in great demand, and which competitors don’t have and can’t seem to create substitutes for.  As long as that remains true, the company’s stock typically does well.  As I just mentioned, a crucial element in success with tech (or any other growth sector) is to exit before/as the growth story begins to unwind.  One yardstick is that this typically happens five years or so after the super-growth starts.  Yes, the best growth companies, like Apple or Microsoft or Amazon, have an ability reinvent themselves and thereby extend their period of strong earnings success.  But this isn’t the norm.

–Learning to be a stock investor is sort of like learning to play baseball.  There’s no substitute for actually playing the game.  The best way I know to learn about a stock is to buy a very small position and see what happens.  Don’t just sit idle, though.  Read everything on the company website, and the websites of competitors.  Read the last annual report and 10k.  Listen to (or read the transcripts of) the firm’s earnings conference calls.  Find and monitor (at least the headlines) financial newspapers and relevant blogs.  Try to form expectations about what future earnings might be and check this against what actually happens.  Then figure out where/how you went wrong and adjust.  Watch how the market reacts to news.  At first you may be terrible.  I certainly was.  But if you’re honest with yourself in your postmortems, you’ll probably make considerable progress quickly.

–Sooner or later–preferably sooner, learn to interpret a balance sheet and income statement.  A local community college course would probably be good, but you can get the basics of financial accounting (definitely don’t worry about double entry bookkeeping) from a book over a weekend.  Remember, here too there’s no substitute for the experience of trying to work out from a given company’s actuals what future income statements, balance sheets and flow-of-funds statements will look like.


investing in tech (ii)

other tech characteristics

–unlike areas like, say, fossil fuels, tech will likely continue to experience strong growth for a long period of time

–tech is also an area where the US has a comparative advantage, due to the presence of  strong tech-oriented universities, the large size of the existing tech community and the easy availability of capital to finance new tech ventures

a French scholar as tech banker

Early in my career, I had an acquaintance who had spent her life to that point studying for a PhD in French literature, intending to teach at a university somewhere.  She should have studied at least some economics in addition, because, like me, she finished here degree just as the Baby Boom finished college and universities stopped hiring new faculty.  I’d become an equity securities analyst; she’d become a banker to tech companies.  Initially, she was worried that her lack of a science background would be a severe negative.  She found, however–as I did–that electrical engineering was far less important than being able to figure out whether there was any demand for the stuff a given tech company made, at what price, and whether there was any competition.

I think this is still true today–meaning that most people can be successful tech investors, provided they’re willing to put in time and effort.  While a technical background (or access to a friend or relative who has one) is a plus, common sense and a little supply/demand economics is much more crucial.

active or passive/individual stock or fund

The simplest, and lowest risk, way for any of us to increase the tech component of our equity exposure is to replace an S&P 500 index fund/ETF with a tech sector index fund/ETF .

There are also subsector funds/ETFs that allow a narrower focus on, to name a few popular subsectors, internet or cypersecurity or semiconductor stocks.  There are even a few actively managed tech ETFs, although it’s not clear that these outperform passive vehicles.

The largest rewards, and the greatest risks, come with buying individual stocks.  My approach to holding an individual tech stock is pretty much the same as for holding any other type of individual stock.

More tomorrow.


investing in tech

A reader asked me to write about how I approach investing in tech stocks, an area I like and one which I think I’ve acquired some competence in over the years.

IT as a component of the S&P 500

Let’s start with the structure of the S&P 500, which, as of yesterday’s market close, looked like this:

Information Technology          22.5% of the index

Financials          14.1%

Healthcare          14.0%

Consumer discretionary          12.5%

Industrials          10.2%

Staples          9.3%

Energy          6.3%

Utilities          3.2%

Real estate          2.9%

Materials          2.9%

Telecom          2.3%.

Source:  Standard and Poors

Yes, the numbers add up to 100.2% but that’s just rounding and doesn’t affect analysis.


An obvious conclusion from this list is that when we buy an S&P index fund, almost a quarter of what we get is already tech.

A second observation is that 22.5% is a big number.  But if we look back to the end of 2009, when the current bull market was in its earliest stage, IT represented 19.8% of the index.  In other words, by far the largest determinant of IT sector performance in the bull market has been the upward movement of stocks in general.  (For what it’s worth, by far the largest losing sector has been Energy, which comprised 11.6% of the S&P 500 back then.)

Still, there have been spectacular winners, both individual stocks and subsectors, in IT.  So taking the time and effort to study IT stocks can pay big dividends.

placing IT in a business cycle context

Let’s group stocks by the sensitivity of their profits to the ups and downs of the business cycle, starting with the most aggressive (meaning most sensitive) and ending with the most defensive.  This is my list:

most aggressive




Industrials  (this would be #3, except US industrials make mostly consumer            products)

less aggressive 

Consumer discretionary

Real Estate (this would be #4, except that a lot of the publicly traded vehicles are income-                            oriented REITs)





more defensive



I’m sure that the lists others would come up with would rank the sectors differently.  Try it yourself and see.

What I make of my list is that IT will likely outperform anything lower on the list during an economic upturn and underperform during a downturn.

Two reasons:

–most consumer IT purchases, like a new smartphone or a new PC/tablet, are discretionary and can easily be postponed when times are tough, and

–for many modern corporations, capital spending means software.  And, in my experience, no matter how they say they maintain steady investment in their business, companies rarely outspend their cash flow.  When bad times lessen cash flow, companies–despite their promises–cut capex (i.e., software) spending.  Consumers, on the other hand, are much less draconian in their cutbacks, at least in the US.


Tomorrow, secular trends.




economics in the US vs. identity

The Financial Times has recently added an interesting new Opinions columnist, Rana Foroohar.  In her column yesterday, she writes that while the Democrats believe that they lost the presidential election because of misogyny and racism, the more likely cause is wage stagnation and job insecurity.  In other words, long-time Democrats voted Republican in the last election in spite of the victors’ abhorrent social views, not because of them.  Further, she implies that by continuing to seek favor from large corporates as well as by taking up the former Republican mantle of mindless legislative obstruction, the Democratic party risks further establishing itself as part of the economic problem, not the solution.

Clearly, the Democratic leadership doesn’t believe this, although personally I think Ms. Foroohar is correct.  Moreover, as Ms. Foroohor notes, the issue of job insecurity and wage stagnation is a dynamic one, not static.  As recent research from the University of Cambridge suggests, and the emergence of self-driving cars illustrates, the range of human tasks subject to replacement by machines is continuing to expand, putting more blue-collar jobs as well as some white-collar occupations as risk.

So this central issue is not going to go away.  It’s going to get bigger.


Social issues aside, a stock market investor must, I think, address two questions:

–how to participate through stock selection in the substitution of hardware/software capital for labor, and

–how closely continuing political dysfunction in the US resembles the situation in Japan thirty years or so ago, in which a foolish political defense of the status quo in the face of structural change has resulted in a decades-long impairment of GDP growth there.



Qualcomm (QCOM) and/vs. Apple (AAPL)

QCOM and its IP

QCOM is a company that has its roots in early Defense Department mobile communication and encription technology.  As a public company, it manufactures mobile chips itself and licenses its proprietary technology to others in return for royalty payments.  The latter, which has always been the prime focus of investor interest, comprises the bulk of its profits.  QCOM’s operating income for fiscal 2016 (ended September 25th) amounted to $6.5 billion, net $5.7 billion.  On a non-GAAP basis, each figure would be about $1 billion higher.

royalty dispute with AAPL

Last week, QCOM announced that AAPL, whose phone designs (like almost everyone else’s) incorporate QCOM intellectual property and who had been complaining that royalty rates were too high, has decided to cease making any payments to QCOM while the dispute wends its way through the courts.

As I understand the situation–and I’d bet this is a simplification of a set of very complex deals–AAPL doesn’t pay QCOM directly.  It designs phones that use QCOM’s IP.  The phones are made by contract manufacturers, who purchase the IP from QCOM.  AAPL reimburses them.

with China, too

This isn’t QCOM’s first quarrel with a customer.  In 2015, pressured by the Chinese government, QCOM agreed to pay a $975 million fine and lower its royalty rate on older technology in phones made for sale in China by a third.

implications for AAPL and QCOM

My question:  why is AAPL bothering?   Yes, it’s a lot of money.  And maybe it’s just that it wants to have the same reduction on the IP affected by the China deal.  But I can’t believe that it doesn’t have that already.

Look at the magnitudes involved:

QCOM says its next quarter revenues (and operating income) will be $500 million lower than expected because of AAPL’s action.  Annualized, that amounts to $2 billion, or about a third of QCOM’s operating income in fiscal 2016.

For AAPL, in contrastfiscal 2016 operating income was $60 billion.  Analysts are estimating 8% growth for the current fiscal year and a 15% advance the following one.

So cutting the QCOM royalty payments in half would only raise operating income by 1/60th, or 1.7%.

my take

One way of looking at this dispute is that AAPL believes it is running out of ways to make revenues grow and has to concentrate, for the moment at least, on cost control.  That’s the typical pattern.  It would also be more evidence that today’s model isn’t the Steve Jobs AAPL any more.




Masayoshi Son and Donald Trump

Masayoshi Son is the visionary entrepreneur who controls Softbank, an innovative Japanese communications and internet giant.  Several years ago, Softbank gained control of the US wireless company Sprint.  Mr. Son’s intention was to buy T-Mobile and merge the two, creating a third large national wireless company able to compete with ATT and Verizon.

The Obama administration vetoed the combination on antitrust grounds.  On the surface, this made sense, since the number of competitors in the US market would be reduced from four to three.  On the other hand, the relative market shares of #3 and #4 ares small enough that they have not made much difference in how the two giants operate.  Also, Mr. Son entered the Japanese wireless market in the same fashion, piecing together a national network out of smaller firms. Then he disrupted the existing oligopoly through very aggressive, consumer-friendly, price competition.  He created competition–and much lower wireless bills–where there had been none before.

His intention is to do the same in the US market.  From where I sit, government disapproval of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile stifled competition rather than promoting it.

My guess is that Mr. Son will have better success explaining his motives to the Trump administration.  A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would likely be good for us as consumers of wireless services, but bad for the incumbents, ATT and Verizon.

Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

At its Developer Forum yesterday, INTC announced that it is opening its cutting-edge fabs to manufacture chips that employ ARMH designs created by third parties.  So, as at least part of its business, INTC intends to become a foundry like TSMC.

(An aside: despite its glitzy style, it’s much harder to find information about the move on INTC’s website than on ARMH’s.  I don’t know whether this has any significance, but it’s the sort of odd fact that rattles around in a security analyst’s head until an answer can be found.  Is it me?  Is INTC more interested in sizzle than steak?  Is INTC’s IR effort still mired in the mindset of the former regime?…)

I’m not sure what the total significance of this move is, but at the very least:

–TSMC, the premier foundry, a Taiwanese company, trades at about a 17x price earnings multiple.  INTC now trades at about the same PE, although it has typically traded at a lower rating than TSMC in the past.  In contrast, ARMH trades at about 70x, a PE that I think must be unsustainably high, even though ARMH has managed to do so for years.

For my money, INTC’s fabs are better than TSMC’s.  Making loads of ARM chips for others will likely not lower INTC’s pe ratio.  Arguably, as the foundry business expands, INTC’s pe will rise.

–in every generation, the size of chips shrinks while the cost of a next generation fab rises. As a result, the amount of output that a fab must have to be able to operate profitably increases, while the penalty for having too little output goes up as well.

The ARMH partnership signals, I think, that INTC believes that to maintain its manufacturing edge, it must accept manufacturing orders from outside parties.


More tomorrow.