The hardest part of investing is knowing when to sell a stock. When you do buy one, always have an exit strategy—not for right away, this quarter, this year or even the next few years. But constantly question how soon the seeds of destruction will bloom at your company. I guarantee they’ve been planted already.
Let’s probe Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, because they make up about 12% of the S&P 500—while representing almost all of the stock-market’s gains this year. Yes, calls to break them up persist. But that actually could increase their enterprise value based on the sum of the parts. Beyond rambunctious regulators, what could go wrong?
Apple’s problems already have become visible. Smartphones are now like radial tires. Everyone has one and they don’t wear out. Phone franchises are fickle. Ask Motorola or Nokia, if you can find them. One near-term sign of distress: Marketing tech products with splashy colors, as Steve Jobs did with tangerine iMacs almost 20 years ago, means the fun part is almost over. Apple hopes to make it up in services, but Google leads in maps, Netflix in video, and Uber in transportation. Apple is falling behind in most other growth segments. The company’s destructive seed is its desperate need for a new product category. It won’t be watches.
You might think Facebook’s biggest problems are privacy concerns, which have shown up everywhere but the company’s finances. The media cares about privacy. Users? Not so much. Facebook stock is hitting all-time highs. I think Facebook’s bad seed is population. The site has 2.2 billion monthly active users, a number that has roughly doubled in the past five years. Yet the growth rate is necessarily slowing. User count probably won’t double again, and most growth comes from the less wealthy developing world. Investors won’t like it when growth stalls.
Amazon’s biggest benefit, and problem, is its hall pass from Wall Street. It’s allowed to show very little in profits while inventing the future. That’s great, but the business of selling stuff—that is, the company’s main business—is notoriously low-margin. Retail stores never had high margins. Buying Whole Foods was fascinating, but supermarkets often squeeze out profits of only 1% of sales. Now Amazon is bursting into the health-care industry with its purchase of online pharmacy PillPack—right into the teeth of regulators. Eventually Wall Street will demand high margins after years of investment. I wouldn’t want to be around when that happens.
The bad seeds at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are more elusive. Alphabet has three key strengths: search, search and search. It offers free services based on a global but centrally controlled infrastructure of servers situated near waterfalls (for cheap electricity). From this network it sells relevant ads, often when you are most ready to buy something. The company will be tough to knock out. Even the move to mobile went well, as 1.3 billion phones based on the Android operating system shipped last year. Ad-blocker software on phones is a near-term danger, but I had a tough time finding an existential threat to the company’s high-margin hegemony.
My friend the futurist George Gilder outlines a theory in “Life After Google,” his forthcoming book. He suggests that while advertising prices might be correct, the free-service model cannot deliver sustainable growth. Mr. Gilder explains that Google “achieved unprecedented scale by a commitment to ‘free.’ But free flow is not cash flow. It bypasses the entrepreneurial learning that is conveyed through the remorseless messaging of price. Without prices, all that is left to confine consumption is the scarcity of time. Beyond the scores of hours a week for its smartphone customers, time is closing in on Google.”
Google’s centralized architecture also could come under attack from the huge decentralized infrastructure scaling up to mine bitcoins. Even if bitcoin drops below $1,000, the installed glut of global blockchain servers could, Mr. Gilder argues, “marshal a virtual planetary parallel computer that dwarfs the CPU and GPU arrays in Google data centers with their mere millions of servers.”
Mr. Gilder notes: “The cryptocosm can mobilize computer power in volumes that dwarf even the data centers of the leviathans. In this case, the advances in computer science pioneered at Google serve to emancipate the world from Google’s silos.” This may be a way off, but investment implications come sooner than you think.
Investing is simple but not easy. You should buy a company’s stock when everything is going wrong and you can figure out what might go right. Then when everything has gone right, figure out before others what can go wrong—from the seeds of destruction you see germinating—and start the harvest.
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