US tech giants' record quarter gives way to growth skepticism

The market valuations of the world's largest tech companies have skyrocketed this year as world economies rebounded from pandemic lows. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Three of the world's largest companies - Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet - on Tuesday (July 27) reported about US$57 billion (S$77.6 billion) in combined profit in a record-busting quarter, riding a resurgence in consumer and business spending.

Yet markets responded coolly. In part, investors were sceptical that these companies can continue to post double-digit growth for quarters to come.

The world's largest tech companies have gotten larger at a torrid rate. Their market valuations have skyrocketed this year as world economies rebounded from pandemic lows - with both Apple and Microsoft topping US$2 trillion in market value - adding pressure to keep up the pace.

"All three of these companies - Apple, Microsoft, Google - are just performing phenomenally," Mr Jeremy Bryan, a portfolio manager at Gradient Investments, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. "They just look really good. They're executing perfectly, their customers are coming back in droves."

Even though all the companies were bullish about their prospects, investor optimism was tempered by signs the momentum of the past year may be ebbing.

Microsoft was first out the gate on Tuesday, reporting sales that topped analyst expectations for the 10th straight quarter.

"Enterprise tech spending is strong, which could sustain double-digit growth in fiscal 2022," said Mr Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. "However, it would be difficult for the company to top these numbers next year, especially as comparisons get tougher."

Shares fell as much as 3.4 per cent in extended trading, largely on concerns about growth in the cloud computing business, before Microsoft gave an optimistic forecast that calmed the market and the stock recovered.

Apple reported revenue increased 36 per cent, fuelled by a 50 per cent jump in sales of the iPhone, the company's centrepiece product. But Apple's hardware will be constrained by shortages of some chips and its lucrative services business is returning to a lower, more-typical growth rate, chief financial officer Luca Maestri said on a conference call with analysts.

"We expect very strong double-digit year-over-year revenue growth during the September quarter," Mr Maestri said, though "we expect revenue growth to be lower than our June quarter year-over-year growth".

Such caution, amid reports of growing infections from newer virus variants, may be giving investors pause. They have already poured hundred of billions of dollars into the shares of biggest technology companies.

Apple has gained 11 per cent this year through Tuesday's close, while Alphabet's share price has rallied 51 per cent, and Microsoft has jumped 29 per cent.

Alphabet posted stellar numbers, too, mostly showing a rebound in Google's main ads business, which grew 69 per cent annually. That came after an anomaly of a second quarter in 2020, when the spread of the coronavirus shut down the economy and pounded ad budgets. This year, Google benefited from renewed surges in retail and travel spending, its executives said on a conference call.

"With a huge pent-up demand in consumer spending coming out of the pandemic, the online advertising companies continue to benefit," Mr Christopher Rossbach, chief investment officer at J Stern & Co, wrote in a note after earnings. "As such, despite Alphabet shares climbing over 50 per cent already this year, these strong earnings results and positive industry trends more than justify this move and the share price higher after hours."

Still, Alphabet tempered optimism about the future after its tremendous quarter. Consumer spending had certainly improved, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat said, before adding: "We believe it is still too early to forecast the longer-term trends as markets reopen, especially given the recent increase in Covid cases globally."

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