There seems little doubt that the US economy is in some form of recession. Whether that recession is impacting all the states and all parts of the economy is another matter. The auto industry seems to be getting hit while tech remains relatively strong. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that modern cars will last decades, whereas computers still seem to need replacing every three or four years. Anyway, that’s a whole other subject.
What I’ve been giving thought to is how this period of economic change will differ from the time of the dot com crash. One item really stands out to me and that’s stock options. When the dot com market was booming tech companies were giving staff relatively large amounts of stock and lower basic salaries. As a result when the crash happened staff were left with big tax bills on stock that wasn’t worth anything and salaries that were artificially low. This made many employees nervous about accepting options as a form of compensation even in companies that had good prospects. Couple this with changes in accounting rules that made the idea of issuing stock options less attractive and you had a situation where companies have been forced to look at more traditional rewards. They have also had to sell people on the idea that the job they were offering would actually be worth taking.
So if we assume that the market does take a beating at stocks drop 15%, the impact on the economy could be quite different. Last time around, those with stock in public companies were trying to sell fast before their tax burdens grew too great. This time around the magnitudes are so different that the rush to sell shouldn’t be as dramatic. Also, this time around people are earning higher basic salaries. This has two implications: 1. People are less dependent on stock for compensation so a bad day on the market won’t mean as much 2. If companies need to trim costs they shouldn’t need to lay as many people off in order to achieve the same cost saving.
As you can probably tell, I’m no economist but I do believe that the relative absence of stock options in the current economy could have a big bearing on how a recession plays out.
I just spent some time looking at the relative stock prices of major technology companies versus both the DJIA and the NASDAQ composite over the last six months. Result? I couldn’t find a single stock that came close to tracking these indices. You have stocks like Google that have jumped around all over the place and have ended up 8% down compared to the DJIA. Then you have Intel which has steadily declined a staggering 33% over the same period. There are bunch of stocks such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Dell that have declined just less than 20% and others such as IBM and Apple that are down 10%. At the other extreme I can find a few stocks that have risen relative to the DJIA. These include Oracle and Cisco at around 12% and AMD up about 18%. What does this tell you? Well in part it tells you that roughly three in every four major tech stocks are falling at 10% versus only one in four rising at a similar rate. While this is not the most scientific study on the planet it does suggest that as a group the major tech stocks have some work to do to convince investors they have growth potential. If the sample had produced a more random pattern I’d suggest that the problem lay with the individual companies and their IR but I think the challenge is greater than that. As I’ve said before on this blog, I believe the challenge is sector related. Until the sector works together to solve this problem, generally poor stock performance is on the cards.
In its last two issues Business Week has produced cover stories on two great topics. The first was the poor stock performance by America’s largest companies despite some impressive performance over the last five years. The second is the current issue’s coverage of the “World’s most Innovative Companies.” The thing that caught my attention was that there were actually a number of companies that feature in both stories. Of course the second story makes no reference to the first because if it did it would have to point out that sadly investors don’t give a hoot about innovation (assuming the research is true). There are of course some notable exceptions. Among Business Week’s top 10 most innovative companies are Apple, Google and Toyota. In all cases their stock has done well in recent years. Also in the list however are GE ( stock is down 30% over the last five years), Microsoft ( stock has declined 20% in the last five years) and 3M (stock is unchanged for the last two years). In Business Week’s current issue they applaud GE’s move to challenge its reliance on six sigma, in the previous issue they lament the fact that despite the company’s great performance its stock is, to put it crudely, in the toilet. Of course what is clear from these two articles is that many of the companies that have embraced innovation are performing very well as businesses and perhaps that is something that sooner or later Wall Street will accept and give them credit for.