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Jeff Reeves's Strength in Numbers

Jeff Reeves

July 31, 2021, 9:43 a.m. EDT

Here’s how the 6 Big Tech stocks now rank, from worst to first

By Jeff Reeves

There are a few different ways to define the most popular stocks on Wall Street. For some, it’s a quantitative screen of volume with cheap stocks like Ford (NYS:F) and Nokia (NYS:NOK) regularly at the top of the list. For others, it’s about so-called “meme stocks” like GameStop (NYS:GME) and AMC Entertainment (NYS:AMC) that are lighting up message boards and social media.

But for many investors, it’s simply the megacap tech stocks that collectively make up more than $9.4 trillion in market value — the FAANMG stocks that are Facebook (NAS:FB) , Amazon (NAS:AMZN) , Apple (NAS:AAPL) , Netflix (NAS:NFLX) , Microsoft (NAS:MSFT) and Google parent Alphabet (NAS:GOOG) (NAS:GOOGL) .

These big tech giants are often at the top of many investors’ buy lists, and all have delivered their latest earnings reports in the last week or so.

So which of these six are looking good and which ones are falling behind? Here’s the lineup, ranking them from worst to first.

No. 6: Netflix

July performance: -4% through Thursday’s close

Year-to-date performance: -4%

Netflix proved many naysayers wrong over the years, showing that it has not yet bowed to the competition as it continues to regularly top expectations on subscriber growth. But its second-quarter earnings gave the bears a bit more fodder than usual, as it posted a modest loss of about 430,000 subscribers in the U.S. and Canada. And as the smallest of the FAANMG stocks at “only” $220 billion or so, it perhaps the least margin for error of the group.

It’s that short leash that seems to be the problem for Netflix more than just its fundamentals. Shares are negative so far in 2021 compared with an otherwise roaring stock market where the broader S&P 500 (S&P:SPX) is up 15% since Jan. 1. That says a lot about the general attitude on Wall Street.

Read: After worst quarter yet for new subscribers, Netflix says rebound won’t be as fast as Wall Street expects

There is certainly growth ahead, with projections of nearly 20% revenue expansion this fiscal year and hopes for 3.5 million net adds to global subscribers in the third quarter. And Netflix still has a great brand with many subscribers remaining highly connected with its original programming — season two of the fantasy epic “The Witcher” is sure to be an instant smash when it drops in December after COVID-related production delays.

Read: Netflix’s waiting game continues but future content avalanche offers some hope

However, as is so often the case, it’s all about expectations. That 3.5 million subscriber target is a far cry from the roughly 5.5 million new subscribers that Wall Street had been expecting. And the hard reality is that it has missed the mark lately on subscriber expansion and Wall Street has soured on this stock’s prospects as a result. And the fact that its latest report also slightly missed on the EPS front was just further proof Wall Street’s skepticism of the stock is justified.

More: Netflix lays out mobile games plan that could set a collision course with Apple

No. 5: Amazon

July performance: 1% through Thursday’s close

YTD performance: 11%

Amazon.com was a powerhouse during the pandemic, as Americans shopped from home instead of at bricks-and-mortar locations. But sales growth slowed down in a big way in the last quarter, partially because so much of the rest of the economy was reopening.

Specifically, revenue came in at “only” a 27% growth rate — much cooler than the 40%-ish rates investors have been used to lately. The top line came in at $113.1 billion versus roughly $115.1 billion expected by Wall Street.

Beyond that, there’s more regulatory pressure than ever before, as it faces EU antitrust charges and as both Democrats and Republicans alike are sharpening their knives at home. There are also concerns that its big Prime Day sale isn’t delivering quite as it has in years past, and there’s a little bit of a hangover as new CEO Andy Jassy has so far failed to deliver quite the star power and optimism that founder Jeff Bezos did before him.

Read: Amazon stock falls as pandemic sales boom appears to stall

Amazon’s stock is looking ugly on the heels of Thursday’s earnings report. But even before this revenue miss, shares were barely positive in the month of July before that, even as some other Big Tech stocks have seen a pretty significant rally.

In other words, Wall Street seemed to be having doubts about Amazon’s staying power before its recent earnings — but Thursday’s earnings report seems to have cemented the narrative that the e-commerce giant is not quite as bulletproof as in years past.

Read: ‘A great time to buy,’ says one Wall Street analyst as Amazon shares tumble on disappointment

More from Jeff Reeves: Amazon’s stock looks tired. Consider buying shares of these five fast-growing e-commerce plays instead

No. 4: Apple

July performance: 8% through Thursday’s close

YTD performance: 10%

It’s pretty clear why Apple is in the middle of this list when you look at the numbers. While some of the FAANMG stocks are moving decidedly higher or clearly struggling, Apple has arguments on both sides.

The glass half-full case is that it just posted its strongest fiscal third quarter ever, with profits roughly doubling to $21.7 billion from $11.3 billion a year earlier. The company trounced both profit and revenue expectations.

But the glass half-empty argument is that Apple admitted that growth won’t keep up going forward, and it acknowledged both rising freight costs and supply chain challenges that could hamper operations in the near future. Plus Tim Cook & Co. did not provide formal guidance for the sixth quarter in a row — and frankly, some investors are getting impatient with the use of the pandemic as an excuse.

Sure, there’s a $90 billion stock buyback announced this year to provide a nice tailwind. But on top of chip shortages, Apple faces headwinds about whether the bit late-year upgrade push for the iPhone will deliver in 2021.

Even the share performance is mixed: While it’s among the best large-cap performers in July, it has lagged the typical U.S. blue-chip stock year to date.

None of this is to say Apple is on the way out, as the $2.4 trillion tech titan clearly has the scale to weather short-term headwinds. But recent share price performance is proof that Wall Street has its doubts about the next few months, and it may not give Apple a long leash after earnings.

Read: Have we reached peak Apple? Some say the company is just getting started

Therese Poletti: Apple’s blowout earnings didn’t help its stock, and here’s why

No. 3: Facebook

July performance: Flat through Thursday’s close

YTD performance: 31%

Facebook remains one of the most dominant companies on the plant, with recent earnings showing that its daily active user base remains firm at 1.91 billion and monthly users are 2.90 billion

What makes Facebook such a compelling investment, however, is the fact that in addition to its tremendous scale it also boasts the incredible ability to steadily increase the amount of cash each user pulls in. It just reported that average revenue per user was $10.12 — topping expectations and up from just $7.05 in the second quarter of 2020.

Admittedly, the initial reaction to the earnings report has been negative after executives admitted revenue growth would slow in the quarters ahead thanks to “increased ad targeting headwinds.”

But both short-term and long-term momentum for the stock are decidedly higher because investors see continued upside in the stock for a host of reasons. These include the core social media ads game, yes, but also things like its Oculus hardware. In fact, non-advertising revenue — which includes direct e-commerce transactions as well as its various augmented and virtual reality businesses — jumped 36% to $497 million in the most recent quarter. For a company smaller than Facebook, that would be a very meaningful business.

I’ll admit, it’s hard not to cringe when boy wonder CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about “ the metaverse .” And in recent weeks, the performance of the stock has left much to be desired. But from the cold perspective of Wall Street investors, it’s hard to argue with the scale and monetization of this digital machine — and as a result, Facebook is still up double the typical S&P 500 year-to-date.

Therese Poletti: Facebook investors, are you starting to see a pattern yet?

No. 2: Microsoft

July performance: 5% through Thursday’s close

YTD performance: 28%

It might seem like a silly notion these days, but it wasn’t that long ago that many wondered whether Microsoft was doomed for irrelevance as analysts lamented a “ lost decade ” from the early 2000s through the early 2010s.

That all changed after Satya Nadella took the helm in 2014 and rapidly transformed the company into a cloud computing powerhouse. The latest proof: Revenue growth at the tech giant’s Azure cloud unit surged 50% in its just-ended fiscal fourth quarter — and despite its existing dominance helped Microsoft log its fastest sales growth in three years.

It’s not just infrastructure, either, as Microsoft’s productivity business that includes its Dynamics customer relationship management suite continues to gain momentum behind the scenes. Throw in its dominant legacy software like Office 365, and this narrative of continued vertical integration is a really compelling story for investors.

The icing on the cake is that record sales in its Xbox and videogaming business continues to show significant growth, with this biz seeing hardware sales more than triple over the prior year.

In fact, all Microsoft segments topped analyst expectations last quarter — hinting that all this recent upside momentum is looking durable as MSFT enters the latter half of the year.

Opinion: Microsoft’s quarterly results show that growth is nowhere near slowing down

No. 1: Alphabet

July performance: 6% through Thursday’s close

YTD performance: 56%

Google’s parent had a big week, jumping nearly 3% after it posted great earnings Tuesday on the back of strong second-quarter digital advertising sales.

Specifically, it posted an amazing 62% surge in revenue to mark its first-ever quarter north of $60 billion in sales and saw operating margins improve to 31% over 17% the prior year. And perhaps most impressively of all, Wall Street was looking for earnings per share of around $19.24 and Alphabet blew that away with EPS of $27.26.

This is yet another bullish sign for investors, after big beats for both earnings and revenue sparked a similar rally a few months ago after its first-quarter report. Back then, it was YouTube’s strength along with plans for a massive $50 billion stock buyback that helped buoy optimism for this digital giant.

Now that both revenue and margins are surging, this stock certainly seems to be firing on all cylinders.

Shares continue to hit new all-time highs like clockwork to prove its short-term momentum, and behind the scenes there remains a lot to be excited about. Google Cloud expansion (revenue in this arm topped $4 billion last quarter) and other long-term bets to fuel growth beyond its recent ad surge. Alphabet’s ascent has been pretty much non-stop since the spring 2020 market downturn, and shows no sign of slowing down in late 2021.

Read: Google parent Alphabet’s worth to Wall Street soars after blowout results, with UBS lifting share-price target to $3,600 a share

Jeff Reeves is a MarketWatch columnist. He doesn’t own any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

Now read: Opinion: Big Tech is headed for its biggest year yet, and it isn’t even close

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