Both companies are making money faster than you can drag a hand over a fist – somewhat contradicting gainsayers who have been predicting another tech crash since the last one ended. But can it last?
Facebook: revenue in its latest quarter: $9.3 billion, up 44 per cent per cent on a year ago. Alphabet: revenue in the latest quarter: $26.01 billion, up 21 per cent from a year ago.
Facebook net income in its latest quarter $3.9 billion, up 71 per cent. Alphabet net income $3.524 billion, less than a year ago
So, there you have it, Facebook is making more money than Alphabet.
Except, that is, Alphabet was fined $2.74 billion by the EU. Remove that from the equation and Alphabet made $6.26 billion, representing impressive growth on last year.
Should we look beyond the fine? No doubt Alphabet will face more fines in the future, but frankly Facebook’s time will come – it will surely fall under the regulator’s microscope soon enough.
What we can say is that underlying profits at Alphabet are still almost double those at Facebook, but the growth rate at Facebook is much faster.
Looking at the traditional parts of the two businesses, it does seem that the winds are blowing in Facebook’s sails. In the age of apps, search may not have quite the appeal it used to have. Facebook is trying to expand into developing markets – with vast untapped potential. Looking at user numbers, Facebook may have the greater growth potential.
The big limit to Facebook’s growth lies with the number of ads. It has chosen to put a limit on the quantity of ads it will run per user. It may be a self-imposed barrier, but it is a sensible one – too many ads can put users off – a lesson many web site publishers need to learn fast.
Facebook’s growth in the medium term may come from monetising WhatsApp and Instagram. Whether it really can get away with running ads on these services to any significant degree is not yet proven. It is working on technology such at an AI engine that will be able to work out what people are talking about, and feed relevant ads. If it can pull off this trick, the potential ad revenue will be very significant indeed.
In the longer term, virtual reality may prove even more important. Maybe sales of Oculus Rift have been a little disappointing to date, but this remains work in progress. The potential is enormous, but not proven.
As for Alphabet, looking beyond its ads, it now has 1.5 billion users a month active on YouTube. Revenue from other areas, such as the cloud and the hardware business rose to $3.09 billion, from $2.17 billion a year ago. Other bets, for example: Waymo, Nest, and Verily, saw revenue of $248 million and lost $772 million.
But is it sustainable?
Shares in Alphabet have risen three-fold in the last five years, by about a third in the last 12 months, and almost 20-fold since the 2004 IPO. Market cap is $642 billion.
Shares in Facebook are up 4-fold since the IPO in May 2012. They increased by about a third in the last 12 months, and market cap is $477 billion
Those who have been looking at this sort of thing since the last century may say they have got déjà vu. Back in the late 1990s, shares in tech – or as they were called back then: dotcoms – surged, and surged some more. Then in the year 2000 they crashed, fortunes were lost.
But is it really like that again?
The difference this time around is that big profits lie behind the rising share prices. Look at the money Facebook and Alphabet are making, look at the growth in their profits, and frankly, their respective valuations do not look so excessive. Take Facebook, when it was floated, it was valued at $104 billion. Many people baulked at that price. But look at quarterly profits today and we can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that the IPO valuation was modest.
Google was floated in 2004, with a value of $23billion. Back then, the wounds from the dotcom crash were still sore, many thought that the valuation was insane. It is now close to making more money than that in a year.
This is one of the snags with human nature; we overreact. We overreact on the upside during the good times and on the downside during the bad times. That is why we get economic cycles, that is why we get stock market booms and busts.
The biggest threat to Alphabet and Facebook probably lies with some future technology that few people have even heard of today – but frankly, given the willingness at both companies to experiment and invest in new technologies, there is a good chance that either one of the two, or both, will be behind these new disruptive technologies, anyway.
All we can say for sure, is that the prophecies of doom from five-years back have been proven wrong. We will have no way of knowing whether the current crop of cynics will be proven wrong for many years, and it is often a mistake to extrapolate past trends into the future. Even so, the record to date would suggest there is no bubble here.