Despite scandals, slowdowns and attempted takedowns, 2019 was a banner year for U.S. tech giants, with stock prices rebounding markedly from 2018 lows.
The technology sector was the highest-performing in the S&P 500 in 2019, bouncing back by more than 40% from the doldrums of late 2018, versus 25% for the benchmark index overall. Shares in all of the giants have soared, particularly Apple, whose stock rose by 70%, and Facebook, up 53%, followed closely by Microsoft, which rose by 49%. Additionally Alphabet, parent company of Google, was up 28.5% and Amazon by 16%. Both Apple and Alphabet hit new highs this month.
Strong stock performance from companies of such immense size has a disproportionate impact on indexes such as the S&P 500, since they are weighted by market cap. The rise in value of just five companies, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, accounted for more than 20% of total S&P 500 returns this year, through the end of November, The New York Times reports.
The rally in the technology sector is especially remarkable in contrast to the dark days of late 2018 and early 2019. In the case of Facebook, the outlook remained grim well into July. Its worst day ever came on July 26, when its stock plummeted 19%. This followed an announcement by Facebook executives that future profits would suffer as it ramped up security spending following months of scrutiny related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian disinformation campaign. From its 2018 peak to the market trough in December, Facebook’s stock dropped 43%.
At Apple, share prices tumbled by about 40% between October 2018 and January 2019. When pessimism over slowing iPhone sales in China drove the company to cut its sales outlook for the first time in more than a decade, its stock performance took a direct hit, plunging nearly 10% in a single day on January 3.
Within a similar timeframe, between September 2018 and late December, Amazon shares lost around 34% of their value. Likely contributors to its troubles included President Trump, who has publicly criticised the company and CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, for its coverage of his administration. Microsoft’s difficulties were less acute, as it bore a slump of about 19% due to a temporary slowdown in sales growth in its web services division.
Things started to turn a corner for most of the big tech firms in January, when the Federal Reserve reversed its 2018 policy of raising rates, eventually cutting them three times. This was prompted in part by threats to economic growth – the same concerns which drove investors to buy shares in mega-cap technology companies. “They are more economically resilient,” said Jeb Breece of wealth management firm Spears Abacus. “A dollar of tech earnings seems like more of a sure bet than a dollar of Midwestern steel earnings.”
Additionally, earnings among the tech giants have proved surprisingly enduring. Facebook’s third quarter beat expectations for profit and revenue following weak first and second quarters. Apple’s results have also been better than expected. Microsoft has had an especially strong surge, as its Azure cloud business helped drive its profit growth rate up to nearly 30% for the last three quarters.
As The New York Times noted, “The sheer scale of these companies is part of what makes their rise this year so remarkable. While huge share price surges are common in the market for smaller capitalization companies, these are giants.” Recent gains have given them some of the world’s highest market values: over $1 trillion for Apple and Microsoft, and more than $900 billion for Alphabet.