De-fanged? Threats to the tech sector from Trump and regulation

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It was of course inevitable (in retrospect) that the strong performance of the tech sector would suffer a reversal; it was just a question of when and what the trigger would be. In the end, there were two guns: tariff threats from the Trump administration and rising concerns about taxes and regulation following the revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged misuse of Facebook user data.

The technology sector (or to define it more broadly, the Tech+ sector, which includes the internet and direct market retail industry and companies such as Amazon and Netflix, normally placed in the consumer discretionary bracket), has been responsible for a disproportionate share of US equity returns over the last year.

Although it accounted for just 21% of the market capitalisation of the MSCI AC World index, in the 12 months to the index peak on 1 February 2018, Tech+ made up 38% of the 25% rise in the US large-cap equity market. After such a period of outperformance, it was always likely that a rotation away from the tech sector would take place.

Trade and tariffs and the impact on the tech sector

The threat from tariffs and a disruption in trade is larger for the tech sector than it is for any other. US technology companies generated 11% of their revenues from sales to China in 2016, which is several times more than was the case with the other sectors in the MSCI index.

Similarly, Chinese tech company sales to the US were several times greater than those by other parts of the market (see Exhibit 1). For industries such as electronic components or semiconductors, the share was over 20% or even 30%. Hence any tariffs or quotas would have a meaningful impact on corporate profits.

Exhibit 1: Prominent: the tech sector’s share of total revenueExhibit 1: Prominent: the tech sector's share of total revenue

Source: FactSet, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 18/04/2018

Although the initial list of goods targeted for import tariffs by the Trump administration did not contain smartphones or other major categories of consumer electronics, any continuing escalation could have repercussions for the tech sector supply chain, which moves almost entirely through China.

Within a week, we twice saw the tech sector pull back sharply when Trump rattled his tariff sabre, and then recover as his advisors (US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow) framed the process as a negotiation. There is evidence from third-party Washington analysis companies that negotiations have been going on behind the scenes.

There are two different aspects to the administration’s trade concerns.

The first focuses simply on relative tariff levels, which are higher in China on US imports than vice versa. For example, most goods categories (73%) face a tariff of less than 5% when imported into the US, according to World Trade Organization (WTO) data, whereas this is the case for only 17% of import categories in China. While the administration may be threatening protectionist measures, we believe the ultimate goal is to force a reduction of tariff levels in China, which would be positive for US exporters.

The second issue is the forced sharing of intellectual property for companies wanting to sell or invest in China (concerns that are shared by many governments and companies in Europe), as well as national security concerns centred around investment by Chinese companies in the US. Many of these are government-controlled or related. If the administration can achieve a reduction in technology transfers, this would benefit US companies and their investment in R&D.

The restrictions on Chinese investment in the US, however, may become a permanent part of the landscape as the government’s considerations are not simply economic. Nonetheless, we remain cautiously optimistic that the situation will not escalate to a trade war and in the end might even result in a net reduction in tariff levels.

Regulation of the tech sector?

The potential for increased regulation has been in focus, particularly around the issue of data privacy. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will go into effect in late May and there is also the fallout from the alleged misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica. The market impact of the data privacy issues seems currently more focused on the big social media names than on the broader sector.

Taxes

On the tax front, the European Commission is planning to implement a digital tax. It made two proposals related to ‘fair taxation of the digital economy’ on 21 March, with implications for many well-known companies.

Here is the premise that underpins the proposals, with a link to the full summary:

Value creation in the digital economy

In the digital economy, value is often created from a combination of algorithms, user data, sales functions and knowledge. For example, a user contributes to value creation by sharing his/her preferences (e.g. liking a page) on a social media forum. This data will later be used and monetised for targeted advertising. The profits are not necessarily taxed in the country of the user (and viewer of the advert), but rather in the country where the advertising algorithm has been developed, for example. This means that the user contribution to the profits is not taken into account when the company is taxed.

The European Comission’s two proposals in this area

1. To reform corporate tax rules to register and tax profits where the users reside, for businesses that have “significant interaction with users through digital channels”. This is a long-term solution that would enable EU member countries to tax profits generated in their territory even if the company does not have a physical presence there. The following would be taxed:

  • Profits from user data (including ad placement/selling online ad space)
  • Profits from connecting users, including online marketplaces (any activities which allow users to interact with each other and can facilitate the sales of goods and services between them)
  • Profits from other digital services, including subscriptions to streaming services

2.To implement an interim, temporary 3% tax on ‘certain revenue from digital activities’. This is meant to capture tax revenue until proposal 1 is fully implemented. It would tax revenue from the activities listed above as well as revenue “created from the sale of data generated from user-provided information”.

These proposals are due to be submitted to the European Council and the European Parliament for approval/consultation. If they pass, Cowen analyst Paul Gallant believes they could be implemented by the end of this year, but that companies might be granted a one-year phase-in period; thus, this would likely go into effect by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020.

Valuations and earnings

We believe the recent correction in the market has opened up opportunities, although valuations remain above average on most metrics. The S&P 500 index is down by nearly 6% from its peak this January (though it is roughly flat year-to-date as at 19 April 2018), and the Tech+ sector has declined by just under 4%. More important, though, is that valuations based on forward estimates have fallen even more, by over 7% for Tech+, because earnings forecasts have continued to rise.

Part of the premium an investor pays for the sector is the expectation of faster earnings growth, but that premium today is actually less than it is for other market segments. The current forward price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) is at around 20% above average, less than the premium for the utilities and energy sectors, and similar to that of financials and industrials (see Exhibit 2). It would appear, then, that one is getting better growth prospects at a reasonable price.

Exhibit 2: Relative valuations by sector (latest forward next 12-month P/E compared to the average since 1984)

forward next 12-month P/E compared to average since 1984

Source: IBES, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 18/04/2018

Perhaps more important is that the recent turmoil has done little to dampen analyst estimates of earnings growth, though admittedly this could yet happen. Long-term earnings per share (EPS) growth rate estimates have declined by 73bp, but are still high at 16% compared to 11% for the rest of the market. Earnings estimates continue to march higher (see Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3: Earnings revisions (next 12-months earnings per share)

Tech sector: next 12-months earnings per share

Source: IBES, BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 19/04/2018

Conclusion

We remain constructive on the tech sector despite headwinds in the near term such as regulation, taxes and trade policy.

From a cyclical perspective, IT spending growth is accelerating in 2018, based on Morgan Stanley’s CIO survey and other sources.

As for valuations, multiples in the sector are above average, but in most cases, they are supported by positive earnings revisions. On a 20-year view, the tech sector still trades below its median premium to the broader market.

Strong secular growth drivers remain intact, including cloud computing, data analytics/artificial intelligence, automation/robotics, and the Internet of Things.

These disruptive technologies are impacting industries and companies throughout the broader economy, enabling new business models and services and facilitating greater efficiency, which should ultimately drive sustained earnings growth.


Written by Pam Hegarty, portfolio manager & senior equity analyst, US equities and Daniel Morris, senior investment strategist.

Other posts by Daniel Morris

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The above companies are mentioned for illustrative purpose only. This is not intended as a solicitation of the purchase of such securities and does not constitute any investment advice or recommendation.

Pamela Hegarty

Portfolio Manager & Senior Equity Analyst, US equities, CFA Charterholder

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