Is this the Dumbest Tech Bubble Ever?

Reader note: Today’s post is a rant about the stock market.

WeWork filed for IPO today, and I’m sitting here at my desk laughing my ass off while I peruse their documents. We’re talking about a company that burned through billions of dollars of venture capital, often throwing ridiculously lavish parties, while inventing their own nonsense financial metrics to hide the fact that they were less profitable than they seemed. Now they want money from retail investors too? The balls on these people!

As Bloomberg put it:

Having raised more than $12 billion since its founding nine years ago, and having never turned a dime of profit, WeWork now hopes to sell billions of dollars in stock while simultaneously borrowing billions more.

According to WeWork’s IPO filings, investors shouldn’t expect profit any time soon. Points for honesty, I guess? 🙄

Someone wise once said: history might not repeat, but it echoes. As an investor for the last 20 years, I remember well the irrational exuberance of the tech boom of 1999-2001. Companies were making technologies to “change the world” and no one was terribly concerned about profit. All you needed was a good idea, and eventually the money would flow! Don’t stress about the money, baby, because these were GROWTH stocks, and they were changing the very fabric of our society. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Because it does to me. History may be echoing, right now.

One difference between 2000 and 2019 is that in this weird economy unprofitable tech companies have been sustained for years by loads of venture capital and debt. Of course, when that gravy-train of easy money ends, they’ll come to us, individual investors saving for retirement, to ask for cash. More specifically, they’ll go to institutional investors, suggesting that they load this fresh horse manure into our retirement accounts somehow. Anyone remember mortgage-backed securities? If you don’t, that’s okay. Go watch the movie The Big Short. It’s tremendously entertaining and you’ll learn a lot too.

Of course, losses aren’t always bad for young corporations. Amazon thrived despite many years of losses, but their situation was quite different. During those startup years they were building competitive advantage in analytics, logistics, and price. And their management was notoriously frugal during that time, even using office doors as desks to save money. Unlike WeWork, they weren’t using investor money to throw celebrity-filled parties or buying indoor surfing companies for no good reason. Say what you will about the dangers of Amazon’s monopoly power, their strategy was sound.

But it seems to me that wealthy investors like SoftBank (WeWork’s top investor) have been chasing the stupid money, handing over sacks of cash to businesses with no clear path to profitability, and relying upon the vague promise of paradigm shifts and unicorn farts to guide their investment choices. And once the mega-rich chumps are tapped out, cash-gobbling businesses turn to us, investors lower on the food chain.

A screencap of futurama with a man saying

Could I be wrong? Sure. I’m not a financial expert. But even to an individual investor like me, WeWork’s pitch sounds negligently shitty: Buy stock in our money-losing company so we can lose more of your money while throwing fancy parties for ourselves. We’re elevating human consciousness!

I’m picking on one company, perhaps unfairly, because this IPO seems a shining example of the way we continually make the same mistakes as investors and consumers. Business-owning billionaires invite us to invest in their schemes. We hand them money to keep them afloat longer while they suck maximum joy from the unsustainable bubbles they create. And in the end, it’s the small fry who pay the biggest price. I mean, WeWork filed to go public today, and their offering reads like a scam designed to bilk those who don’t know how to read a financial report.

Investing comes with risk, but accepting risk isn’t the same thing as turning one’s brain off entirely. If you’re going to hand over your hard-earned dollars to a business, they should either be earning a profit, OR they should have convinced you that they will be earning a profit soon. And those profits should be returned to you in the form of dividends and/or price growth, which can be used to fund things like retirement or your children’s college expenses. Otherwise, why bother?

I’ll be very curious to see how the market responds to this turd of an IPO. If investors gobble it up, it’ll confirm my worry that we’re inside the dumbest tech bubble ever. One fueled by the same irrational optimism of 19 years ago, and juiced up further by easy access to corporate debt. If we’re in another bubble, and it bursts, what does that mean for those scraping by?

This situation wouldn’t be so worrisome if foolhardy investors hurt only themselves, but that’s not the way it works. If you have mutual funds, especially in the tech sector, it may be worth a look to see if your money manager is investing your retirement or education funds responsibly. And if you work for a bubbly tech company that hasn’t managed to turn a profit because they’re too busy chasing unicorns, this might be a good time to consider the stability of your job should the market turn. I’m not suggesting you change anything, only that you take stock of your situation and assess your risks.

Unfortunately, there’s no predicting the ups and downs of the economy with any precision. But when the ground under your feet starts to crack, it seems wise to either move to more secure footing or check your parachute. So check that parachute, okay? To me, this feels like the right time to set a little cash aside, while times are still relatively good.

Hopefully my concerns are much ado about nothing. But I’d rather be needlessly prepared for a downturn than unprepared for a hard landing. WeWork’s bizarre IPO might be a fluke, or it might be a sign of the times. I’m hoping for the former, not the latter.

Note: This post was updated to say that WeWork didn’t “go public” today. It filed paperwork for IPO.