Investors love round numbers and with the Dow Jones Industrial index recently piercing 17,000 and the S&P 500 index having broken 2,000 , even novice investors have something to talk about around the office water cooler. While new all-time records are being set for the major indices during September, the unsung, tech-laden NASDAQ index has yet to surpass its all-time high of 5,132 achieved 14 and ½ years ago during March of 2000.
A lot has changed since then. Leading up to the pricking of the technology bubble, talks of an overhyped market started as early as December 5, 1996, when then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made his infamous “irrational exuberance” speech.
“But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”
-Alan Greenspan (Federal Reserve Chairman 1987 – 2006)
On that date, the NASDAQ closed at 1,300. A little over three years later, before values cratered by -78%, the index almost quadrupled higher to 5,132. Looked at from a slightly different lens, here is how the major indexes have fared since Greenspan’s widely referenced speech almost 18 years ago:
Despite the world’s most powerful banker calling stock prices irrational, the Dow & S&P have almost tripled in value (+164% & +167%, respectively) and the NASDAQ has almost quadrupled (+251%). The 80%+ outperformance (excluding dividends) is impressive, but reasonable if you consider this increase amounts to about a +7.2% compounded annual appreciation value. Investors have experienced a lot of heartburn over that long timeframe, but for any buy-and-holders, these returns would have trounced returns realized in alternative safe haven vehicles like CDs, savings accounts, or bonds.
Price: The Almighty Metric
There are many valuation metrics to evaluate but the most universal one is the Price/Earnings ratio (P/E). Just as in the process of assessing the value of a car, house, or stock, the price you pay is usually the most important factor of the purchase. The same principle applies to stock indexes. The cheaper the price paid, the greater probability of earning superior returns in the future. Unfortunately for investors in technology stocks, there was not much value in the NASDAQ index during late-1999, early-2000. Historical P/E data for the NASDAQ index is tough to come by, but some estimates pegged the index value at 200x’s its earnings at the peak of the 2000 technology mania. In other words, for every $1 in profit the average NASDAQ company earned, investors were willing to pay $200…yikes.
Today, the NASDAQ 100 index (the largest 100 non-financial companies in the NASDAQ index), which can serve as a proxy for the overll NASDAQ index, carries a reasonable P/E ratio of approximately 20x on a forward basis (24x on a trailing basis) – about 90% lower than the peak extremes of the NASDAQ index in the year 2000.
Although NASDAQ valuations are much lower today than during the bursting 2000 tech bubble, P/E ratios for the NASDAQ 100 still remain about +20% higher than the S&P 500, which begs the question, “Is the premium multiple deserved?”
As I wrote about in the NASDAQ Tech Revolution, you get what you pay for. If you pay a peanut multiple, many times you get a monkey stock. In the technology world, there is often acute obsolescence risk (remember Blackberry – BBRY?) that can lead to massive losses, but there also exists a winner-takes-all dynamic. Just think of the dominance of Google (GOOG/L) in search advertising, Microsoft (MSFT) in the PC, or Amazon (AMZN) in e-commerce. It’s a tricky game, but following the direction of cash, investments, and product innovation are key in my mind if you plan on finding the long-term winners. For example, the average revenue growth for the top 10 companies in the NASDAQ 100 averaged more than +100% annually from the end of 1999 to the end of 2013. Identifying the “Old Tech Guard” winners is not overly challenging, but discovering the “New Tech Guard” is a much more demanding proposition.
In the winner-takes-all hunt, one need not go any further than looking at the massive role technology plays in our daily lives. Twenty years ago, cell phones, GPS, DVRs (Digital Video Recorders), e-Readers, tablets, electric cars, iPods/MP3s, WiFi mobility, on-demand digital media, video-conferencing, and cloud storage either did not exist or were nowhere near mainstream. Many of these technologies manifest themselves into a whole host of different applications that we cannot live without. One can compile a list of these life-critical applications by thumbing through your smartphone or PC bookmarks. The list is ever-expanding, but companies like Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Uber, Netflix (NFLX), Priceline (PCLN), Yelp, Zillow (Z), and a bevy of other “New Tech Guard” companies have built multi-billion franchises that have become irreplaceable applications in our day-to-day lives.
Underlying all the arbitrary index value milestones (e.g., Dow 17,000 and S&P 2,000) since the 1990s has a persistent and unstoppable proliferation of technology adoption across virtually every aspect of our lives. NASDAQ 5,000 may not be here quite yet, but getting there over the next year or two may not be much of a stretch. Speculative tendencies could get us there sooner, and macro/geopolitical concerns could push the milestone out, but when we do get there the feeling of NASDAQ 5,000 déjà vu will have a much stronger foundation than the fleeting euphoric emotions felt when investors tackled the same level in year 2000.
AUTHOR'S DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own AAPL, GOOG/L, AMZN, NFLX bonds (short the equity), FB (non-discretionary), MSFT (non-discretionary), PCLN (non-discretionary) and a range of positions in certain exchange traded fund positions, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TWTR, Uber, YELP, Z, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through this article constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.
About the author
Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®, is President and Founder of Sidoxia Capital Management. Sidoxia is a full service investment management and advisory firm that provides a wide range of financial services to high-net-worth individuals, family trusts and institutions.