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July 21, 2020, 9:04 a.m. EDT

Tech has been a pandemic savior for the market and has been richly rewarded. So what happens now?

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By Jeremy C. Owens

The tech industry worked for years to build a world in which everyone worked remotely, tied together by services and computer power delivered through the cloud.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly created that world, tech was ready. Zoom Video Communications Inc. ZM scaled from hosting about 10 million meeting participants a day to 300 million, adding online happy hours and Taco Tuesday streams with grandparents to the business meetings for which it was known before the pandemic. Netflix Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX -1.86% added more than 25 million customers in a few months, and pushed out fresh content like “Tiger King” to keep customers entertained while they were stuck at home. Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -3.04% leveraged a giant infrastructure network it had spent years building to ship needed goods to customers’ homes and offer companies cloud-computing power necessary to scale their own services.

Even as their own employees dealt with extreme conditions and users pushed the boundaries of their internet connections, tech companies were able to keep their services up and running and service a nation that needed them more than ever.

“We went from a country that did business one way and basically overnight flipped a switch to do it another way, and we had the infrastructure to make that transition without a lot of breakage because of the vision of some really impressive people and companies,” said Brendan Connaughton, the founder and managing partner of Catalyst Private Wealth in San Francisco.

Tech companies have been richly rewarded for those efforts by investors, who have pushed the Nasdaq Composite Index /zigman2/quotes/210598365/realtime COMP -2.04% to record highs in hopes of finding something resembling safety in insecure economic times. Zoom’s valuation has more than tripled in 2020 to top $70 billion, while Netflix and Amazon gained more than 60%, putting Amazon back atop a $1 trillion market cap.

The question for investors and the tech industry is what happens next: Can tech companies continue to show the type of earnings and usage growth that would justify those valuations as the pandemic continues, or was it just a surge of demand that would have arrived later? Netflix kicked off tech’s earnings season Thursday and may have given a preview of what’s in store: After Netflix executives admitted that huge growth in the first half of the year likely means a slowdown in the second half, and that original content scheduled for early next year will likely be delayed due to production shutdowns, shares plunged and wiped out $15 billion of the company’s valuation in a single trading session Friday.

Full earnings season preview: Profit set to plunge as the coronavirus batters all sectors

MarketWatch recently spoke with four experts — an independent investment analyst and sell-side financial analyst focused on tech, a financial adviser to high-net-worth individuals and an independent tech analyst — for insight into where the tech industry could be headed as COVID-19 wreaks havoc in the U.S. Here is what they expect moving forward.

Early indications suggest that tech companies did well in the second quarter, after first-quarter results for most companies contained only a couple of weeks of the shelter-in-place orders. IDC and Gartner reported a very strong quarter for personal-computer shipments , as PC manufacturers refilled retail pipelines that were drained by the initial rush to purchase laptops for at-home workers. Software companies are expected to show results of businesses looking for ways to keep employees connected and operating.

“This coming quarter is going to be a ‘bright light’ quarter for a lot of companies,” predicted Maribel Lopez, founder and principal analyst of Lopez Research.

And a lack of big earnings or revenue growth may not even matter at this point in the cycle, Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said.

“When you have a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic, investors are basically writing off earnings unless they’re dramatically different one way or the other that changes the fundamental story for the long term,” Ives said.

“Unless there’s a silver-bullet business market trajectory change that changes the long-term focus right now, the haters could hate but the path for tech continues to be up and to the right through and after this earnings season.”

That is especially true for companies dedicated to the cloud, which has proved to be a saving grace in the pandemic. All the analysts noted that many investors who have jumped into cloud-related stocks are likely in it for the long haul and expecting even more gains.

“We’re gonna see cloud become something that is unfathomable,” said Beth Kindig, an investment analyst with a paid newsletter who sometimes writes for MarketWatch on tech stocks.

Kindig: ‘Moats’ will make all the difference for cloud companies

Currently, analysts expect sales in the S&P 500’s /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -1.61% information-technology sector /zigman2/quotes/207444675/composite XLK -2.44% are expected to decline about 0.6% year-over-year while earnings are expected to drop 9.2%–behind only the health care /zigman2/quotes/205918244/composite XLV -0.81% , financials /zigman2/quotes/209660484/composite XLF -0.26% and utilities sectors /zigman2/quotes/206645117/composite XLU -1.56% in both respects. Catalyst Private Wealth’s Connaughton — who advises many Bay Area tech executives on financial issues — said performance would be even better if some big tech names, including Amazon, weren’t moved out of the tech sector in recent years.

“Technology will probably surprise on the upside, consumer-connected sectors will probably surprise on the downside,” Connaughton predicted.

Lopez, who advises tech companies, suggested that the big spending spree of the first and second quarters may not continue in the summer as companies pause spending to assess. In her telling, companies spent fast and furious at the end of the first quarter and through the second quarter to find a stasis point, and now are going to take time to fashion a long-term plan that will lead to spending in the fourth quarter and into 2021.

“The first wave of business demand we have gone through,” Lopez said. “The second wave will start when [executives] officially…figure out what their at-work populace is going to look like…and give employees a full work-from-home package.”

/zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite
US : U.S.: Nasdaq
$ 461.47
-8.73 -1.86%
Volume: 4.00M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
P/E Ratio
77.70
Dividend Yield
N/A
Market Cap
$207.37 billion
Rev. per Employee
$2.22M
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/zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite
US : U.S.: Nasdaq
$ 2,917.13
-91.60 -3.04%
Volume: 4.63M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
P/E Ratio
111.99
Dividend Yield
N/A
Market Cap
$1507.04 billion
Rev. per Employee
$359,671
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/zigman2/quotes/210598365/realtime
US : U.S.: Nasdaq
10,687.40
-222.88 -2.04%
Volume: 2.33M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:45p
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/zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime
US : S&P US
3,302.88
-54.13 -1.61%
Volume: 1.64B
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
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/zigman2/quotes/207444675/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE Arca
$ 110.94
-2.78 -2.44%
Volume: 10.64M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
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/zigman2/quotes/205918244/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE Arca
$ 104.85
-0.85 -0.81%
Volume: 4.41M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
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/zigman2/quotes/209660484/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE Arca
$ 24.67
-0.07 -0.26%
Volume: 31.66M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
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/zigman2/quotes/206645117/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE Arca
$ 58.64
-0.93 -1.56%
Volume: 7.79M
Sept. 18, 2020 1:44p
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