Category Archives: Silicon Valley

tech stocks are still seriously overvalued

Seventeen years ago, I had a front row seat for the nuttiest mania in stock market history. I vividly remember visiting now failed companies like Quokka Sports, Planet RX, Women.com, and Commerce One and listening to their managements confidently predict glowing futures. These firms, and many more, sold above 100x revenues–and they were far from the most overvalued stocks in the market. Other public dotcom companies had no revenues at all. Their stocks soared on nothing more than hopeful business models and lofty expectations of explosive growth.

I was in the ninth year of managing my hedge fund in 1999. It gained 8 percent that year, badly lagging the S&P’s 19 percent return and the Nasdaq’s staggering 85 percent (!) gain. In March of 2000, the Nasdaq hit an all-time high of 5132.52. Then, on March 20th, Barron’s magazine wrote a much publicized article that listed every dotcom by its cash, monthly cash burn, and the number of months before each company would run out of money if it did not raise additional capital. There were 207 companies on that list. A large number went broke. Some of those flameouts, like Pets.com, live on in infamy. The majority of them are only recalled by hardcore stock junkies, especially those who got burned by their implosion.

Remember Be Free, ZapMe!, SmarterKids.com, drkoop.com, and MotherNature.com? Most investors under the age of 35 almost certainly don’t—and that’s a problem, because what happened to those businesses could easily happen to many of the new tech sector darlings. Far more companies in today’s public and private markets will probably become tomorrow’s drkoop.com instead of the next Amazon or Microsoft. And as we saw so vividly in 2000, when the end comes, it comes quickly.

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the non-gaap craze gets crazier

Earnings, as the old Wall Street adage goes, are “the mother’s milk of stock prices.” But not all earnings are the same. More and more companies believe they can hoodwink investors into accepting the myth that non-GAAP earnings are a better measure of corporate progress than numbers produced by generally accepted accounting principles. In 2016’s first quarter, 19 of the 30 Dow companies reported both GAAP and non-GAAP earnings.

In theory, filing non-GAAP numbers can give a clearer picture of a company’s health by excluding expenses managements consider (or hope) to be nonrecurring, such as charges for divestitures, acquisitions, and foreign currency adjustments. In practice, non-GAAP figures increasingly allow managements to present wildly distorted pictures of their firms’ financial health by omitting the most troublesome aspects of their balance sheets. Valeant is all over the news now for doing just that. But the biggest and, mystifyingly, least talked about expense omitted in non-GAAP numbers is stock based compensation.

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exxon is still a better bet than apple

Last February, I wrote a thought exercise of sorts for CNBC.com weighing the stocks of the number one and two companies by market cap at the time, Apple and Exxon.

Apple, as you may recall, had just turned in one of the greatest quarters in history, annihilating estimates with record smashing iPhone sales. Its stock had shot up to $128/share, and just about everyone expected it to climb higher. Pundits were breathlessly debating how soon Apple would become the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Exxon’s stock, by contrast, was $88/share and not many people were touting it as a buy. Oil prices had crashed to $50/barrel, from over $100 less than a year earlier, and a recovery was seen as unlikely.

Despite these factors, I wrote that if I could buy only one stock between the two and hold it for the long term, Exxon was a better choice than Apple. A quarter later, as both companies prepared to release earnings again, I reiterated my preference for the energy giant.

So where are we now?

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silicon valley’s bubble is bursting

You’ve probably heard by now that last week was the worst opening week in stock market history. But even that horrid headline doesn’t quite capture the sheer scale of the carnage. In five days, the S&P 500 fell six percent, the Dow fell 6.2%, and the NASDAQ fell 7.3%. Small caps fared even worse than the major indexes, with the Russell 2000 shedding 7.9%.

And yet, as ugly as 2016 has been so far, I still see overvalued stocks everywhere I look, especially here in the Bay Area.

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orange might be the new red: original content could easily bleed netflix dry

I recently joined a group of other money managers for a meeting at Neflix’s (NFLX) Los Gatos, California headquarters. The company’s IR rep gave a concise 30-minute business overview, followed by 30 minutes of questions. I’ve never considered investing in Netflix and I probably never will. As a rule, I don’t buy or short popular, high-profile companies. But I have to say, I came away from that presentation more than a little skeptical about Netflix’s future prospects.

The company’s subscription service is a good, if not great business and its user growth has been impressive, but NFLX is an extremely expensive stock by almost any metric. Even after its recent selloff, its market capitalization still tops $40 billion vs. $6.8 billion in estimated 2015 revenues and roughly zero free cash flow in both 2015 and 2016. Its high valuation isn’t what worries me, though. Today about ten percent of the content available on Netflix is either licensed or created by the company. It plans to increase that number to fifty percent. To say this is an extremely risky move would be an understatement.

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uber is a $50 billion edsel

Uber-mania just keeps growing. Last week, we learned its valuation has risen to an unbelievable $50 billion.

I know I sound like a voice in the wilderness but FIFTY BILLION!? Seriously? That is absolutely insane. Hell, it was insane $40 billion dollars ago. I don’t even know what to call it now. Uber will never, and I mean never justify that number.

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could this be the beginning of the end of the social media mania?

I’m kicking myself for not following my instincts and shorting Yelp (YELP) before it announced utterly rancid earnings last Thursday. For years, the only thing that has mystified me more than Yelp’s business model has been its enduring popularity with Wall Street. As I type, I’m looking at a pile of recent analyst reports with absurd price targets for the company. I like to save these kinds of laughably optimistic reports. It’s a hobby of mine. I’ve still got a glowing buy recommendation for Enron dated only days before the energy behemoth imploded.

For all my doubts about Yelp and other social media stocks, there’s a good reason I have not shorted any of them up to now. It’s just too risky to bet against companies in the midst of a secular mania–and make no mistake, that is exactly what has lifted Yelp, Twitter, LinkedIn and their ilk to stupidly large valuations that they will almost certainly never live up to.

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apple and the depressing new dotcom mania: cynicism

I’ve been visiting companies in Silicon Valley for more than a quarter century. In that time, I’ve met with hundreds of entrepreneurs, executives and management teams there. To a person, they’ve all been bright and ambitious. The Valley has earned its reputation as a hotbed of creativity, innovation, and economic vitality. But let’s be frank, it’s also earned its reputation for building just as many manias and pipe dreams as viable products and services–and I think the time has come to rain on the region’s latest parade of groupthink, self-congratulation and irrational exuberance.

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sorry but your tesla is killing the planet, too

(Update: I guess I wasn’t done talking about Tesla. I just wrote a longer piece about the company for Seeking Alpha. You can find it here.)

If Warren Buffett is right (and he usually is) that the stock market is a short term popularity contest and a long term weighing machine, you could easily argue that the most popular stock on Wall Street over the last eighteen months has been Tesla (TSLA). Elon Musk’s battery-powered car manufacturer is barely cash flow positive, but bullish investors have lifted it to a market cap of over $25 billion. That’s more than a third of the value of a little mom and pop outfit called Ford Motors.

But this past week hasn’t been kind to Tesla. First, a report from the website The Street called the Audi A8 Diesel a “Tesla Killer.” Besides bashing Tesla’s limited range and likening its interior comfort to a “Burger King” compared to the Audi’s “Buckingham Palace,” the piece also showed that, due to battery depreciation and electricity costs, the Audi is cheaper to own and operate. Then, yesterday, another Tesla caught fire. Of course,  your average Honda or Chevy is liable to go up in flames if you plow it into a light pole at 100 MPH, as the driver of the Tesla did in this case. But reports from the scene said the Tesla’s batteries were “popping like fireworks” in the middle of the street. For a car with a well-publicized history of mysterious fires, that’s the last kind of press Musk wants.

Personally, I like Teslas. I think they’re neat looking. I’ve even considered buying one, and I wish Musk the best in his attempts to revolutionize the auto industry. But I am a little weary of the hype surrounding the cars. Sure, they don’t burn gasoline, but they do suck up electricity–and in a lot of places in the United States and abroad, that’s about the dirtiest way you can power a car.

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