From Airbnb to Tesla, It’s Starting to Feel Like 1999 All Over Again. It May End the Same Way.

By Randall W. Forsyth

Airbnb shares soared 113% over the IPO price on the first day of trading. / Courtesy of Nasdaq


Maybe this time is different. Those words, supposedly the most dangerous to utter in the investing realm, came to mind amid the frenzied pops in the highly anticipated initial public offerings of the past week.

They recalled the wild IPOs at the end of the last century, when the public’s enthusiasm for all things dot-com had investors paying crazy prices for new stocks that often lacked earnings, revenue, or, in some cases, actual operations. After the calendar turned over to the year 2000—without the world descending into chaos from the Y2K computer bug, remember that?—the bubble popped, especially after Barron’s published its seminal cash-burn story that March, which showed that the dot-com kids were rapidly running through the liquid assets compliant capital markets had provided to them. 

As it turned out, the Nasdaq Composite had posted its top tick a bit more than a week earlier, although we only learned that in retrospect.

What is different this time is that the current highflying IPOs are coming from innovative companies that have become major businesses, nurtured by their private-market investors while attracting throngs of fans who wanted to become shareholders as well as customers. 

So they clamored for DoorDash (ticker: DASH) and Airbnb (ABNB), sending their shares soaring in their first day of trading by 86% and 113%, respectively, over their respective IPO prices.

So great was the frenzy that there was furious buying of the call options of ABB (ABB), the big European industrial company out of confusion with the ticker for Airbnb, our former Barron’s colleague Mike Santoli amusingly reported on CNBC. That wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity with a hot IPO. 

Instead of getting in on the 2019 IPO of Zoom Video Communications (ZM), which has become one of this year’s stay-at-home winning stocks, punters mistakenly chased penny stock Zoom Technologies (ZTNO) ahead of the former’s IPO.

What does recall the dot-com bubble era are the valuations accorded these IPOs. In his preview of the Airbnb offering last week, colleague Andrew Bary quoted New York University professor and tech entrepreneur Scott Galloway bullishly predicting a $100 billion market value—by the end of 2022. 

At the end of its first day trading on Thursday, its market cap already topped Galloway’s no longer outlandish projection, which was three times what had been estimated just a week earlier.

Another blast from that past is Tesla ‘s (TSLA) 50%-plus jump since Standard & Poor’s announced last month the electric-vehicle stock’s inclusion in the S&P 500 index. That recalled the 64% jump in then-dominant internet search company Yahoo! in December 1999 ahead of its addition to the benchmark index, just a few months before the Nasdaq’s peak.

S&P 500 index funds and portfolios that followed the benchmark will have to buy Tesla without regard to the stock’s value, as colleague Evie Liu reports. But the slavish adherence to this particular market gauge belies the tenet of index investing—that the efficient market distills the reasoned assessments of buyers and sellers of the value of a security. 

“Whether or not [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk will ever deliver autonomous driving, we are drifting closer to autonomous investing,” writes Jim Grant in the current Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.

Even if that’s the case, this episode demonstrates that the S&P 500 doesn’t represent the entirety of the U.S. stock market. 

For instance, the Vanguard 500 Index fund (VFIAX) has significantly lagged the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund (VTSAX), 15.64% to 17.8% in the year through Wednesday, according to Morningstar data. 

Over the past 12 months, the gap is 17.41% to 19.14%.

For his part, Musk decried the “M.B.A.-ization of America” to The Wall Street Journal this past week for U.S. corporations supposedly focusing too much on financials. 

Which is ironic given Tesla’s adept financial engineering, including its announcement this past week of a $5 billion sale of stock, its third equity financing this year, for a total $12 billion.

Musk’s criticism seems directed at those skilled at analyzing the EV maker’s income statement and balance sheet, such as Vicki Bryan, who pens the Bond Angle research letter. 

Tesla’s addition to the S&P 500 followed its reporting of a requisite four consecutive profitable quarters, which can be “traced entirely to energy credit sales plus noncash account and unusual items—none of which are its core business,” she writes.

These items provided a $1.6 billion boost to reported free cash flow of $1.93 billion in the four quarters through Sept. 30, which, however, ignored $100 million for solar-equipment capital expenditures and $1.1 billion in capex funded by leases. Taking all that into consideration, operations actually consumed more than $800 million in cash, she concludes.

The entire $9.18 billion year-over-year increase in reported cash, to $14.53 billion on Sept. 30, resulted from net borrowing of $1.5 billion and the sale of $7.7 billion in stock and equity equivalents, Bryan adds. The ebullient stock market, augmented by the index effect, provides the cheap capital to keep the Musk magic going.

That’s what’s different this time from the dot-com era. There seems to be a seemingly limitless font of money to be tapped by hypergrowth companies that promise to change how we work, live, and get around. 

The question is whether it will end differently.

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