As recently as November 16th, a list of 102 domestic and international telecommunications companies on the Morningstar.com website showed only 7 issues that had positive returns so far this year. All the others--- 95 of them--- showed losses that ranged from disturbing to devastating.
Ma Bell was off 59 percent; WorldCom was down nearly 71 percent; and it's thwarted merger mate, Sprint, was down 64 percent. Losses were about as bad among the snazzy fiber optic network companies, with Global Crossing down 64 percent; Level 3 Communications down 56 percent; and Metromedia Fiber Network down 24 percent.
Nor was the damage limited to domestic telephone companies. Nippon Telephone and Telegraph ADR was down 50 percent; Deutsche Telekom ADR wasown 53 percent; France Telcom ADR was own 30 percent, and British Telecommunications ADR was down 56 percent.
Big or small, domestic or international, old line or new economy, virtually everything in telecom has been hit, and hit hard. Among domestic companies with market capitalization of at least $1 billion, only SBC Communications and BellSouth, up 20 percent and 4 percent, respectively, look as unbreakable as Bruce Willis. The telecommunications index, as a whole, was off a whopping 26.5 percent.
This is not a minor event.
Telecommunications stocks loom large in every major index around the world. Mario Gabelli once joked that in many countries the combination of the phone company, the electric company, and the largest brewery was the national index and there wasn't much else.
The ghoulish can easily find areas of the market that have suffered greater percentage losses--- Online retailing, off 64 percent; Home Supply Stores, off 43 percent; Semiconductor Equipment, off 35 percent; and Online Information, off 35 percent.
But telecommunications is different. The decline in telecom stocks is worrisome because of their importance to the world economy and, nearly as important, because of the amount of global wealth that has been lost.
Only four Online retailers have market capitalization greater than $1 billion; only 8 semiconductor equipment manufacturers; and only 3 Home Supply Stores. In telecommunications, over 60 companies are worth over $1 billion and 11 are worth over $50 billion---even after this years' drubbing.
We're talking about wealth losses that are staggering. About $136 billion at Nippon Telephone; over $100 billion at Deutsche Telekom; over $110 billion at ATT; over $100 billion at WorldCom; over $30 billion at Sprint.
What does it all mean?
There are two major concerns that we can read into these figures:
• Worldwide, we've aced the Innovation test, but we're failing the Profitability test. Visit Best Buy and check out the new electronic products: we're in one of those cornucopia periods in which new possibilities arise faster than anyone can absorb them. We are truly beginning to suffer from what sociologist Alvin Toffler called "Future Shock." The Internet revolution is real but few have figured out how to make any money on it. But when push comes to shove, stock prices are driven by rising profits.
• We could be facing a market-induced wealth recession. After the market crash in 1987, when the S&P ended the year with a total return of 5.27 percent after a vicious drop in October, many analysts predicted a "wealth recession" induced by the decline in stock market values. In fact, that was a silly idea because most Americans had far more money invested in their homes. Fixed income investments still loomed large in personal portfolios. Today things are different: about 70 percent of all 401k money is in equities, technology stocks dominate many mutual fund portfolios, and most of the individual accounts started in recent years have been committed to the highly speculative sectors that have fared so badly this year.
Bottom line: corporate profitability and consumer spending are what to watch as we head into 2001.
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