One investor explains how to make sense of Thursday's tech earnings crunch: Watch Apple

Key Points
  • Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook, worth almost $5 trillion combined, are all set to report quarterly results on Thursday.
  • Their results will hit a day after CEOs from the four companies testify in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust.
  • "The No. 1 company for us, because we think they're such a bellwether, is Apple," said John Traynor, chief investment officer of People's United Advisors.

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Thursday will be a day like none other for tech investors. Four of the five most valuable U.S. companies Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook are set to report quarterly results after the closing bell.

Those companies, worth almost $5 trillion in combined market cap, have led the stock market to record levels this month even amid a coronavirus pandemic and growing economic crisis. They're trading at historically high multiples relative to expected earnings. And they're releasing financials a day after their CEOs testify to Congress about the power their companies possess and whether they should be subject to antitrust laws.

The earnings reports will amount to a giant data dump on everything from the state of online advertising and growth of one-day shipping to demand for cloud-computing services from companies adjusting to remote work.

But for John Traynor, chief investment officer of People's United Advisors, the most important detail will come from the largest company by market cap. 

"The No. 1 company for us, because we think they're such a bellwether, is Apple," said Traynor, whose firm oversees about $9 billion in investment assets.

"We expect to see, historically speaking, a lighter quarter, but they'll hopefully give us some indication of what the fourth quarter will look like. Apple gives us such great insight into the the economy and tech spending."

Top tech stocks this year

Apple's dominance in the smartphone market and its central role in delivering digital content makes the company a proxy for consumer strength and confidence in the broader economy. The company wrapped up its fiscal third quarter at the end of June, and analysts expect a 3.1% decline in revenue from a year earlier, followed by a 3.9% year-over-year drop in its fiscal fourth quarter, according to a Refinitiv. They expect growth to pick back up in the quarter that starts in October.

While Apple still counts heavily on iPhone sales, the company's focus on services like apps, digital music and iCloud is paying off, particularly with people consuming more content from home. Analysts expect revenue growth in its services segment of 15% to $13.1 billion for the third quarter, and 13% to $14.2 billion in the fourth, according to FactSet.

The best of the rest

Tech stocks have pulled back a bit heading into this week's major earnings reports. Since closing at a record on July 20, the Nasdaq has fallen 3.4%, sparked by weaker-than-expected forecasts last week from Microsoft and Intel.

The tech stocks that just flashed major warning signs
The tech stocks that just flashed major warning signs

Struggles are anticipated at Google and Facebook, with advertisers in travel, hospitality and retail pulling back on spending. Alphabet is expected to report a drop in revenue for the second quarter and a slight increase in the third quarter, while Facebook's revenue growth in the second quarter is expected to sink into the single digits for the first time since the company's IPO in 2012 and remain there in the third quarter.

Facebook could also lose about $100 million in third-quarter revenue from ad boycotts tied to the "Stop Hate for Profit" campaign, according to Wedbush Securities. But Wedbush's Michael Pachter still recommends buying Facebook shares, in part because the company has untapped money-making opportunities from Instagram and WhatsApp.

"Notwithstanding well-publicized boycotts of Facebook's platform by many major brands beginning in early July, Facebook has consistently executed on its core business model and we expect the company to capture market share in a declining advertising spend environment, given its scale and robust suite of targeting and measurement tools to help advertisers manage costs and maximize budget efficiency," Pachter said in a report on Monday.

Amazon has been the best-performing stock among the mega-cap tech companies this year, up 63%. That's despite CEO Jeff Bezos' suggestion at the end of April that, "If you're a shareowner in Amazon, you may want to take a seat."

Bezos said at the time that the company would invest its expected $4 billion second-quarter profit in coronavirus-related efforts, including buying personal protective equipment for workers and building its own testing capability. But Bezos' warning couldn't turn investors off of Amazon's perpetual expansion, which has continued thanks to surging demand for delivery of groceries and household products, combined with growth in Amazon's cloud infrastructure and streaming content units.

Underestimating regulatory risk?

Bezos and his Big Tech CEO counterparts have more to contend with this week than just updating investors. On Wednesday a day before addressing investors Bezos will make his first appearance before Congress, joining the leaders of Apple, Facebook and Alphabet in trying to convince lawmakers that competition remains plentiful. 

In his opening statement to the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, Bezos will remind representatives that Amazon accounts for less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and will name Target, Costco and Walmart as competitors, according to prepared remarks. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will defend the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp and will reference his company's contributions to the open-source community. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook plans to tell lawmakers that his company is in fierce competition with Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Google for the smartphone market and "does not have a dominant market share in any market where we do business." 

The House Judiciary Committee announced its investigation into tech giants in June 2019, a month before the Justice Department said it was opening a broad antitrust review of Big Tech companies. Then came attorneys general from numerous U.S. states.

David Heinemeier Hansson, a tech entrepreneur and creator of the programming language Ruby on Rails, said investors don't seem to be taking the risks from these investigations seriously. He added that they don't only have domestic concerns. The European Union is investigating Apple's App Store rules and its payment platform, and the EU last year opened a probe into Google's and Facebook's use of data.

"We've never had as many concurrent lines of inquiry and action ongoing at the same time," said Hansson, who testified in front of the House antitrust subcommittee in January, arguing that the top tech companies have made it virtually impossible for smaller challengers to compete. "If you look at the run-up this year, and how frothily priced these companies are already, if you do anything to undercut those growth assumptions, things come tumbling down very quickly after that."

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