Cable Stocks Rose as Streaming Stocks Fell

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The stock market has been on an unprecedented run for years, but tech stocks have seen rocky times recently. Tech companies with exposure to the streaming video business -- including Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) (NASDAQ: GOOG) -- have been among the victims. On Oct. 29, for instance, those five tickers fell from 1.9% to 6.3%. Meanwhile, on that day, cable stocks Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Charter (NASDAQ: CHTR) enjoyed an unexpected moment in the sun, rising roughly 2% each. Over a two-week period, Comcast and Charter saw stock increases of nearly 9% while the others on this list ranged from a 5.5% decrease (Apple) to a 4.2% increase (Amazon).

Casual observers of this brief market snapshot might have seen a connection between cable stocks doing well as streaming-related stocks stumbled. Streaming services like the ones owned by Netflix and Amazon (and planned by Apple), along with streaming devices like the ones offered by Amazon (Fire TV) and Alphabet (Chromecast) have been instrumental in luring customers away from cable TV, after all.

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But does an assumption that these stocks would move in an inverse relationship survive closer examination?

What are investors thinking?

Did cable stocks really rise because tech stocks fell? Maybe, but there are more obvious explanations.

For instance, investors could have been reacting to the good earnings reports that Comcast and Charter put out in late October. That's a very normal reason for a stock to go up -- there's no need to start investigating inverse relationships with other stocks.

But could the earnings reports be indicative of some underlying shift in the cable-versus-streaming wars? Not likely. Comcast served 30.1 million customers in Q3 of this year, up from 29.8 million in Q2 -- but when the video subscriber numbers are isolated, we see a 1.7% loss year-over-year. Cord-cutting is still dragging that aspect of Comcast's business down. Charter's gains came for similar reasons: It got a boost from its 308,000 new internet customers in Q3, but it lost 54,000 video subscriptions over the same period.

Besides, Comcast and Charter weren't the only ones with good Q3 reports. Netflix had a great Q3, too. There's no evidence that tech and cable are locked in a zero-sum game.

People watching the streaming space also shouldn't read too much into the recent tech-stock stumble. For one thing, only one of the tech companies named in this article -- Netflix -- is entirely rooted in the streaming world. For Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet, streaming accounts for just a small portion of their overall business.

If the market overall is experiencing volatility or the economy is wobbling, cable stocks won't be immune. Cord-cutting is ostensibly about saving money, and while less essential streaming services might not fare well in a downturn, it doesn't follow that consumers would suddenly turn back to pricey cable offerings. It's also worth noting that cord-cutting is most cost-effective for those without landline phones, which encourage bundling. And younger consumers are less likely to have landlines. A lot of things get confusing in recessions, but demographics won't change. Cord-cutting will remain the way of the future.

Legacy pay TV, streaming, and a more complex picture of the market

The picture is also less than clear-cut because legacy pay TV companies -- including cable and satellite companies -- are investing in streaming solutions themselves. AT&T, which owns satellite provider DirecTV, also owns a live TV streaming service (or "skinny bundle") called DirecTV Now. Dish owns skinny bundle Sling TV. Comcast owns part of Hulu.

Cable companies are suffering in the near-term from cord-cutting, but their long-term plans include plenty of efforts to adapt. Cable companies aren't going to die on this hill, and a dive in streaming stocks isn't necessarily good for them.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Stephen Lovely owns shares of Amazon, Apple, AT&T, and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.