Not too long ago, Americans worshipped Silicon Valley, technology companies, and their brilliant, driven founders.
That love affair with tech propelled the Nasdaq Composite index
511% higher (through Wednesday’s close) since the beginning of the bull market in March 2009, way outpacing the S&P 500’s
322% gain, all excluding dividends. One of the purest tech plays — the Invesco QQQ Trust
— has soared an eye-popping 603% during that time, also excluding dividends.
But lately Big Tech hasn’t been feeling the love as Americans grasp the outsized impact of these giants, some of them almost pure monopolies. Politicians, who can tell which way the wind is blowing, have started talking about regulating these companies more stringently and even breaking them up.
That hasn’t translated yet into wholesale retreat from this vital sector, but cracks are showing. Companies in the crosshairs of public ire — especially Facebook
parent company of Google — have seen their stocks lag, while others, like Amazon
which has put its legendary legal troubles behind it, have way outperformed.
The Big Tech backlash has just started, but it’s picking up speed.
For the last two years, Facebook has been caught up in scandal after scandal, particularly about the use of its 2.4 billion users’ private data and providing a forum for hate speech and political skullduggery. The sale of users’ data is so central to Facebook’s business model the problem is very difficult to fix.
That’s one reason why Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg in their Harvard dorm, in a stunning op-ed in The New York Times, called for the company to be broken up. That’s been echoed on the campaign trail, by progressive Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), who wants to break up all of Big Tech, but also by some conservative Republicans, like newly elected Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who is trying to rally populist support against Big Pharma and Big Tech (but not Wall Street or Big Oil, of course).
Zuckerberg, trying to fend off the worst, has even invited the federal government to regulate his company more closely. (He probably realizes the government doesn’t do a good job at anything, so this is the least bad option.) Facebook already may pay $1.6 billion in fines to the European Union, and it has set aside up to $5 billion for violating a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission.
Meanwhile, Alphabet has had a spate of bad publicity — over privacy, its allegedly toxic work environment, and discussions on doing business with the Chinese government, which currently bans it from the country. It has been fined almost $10 billion by the European Union for abusing its dominant role in online advertising and its exclusion of competing services on its Android mobile operating system.
Other signs of the backlash: After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (now running for president, too) cut a deal with Amazon to locate a second headquarters in Long Island City (along with Crystal City, Va.), protesters, led by local politicians and cheered on by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democratic Socialist—N.Y.), drove Amazon and 25,000 potential new jobs out of town. Most notable in that dispute: The protesters depicted Amazon not as a tech innovator or boon for price-conscious consumers but as a giant corporation feeding at the public trough.
Finally, there’s the crash and burn of the initial public offerings of ride-hailing companies Uber
Both stocks closed lower on their first day of trading, remarkable for such high-profile IPOs. That was a huge repudiation of once-revered venture-capital firms and reflected wariness of companies that offered only rapid revenue growth but little prospect of profits and weariness of all the tech and social media hype that has led to technological advances but little real progress.
Even Wall Street, which doesn’t exactly have its finger on the populist pulse, is taking notice.
In an interview this week, Savita Subramanian, a top strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, warned investors to wean themselves off the once-highflying FAANG stocks in part because of fears of tighter regulation.
“These companies are about to be smacked down from a regulatory perspective,” Subramanian said, adding Big Tech today is in the hot seat like Wall Street was 10 years ago.
So, it’s no surprise the two companies who’ve faced the most scrutiny — Facebook and Alphabet — have gained 25% and 20% over the last two years through Wednesday’s close, trailing the Nasdaq’s 26% return, all excluding dividends. Meanwhile, Amazon, for which the New York brouhaha was like a loose thread on Jeff Bezos’ shoulder, has soared 92% and, irony of ironies, Microsoft, whose big antitrust action concluded in 2001, has gained 87% during that time, also excluding dividends.
It’s a sea change — and investors can’t afford to ignore it.
Howard Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. A member of his family owns shares in the Invesco QQQ Trust.