With the Nasdaq now up nearly 20% from its June low -- and many high-beta growth stocks up a lot more than that -- some issues that could be considered priced in for many stocks a couple months ago perhaps can't be anymore.
As a result, while the long-term risk/rewards for some tech stocks still don't look bad, I think (speaking as someone who was cautiously optimistic about the tech sector as it got clobbered in May and June) there's a stronger argument now for tech investors having some meaningful shorts/hedges to complement their long positions.
Here's a look at a few positives that currently exist for the tech sector, along with a look at a few things that provide reasons for concern.
Positives for the Tech Sector:
1. Earnings Season Has Been Better Than Feared for Tech
While Meta Platforms (META) underwhelmed, the other big-5 U.S. tech giants -- Apple (AAPL) , Amazon.com (AMZN) , Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet (GOOGL) -- have posted numbers that on the whole topped investor expectations, even if not all of their figures beat consensus analyst estimates.
In addition, earnings season has seen better-than-feared numbers -- in some cases, much better than feared -- from prominent/beaten-down Internet companies such as Netflix (NFLX) , Uber (UBER) and PayPal (PYPL) , as well as from a wide array of chip developers, chip equipment makers and enterprise software firms.
It still hasn't been hard to find disappointing results and/or guidance from well-known tech companies (more on that shortly). But it's fair to say that spending trends in fields such as e-commerce, high-end smartphones, cloud software, public cloud services, chip manufacturing equipment and automotive and cloud chip markets are thus far proving more resilient than what many of those who were panic-selling tech stocks in May and June feared.
2. Prices for Oil and Other Key Commodities Have Tumbled
While recent drops in oil/gasoline prices have naturally gotten the most attention, prices for many other important commodities, including wheat, copper, steel and aluminum, are also now well below the highs they set earlier this year. Also, freight shipping prices (though still above pre-Covid levels) have generally come down a lot from their 2021 and early-2022 highs.
The impact of lower commodity and freight prices should make itself felt in upcoming inflation data, starting with the July CPI report (due on Wednesday morning). Moreover, there's a lot of evidence that oil price swings have an outsized impact on inflation expectations and consumer sentiment, in both directions.
3 Consumer Spending and Jobs Data Still Looks Pretty Healthy
Banks and payment networks reporting this earnings season have signaled that consumer spending and balance sheets remain strong, outside of some pressures among lower-income cohorts. And such commentary aligns with more recent card-spending data that points to continued strength in various discretionary spending fields, albeit with a shift in spending towards services and away from home goods.
Meanwhile, the July non-farm payrolls report suggests the labor market remains pretty tight, in spite of the layoff announcements that have happened in tech and a handful of other sectors. Low unemployment and high wage growth not only directly bolster consumer spending, but do so indirectly by making workers less worried about their job security (or barring that, confident in their ability to find new work should they be laid off).
4. Some Valuations Still Aren't High By Historical Standards
Alphabet can still be had for a forward P/E (22) less than what it generally traded for from 2017 to 2019. Many quality chip developers and equipment makers, including a slew of firms that recently posted reassuring earnings reports, still carry forward P/Es in the mid-teens or lower. And though some high-growth cloud software firms carry steep valuations, others can still be had for forward EV/sales multiples ranging between 4 and 7 (equal to or less than what they were often valued at in the late 2010s).
Potential estimate cuts admittedly need to be taken into account when gauging tech valuations. And so does the fact that yields for long-dated Treasuries (and with them, the discount rates that are applied to future cash flows) are now well above where they stood a year ago. But all the same, valuations remain fairly reasonable for many well-known tech companies, provided one is confident we aren't about to head into a major recession.
Things to Be Concerned About:
1. The Fed Is Showing No Signs of Backing Down
As equities and bonds alike have rallied in recent weeks, one Fed member after another has signaled that Jerome Powell & Co. plan to maintain a fairly hawkish stance through year's end and potentially beyond, given that inflation for now remains well above the Fed's official, 2% target.
It's not just rate hikes (and their attendant effects on economic activity and yields/discount rates) that investors need to account for here: The Fed's plans to shrink the size of its balance sheet (i.e. quantitative tightening, or QT) stands to both drain liquidity from financial markets that have gorged on it in recent years, as well as create additional upward pressure for long yields. Moreover, the resilience of consumer spending, labor markets and equities/risk assets in recent months likely makes the Fed less squeamish about continuing its present course (it's safe to assume the proverbial "Fed put" resides at market levels well below current ones).
2. Inflation Is Still Pretty High in Some Areas
Recent drops in commodity and freight prices are good news inflation-wise, and so are efforts by retailers to unload excess inventories of goods that had seen pandemic-driven demand spikes. But labor and services inflation aren't showing much sign of abating. And in some other fields, such as housing and autos, some recent easing of inflationary pressures doesn't change the fact that prices are generally well above where they stood a couple years ago.
The upshot: It will probably take more than lower oil/commodity and freight prices to get inflation in the ballpark of 2% anytime soon. And the Fed is undoubtedly aware of this...as well as of how rebounding stock prices and some recent easing of financial conditions could lead inflation to reignite a bit.
3. Many Investors Have Been Returning to Their Bad 2020/2021 Habits
Those hoping the bloodletting that happened from November to June would lead growth investors to be more mindful of valuations when buying in the future have to be disappointed by July's market action. In spite of higher yields and a tightening Fed, many of the tech sector's biggest gainers in recent trading days have been companies that still sport high multiples and in many cases are also still a ways away from turning profitable.
SaaS stocks trading for more than 15 times their forward EV/sales multiples have often outperformed peers that are growing nearly as fast but carry multiples more than 50% lower. And a wide gamut of speculative and highly unprofitable firms, including various SPACs and EV/clean energy plays, have also posted big gains.
What's more, meme-stock traders have regained some of their gambling appetite, as the recent craziness surrounding AMTD Digital (HKD) drives home. And to an extent, so have crypto traders.
To be fair, short-squeezes have undoubtedly given a boost to some speculative plays. And it's also quite possible that some of the growth funds that got burned earlier this year and were subsequently scared into selling are now chasing high-multiple growth stocks higher in a desperate attempt to pare their 2022 losses. But either way, a lot of the recent action in high-beta risk assets suggests the market will be delivering more hard lessons to speculators and valuation-indifferent growth investors before the dust settles.
4. 'Better Than Feared' Tech Demand Trends Doesn't Mean 'As Good as in 2021'
For all the reassuring disclosures made thus far by tech companies during earnings season, it's still a stretch to say that business conditions for the sector are as healthy as they were 6-to-12 months ago.
Many consumer hardware markets (PCs, home electronics, graphics cards, low-end smartphones) have weakened due to both macro pressures and consumer spending shifting towards services, and there are also some initial signs of softening enterprise hardware demand. Online ad spend is clearly under pressure -- particularly sales of brand ads and mobile app install ads. And while many cloud software and services firms continue seeing brisk growth, their earnings calls are rife with comments about lengthening deal cycles and slowing activity among certain types of clients (SMBs, retailers, etc.).
What's more, a strong dollar has become a big top-line headwind for many U.S. multinationals. And though consumer and corporate spending still don't look bad overall in the U.S., they appear to be a little shakier in Europe. While the sky isn't falling for the tech sector, it's not perfectly sunny right now either.