What's with the sudden correction in Internet stocks?
For many stocks, 2013 is proving a tough act to follow.
Last year was a great year for a lot of tech stocks. Pandora tripled in price, while Netflix quadrupled. The bullish sentiment spread into names that few but their most ardent defenders were expecting to rally: Groupon staged a recovery that sent its stock up 144 percent. Zynga overcame its past troubles to rise 63 percent. Most bizarrely, tech retailer Best Buy rose 242 percent.
So far in 2014, however, some of these stocks are stalling or even dropping. Normally, early January can signal how institutional investors are allocating money for the year, and the signals they're sending aren't encouraging. Some of the selling pressure may be coming from investors who bought these stocks last year trimming their positions before an earnings season that is, so far, proving to lackluster to an unsettling degree.
As a result, the across-the-board buying of stocks involved in the consumer Internet, and the mobile web in particular, has broken into two camps. While Pandora, Facebook and LinkedIn are continuing to see gains thus far, others are declining. There is no broad cause for the stocks that are declining; each has its own individual bearish reasons.
Zynga, for example, is riding the volatile waves of a feast-or-faming gaming industry. Older titles like YoVille have lost steam, and uncertainty reigns over coming quarters as the company tries to create another hit in the face of rising competition from companies like King.com. Last year, investors were encouraged by the cost cutting efforts of CEO Don Mattrick, but the stock's volatility is a reminder of how quickly rallies can evaporate in consumer-web stocks. The stock is down 15 percent from a high of $4.18 reached last week.
Groupon, meanwhile, is down 15 percent from its Jan. 6 high, partly on news that LivingSocial would sell 14 million Groupon shares it received through the sale of a Korean company it owned a stake in. But the stake was equal to only 2 percent of Groupon's stock, and despite bullish comments on Groupon from Morgan Stanley and others, investors seem to want more proof of a turnaround.
Last year, Netflix returned to its role as a beloved, if precariously valued brand-name stock. But the stock is down 11 percent so far this year. Some reports have tied the decline to an appeals court's ruling on net neutrality, which could weigh down Netflix's bandwidth costs. But some experts believe the FCC can work around the ruling easily. Netflix's correction may have more to do with its PE ratio of 277, and concerns that subscriber growth may slow even with its roster of home-cooked programs.
Twitter has supplanted Facebook as a proxy for investor sentiment in mobile-web stocks. Which is odd, because while Facebook has a steadier, more easily readable financial performance right now, Twitter is the bird deliriously flying an errtatic path toward the sun. More analysts are expressing reservations on its valuation.
Where will Twitter fly now? Price targets range from $20 to $75, and inside that vacuum of uncertainty investors have pushed Twitter's stock price up to $74 three weeks ago, down to $55 a week ago, and back up to $64 today. This isn't a stock, it's a roulette wheel.
Best Buy may hardly be a mover and shaker in ecommerce, but its stock has been acting like a Groupon-like turnaround play. Its rally last year mirrored many Internet stocks, but was more of a surprise because anyone who has recently showroomed their stores for stuff they'd later buy on Amazon has seen first hand what a retailer dying a slow death in an age of ecommerce looks like.
So if Best Buy has been more victim than player online commerce, its stock has been treated with the same speculative fervor that drove Groupon, Twitter and others. So take note of its 35 percent plunge today following a weak holidy season that should have surprised no rational investor. The drop may not be severe, but companies with high valuations that dispploint on earnings this coming week could be treated roughly in this market.
It looks like investors are taking a step back from the broad buying in tech names last year to have a more judicious mindset as the Fed tapers off its generous policies. That's true for the market in general, but especially true for Internet-oriented stocks that have risen to high valuations.
It could also be that some of the companies that have been rising in January, like Facebook and LinkedIn, could deliver surprising earnings reports. But it could be that others won't be able to meet outsize expectations that investors are placing on them.
That's the double edge of a market so impatient for performance it values valuation over fundamentals. When this earnings season is over, not everyone will be granted a seat at the lavish feast investors have been preparing for Internet shares. Always of a mindset to place wagers, investors have been placing bets this month on who be winners and who will be losers.