Nasdaq caps a $7 trillion decade with its best rally in 10 years

Vildana Hajric

In a decade of extreme wealth creation in markets, few assets did more to enrich investors than stocks in the Nasdaq 100 Index. Their combined value jumped by more than $7 trillion, ending with the best year since the bull run began.

Powered by a near-doubling in Apple Inc. and gains exceeding 50% in Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc., the tech-heavy gauge surged 38% over the past 12 months, the biggest increase since 2009.

Technology companies needed 15 years to recover from the dot-com crash, coming full circle in 2015. Since then, they’ve doubled again. But for all the rampant appreciation, the stocks still trade below their bubble-era highs relative to earnings. While today’s valuation of 27 times annual profits isn’t cheap, it’s a long way from the triple-digit ratios in place when the dot-com rally crumbled.

Stock traders wear New Year's 2020 party glasses at New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Stocks slipped globally in quiet New Year's Eve trading Tuesday with many markets closed. Wall Street could close 2019 with back-to-back daily losses in a year that the U.S. posted the largest market gains since 2013.

“I told myself we’ll never see those valuations again in my lifetime and I still think that’s true,” said Doug Ramsey, Leuthold Group’s chief investment officer. “We’ve gotten closer than I would have expected, which I think is pretty remarkable only 20 years later.”

Leuthold keeps a study plotting earnings, dividends, cash flow and other measures to compare then and now, a kind of Internet-bubble calendar that shows where the market is today relative to the 1990s. (It uses the S&P 500 as its benchmark, not the Nasdaq 100.) Going by that, it’s still only January 1998 – two years before the bubble burst.

Not that any two eras are likely to follow identical routes. Leuthold keeps the calendar mainly to show how crazy things got 20 years ago. But even if a crash isn’t imminent, the data isn’t an all-clear signal to keep buying, said Ramsey.

“If we’re going to match the greatest valuation extremes ever seen on large cap in history, there’s probably another 30% upside,” he said. “It’s certainly not my expectation.”

Tech stocks have been able to rally to records even as they were beset by bad news. Regulatory scrutiny is bearing down on the sector, with Democratic presidential candidates and President Donald Trump himself stepping up criticisms of technology firms.

Plagued by scandals, tech firms saw sentiment turn against them in the late 2010s – though not in the stock market. Users became more leery of their smart-phone providers and social media mainstays. Today, consumer advocates and some antitrust enforcers are calling for the breakup of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google, among others.

But compared with the dot-com run-up, the fundamentals of today’s tech giants are much sturdier than they were back then, said Bokeh Capital’s Kim Forrest.

“In 1999, there was a lot of hope in the product because there was no revenue in a lot of those companies, or very little,” said the Pittsburgh firm’s chief investment officer. “A lot of the high-fliers like Uber and these consumer-orientated tech stocks, they still are unprofitable, but the difference is they have some revenue.”

In public markets, while earnings are better established, growth is getting harder to come by. Profits are likely to fall for many tech companies in 2019. Semiconductor stocks, for instance, are forecast to see a 15.4% drop, and hardware and equipment firms are projected for a 6.8% retreat. In 2020, the sector is set for a rebound, with earnings growth predicted to come in above 10%, according to Bloomberg data.

“Tech stocks have more wiggle room from a balance sheet perspective to plug issues whether it be too much debt or if they have a shortcoming in earnings,” said Matt Miskin, a market strategist at John Hancock Investments. “But at the end of the day they are growth stocks, and growth stocks typically trade on earnings and investors want growth.”

The Nasdaq 100’s red-hot run has been the triumph of a few stocks over many, a state of affairs that also sows concern. Megacaps Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook collectively contributed almost half the Nasdaq 100’s gains over the past decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Add Google’s parent and Intel Corp., and the cohort accounts for almost 60%.

But the giants of today are cheaper than the dot-com leaders. Amazon trades at 82 times earnings now, down from north of 300 in 2001. Cisco’s multiple also topped 300 back then. It’s now at 17.

Cheap or not, they will be hard to dislodge, given their technological advancements and widespread consumer usage, according to John Hancock’s Miskin. “It’s not just for investors,” he said. “It’s a global phenomenon and it doesn’t look to be stopping just as the decade comes to a close.”

With assistance from Claire Ballentine.