High-flying technology stocks that powered higher at the start of the year, then plunged over the past few months, are starting to spring back. The rebound is reassuring investors who questioned whether a relatively small consortium of tech stocks could bring down the broader stock market just as the sector did in the dot com bust 14 years ago.
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Veteran tech manager Paul Meeks says the selloff in technology and biotechnology stocks, which had also run up earlier this year, was a bit of a correction in itself that refreshed the market.
“When the market goes sideways as it has through this year and when you see some of the high flyers dropping at such big percentage rates, I think that tells you we’ve already been in a cycle of some churning,” said Meeks, manager of the Sextant Growth Fund (SSGFX) for Saturna Capital.
The S&P 500 has traded in a narrow range of 4.5% for most of the year, while earlier this week notching a new high. The benchmark stock-market index is up 3.8% for the year.
The level of froth between early 2000 and today is dramatically different, analysts say. For starters, before the Internet bubble popped, technology accounted for 35% of the S&P 500, today it’s not even 20%. Though there are industries within the tech sector and initial public offerings that debuted in late 2013 and early 2014 that are certainly aggressively priced.
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Meeks says the next test for the tech sector will be the pricing of Chinese Internet giant Alibaba’s initial public offering expected later this year. “We’ll see if tech is back because when they price that IPO it could be the biggest of all time,” said Meeks.
If Alibaba’s competitor, JD.com’s (JD) IPO, is any indication, Alibaba should price well. JD’s offering was the largest tech IPO since Twitter (TWTR), according to Dealogic, raising $1.8 billion. The Chinese online retailer’s IPO priced at $19 per share, trumping expectations for a range of $16 to $18. Shares closed their first day at $20.90, clocking a first-day gain of 10%.
Meeks stuffs his fund, which sports assets of about $41.1 million, with companies that are increasing sales and earnings quickly with a strong focus on the technology sector. The fund has a 40% weighting in technology versus its benchmark Russell 1000 growth index, which has a 30% weighting.
Meeks won’t touch tech stocks that he thinks are overpriced. Instead Meeks looks for attractively priced stocks that capitalize on the hottest tech themes. If a stock sells off, but the outlook for its sales and profits remain intact, Meeks pounces. “I make a watch list and wait for them to crumble because they always do,” he said.
Speaking of crumbling, although the club of tech high-fliers has sold off, Meeks said he thinks these stocks need to drop further before they become attractive again. “For most of them, valuations need to fall further and some have business models that aren’t sustainable,” said Meeks.
That said, Meeks has earmarked a couple high-flyers for his watch list. He likes cyber security firm FireEye (FEYE), but says its stock, even though it’s fallen in value, is still richly priced. He’s also kicking the tires of big data analytics company Splunk (SPLK). Since March, its stock plunged from $106 per share to $44 per share. “It was egregiously valued at $106, and at $44 I still need to do some work,” said Meeks.
‘90s Tech Throw Back
Instead of the newer, over-hyped firms, this tech maven is going old school. He’s sticking with companies that are moving into high-growth areas within technology like mobile, big data and cyber security, but that are in the bargain bin because investors can’t see past their old reps from the ‘90s.
“Once these companies are recognized for what they have in their cyber security portfolio, mobility or big data, then they’ll get the multiple of the newer companies and the stocks rise,” said Meeks.
Best known for providing the pipes to deliver media content over the Internet, Akamai was popular in the ‘90s. But through savvy acquisitions the company is building out its cyber security products and services. Analysts project sales will jump over 22% this year to nearly $2 billion, while earnings are forecast to rise 14% to $2.30. At $53 per share, the stock currently trades around 23 times 2014 forecast earnings.
As for EMC, most everyone on Wall Street views the cloud storage company as just that -- a commodity storage vendor. Over the past year, EMC’s stock hasn’t taken off, as its storage business has been under pressure and the company failed to substantially boost sales, cash flow and profits over the past few quarters. Although storage accounts for 70% of EMC’s sales, Meeks is focused on new products in EMC’s pipeline that operate in cyber security and mobile. “The problem is everyone loves the new stuff, but the old stuff has been holding them back for about a year,” he said.
Then there are a couple of other perks investors already know and love about EMC. Notably, EMC has an 80% ownership of VMware (VMW), the operating system virtualization company, and a smaller position in a private company called Pivotal that it co-owns with VMware and which General Electric (GE) bought a stake in last April. Pivotal’s business plays in the Internet of Things, a new theme that connects everyday objects like appliances or the thermometer in your wall outlet of your hotel room to the Internet. Analysts expect earnings to grow by just over 6% this year, but increase by 12.6% next year. At around $26 per share, EMC trades at nearly 14 times analysts’ projected 2014 earnings of $1.91 per share, compared with over 18 times for the tech sector.
Then there’s the king of old tech companies that once ruled the sector: Microsoft. Like other managers, Meeks has become bullish on the old software juggernaut after the company appointed the head of its cloud-computing unit as its chief executive.
“That’s telling because it shows [Microsoft] really gets cloud computing,” said Meeks. “(Cloud is) where the company has to be to succeed and that’s why the stock has risen nicely.”
The rest of the Street seems to agree. After idling sideways for more than a decade the stock has zoomed 50% since December 2012 to $40 per share from $26.71. But after the run up, at $40 a share, Meeks thinks Microsoft is fairly valued. “I wouldn’t be a buyer here, but I’d hold the stock,” said Meeks. “They’re doing the right things, I’d just wait for a pull back.”
For the current fiscal year that ends in June, analysts project Microsoft’s earnings will grow only nearly 2%, while sales will increase 10.6%. Microsoft trades at 14.9 times 2014 forecast earnings.