Is it time to sell the Magnificent 7?

Only a few weeks ago, a key question for investors was: ‘have I still got time to buy into the Magnificent 7?’ Fear of passing up the stellar returns delivered by America’s leading tech stocks was palpable. Now we’re all asking: ‘is it time to sell?’. Not fear of missing out, just plain old fear.

It’s not hard to see why the FOMO should have kicked in. In the five years to the recent peak in March, even the worst performer of the seven, Amazon, had nearly doubled an investor’s money. The best, Nvidia, had increased a well-timed investment 20-fold. Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Meta had trebled an investment made just before the pandemic. Tesla had turned $100 into $1000 over the same period.

Last year, these seven stocks more than doubled while the remaining 493 companies in the S&P 500 gained just 12.5%. The top seven companies delivered about 60% of the index’s 26% return for the year. And the fever continued through the first quarter of this year, as Nvidia added another 90% to the 240% it had chalked up in 2023. No wonder US technology funds took in more than US$5bn in the first two months of this year.

It’s just as easy to see why investors have now started to question their enthusiasm. Over the past month, only Alphabet has made any progress at all. The other six have all lost money for investors. Tesla and Nvidia have both shed more than 15% of their value in a few weeks. Tech stocks marched the US market up to the top of the hill. Now they are leading it down again.

When markets get frothy, I look out for the ‘tell’ - the sign that something is wrong. During the bubble my lightbulb moment was when a so-called incubator fund - essentially a pile of cash waiting to be invested in internet stocks - traded at a multiple of the money investors had put up.

When it costs you $5 to buy a dollar, you don’t have to be Warren Buffett to spot the red flag.

The tell this time around was when I heard that a highly regarded US fund manager had tweaked the position limits within his fund to allow him to buy more of the best-performing stocks. Active managers have struggled to keep up with the US market in recent years because they have not been able to hold enough of the handful of big shares required to match the market. That’s hard to accept when you are judged by your relative performance, but it is a poor reason to change the rules.

A second sign of potentially excessive exuberance is the coining of the magnificent moniker itself. We’ve been here before. Back in the early 1970s, a set of one-decision, buy-and-hold stocks was labelled the Nifty Fifty. These were high quality companies - the likes of Coca Cola and Xerox - which were growing their profits fast, supported by strong balance sheets and great brands. It was a difficult time for the US economy and investors craved the security these companies seemed to offer. Which all sounds very familiar.

The Nifty Fifty craze did not end well. But the parallels are not exact. We need to look at two things - how fast and sustainably the companies are growing, and how much investors are paying for a slice of the action. The two are related. It does not take too many years of above-average growth to justify even an apparently high valuation. Sometimes it is worth paying up.

This theory was tested to destruction by the Nifty Fifty. In 1972 the average stock in this group traded on a multiple of nearly 50 times the previous year’s earnings. That valuation was 2.5 times higher than that of the rest of the market. And it made the Nifty Fifty vulnerable when things turned down. The shares fell more than the rest of the S&P 500 in the 1974 market crash, and then they recovered more slowly.

This week, four of the Magnificent 7 will lift the lid on their latest quarterly profits. Ignoring Tesla (which arguably shouldn’t be in this AI-focused group anyway), the numbers from Meta, Microsoft and Alphabet are expected to be strong, perhaps 40% ahead of last year on average. I suspect they will be good enough to justify a valuation premium which is still modest by comparison with that enjoyed by the Nifty Fifty. The Magnificent 7’s performance in recent years is only partly about rising valuations. It has been justified by superior earnings growth too.

So, I don’t think the fundamentals are enough to derail the Super Six or whatever we end up calling them. What might, however, is the other big story in investment at the moment - the realisation by investors that interest rates are likely to stay higher for longer, in the US at least. The abandonment of the belief that interest rates would fall quickly from the middle of last year is particularly bad news for high-growth companies.

Much of their value derives from the profits they will earn in future years. These as-yet-unearned profits are worth less to an investor today if inflation and interest rates remain high. I might pay 80 cents for the promise of a dollar in ten years’ time if I expect inflation of 2% a year but only 60 cents if prices are forecast to rise at 5% a year. In both cases my real purchasing power will be the same a decade from now.

That’s the main reason that the Magnificent 7 have paused for breath. The growth is still there; these are great companies, with the benefit of size and first mover advantage. It’s just that the future is more uncertain than we thought. And, quite rightly, that reduces how much we will pay to jump aboard.