Is Silicon Valley heading for another bubble? While Twitter’s IPO and a few other ludicrous valuations might indicate a touch of irrational exuberance in the air, for the most part, the only bubbles in the San Francisco Bay Area are in real estate and maybe some startup valuations.
It’s definitely not like the high-flying dot-com era. At least, not yet. Remember those heady days when Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs were partying like it’s 1999? Actually, it was 1999. I remember it well …
1999: When the devil came to Silicon Valley
Yahoo bought Broadcast.com for $5.9 billion making Mark Cuban an instant billionaire, ensuring that none of us will ever hear the end of how he was just about the only guy smart enough to hedge against a market crash. Broadcast.com is now defunct, as is GeoCities, a slightly smaller Yahoo write-off of $3.5 billion.
Hundreds of companies like WebVan and Pets.com went from boom to bust in what seemed like nanoseconds. Still, they somehow managed to raise and squander countless billions of dollars from wildly overpriced venture capital rounds and ridiculously overhyped IPOs before flaming out.
Price to earnings ratios (P/Es) of Internet companies showed a nearly universal N/A, since few actually made a profit. And communications companies like JDS Uniphase and Ciena traded at stratospheric levels with P/Es in the thousands, rendering that long-time metric essentially meaningless.
Speaking of meaningless, remember those universal “strong buy” recommendations? Turns out Wall Street analysts were pumping up ratings to hype stocks in return for sweet investment banking deals like public offerings. That led to a huge conflict-of-interest scandal, prosecuted by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Karma would eventually get him, too.
AOL (AOL) and Time Warner (TWX) decided to make the biggest mistake in corporate history – a $164 billion merger. AOL is now valued at just over $3 billion. And Jerry Levin, the Time Warner CEO who engineered the deal with AOL’s Steve Case, is now the guru of digital health and wellness and cofounder of Moonview Sanctuary, a holistic treatment center for Hollywood celebrities. No kidding.
And who can forget Y2K, the Millennium bug that was supposed to cause every computer in the world to crash and airplanes to fall out of the sky when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999. Instead, all we got were the usual hangovers.
Twitter’s IPO, $24 billion market cap, and the return of P/Es of N/A
No matter what anyone says, we’re nowhere near the kind of craziness that was going on back then. But there are definitely some distinct pockets of bubbleness here and there in the valley. Take Twitter’s $1.8 billion IPO, for example. Shares nearly doubled on the first day of trading.
I don’t know if or when Twitter’s (TWTR) executives plan to make a profit, but you’d think investors would have learned a thing or two from Groupon’s (GRPN) crazy valuation and two year fall from grace. After shedding two thirds of its market value, the discount coupon company is still in the red but getting oh so close to breaking even. So close.
Tesla, SolarCity, and all things green and Musky
Tesla’s (TSLA) overhyped and overpriced stock – up about 400% year to date – has dropped like a rock in recent days for two reasons. First, its Model S sedans are on fire, and not in a good way: a third vehicle in six weeks caught fire the other day. Yes, that’s the same model Consumer Reports gave its highest rating ever: 99 out of 100.
Second, its razor thin profits turned to a $38 million loss last quarter, in spite of the extra $35,000 it makes on each car it sells by selling California zero emission tax credits to competitors like Honda and Toyota. Without the hundreds of millions of dollars it makes every quarter from California and federal tax credits, CEO Elon Musk would be seeing nothing but red.
Speaking of Musk, he’s also chairman of SolarCity (SCTY), another green company who’s stock has been red hot – up nearly 400% this year until plummeting 20% over the past few days. Like Tesla, SolarCity has never recorded an operating profit and, without lucrative federal government tax credits and all sorts of state and local incentives, would not have much of a business model.
Yes, there’s definitely a taxpayer funded green tech bubble, but then, that’s nothing new. They just change the name every few years to keep it fresh and pumped up. I think we’ve already blown through clean tech and now it’s called renewable energy. Wonder what it’ll be next.
Netflix, LinkedIn, Amazon, and the return of ginormous multiples.
As the market for streaming movies and shows has fragmented, Netflix (NFLX) has struggled with flat-lining revenues and shrinking profits. And yet, investors are still hungry for the stock, which is trading at a P/E of 273.
All that said, shares of Facebook (FB) declined last week, even after announcing a record quarter that beat analyst estimates. It seems that CFO Dave Ebersman made some cautionary statements on the earnings call that spooked investors. To me, that’s a good sign.
Aside from some spotty frothiness here and there, it seems that most investors still have their feet planted firmly on the ground. We’re a long way from 1999, that’s for sure.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.