Facebook announced this week that it would pay a $5 bn fine to settle a Free Trade Commission investigation into privacy violations. The exact same day, Facebook announced that the FTC had launched another probe, this one perhaps more worrying. The new probe is a formal antitrust investigation into Facebook. The company disclosed the investigation alongside its quarterly results yesterday.
FINSUM: So Facebook and big tech not only have the DOJ on them now, but now the FTC too. End of the golden age of the FAANGs?
There have been a lot of worries about the tech sector this year. Besides valuation, the big fear has been the threat of regulation. Well, those anxieties are proving to be correct as the Department of Justice has just officially announced that it has opened a probe to figure out whether the tech sector is smothering competition. The broad antitrust investigation did not name companies in particular, but said it would focus on “search, social media and some retail services online”.
FINSUM: This is quite a worrying development, but it is hard to say how exactly it may play out. There does seem to be popular momentum behind further regulating big tech, which means lawmakers may be more emboldened.
A year ago you were a considered a maniac if you didn’t have your portfolio loaded with FAANGs and other tech stocks. What a difference a year makes! Tech stocks are now largely out of favor after a rough year that has underperformed the S&P. There are a lot of fears of regulatory scrutiny and slowing financial performance. The tide has turned so much against the stocks that it is fair to call them a contrarian bet.
FINSUM: It sounds quite ridiculous to call some of the world’s most popular stocks over the last few years “contrarian”, but it seems true at this point. It appears it might be a good time to buy, though regulatory fears may prove legitimate.
Tesla has been in a very rough patch recently, with shares dropping swiftly and deeply. However, where are things headed next? Well, an important “insider” indicator just flashed that you need to know about. Two Tesla directors have been heavily selling stock this year, showing that those close to the company are not bullish. Directors Buss and Gracias have sold nearly $47m of stock in 2019, and total sales by insiders are around $68m, almost 5x the total selling of last year.
FINSUM: We think this is quite a troubling sign and does not give us any conviction about a rebound.
Consider it a warning shot across the bow of Silicon Valley, the opening salvo in a potentially brutal antitrust war. The head of the Department of Justice said in a public speech yesterday that low prices and free services would not shield “monopolists” from scrutiny. “There are only one or two significant players in important digital spaces, including internet search, social networks, mobile and desktop operating systems, and electronic book sales … This is true in certain input markets as well. For example, just two firms take in the lion’s share of online ad spending”, said the head of the DOJ, Makan Delrahim. He continued “Like today’s tech giants, Standard Oil was pioneering and generated a number of important patents. Scholars have noted, however, that Standard Oil’s innovation slowed as it became an entrenched monopolist”. Delrahim also listed specific behaviors which would spark investigation, including bundling products together.
FINSUM: The government is poised to launch a large and multi-fronted war on big tech. How long this will take, or how it will play out in markets is anyone’s guess, but it is hard to find any positives as far as big tech company share prices are concerned.
Markets sold off in a big way when new of the government’s antitrust push against the FANGS came out. The stocks lost $130 bn of value. However, the reaction may be overblown, with each stock needing to be assessed on its own merits, as the antitrust picture would look different for each of them. A managing partner at Andreesen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, makes an interesting point, saying “The big challenge with these antitrust things is, it’s not obvious what the consumer harm is today”.
FINSUM: We think that point is very salient, as given the fact that it is hard to assert how consumers are being harmed, we expect the ultimate output of these investigations may be relatively light touch (such as a GDPR-like regulation).