The Economics of Luxury: Apples and Googles

I have a wealthy friend who asked the following question today:  What are the odds of Google and Apple hitting $1,000/share, respectively, in the coming 18-30 months?

I don’t have a clue, but it doesn’t seem too far fetched.  Which stock will get there first?  No idea.  This is a great topic to remind ourselves about luxury goods from Econ 101.  Between Google’s IPO in 2004 until 2007, investors couldn’t get enough – it outpaced the tech-heavy NASDAQ 100 index by 3-4x over that period.  The higher the price went, the more investors demanded shares of GOOG. 

This price action was no different than what you see with Louis Vuitton purses, Rolex watches, Ferraris, and trendy art.  But in 2008, GOOG changed its behavior and began trading like a technology stock rather than a sought-after purse.  Over the past three years, AAPL has traded in similar fashion with similar results.  This week even as Eurozone worries returned to the forefront of market action, AAPL seemed to defy gravity.

High net worth folks (politicians call them the 1%) around the globe flaunt their Apple shares at parties like a gold Rolex or red Ferrari.  Look at me, look at me.  The more AAPL stock makes up of your liquid net worth, the cooler you feel now.  This has nothing to do with ratios or earnings or any fundamentals at all since these folks could care less about them – this is about being cool and envied.  I don’t know how to time when AAPL stops acting like a luxury good, but I bet it will someday sooner than later.  Sadly, there just isn’t any reason to bet against it for now.  When it stops acting special, you will know.

Meanwhile, I take the road less traveled.  So long as the bull market is in place for 2012, I choose to own QLD or TQQQ which offer 2x or 3x the daily return of the tech-heavy QQQ ETF, respectively.  Because AAPL is the single most influential stock inside the QQQ ETF now, these leveraged ETFs will better mimic its potential for continued ascent.  If it loses its luxury luster along the way, even better.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

No, not Steve Jobs.  I know you love to hear about your favorite stock Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL).  It sure has defied gravity and the market as a whole, despite news of Amazon’s tablet competitor and global demand worries.  I like AAPL, but I wouldn’t build my portfolio around it solely based on the fact that it’s your grandma’s, uncle’s and next door neighbor’s favorite stock too.  That means any stumble on its path to even greater global domination could be exaggerated.  On to more important things… Congress and Obama want to fix the dismal US JOBS picture.  But how?  Probably not the way they want to do it and not the way they will try to do it.

Ben Bernanke is going around telling people unemployment is a national crisis.  He is also saying he doesn’t have the tools to help.  Congress wants to create government programs to “retool” or retrain the labor pool.  They also want to give businesses a tax break.  Sounds good on the surface.  But how does that help get demand going for the products and services businesses provide?  What about hiring – will these measures actually cause hiring?  I will speculate a little.

As a small business owner, I know what it takes to get me to hire a new employee.  Promises of more demand from the government won’t do it.  Now if the phone starts ringing and old clients start asking about new programs, that’s a different story.  How about a lower payroll tax?  I think this is a waste.  Small business owners aren’t making the kind of profits they would like these days, so that little extra money will go right into the S Corp owner’s pocket.  What about big business?  Giving them tax breaks right now is pure nonsense.  They have the cash to hire if they want.  So if Uncle Sam focuses on small businesses, how can he help?  Money, that’s how!  Congress should pick up the tab for new workers and IT CAN. 

Let’s work through a reasonable scenario:  Congress can spend $48 billion over the next 24 months to create one million new jobs.  So we add to the national debt – it’s $14 trillion already.  This money is peanuts compared to what we spend fighting the Taliban and securing Iraq and the bailout we gave big banks a few years ago.  The math is easy.  Start with $2 billion a month.  That’s 20,000 salaried employees making $50,000 a year for two years.  Since Congress won’t agree to foot the entire bill for a new employee, let’s cover 50% of each new employee’s wages for two years.  Now we created 40,000 long-term positions in a month.  Let’s do this for 24 straight months and we only spent $48 billion to generate 960,000 jobs.  We can probably double that easily and spend $100 billion to put 2 million people to work.

Let’s open this program only to businesses with under $100 million in revenue to make sure it hits its intended target.  Put a cap in place on the number of employees a business can hire under the program and you have something raw, but relatively viable.  I can tell you with certainty that small business owners will start hiring if they know a 50% tax credit is coming for their new employee for two straight years.  Call your congressman :)