A new tech bubble seems to be inflating. But when it pops, it should cause less damage than the dotcom crash of 2000
In 2013 around a fifth of graduates from America’s leading MBA schools joined tech firms, almost double the share that struck Faustian pacts with investment banks. Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve, has warned that social-media firms are overvalued—and has been largely ignored, just as her predecessor Alan Greenspan was when he urged caution in 1999.
Good corporate governance is, once again, for wimps. Shares in Alibaba, a Chinese internet giant that listed in New York in September using a Byzantine legal structure, have risen by 58%. Executives at startups, such as Uber, a taxi-hailing service, exhibit a mighty hubris.
The NASDAQ index of mainly technology stocks is valued at 23 times expected earnings versus over 100 times in 2000.
Instead, today’s financial excess is hidden partly out of sight in two areas: inside big tech firms such as Amazon and Google, which are spending epic sums on warehouses, offices, people, machinery and buying other firms; and on the booming private markets where venture capital (VC) outfits and others trade stakes in young technology firms.
Silicon Valley’s icons are now among the world’s biggest, flabbiest investors. Together, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter invested $66 billion in the past 12 months.
Part of what is happening is a shift away from stockmarkets. Entrepreneurs are keen to avoid the bureaucracy involved in initial public offerings. They now have alternative ways to raise cash and to award tradable shares to staff. More institutional investors are buying into private technology firms, alongside VC funds. Unlike in 2000 the firms they invest in already have scale. Uber’s gross sales, of which it keeps about 20%, are expected to hit a run rate of $10 billion by late 2015.