Will it or won’t it? The question dominating Wall Street all week has been whether Apple will become the first company with a stock market valuation of a trillion dollars. For that to happen the tech company’s shares need to reach $203.25 – and they were tantalisingly close to that level in early trading in New York on Wednesday, the first real opportunity investors had to buy Apple stock after the announcement of better-than-expected third-quarter figures.
It seems only a matter of time before the milestone is reached, but whether that marks the start of a new bull-market phase for equities or a storm warning is a moot point.
As Russ Mould, investment director of the Manchester-based firm AJ Bell has pointed out, in the past unusually high market capitalisations for America’s biggest companies have tended to be a sign of trouble to come.
Take the late 1990s for example. Stocks, particularly new technology stocks, soared in value as the US economy boomed so that by the end of 1999 the top five companies by market capitalisation – Microsoft, General Electric, Cisco, Walmart and Intel – were together worth just over $2tn or 15.5% of US GDP.
But that was the top of the market and anybody who held on to shares in those companies suffered a heavy financial loss over the next decade; 10 years later all were worth less than in 1999 with a combined loss of almost 50%.
Apple is one of the quintet of so-called FAANG stocks, comprising Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet (the holding company for Google). Between them they have a market value of just over $3.3tn or 18.5% of US GDP.
Mould says that the current echo of the late 1990s does not mean there is going to be a stock-market wipeout. It is, though, worth considering whether the recent fall in Netflix and Facebook shares are more than simply a blip.
It is also worth noting that Apple’s growth now relies on selling software services because sales growth for phones, tablets and laptops has been underwhelming. Mould’s message to investors is not to be complacent about Apple, the FAANGs or the wider broader market. That’s sound advice.
Bleak times for House of Fraser
The better weather might have encouraged shoppers to head off to the high street but it all looks too little too late for House of Fraser.
Things are looking bleak for the troubled department store chain. It has big debts, has been starved of investment by successive owners and has a poor online offering at a time when cash-conscious consumers are increasingly shopping from home.
House of Fraser desperately needs cash to pay its quarterly rent bill next month and to buy stock for Christmas, the most profitable time of year for retailers. HoF’s only real hope of survival was a cash injection from the owners of Hamleys – C.banner – but the Hong Kong-listed company has now pulled out of a rescue deal.
HoF says it is talking to lenders and exploring options with other potential investors, who include Mike Ashley, the owner of Sports Direct. But, in truth, it is hard to see why a white knight should ride to the rescue. There are stores that Ashley might want, but there is no real incentive to buy them now when he can pick them up in a fire sale after HoF collapses. As things stand, he won’t have to wait long.
Trump will see tit-for-tat
Just as was the case a 104 years ago the world is slipping inexorably and steadily towards a great power conflict. It is not too late to avert a global trade war but the signs are not good.
After his rapprochement with the EU last week, Donald Trump is again threatening to get tough with China, with reports that the White House is planning to raise its threatened tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports from 10% to 25%.
China has no wish to get sucked into a trade war but neither will it turn the other cheek. It will retaliate with tit-for-tat action of its own.
The lessons of 1914 are clear. Politicians can quickly lose control of events. It is easier to start a war than it is to stop one. Hopes of a knockout blow will not be realised. A long war of attrition is likely and there will be heavy casualties on both sides. Stock markets will be affected first; the real economy will suffer later.