Right now Amazon seems destined to take its place in history as one of the most compelling companies of the early 21st century. Not only has the firm laid waste to retail in a bloodbath not seen since Walmart’s rise to prominence, but it has hit another homerun with its cloud computing business. Amazon’s recent twentieth anniversary as a public company sparked a flurry of articles reminding people how rich they would be if they had invested at the IPO. The stock has been on a tear over the last few years, rising 130 percent since 2015 and 32 percent year to date. The seemingly unstoppable rise has prompted a number of predictions about the stock’s future value. RBC Capital’s Mark Mahaney sees Amazon becoming a $1 trillion business within five years. Hedge fund manager Chamath Palihapitiya goes even further, claiming that Amazon will be worth $3 trillion a decade from now.
This is not the first time we have heard such talk. Five years ago analysts were saying the same thing about Apple, which was smashing earnings every quarter. Between September 2010 and September 2012, Apple stock gained 180 percent. At the height of the euphoria in 2012, Apple surged 70 percent in just nine months. It was expected that the company would surpass the $1 trillion mark by 2014.
Around May 2012 at age 18, I bought $1,000 of Apple stock for my first investment. It seemed to make incredible sense at the time. Everyone was saying that the company would be worth $1 trillion in two years, so how could buying in when it was only worth $500 billion possibly go wrong? Not to mention that the all-important price-to-earnings ratio was much lower than the rest of the market, so by all accounts the stock was cheap. For a few months I applauded my own cleverness as the value of my shares shot up 20 percent. At the same time that Apple was marching toward twelve figures, expectations for the company’s sales and income also rose into the stratosphere. Most predictions rested on the mistaken belief that Apple would enter the television and/or car markets, which never actually happened.
Most readers probably know the rest of the story. Because analyst estimates about earnings were based on pure fantasy, it was inevitable that Apple would eventually fail to meet expectations. The stock peaked in September 2012, just before Apple reported mildly disappointing numbers for the quarter. The miss probably would not have been consequential under a normal outlook, but impossible expectations caused sentiment to swing completely in the opposite direction. Amateur investors panicked and sold, and the stock price plunged. The bearish view suddenly looked fashionable again, with many analysts racing to outdo each other with predictions of how bad things would get. Apple was referred to derisively as a “value trap,” and pessimists called for a decline of 70 percent from the peak.
Although the worst never came to pass, it took two years for the stock to recover the highs set in 2012. A few savvy investors such as Carl Icahn and Al Gore bought close to the bottom and made a killing, but I imagine that many people were not as fortunate. As for me, I held on to the stock through the storm and did not lose money, but it was a huge opportunity cost during a period when the overall market performed spectacularly.
The moral of the story is not about lousy timing, but avoiding buying into hysterical narratives promoted by the media. Even though Amazon might not be as overhyped as Apple was in 2012, I think the parallels are undeniable. Once again the business press is getting excited about meaningless milestones such as the stock passing $1,000 or the company reaching $1 trillion in market capitalization, which will surely cause amateur investors to jump in.
That is not to say that Amazon will not be a great investment in the long run – indeed, I think the exact opposite. But I would definitely hesitate to buy when many investors are not acting rationally. If you already hold Amazon shares, keep holding them. Personally, I plan to hold out for the day when the media pendulum swings in the opposite direction. If Amazon does eventually drop 50 percent like Apple did in 2012, investors should have the presence of mind to seize on the opportunity.