MONEY tech stocks

5 Winners and 5 Losers of the Alibaba IPO

Alibaba founder Jack Ma
Alibaba founder Jack Ma gives a thumbs-up as he arrives to speak to investors at an initial public offering roadshow in Singapore September 16, 2014. Edgar Su—Reuters

Both lists include some surprising players who will be directly or indirectly affected by the e-commerce giant's record stock offering.

Depending on how things go on Friday, when Alibaba starts trading on the New York Stock Exchange, there could be tens of thousands of winners from what’s expected to be a record initial public offering.

But as with all things in life, there are winners and then there are winners. Here’s a rundown of who those really big winners are apt to be, along with some potential losers.

The Winners

1) Jack Ma, Alibaba founder and CEO

This former school teacher turned Internet mogul doesn’t need Alibaba’s IPO to go gangbusters. He is already the richest man in China, worth approximately $22 billion, according to Bloomberg. For Ma, who personally owns around 9% of Alibaba shares, any boost in the stock’s estimated value post-IPO will simply be icing on the cake.

Ma’s real victory comes in the retention of power. Because the Chinese government forbids foreign ownership of key strategic assets in China, this IPO is structured in an unconventional way. As MONEY points out in “No, Alibaba is Not the Next Facebook (and 4 Other Myths About this Mega-IPO Debunked,” investors who buy the stock don’t technically get to own the company. Ma and a group of Chinese citizens who founded and help run Alibaba are still the technical owners of the company’s assets.

Rather, investors simply get the rights to the profits that are sent to a holding company known as a “variable interest entity,” which is based in the Cayman Islands.

The upshot is, Ma gets to raise $25 billion in capital by going public, yet he is not beholden to his shareholders in the same way other publicly traded companies are. In other words, Ma gets his money without having to give up any power. That’s like winning the lotto.

2) Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of Softbank

Son, who runs the Japanese tech and telecom giant Softbank, is now the richest man in Japan, worth nearly $20 billion, according to Forbes. For that, he can thank one of the greatest investment decisions in modern history.

In 2000, at the height of the tech bubble, Son invested $20 million in a Chinese startup and encouraged its founder, Jack Ma, to hang on during tough times.

That proved to be beyond smart. Son’s $20 million turned into around $55 billion in less than a decade and a half, which is another reason why Son is sometimes referred to as the “Bill Gates of Japan.” This is sweet redemption for an Internet visionary who reportedly lost upwards of $70 billion in wealth when the tech bubble burst in 2000.

3) Softbank and Sprint

Much has been written about how Yahoo owns around one fifth of Alibaba’s shares. Well, Masayoshi Son’s Softbank — the Japanese tech, telecom and Internet giant — owns more than a third of the e-commerce giant.

For Softbank, owning Alibaba will help it attract global investors who want an indirect — and more diversified — way to gain exposure to the Chinese company. In addition to its large stake in Alibaba, Softbank is a major player in the Japanese mobile phone market; has its hands in hundreds of tech and media companies throughout the world; and owns a 70% stake in Sprint.

Now Softbank will have a pile of cash to make strategic acquisitions to strengthen Sprint, which for years has lagged its larger competitors Verizon and AT&T. At the very least, Softbank can invest some if its Alibaba winnings in Sprint by improving its infrastructure.

4) Snapchat

After its IPO, Alibaba will have $25 billion burning a hole in its pocket. Already, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are drawing up a list of potential takeover and investment targets.

High up on that list is Snapchat. Yes, talks between the two companies — which would have had Alibaba take a minority stake in the messaging app business — ended more than a month ago.

But that may have been because of the noise surrounding Alibaba’s IPO, and the fact that Snapchat raised around $20 million in funding through another means: via the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Forbes reports, though, that this represents just 3% to 5% of the company, whose overall value is said to be around $10 billion. So there’s plenty of opportunity for Alibaba to get a piece of the pie.

Alibaba isn’t the only deep-pocketed suitor reportedly interested in Snapchat. The company has already turned down an offer from Facebook, and there are rumors that Microsoft, which has developed a similar app to Snapchat called Windup, is also interested in buying the firm. Surely, having Alibaba circling this pond will only drive Snapchat’s price higher.

5) ShopRunner

Alibaba has made a lot of small investments in U.S. companies, ranging from the app search engine Quixey to the messaging service Tango to the transportation app Lyft. But its $200 million investment in the online shopping site ShopRunner is the most intriguing because of how Alibaba may leverage it down the road.

Alibaba now owns 39% of the online service, which is aiming its sights on Amazon.com. Think of ShopRunner as a virtual mall, in which small storefronts of well-known retailers like Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus, and Eastern Mountain Sports can be found. As with Amazon Prime, ShopRunner charges a flat fee (in this case, $79 annually) in exchange for free 2-day shipping on purchases made throughout the year. Quartz points out that the model is similar to Alibaba’s Tmall, where the company gets a small cut for every item sold on top of the annual subscription fee.

While ShopRunner pales in comparison to Amazon right now, that could change if Alibaba decides to throw its full weight behind this service and uses this franchise as its American version of Tmall.

The Losers:

1) Yahoo

It sure seems odd to describe a company that owns around a fifth of one of the most valuable businesses in the world — a stake that’s worth about $35 billion — a loser.

But here’s the deal: Yahoo, by agreement, must sell around 27% of its stake in Alibaba at the IPO. And as it sells its stake, Yahoo shares will begin to lose the one thing that has wooed investors so far this year: that Alibaba mystique.

Soon after, pressure will grow on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to use the proceeds of the Alibaba investment wisely, for future acquisitions. But Yahoo doesn’t exactly have a great track record with companies purchased. Remember its $1 billion acquisition of Tumblr? As the New York Times recently pointed out, “Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, will find out how investors value the businesses she actually runs.”

2) Tencent

Tencent Holdings is a Chinese Internet company that competes head to head with Alibaba in a variety of businesses, ranging from online advertising to e-payments. Up until now, Tencent has been the largest Chinese internet stock, with a market value of around $150 billion. That will all change after Friday, when Tencent will drop to No. 2.

Moreover, in the run-up to Alibaba’s IPO, Tencent and other Chinese stocks have gotten short shrift as investors have fixated on Alibaba. See the chart below:

TCEHY Chart

TCEHY data by YCharts

3) Uber

What threat does a giant online retailer like Alibaba pose to a mobile ride-sharing service? Well, in the U.S., Alibaba recently joined a group that invested $250 million in Uber’s rival Lyft. Meanwhile, in China Alibaba is taking on Uber by backing the taxi-booking service Kuaidi Technology.

As Fortune recently pointed out, Kuaidi has gone from zero to 100 million users and 1 million drivers in two years.

4) The Nasdaq

The Nasdaq is synonymous with hot tech stocks, such as Facebook and Google. But when Facebook went public two years ago, things did not go smoothly. Trading started about half an hour later than expected, traders complained of missed orders, and there were questions if investors were getting the prices they expected. Nasdaq officials admitted that they were embarrassed by the glitches.

It came as no surprise, then, that Alibaba chose to list on the NYSE over the Nasdaq. According to Reuters, “Alibaba executives worried about Nasdaq’s ability to handle their $21 billion initial public offering later this month, since the exchange botched Facebook’s market debut two years ago.”

5) Baidu

Baidu, which runs the biggest search engine in China, has been among the most popular Chinese stocks held by U.S. investors. In fact, a ranking of stocks held by hedge funds this year showed Baidu as the top Chinese entrant, according to Business Insider. What’s more, Baidu was ranked as the most widely held American Depository Receipt (a type of foreign equity holding listed on American stock exchanges) last year.

That’s likely to change as Alibaba is an even bigger Chinese tech play, and it’s considerably more diverse in its holdings than Baidu.

MONEY tech stocks

No, Alibaba Is Not the Next Facebook (and 4 Other Myths About This Mega-IPO Debunked)

An employee is seen behind a glass wall with the logo of Alibaba at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang
Chance Chan—Reuters

A reality check on this e-commerce giant, in advance of the Chinese tech stock's much anticipated initial public offering.

Everything about Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, seems larger than life.

Its initial public offering, slated for Sept. 19, is expected to be the biggest IPO in U.S. history, raising possibly $25 billion.

The company is also China’s largest retailer, not to mention the biggest e-commerce player in the world, dwarfing U.S. companies like eBay EBAY INC. EBAY -2.0307% and Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN -1.6933% . Indeed, in the media, Alibaba has been described as China’s eBay, Amazon, and Google all rolled into one. Wow.

Of course, whenever there’s a convergence of three of the market’s favorite topics — tech investing, Chinese stocks, and IPOs — hyperbole has a way of creeping in.

So here’s a realistic look at the biggest myths about Alibaba that will help you put the stock in perspective.

Myth #1: Alibaba will be the most important stock to hit the market since Facebook.

Reality: Alibaba’s IPO may be bigger than Facebook’s, but its shares will have far less impact on the broader market.

Even though Alibaba is going public on the New York Stock Exchange, it’s technically not an American company. And that means the stock is not eligible for inclusion in the S&P 500 index, says Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst with S&P Indices.

That, in turn, means that funds that track the major U.S. indexes will not be allowed to buy the stock, so the shares will have far less impact on how the broad market performs.

Plus, Alibaba is likely to be more volatile than other big tech stocks, as it won’t be included in those index funds that are required to hold all the stocks in their respective benchmarks in good times and bad. As Kevin Landis, chairman and president of the Firsthand Funds recently told Reuters: “There is a pretty strong argument that index inclusion equals stability.”

Reuters points out that by choosing to list on the NYSE rather than the Nasdaq, Alibaba gave up the possibility of being included in another well-tracked index: the Nasdaq 100.

Myth #2: Alibaba is like Amazon, eBay, and Google all rolled into one.

Reality: Alibaba isn’t China’s only Amazon, eBay or Google.

If you just read the headlines, you’d think that Alibaba is like the Borg — an intimidating collective that methodically goes from market to market devouring everything in its path. Yet the truth of the matter is that Alibaba, despite its size, faces stiff competition even in its home market.

Take the Google GOOGLE INC. GOOGL -1.0214% comparison. Alibaba is often described as the Google of China not because it runs a search engine, but because it leverages its consumer website for online advertising revenue.

But you know who else does that? Baidu.com BAIDU INC. BIDU -2.534% , which is the Google of China because it runs the leading search engine and uses it as a source of online ad revenues. Baidu is a $75 billion company that trades on the Nasdaq and can be found in some of the leading U.S. growth stock funds, such as T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth.

As for the Amazon comparisons, don’t forget that there is already an Amazon of China, which is listed on the Nasdaq: It’s called JD.com JD.COM INC ADS EA REPR 2 COM 'A' SHS JD 0.1549% , a $40 billion company that went public in the U.S. earlier this year. JD.com is a retailer that sells directly to consumers, but it also runs an online marketplace where other sellers can find consumers — much like Amazon as well as Alibaba’s Tmall.

Alibaba is actually closest in structure to eBay, as it runs a consumer-to-consumer online auction site in addition to an electronic payment service called Alipay that’s a lot like eBay’s Paypal.

Here too, though, there’s stiff competition. Tencent Holdings TENCENT HOLDINGS LTD. TCEHY -1.0121% , a Chinese Internet and media company, operates Tenpay. Baidu offers Baidu Wallet, and there there are scores of Chinese banks that are getting in on the e-pay game.

Myth #3: You will own the most important Chinese company through this IPO.

Reality: Actually, this IPO won’t give you any ownership stake in the company at all.

Alibaba’s offering is being portrayed as an opportunity to own the most important company in China. Technically, the shares you buy won’t give you any ownership stake in this company. That’s because the Chinese government restricts foreign ownership of key strategic assets.

To get around this, Chinese companies that list abroad have come up with a complex structure called a “variable interest entity.” In Alibaba’s case, the VIE is based in the Cayman Islands and is entitled to the profits that Alibaba in China generates.

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it can lead to major complications. For instance, even though many Chinese companies including Baidu have gone public using VIE’s, the Chinese government has not ruled on the full legality of such a structure, the New York Times has reported.

Plus, disputes over transparency are bound to rise as foreign owners have no say in the actual operation of the underlying company. In a famous case in 2011, Yahoo, a long-standing investor in Alibaba, got into a dispute with co-founders Jack Ma and Simon Xie, claiming that they had improperly moved the Alipay bill-paying unit out of the the part of Alibaba that Yahoo partially owned an interest in.

The dispute was eventually resolved, but because the shareholders of the company (in the 2011 case, Yahoo; but going forward the public) don’t actually own and control the underlying company that generates the profits, disputes like this are bound to arise.

Myth #4: CEO Jack Ma is the Jeff Bezos of China.

Reality: Jack Ma is more like Jack Welch than Jeff Bezos.

Because Alibaba is a big player in e-commerce like Amazon.com, founder and CEO Jack Ma is often compared with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

But while Bezos is a consummate disrupter who is leveraging technology to change the way we consume, Ma seems to have none of these types of ambitions. Instead, there’s a growing sense in management circles that Ma is simply like an old-school head of a conglomerate who just wants to dominate every business his company is involved in.

“Alibaba doesn’t look much like Facebook, Google, or even Amazon,” Walter Frick recently argued in the Harvard Business Review. “Instead, it operates more like GE.”

Frick went on to cite this passage from a 2010 Harvard Business School case study on Alibaba written by professor Julie Wulf:

By his own admission, Ma was a fan of Jack Welch, so it was only natural that his organization came to resemble that of GE in some regards. Just as Welch did not dictate an overall theme or strategy for GE, Ma preferred not to set one agenda from Alibaba’s corporate center, but rather to have each subsidiary set its own strategy. Much like Welch’s famed “#1 or #2” objective for each of these businesses, Alibaba’s governance inspired its subsidiaries to be the leaders of their respective industries. Ma explained, “Business unit presidents must have the freedom to do what is right for their business. I want business units to compete with each other…and focus on being the best in their businesses.

This would explain why the company is involved not just in online retail, but in wholesale supply, logistics, computer services, cloud computing, media, marketing, and finance.

Myth #5: Alibaba threatens U.S. tech and e-commerce companies.

Reality: Alibaba’s growth lies in China, not in the U.S. .

There’s a stat floating around that says Alibaba controls some 80% of all Chinese e-commerce. That makes it sound like Alibaba is done conquering its home market and is looking abroad because that’s the only way to grow.

In reality, Alibaba is a big player in what is still a developing marketplace in China for online sales. By sheer numbers, China is a huge market, but less than half its households are online, and consumer spending makes up only around a third of its economic activity (compared with two thirds in the U.S.).

So future growth will be attained by making sure that it continues to control a large swath of the Chinese market as more and more consumers get online and as consumer spending there becomes a bigger and bigger part of the country’s larger economy.

In the U.S., the company has launched small efforts, including its 11 Main marketplace. But as MONEY’s Kristen Bellstrom recently noted, “At least in its current form, 11 Main is no match for America’s current online retail kingpins.”

Just as U.S. firms ranging from Wal-Mart to Netflix have run into cultural difficulties and stiff competition abroad, Alibaba has to figure out the nuances of American consumers and tastes before it can even try to conquer this market.

More likely, Alibaba’s goal at this point is limited to attracting Western investors and — as Greg Besinger pointed out in the Wall Street Journal — establishing a foothold in the U.S. so it can start selling more American-made goods to its Chinese customers.

So American e-commerce companies should relax — at least for the moment.

MONEY financial crisis

6 Years Later, 7 Lessons from Lehman’s Collapse

Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York.
Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York. Lehman Brothers, burdened by $60 billion in soured real-estate holdings, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court after attempts to rescue the 158-year-old firm failed. Mark Lennihan—Reuters

The venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers went under six years ago today. While Wall Street has recovered from the financial crisis that resulted, lessons endure for Main Street investors.

Exactly six years ago today, Wall Street came closer to imploding than at any other time since the Great Depression.

That was when the venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, amid the global mortgage meltdown, triggering a cascade effect across Wall Street. Within days, the insurer AIG had to be bailed out by the federal government while other investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, were pushed to the brink. Merrill, in fact, was eventually sold amid panic to Bank of America.

Six years later, the nation’s financial system seems to have largely healed. Banks are back to posting record profits. Over the past several years, financial stocks have been among the hottest areas of the market.

^DWCB Chart

^DWCB data by YCharts

And with the housing market recovering, even the dreaded mortgage-backed security — the type of bond that triggered the financial panic in the first place starting in 2007 — are back in fashion.

But even if it seems like it’s business as usual on Wall Street, for Main Street investors key lessons endure. Here are 7 of them.

Lesson #1: The price you pay for stocks matters. Really.

The media’s narrative is that the stock market plummeted into an historic bear market because of the global financial panic. That may be true, but equities may not have fallen that far — and for that long — if the circumstances weren’t ripe for a correction.

Remember that in October 2007, the price/earnings ratio for the stock market — based on 10 years of average profits — rose above 25, marking one of only a handful of times that market valuations rose so high. Not surprisingly, the stock market went on to lose 57% of its value from October 9, 2007, through March 9, 2009. (As an aside, the stock market’s so-called normalized P/E ratio is back above 25 again today.)

By March 2009, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 had sunk to an historically low 13 (the historic average is closer to 16), which has been a signal of buying opportunities. Had you invested at that moment — listening to the Warren Buffett rule that says “be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy” — you would have enjoyed total returns of 230% ever since.

Lesson #2: Don’t bank on any one group of stocks — even financials.

The turmoil after Lehman’s collapse was different and more frightening than the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000. Why? This time the stocks that took the biggest hits weren’t shares of profitless startups that no one had ever heard of. In this crisis, the biggest losers were financial titans — some more than a century old — that produced a third of the market’s profits and dividends. No wonder these blue chips were fixtures in many retirement portfolios.

The love affair is clearly over … or is it? Financials have been among the market’s best performers since September 2011, having doubled in value in three short years. As a result, bank stocks, which made up less than 9% of the S&P 500 in 2009, based on total stock market value, now represent more than 16% of the broad market. That means they’re probably among the biggest holdings in your stock mutual funds and ETFs.

Lesson #3: Buy and hold works — eventually.

When the Dow fell to 6547 on March 9, 2009, stocks had already lost more than half their value. And equities wouldn’t fully recover until 2013. So it may seem that investors who pulled $25 billion out of stock funds in March and $240 billion over the next three years — plowing that money into bonds — were on the right track.

They weren’t. March 2009 marked the start of a bull market that saw stocks return 230% so far. Had you simply hung on to a basic 70% equity/30% bond strategy from Sept. 1, 2008, when things started to get scary, you’d have earned nearly the 9% historical annual return for this mix over five-year stretches since 1926. Of course, you’d have earned that only by staying the course.

Lesson #4: There is no such thing as a “conservative” or stable stock.

In past crashes, pundits always pointed out that the “safe” place to be is among giant, blue chip stocks that pay dividends and that are industry leaders. Well, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and AIG all fell under those descriptions. Yet all of those stocks plunged more than the broad market.

This taught investors a huge lesson: Treat all stocks as the volatile, unpredictable creatures that they are. Even dividends, which are synonymous with financially stable, conservatively run companies, can’t be trusted, because during the crisis, the financial sector began slashing dividend payments to safeguard their finances.

Lesson #5: Reaching for yield can lead to a fall.

When stocks fall, the stability of cash can cushion the blow. Yet things don’t necessarily work out that way.

Just ask shareholders of Schwab YieldPlus. This so-called ultrashort bond fund — which was marketed as a cash alternative, though it really wasn’t one — fell 35% in 2008 when the mortgage securities that provided the “plus” in the fund’s name turned out to be riskier than thought. (In January 2011 Schwab settled the charges that it misled investors but did not admit wrongdoing.)

Before that, there was the Reserve Fund, the first money fund in 14 years to lose value in part because it tried to boost payouts by holding some Lehman debt.

It makes no sense to take risks with your rainy-day savings, a lesson that’s worth remembering today. Since early 2009, investors have poured billions of dollars into floating-rate bond funds, which buy short bank loans that offer higher payouts than basic cash, as well as ultrashort bond funds.

Lesson #6: Diversification works — but in diverse ways.

In 2008, only one type of diversification seemed to pan out: your basic mix of stocks and bonds. Among equities, everything pretty much fell in lockstep.

Fast-forward more than three years, when the financial crisis unfolded in a different guise — this time with the debt crisis in Europe. Fear of government defaults peaked in early 2012, with rates on Greek debt reaching 29%. Diversification worked here, too, but also in a different guise.

While conventional wisdom said investors should flee the continent, European shares wound up beating the world in 2012, returning 20.3%. The year before that, it was U.S. stocks that performed the best (despite Uncle Sam’s fiscal woes). And in 2013, Japan led the way, despite having experienced another recession.

Spreading your bets globally eventually pays off, especially given how mercurial equities can be. For investors who are hearing that the U.S. looks like the only promising market these days, this is a clear lesson to heed.

Lesson #7: Stocks always recover; people don’t.

The Dow closes at an all-time high, but that’s cold comfort to those who retired in the past five years. Big upfront losses can crack a nest egg, even if the market later improves. That’s because your portfolio has the most potential earning power in the first few years after you get the gold watch.

Historically, investors have been able to tap anywhere from 4% all the way up to 10% of their savings annually based on how markets fared in this all-important first decade of retirement.

Over the next 10 years, return expectations are extremely modest, so even a 4% withdrawal rate may seem optimistic. For boomers nearing retirement, the trick is not to make matters worse, as two out of five older workers did in 2008 by keeping 70% or more of their 401(k)s in equities.

It’s time to dial down the risks in your portfolio — before the next downturn.

MONEY Retail

The One Thing Amazon Can Learn From Radio Shack

Tandy Radio Shack portable computer, 1983.
TRS-80 portable computer, model 100, made by the Tandy corporation, Japan. Daniele Melgiovanni—Science Society Picture Library via Getty Images

At first blush, it seems like Amazon has nothing to learn from the failing retailer. Yet in its heyday, Radio Shack blazed some of the same trails Amazon is now riding—until it stopped innovating.

Radio Shack is a struggling bricks-and-mortar retailer that hasn’t seemed relevant since the days of ham radio—or at least VCRs.

And now it’s fighting for its very survival as the company, which is down to just $30.5 million in cash and in search of a white knight, is reportedly considering bankruptcy. Moody’s, a major credit rating agency, thinks this once-iconic retailer is on track to run out of money by the fall of next year.

Amazon.com, by contrast, is a thriving e-commerce giant that’s only gaining steam, thanks to its technological edge and hyper-efficient delivery system.

So at first blush, there would seem to be little that Amazon can learn from Radio Shack.

But there is…

Remember what Radio Shack was in its prime

Anyone older than a millennial will recall that Radio Shack was actually a thriving enterprise from the 1960s to the ’80s. Okay, it wasn’t necessarily cool, as the chain appealed to quirky hobbyists and inventors, who used parts sold at Radio Shack to solder together home electronics such as citizens band (CB) radios in the days before mass marketed technology.

What’s often forgotten, though, is that in the 1970s budding high-tech innovators like Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak shopped at Radio Shack to build devices that eventually led to the personal computer.

Plus, you can’t overlook the fact that Radio Shack pioneered a business model that sounds somewhat Amazon-like, minus the web.

* Where could you find the latest technology conveniently and at low prices? Today, it’s Amazon with its rapid online delivery. Back then, it was Radio Shack and its network of thousands of small neighborhood stores.

* How many retailers think about building their own high-tech hardware? Before Amazon and the Kindle (and more recently the Fire smartphone), there was Radio Shack and its TRS-80 computer — a home computer that for a while outsold the Apple II. PC World called the original TRS-80, which came out in 1977, one of the top 25 greatest personal computers of all time.

* Who foresaw the importance of building a retail eco-systems? The reason why Radio Shack came out with its own line of personal computers, stereos, and before that pocket and CB radios was so that consumers would be beholden to the company for accessories, add-ons, and replacement parts. People who bought the TRS-80 computers had to keep returning to the store for things like floppy disks.

That’s essentially what Amazon is doing with its Kindle tablets and Fire smartphone. The e-commerce giant is making sure that when consumers need to buy things with those devices, they are staying within the Amazon retail eco-system to complete the transaction.

So what went wrong?

Simple. After being among the first to hit the mass market with its own line of CB radios, two-way radios, electronic calculators, personal computers, and then even laptops — PC World called the TRS-80 Model 100 “the Model T of laptops” — Radio Shack stopped innovating on its own and simply started selling other people’s stuff.

Sure, it had the foresight to sell mobile phones as early as 1984.

But by hawking technology that other companies made, Radio Shack became just another retailer, which eventually got hit by the wave of bigger, cheaper big box stores like Best Buy and then even cheaper online options like Amazon.

This is why many analysts have been pleading with Radio Shack for years to stop thinking about what else it can sell and to focus on innovation.

Which brings us to Amazon.

While it seems absurd to speak of Radio Shack and Amazon — with its smartphones, tablets, drones, and robots — in the same breath, Jeff Bezos should remember the lesson of Radio Shack whenever he is pressured to put away his toys and to focus on simply generating retail profits.

Already, there is pressure to abandon the smartphone space that Amazon entered only a few months ago, as critics are calling the phone a failure.

What those critics overlook, though, is that smartphones and drones aren’t the end product that Amazon is basing its future on, but rather a sign that the company still feels the need to innovate.

And at the end of the day, that’s what will keep Amazon from becoming the next Radio Shack in 2030 or 2040.

MONEY stocks

3 Ways to Make Small Stocks Pay

Small stocks' luster could soon fade.

New research and sky-high valuations suggest big profits in small-company stocks will be hard to come by.

It’s hard not to get stars in your eyes when it comes to small stocks.

Shares of small companies, after all, have historically outpaced blue chips by around two percentage points a year. And over the past 15 years, stocks with market values of less than $3 billion have doubled the returns of the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Plus there’s the greed factor: the hope that you’ll spot the next eBay or Amazon.com before everyone else sees it. Alas, the chances of doing that—or finding the same level of success in small stocks that you enjoyed in the recent past—are a lot slimmer than you might think. Here are three ways to be smart about going small.

Set Your Sights Lower

If the late ’90s bubble in big tech and drug stocks taught you anything, it’s that the price you pay for a stock directly affects your future gains. Well, 15 years later, small equities have risen into bubbly territory.

Earlier this year, their price/earnings ratio, based on five years of median profits, hit 30 for just the second time ever. The other occasion was in 1997, before small stocks went into a tailspin. And since small shares peaked in March, they’ve fallen 5%.

They’re still overpriced, though, trading at a 30% premium to their historical valuations. “We wouldn’t be surprised if small-caps generate a total return of only 3% to 4% a year before inflation over the next seven to 10 years,” says Doug Ramsey, chief investment officer of the Leuthold Group.

Don’t Chase Shooting Stars

T. Rowe Price looked at data for the past 20 years, keying in on small stocks that gained an annualized 20% or more over a full decade. Over any 10-year rolling period in that time, only about 10 stocks, on average, hit the 20% mark. And the average winner slumped more than 27% somewhere along the way. So even if you can spot the next Amazon, ask yourself: Will you have the fortitude to hang on?

Cut Your Exposure

You need small stocks for diversification, but this is not the time to go big. Small caps make up about 10% of the market’s total value, so if you own more, start trimming.

As for the long term, play it smart. Go with funds that focus on looking for undervalued businesses, such as MONEY 50 member Vanguard Small Cap Value ETF VANGUARD INDEX FDS SMALL-CAP VALUE ETF VBR -0.8222% . And exercise patience: Small-stock funds that trade frequently gained 7.6% a year over the past decade; buy-and-hold funds gained 9.3%. Wasatch Core Growth, for one, hangs on to stocks about five times longer than the average fund. Even over the past five years when small stock prices were racy, these two low-key portfolios beat most of their peers.

Related:
Why You Shouldn’t Overplay a Hot Hand—In Basketball or Investing
When Stocks Dip, It May Be Better to Hold On to Your Chips
Fix Your Mix: Diversification Made Simple

MONEY The Economy

If You’re Looking for Work, the Outlook is Brightening

open plan office
Mark Bowden—iStock

While the number of Americans in the labor pool is still at worrisome lows, the outlook for those who are employed or are still looking is improving

While there’s great debate about why so many Americans have dropped out of the workforce, there is new hope for those who have stuck it out in the labor pool.

The government reported on Thursday that the number of workers filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits dropped to 298,000 in the week ended Aug. 23, another sign that the job market is stabilizing.

This marked the second straight week of declines in initial claims. More importantly, the four-week average claims figure itself is now just below the 300,000 mark — at 299,750 — putting the job market back where it was before the global financial crisis began in 2007.

US Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance Chart

US Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance data by YCharts

To be sure, pessimists (and market bears) will point out that the overall unemployment rate, which stands at 6.2%, still has a ways to go before improving to pre-crisis levels:

US Unemployment Rate Chart

US Unemployment Rate data by YCharts

And as economist Ed Yardeni, head of Yardeni Research, points out, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and other policy makers don’t look at just this one measure of the job market. In fact, she looks at 19.

“Among her favorite labor market indicators is wage inflation,” he said, “which remains too low, in her opinion.” Money‘s Pat Regnier has more about that here.

US Real Average Hourly Earnings Chart

US Real Average Hourly Earnings data by YCharts

But Yardeni points out that wages and salaries on a per-payroll employee basis — in other words, measuring folks who have a job —are nonetheless up 8% over the past 10 years.

So it just goes to reinforce the divide: If you’re employed or in the work force, things are probably looking up. If you’ve dropped out, on the other hand, the picture may not be so bright.

MONEY wall street

Burger King Wants to Cut its Exposure to Hamburgers, Not Just Taxes

While all the focus is on the tax savings Burger King could enjoy through a Canadian inversion, the real benefit of buying Tim Hortons is boosting breakfast and coffee sales.

The initial media reaction is that Burger King is turning its back on America by reportedly seeking to buy the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain Tim Hortons. After all, it can move its headquarters to Ontario to pay less in taxes.

In reality, Burger King BURGER KING WORLDWIDE INC BKW -0.4383% may be more interested in turning its back on the hamburger.

The $11 billion burger chain is in talks to buy Tim Hortons TIM HORTONS INC THI 0.0381% , Canada’s biggest fast-food chain with a market value of around $10 billion. The deal would reportedly involve a so-called inversion, where Florida-based Burger King would for tax purposes be headquartered in Canada, where the top corporate tax rate is 15%, versus 35% in the U.S.

But as The New York Times pointed out, Burger King’s tax rate is actually closer to 27%, and this inversion really wouldn’t cut its taxes that much because the majority of its revenues are generated in the U.S. Even if it moved to Canada, BK would still be on the hook for U.S. taxes on sales made on American soil.

No, there’s something else driving this deal, and it could be that Burger King wants to abdicate its rule over burgers and switch kingdoms.

As Americans’ tastes have changed, burger sales, which have long dominated the fast-food landscape, have started to stall. Last year, for instance, revenues at Burger King restaurants in the U.S. that have been open for at least a year fell 0.9%, while U.S. same-store sales at McDonald’s slumped 0.2%. By comparison, Starbucks STARBUCKS CORP. SBUX -0.1855% reported an 8% rise in comparable store sales in fiscal 2013 while Dunkin’ Brands DUNKIN BRANDS GROUP DNKN -0.6136% , the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts, enjoyed a 3.4% rise in revenues.

This isn’t just a short-term problem. Analysts at Janney Montgomery Scott recently noted that while three of the five biggest fast-food chains in the U.S. are still hamburger joints (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King), by 2020 that number should drop to just one: McDonald’s.

Meanwhile, coffee chains Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are expected to move up the ranks. And McDonald’s is itself doubling down on coffee, pushing more java not just in its restaurants but also on supermarket shelves.

Noticing a common theme here?

In the fast food realm, there are three buzzy trends right now. There’s the rise of the higher-end “fast-casual” restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican GrillCHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG -1.0065% . There’s the explosion of cafe coffee shops, which according to the consulting firm Technomic was the fastest-growing part of the fast-food industry last year, with growth of 9%.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, recently noted that “the segment continues to be the high-growth industry leader with Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons rapidly expanding.”

He added:

[The] coffee-café segment competition will heat up, and new national chain, regional chain and independent units will increase major market penetration. Smaller rural and suburban markets will be getting more attention. Fast-casual brands in the bakery-café segment like Panera Bread, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Corner Bakery will also create new options for consumers as more locations open. Quick-service brands like McDonald’s will provide lower-priced, drive-thru convenience that provide value-seekers with a strong level of quality that is also affordable.

And the third area of growth in fast food is breakfast. According to The NPD Group, while total “quick serve” restaurant traffic fell by 1% at lunch and dinner time in 2013, business at breakfast time rose 3%.

“Breakfast continues to be a bright spot for the restaurant industry as evidenced by the number of chains expanding their breakfast offerings and times,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst.

Now, while Burger King isn’t really positioned to go after the Chipotles of the world, the acquisition of Tim Hortons could quickly make it a bigger player in the coffee and breakfast markets, where it has languished far behind McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Tim Horton’s already controls 75% of the Canadian market for caffeinated beverages sold at fast-food restaurants, according to Morningstar, and more than half the foot traffic at the key morning rush hour.

Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy noted recently that same-store sales throughout the chain are expected to rise 3-4% over the next decade, which would be a marked improvement over the same-store declines that Burger King has been witnessing lately.

Even though Burger King is a bigger company by market capitalization, it generates less than half the $3 billion in annual revenues that Tim Hortons does. This means that by buying the Canadian chain, Burger King will be able to buy the type of same-store growth that it could not muster with hamburgers and fries.

So the next time you go to Burger King, don’t be surprised if they ask you “would like some coffee to go with that?”

SLIDESHOW: Burger King’s Worldwide Journey To Canada

 

 

MONEY Google

The 8 Worst Predictions About Google

Magic 8-ball with Google logo
Flickr

In the 10 years since Google became a public company, there have been a lot of predictions made about the search engine giant. And it turns out, a lot have been wrong.

”I wouldn’t be buying Google stock, and I don’t know anyone who would.”
— Jerry Kaplan, futurist, in the New York Times, Aug. 6, 2004

The problem with making any public pronouncement about Google GOOGLE INC. GOOGL -0.9449% is that if you end up being embarrassingly wrong, someone can just Google that prediction to remind you how off the mark you were.

So that’s what we did.

With Tuesday being the 10th anniversary of the tech giant’s historic IPO, MONEY Googled the sweeping predictions that were made about the company and the stock leading up to and after the company’s public offering on Aug. 19, 2004, when Google shares began trading at an opening price of $85 a share.

To be fair, no one could have really predicted the stock would soar more than 1,000%—10 times greater than the S&P 500 index—in its first decade as a publicly traded company. You have to remember that in 2004, the Internet bubble was still a recent memory and Google’s offering was seen as the first significant tech IPO in the aftermath of the 2000-2002 tech wreck.

Still, it’s hard not to wince at some of the things said about what is now the third most-valuable company, with a market cap of nearly $400 billion.

1) Google won’t last.

What are the odds that it is the leading search engine in five years, much less 20? 50/50 at best, I suspect… — Whitney Tilson, The Motley Fool, July 30, 2004

In a memorable 2004 column, value investor Whitney Tilson argued that there was a significantly better chance that Dell would still be a leading computer company in the year 2024 than Google would be a leading search engine in 2009.

Obviously, he was wrong as Google still controls nearly 70% of all search and more than 90% of the growing mobile search market. (Meanwhile, Dell’s PC market share has shrunk considerably and desktop computers aren’t even a growth area anymore).

His argument may have made sense at the time. “Just as Google came out of nowhere to unseat Yahoo! as the leading search engine, so might another company do this to Google,” he wrote, adding that “I am quite certain that there is only a fairly shallow, narrow moat around its business.”

Yet Tilson made the mistake of underestimating the actual search technology. In the early 2000s, Google’s algorithms could search billions of pages at a time when rival search engines were able to get to just tens of millions. That lead in search capability gave Google enough time to leverage that technology into a dominant position in online advertising. Today, Google controls about a third of all global digital ad dollars.

2) Google’s founders won’t last.

These Google guys, they want to be billionaires and rock stars and go to conferences and all that. Let us see if they still want to run the business in two to three years. — Bill Gates at Davos, in 2003.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was, of course, referring to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Not only did the Google guys not go away, eight years later Page took over as CEO, and under his tenure the company became the dominant player in the smartphone market; made inroads into social media and e-commerce; and began dabbling in more futuristic technologies such as driver-less cars that are likely to boost interest in the stock going forward.

3) Google is a one-trick pony.

I mean, come on. They have one product. It’s been the same for five years — and they have Gmail now, but they have one product that makes all their money, and it hasn’t changed in five years. — Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, in the Financial Times, June 20, 2008.

The bombastic Ballmer, who also predicted that the iPhone would go nowhere, wasn’t the first to call Google a one-trick pony. Yet Ballmer was flat out wrong. Today, Google has several tricks up its sleeve. The company still dominates search, but it is also a major player in mobile search, mobile operating systems, online advertising, e-commerce, social media, cloud computing and even robotics.

4) And who cares about search anyway?

Search engines? Aren’t they all dead? — James Altucher, venture capitalist (sometime in 2000)

You have to give Altucher credit for fessing up to what he admits may have been “the worst venture capital decision in history.” Three years ago, the trader/investor blogged about how his firm, 212 Ventures, had an opportunity in 2000 or 2001 to be part owner of the company that would later become an integral part of Google for a mere $1 million.

As he told the story, one of the associates of his firm had approached him with an opportunity in 2000. “A friend of mine is VP of Biz Dev at this search engine company,” the associate told him. “We can probably get 20% of the company for $1 million. He sounds desperate.”

To which Altucher replied: “Search engines? Aren’t they all dead? What’s the stock price on Excite these days? You know what it is? Zero!”

“No thanks,” Altucher said. That company was Oingo, which changed its name to Applied Semantics, which in 2003 was purchased by Google and re-branded AdSense. As Altucher points out, “Google needed the Oingo software in order to generate 99% of its revenues at IPO time. Google used 1% of the company’s stock to purchase Oingo, which meant that Altucher’s potential $1 million bet would have been worth around $300 million in 2011.

Oh well.

5) Microsoft will chase Google down.

Word has it that Microsoft will feature an immensely powerful search engine in the next generation of Windows, due out by 2006… As a result, Google stands a good chance of becoming not the next Microsoft, but the next Netscape. — The New Republic, May 24, 2004.

Alas, Microsoft’s Bing search engine didn’t come out until three years after the article said it would. And it wasn’t until last year when Microsoft truly embedded Bing into Internet Explorer on Windows 8.1.

Even if Bing gains traction on desktops — where it still only has about a 19% market share — search is transitioning to mobile. And there, Google utterly dominates and will probably stay in control because its Android operating system powers around 85% of the world’s mobile devices, versus Windows’ mere 3% market share.

6) Google isn’t a good long-term investment.

Don’t buy Google at its initial public offering. — Columnist Allan Sloan, Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2004.

I’m back from the beach and it’s clear that my advice turned out to be wrong…But now that the price is above the original minimum price range, I’m not in doubt. So I’ll repeat what I said three weeks ago. This price is insane. And anyone buying Google as a long-term investment at $109.40 will lose money. — Allan Sloan, Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2004.

Well, investors didn’t lose their shirts. A $10,000 investment in Google back then would have turned into more than $110,000 over the past decade. By comparison, that same $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 would have grown to less than $22,000. Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst for S&P ran some numbers and discovered that only 12 stocks currently in the S&P 500 wound up outpacing Google during this stretch.

To his credit, Sloan, now a columnist at Fortune, later admitted that “I was wrong, early and often, on Google’s stock price when it first went public, for which I ultimately apologized.”

7) Google isn’t a good value.

If you have any doubts at all about Google’s sustainability — you may, for example, recall that Netscape browsers used to be just as ubiquitous as Google home pages — you shouldn’t touch the stock unless its market capitalization is well under $15 billion. — MONEY Magazine, July 2004.

Okay, so we’re not infallible either. If you had followed MONEY’s line of thinking, you never would have purchased this stock because at the opening price of $85, the company was already valued at $23 billion. And it never dipped below that level on its way to a near $400 billion market capitalization today.

MONEY based its analysis on numbers crunched by New York University finance professor Aswath Damodaran, an expert on valuing companies.

Damodaran came to the $15 billion assessment after figuring that Google would generate a total of nearly $48 billion in cash over its lifetime. That turned out to be a bit off, as Google has generated that amount of free cash flow in just the past five years.

Again, this was an example of how difficult it is to estimate the future value of a corporation based on what the company is up to at the moment.

8) Google will avoid being evil.

Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company. — Google’s 2004 Founders’ IPO Letter.

Now, evil is in the eye of the beholder. Some privacy buffs think Google long crossed the line when it began tracking user behavior across all of its services including search, Gmail, You Tube, etc.

Progressives, meanwhile, point to Google’s lobbying efforts as a sign the company is behaving like any other corporation. The company has reportedly contributed to conservative causes such as Grover Norquist’s Americans For Taxpayer Reform, which seems to belie the company’s left-leaning Silicon Valley culture.

Then there’s the fact that Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt has stated that he is proud of how the company has managed to avoid billions in taxes by holding company profits in Bermuda, where there is no corporate tax.

Whether you think this qualifies as evil or not, it highlights what folly it was to try to ban evil.

As Schmidt stated in an interview with NPR:

“Well, it was invented by Larry and Sergey. And the idea was that we don’t quite know what evil is, but if we have a rule that says don’t be evil, then employees can say, I think that’s evil,” he said. “Now, when I showed up, I thought this was the stupidest rule ever, because there’s no book about evil except maybe, you know, the Bible or something.

Related:
4 Crazy Google Ambitions
10 Ways Google Has Changed the World

MONEY tech stocks

Which 80-Year-Old Billionaire Would You Trust With Your Tech Portfolio?

Diptych of Warren Buffett and George Soros
Mark Peterson/Redux (Buffett)—Luke MacGregor/Reuters (Soros)

Billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros and billionaire investor Warren Buffett are both buying tech stocks—but decidedly different kinds. So who would you bet your portfolio on?

Both billionaire investor Warren Buffett and billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros have had somewhat troubled relationships with tech stocks over the years.

Buffett famously punted on tech throughout the 1990s, declaring that “we have no insights into which participants in the tech field possess a truly durable competitive advantage.” So his investment company Berkshire Hathaway severely lagged the S&P 500 in the late 1990s — but at least it missed the tech wreck in the early 2000s. For Soros, the opposite was the case: His fund stayed at the Internet party too long in 2000.

Recently, though, both octogenarians have been dabbling in this sector — but in decidedly different ways.

SEC filings released on Thursday indicate that while Buffett is looking to the past for time-tested but overlooked plays on this sector, Soros seems only to be interested in future trends.

Buffett and ‘Old Tech’

Buffett is taking the old school approach. Quite literally. His tech sector holdings — indeed, his entire portfolio — looks as if it was straight out of the early or mid 1990s.

For instance, one of his biggest tech holdings, which recent SEC filings indicate he’s been adding to, is the century-old IBM INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -0.6532% .

This technology service provider — which has run into difficulties in the crowded cloud computing space lately — has seen its revenue growth decline for several quarters while its stock has been under fire.

IBM Chart

IBM data by YCharts

No doubt, Buffett clearly sees IBM as a value, as the stock trades at a price/earnings ratio of around 9, which is about half what the broad market currently trades at. In his most recent letter to Berkshire shareholders, Buffett described IBM as one of his “Big Four” holdings, along with American Express, Coca-Cola, and Wells Fargo.

Beyond IBM, Buffett prefers lower-priced but slower growing internet backbone companies to fast-growing but pricey content providers. This is part of a tech investing trend that MONEY contributing writer Carla Fried recently addressed.

Other stocks he recently purchased or positions that he has been adding to include the Internet infrastructure company Verisign VERISIGN INC. VRSN -1.0522% and internet service providers Verizon VERIZON COMMUNICATIONS INC. VZ -0.4693% and Charter Communications CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS INC. CHTR -0.7465% .

Soros’ ‘New Tech” Bets

By contrast, Soros seems to be trying to ride current and future trends — albeit with highly profitable names.

In the second quarter, Soros added to his stake in the social media giant Facebook FACEBOOK INC. FB -2.6822% . Last month, Facebook shares hit a record high after the company reported robust profits. Plus, Facebook has proven to Wall Street that it can conquer the mobile advertising market, as nearly two-thirds of its revenues now come from mobile ads.

Facebook isn’t the only mobile bet Soros is making. He has also been recently adding to his stake in Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -1.0114% , which along with Google dominates the mobile computing space. New data from IDC showed that Apple’s iOS operating system held about a 12% market share among phones shipped in the second quarter — even though demand for iPhones has fallen as consumers await the arrival of the new iPhone 6, which will be introduced in September.

For the moment, Soros’ bets on these new tech names seem to be in the lead.

AAPL Chart

AAPL data by YCharts

But over the long-term, would you bet on Team Soros or Team Buffett?

MONEY stocks

Has the Bull Market Come to an End?

140806_INV_endofbull_1
Getty Images

As the economy keeps growing, the market will sour on the sunny, putting a damper on stocks.

A version of this article ran in the August 2014 issue of MONEY magazine.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost another 140 points on Tuesday, wiping out Monday’s modest bounce-back from what had been the worst weekly decline in over six months. All told, the index has fallen 4.1% since it hit a record high on July 16.

This happened despite some pretty good (though not really good) economic data, like last week’s Labor Department report that the economy added 209,000 new jobs in July.

So what’s going on? In short, I suspect the bull market has entered its next—and perhaps final—phase.

Why a change of heart is due. While equities should reflect the health of the economy, there comes a time in every business cycle in which earnings growth—the real driver of stock prices—peaks. S&P 500 profit margins are already at all-time highs. A better job market shows the economy is improving now, but it also hints that wages could rise down the road, weighing on future profits.

At the same time, better-than-expected news may lead the Federal Reserve to stop trying to stimulate economic activity. And that’s a big concern in the final throes of a bull when investors are trying to ride that last bit of tailwind provided by cheap credit.

What works during the bull’s final stage. As risk taking and speculation fall out of favor, shares of big, dominant companies tend to grow in popularity. Today, these big blue chips have another advantage: They’re cheap relative to smaller-company stocks, says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer for BMO Private Bank.

Indeed, the price/earnings ratio for stocks in the Vanguard Mega Cap ETF (MGC), which owns only the biggest blue chips in the U.S., is 16.8. By comparison, stocks in the Vanguard Small-Cap ETF sport an average P/E more than 15% higher.

Where to seek shelter. The natural inclination at this stage is to hide in stable but slow-growing sectors like utilities, since these stocks pay dividends and are likely to fall less in a market downturn.

However, economically sensitive sectors such as energy and tech perform surprisingly well in the last 12 months of a bull, according to Ned Davis Research. So take refuge in a fund like Fidelity Large Cap Stock (FLCSX), which has big stakes in both sectors and has beaten at least 90% of its peers over the past three, five, and 10 years.

Related:
Goldilocks Jobs Report Calms Down Wall Street’s Bears—for Now
Don’tBe Fooled by the Everything is Awesome Market

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