In 1997, in his first letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, wrote that it was still “Day 1” for his firm. Day 2, he later explained, would mean stasis, followed by irrelevance. His rousing call to avoid complacency seems apt today. Silicon Valley’s five big tech giants, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, have long been the bedrock of America’s stockmarket and economy, miraculously combining reliable growth and profitability. But after a torrid third quarter their market capitalisations have now collectively dropped by 37% so far this year. About $3.7trn of value has evaporated.
The law of large numbers made it inevitable that the tech giants would mature. Sales growth in the last quarter slowed to 9%—barely above inflation. As they have grown bigger, they have become tied to the economic cycle; a fact which the digital surge during the pandemic only temporarily masked. Penetration rates for smartphones, digital advertising and streaming are plateauing. With slowing core businesses, the giants are venturing onto each other’s turf, increasing competition.
Meanwhile, they are threatened by “conglomeritis”. The symptoms of this disease are bloating and egomania. Consider the recent orgy of spending on hiring, experimental ventures, vanity projects and building data centres. In March the five firms’ combined annual expenses reached $1trn for the first time, and the value of the physical plant of these supposedly asset-light businesses has reached $600bn, over triple the level of five years ago. Swollen costs and balance-sheets mean returns on capital have fallen from over 60% five years ago to 26%. Three of the five do not deign to pay dividends.
— Karen Hand PhD (@karenmhand) November 3, 2022