Investors love good stories and in recent years, many of these stories have centered around innovations that have fundamentally changed the way we live our lives.  Some examples might include the release of the original Apple iPhone in 2007, the delivery of Tesla’s first electric cars in 2012 and the launch of Amazon Prime’s same-day delivery service in 2015.

No doubt, many of you will have had conversations with friends and family around the successes, failures, and prospects of some of the world’s largest companies and the goods and services they offer.  In this article, we take a deeper look at the ‘Big Five’ tech companies – Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft – through the lens of the long-term investor.

The ‘Big Five’, images from Unsplash [1]

In what has been a turbulent year thus far, some larger firms have come through the first, and hopefully last, wave of the ongoing pandemic relatively unscathed.  Those investors putting their nest eggs entirely in any combination of the ‘Big Five’ would appear to have done astonishingly well relative to something sensible like the MSCI All-Country World Index, which constitutes 3,000 of the world’s largest companies.  At time of writing, Amazon’s share price has faired best, increasing 75% since the beginning of the year.

These types of firms tend to struggle to stay out of the headlines for one reason or another.  Perhaps as a result, many of the investment funds found in ‘top buy’ lists have overweight positions in one or more of these companies.  Many of today’s most popular funds are making big bets on one or more of these companies, anticipating that the past will repeat itself moving forwards.

Sticking to the long-term view

The challenge for these managers, and others making similarly large bets, is that these are portfolios that will be needed to meet the needs of individuals over lifelong investment horizons, which for the vast majority of people means decades, not years. With the benefit of hindsight, managers who have placed their faith in these companies have stellar track records since Facebook’s listing on the market in 2012.

However, an interesting exercise would be to investigate the outcomes of these companies over a longer period of time, for example 30-years seems more prudent. This is somewhat difficult given that 30-years ago, 3 of these companies did not exist, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was 6-years old, Apple came in at 96th on Fortune’s 500 list of America’s largest companies and Microsoft had just launched Microsoft Office.

A partial solution to this problem is to perform the exercise from the perspective of an investor in 1996, which is the start of Financial Times’ public market capitalisation record.

The ‘Class of 96 Big Five’ consisted of General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone and Exxon Mobil.  A hypothetical investor with their assets invested in either Coca-Cola or Exxon would have just about beaten the market over this period, those in Royal Dutch Shell, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone and General Electric were not so lucky.

This exercise is illustrative only, however a closer look is enough to see that almost no investor would want to stomach the roller coaster ride they would have been on in any one of these single-company portfolios.

Summary

The beauty of the globally diversified, systematic approach adopted by Wells Gibson, is that judgemental calls such as these are left to the aggregate view of all investors in the marketplace.

No firm is immune to the risks and rewards of capitalism; be it competition from Costco or Walmart taking some of Amazon’s market share, publishing laws causing Facebook to apply heavy restrictions on its users or some breakthrough smartphone entering the marketplace that is years ahead of Apple – remember Nokia?

Rather than supposing that companies who have done well recently will continue to do well, systematic investors can rest easy knowing that they will participate in the upside of the next ‘Big Five’, the ‘Big Five’ after that and each subsequent ‘Big Five’.

Those who can block out the noise of good stories and jumping on bandwagons are usually rewarded over time.

“But the problem that people don’t understand is that active managers, almost by definition, have to be poorly diversified. Otherwise, they’re not really active. They have to make bets. What that means is there’s a huge dispersion of outcomes that are totally consistent with just chance. There’s no skill involved in it. It’s just good luck or bad luck.”

Eugene Fama – Nobel laureate