If This Is Another Dot-Com Bubble, the Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Digital transformation is still in an early phase, which means many hard-hit cloud and “software-as-a-service” stocks could bounce back in years to come.
Are we in another dot-com-style crash? The question is top of mind amid the 2022 market rout. While similarities abound, one difference stands out: This phase of digital transformation is still in its early days, which means that some beaten-down tech names could have healthy prospects for long-term growth.
True, U.S. equities have been trading down hard for months, and tech is down very hard: From their recent peaks, companies in the NASDAQ have sold off at a rate comparable only to the Dot-Com Bubble (October 2000 to October 2002) and the Great Financial Crisis (November 2008 to April 2009). As Jason Goepfert of Sundial Capital Research tweeted about the NASDAQ on April 29, even before this week's meltdown:
So if big tech stocks are entering what Bloomberg Opinion's Parmy Olson recently dubbed an “age of uncertainty,” what cause for optimism is there? I rest my case on the framework that Stanley Druckenmiller, the former chairman and president of Duquesne Capital, laid out to me in an interview a year ago.
Druckenmiller was speaking to media outlets about the Federal Reserve's very loose pandemic monetary policy. He called it “crazy” and said it was creating a bubble in every asset. Based on this, Druckenmiller said the biggest risk to the market was the Fed raising rates to rein it all in.
Druckenmiller has been right on all counts. The Fed has begun a tightening cycle and just raised rates by 50 basis points on Wednesday. Bloomberg Economics expects it to do the same in the next two meetings.
During our conversation, I asked Druckenmiller what parallels he saw between pandemic-fueled tech stocks and the dot-com bubble. He was no stranger to the internet bust, famously buying $6 billion of tech stocks near the top of that market before they lost half their value in a matter of weeks.
The main similarity he noted is that tech stocks reached “speculative levels” in both periods, driven by exuberance and easy money. Fed policy was much looser in the latter period, however, with quantitative easing (QE) and rates near 0% versus the late 1990s, with no QE and rates in the 4-5% range.
A key difference noted by Druckenmiller is the type of companies that were affected:
The internet was just sort of being built and the big winners in 1999 were companies like Sun Microsystem and Cisco, that were building the guts of the internet. Think of the internet infrastructure like the railroads 150 years ago. Think of the tech stocks like a company selling railway ties and building the guts of the internet.
When you're building the railroad, your sales are going up +50, +60 or +70% a year. But once the railroad is built [you don't need the railway ties anymore]. Your growth not only doesn't go up 70%, it goes down because on a rate of change basis, you don't need any more railroad ties.
Cisco Systems Inc. — the networking giant — is a particularly apt example.
“People forget, but Cisco was once the world's most valuable firm,” says R.J. Assaly at Toggle AI, an analytics firm that Druckenmiller counts among his investments. “In March 2000, it crossed a market cap of $500 billion and dethroned Microsoft.” Assaly notes that Cisco never sniffed those highs again; its stock price recently hit a 52-week low, and its market capitalization is now about $205 billion.
Back in May 2021, Druckenmiller told me that high-flying “software-as-a-service” (SaaS) and cloud stocks may not suffer the same long-term decline in the case of a market correction:
“What you have now is this incredible wave of digital transformation, particularly moving onto the cloud. I used to say 2-3 years ago in some interviews that we're in the bottom of the first or second inning in terms of digital transformation. And this is a 10-year runway. Well, Covid sort of jumped you from the bottom half of the first inning to the sixth inning.
So, now full disclosure, I didn't see what was coming in 2000. But I [have a difficult time coming up] with a scenario that this digital transformation thing is going to collapse and these SaaS companies are going to go away.”
At the time, Druckenmiller said that “price” — not the underlying fundamentals — was the main concern with popular cloud and SAAS names. Valuations in this segment of the tech sector have indeed reset: The median forward revenue multiple for the Bessemer Venture Partners Cloud index has contracted from ~15x to ~7x in the past year.
I don't know what Druckenmiller thinks now, but his May 2021 argument remains relevant.
Here's one view from Google Cloud's chief technology officer Will Grannis: “It is still early days when it comes to cloud adoption, with only 10-15% of enterprise IT spending and 20-30% of workflows moved to the cloud.”
Of course, not all SaaS stocks are created equal. Some are total duds. But many — which have business models with reasonable long-term bull cases — are trading at (or below) their valuations right before the pandemic: Docusign Inc., Paypal Holdings Inc., Salesforce Inc., Workday Inc. and Zoom Video Communications Inc.
Digital transformation remains a tailwind for these companies. We need to check in again a few Mays from now to see how they are really doing.
Trung Phan is the co-host of the Not Investment Advice podcast and writes the SatPost newsletter. He was formerly the lead writer for the Hustle, a tech newsletter.