As Washington and Wall Street sound early alarms on a potential tech bubble, a Morning Consult poll shows those living on the West Coast, the home of Silicon Valley, are the most confident that the historic spending is happening on solid ground.
Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen warned in July that some tech start-ups were potentially overvalued. Earlier this month, prominent venture capitalist Bill Gurley and some other top investors agreed the tech industry was nearing a turning point. But when asked if conditions were better, worse or the same when compared to the 2000 tech bubble, those who are most likely to be impacted by a bubble popping are also the most confident about the current market. People making over $100,000 said things are better now at a rate nearly 20 percent higher than the entire sample. People living in the Pacific region were even more confident, saying things are better now at a rate nearly 30 percent higher than the sample.
These findings suggest that if Washington or Wall Street want to put the brakes on tech spending, it’ll take a lot more than verbal warnings to slow things down any time soon.
Morning Consult polling also shows that concern over tech sector inflation is seeping into the public consciousness. Sixty-three percent said they believed conditions in the tech sector are the same or worse than they were during the dotcom bust, versus only 37 percent who said conditions are better today. But many experts say any effects of a tech bubble bursting now would be isolated. While the dotcom bust sunk Main Street along with Wall Street, now a crash would likely have the biggest impact on elite tech investors and the entrepreneurs they’re funding in Silicon Valley.
“This bust would be much more limited,” said Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I don’t have the same fear [as during the dotcom bubble]. You’d rather not see a bubble or people getting hurt, but it’s a relatively small group and it won’t bring down the entire economy…You don’t want to see it, but it’s not the Fed’s job to make sure these people don’t lose money.”
Most of the economists and investment analysts reached by Morning Consult agreed in principle that there are pockets that, at the very least, resemble a bubble. The debate is over the severity of it, when, how or if it might be remedied, who would be impacted if it popped, and whether it means anything to the individual firms traversing the new tech economy. That is in large part because the technology investment landscape isn’t a monolith – it’s an ecosystem of tiny start-ups, large cap social and mobile companies, and legacy tech firms working with financiers at every point along the spectrum, from cowboy venture capitalists to risk-eschewing big banks.
Yellen and Gurley warned specifically about the billions of dollars in venture capital money flowing into speculative start-ups. But Morningstar analyst Peter Wahlstrom also sees overvaluation in the large, publicly traded technology companies, which he said are presently trading at a 10 to 15 percent premium. These include the “high flying” names in analytics, mobile and social, as well as old guard companies like Oracle and IBM, he said.
Tech trade associations in Washington aren’t worried. Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, argues that the speculation was borne out of the “poor management and oversight” of a few high-profile bad actors pumping money into startups with “very little potential for real substantive payoffs that just burn through cash.”
And Duncan Neasham, the spokesperson for the Information Technology Industry Council, a policy and advocacy group for high-tech companies in Washington, D.C., called Yellen’s warning “headscratching,” arguing that such risk is “a natural part of the start-up world and a part of the tech ecosystem.”
That’s not to say tech companies aren’t aware that stock market valuations are high across the board, or that history won’t expose some monumentally stupid investments from VC firms who sunk their fortunes into a startup making an app that didn’t turn out to do anything.
Thibodeaux cited Microsoft paying $8.5 billion for Skype and Facebook paying “a crazy” $19 billion for WhatsApp. Microsoft also recently dropped $2 billion on the maker of the Minecraft video game, and shortly after its WhatsApp deal, Facebook threw another $2 billion at Oculus, a firm developing virtual reality gear that likely won’t be ready for market for at least a few years.
Ironically, many believe the Fed is in part responsible for putting the industry on this path. Andrew Huszar, who formerly ran the Fed’s quantitative easing program and is now a frequent critic of the institution, is among those who believe Fed policy has helped to push valuations in tech as high as they are today.
“The past five years, the Fed has explicitly been trying to pump up valuations in all financial markets across the U.S.,” he said. “I think it’s a valid concern that all of this unprecedented stimulus from the Fed has pumped up stocks, and with the tech industry being the most sexy and high profile U.S. equity sector at moment, a huge amount of liquidity that has flowed into Wall Street has flowed straight into the tech sector.”
But with optimism among many still soaring, it may take more than warnings in semi-annual reports to Congress to dampen the party. Investor fear of leaving money on the table is at least helping balance out any potential worries of a bubble, Huszar said, because while many investors are aware of high valuations in the tech sector and won’t be surprised about an eventual pull back, the prevailing mentality is to “ride that wave until it ends.”