Fears that the United States economy would dip into a recession this year have eased. The Federal Reserve seems to be finished raising interest rates for the foreseeable future, and optimism has increased that the United States and China could end their trade war.
But if the January snap back (it was the best start to a year for stocks in decades, after the worst December for stocks in an even longer period), is to sustain itself, big technology companies likely will have to lead the way.
So far this year, they have not done that.
For much of the past decade, the fate of the stock market has been tied to the performance of a handful of the largest tech companies: Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, and Netflix led the market from one record to the next.
By the end of August, their sway over the direction of the S&P 500 exceeded all but two of the index’s 11 sector groupings. As the index pushed to a record high last summer, the rise in those five companies’ shares accounted for half of its gain. They led on the way down too, dragging the broader market lower over the final three months of 2018 and nearly ending the longest bull market on record.
The companies have faced a fundamental question since late last year: Could they continue to pull in new users and generate more sales in a slowing global economy? Sales growth had begun to slow in the second half of 2018 and earnings updates in January haven’t fully resolved investors’ concerns about their trajectory.
“This is the first quarter in my memory that technology has on the whole had worse metrics than the S&P 500,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, referring to the earnings and revenue growth rate of big technology companies.
After Apple warned of diminishing demand for new iPhones in China earlier this year, its forecast for the current quarter wasn’t as dire as many on Wall Street had feared. The stock has gained 7.7 percent since then. Still, the iPhone maker reported a 15 percent drop in revenue, including a 27 percent decline in China, and its results indicated a difficult road ahead. Its stock remains nearly 30 percent below its peak.
Amazon reported record profits and revenue. But its shares were down 5.4 percent Friday in part because revenue from online shopping slowed and the growth of Prime memberships appeared to have plateaued.
Facebook, whose shares were the most battered among the big tech companies last year, was perhaps the bright spot this earnings season. Despite a string of scandals, the social network generated record revenue and profit last year. Its shares have jumped 10.5 percent since Wednesday.
Netflix also said revenue would grow more slowly this quarter. Its stock is down almost 3.8 percent since it reported on Jan. 17.
There is a big caveat to all the hand-wringing about slowing growth: All five companies still generate huge revenue. And should Beijing and Washington reach an agreement in the trade war, sales could pick up if the global economy, particularly China’s, begins to gain speed.
“There was real concern that tech was the canary in the coal mine of what would be a very dark 2019,” said Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities covering technology companies. “Thus far a lot of those fears are proving overblown. That could set the stage for tech to make new highs this year, depending on what happens with China.”