Alphabet Inc (GOOGL) and the Ever-Growing Headaches

It really wasn’t that long ago that investors were downright skeptical about Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) stock.

Google stock (it was then traded under ticker GOOG, in the days before the company reorganized into Alphabet) didn’t move for pretty much all of 2010 and 2011. Investors were concerned that increasing mobile usage would hurt the company’s ad rates — so-called cost-per-click (CPC) — and eventually its profits.

Those fears weren’t limited to Google, of course. A similar argument dogged Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB); one key reason FB stock dropped by more than half in the months after its May 2012 IPO.

What’s somewhat ironic about those fears — in spite of Google stock more than tripling from those 2010/2011 levels — is that they weren’t entirely baseless. CPC pressure indeed has continued. A 23% decline year over year in Q2 was a big reason GOOGL stock declined after earnings, pulling back after hitting $1,000 for the second time.

Those fears are a big reason I’ve been somewhat bearish on Google stock for the past few months. And the problem for GOOGL stock now is that its CPC headaches are being joined by a number of other problems. Google stock isn’t a short at current levels by any means. But investors expecting a third run to $1,000+ may have to wait longer than they hope.

Legal and Regulatory Concerns and Google Stock

The $2.7 billion fine slapped on Alphabet by the European Union isn’t, on its own, that big a deal. As InvestorPlace columnist Nicholas Chahine pointed out at the time, the fine is tiny against the current $650 billion market capitalization of Google stock. Alphabet already has appealed and won’t pay that fine for years, if ever.

The impact of the EU antitrust action goes beyond just the fine. Bear in mind that Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) spent years fighting similar antitrust battles in Europe. That battle has some parallels to the current Alphabet Inc case. The EU wanted to stop the bundling of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer — an effort that helped open the door for Google’s now-dominant market share.

Meanwhile, Alphabet’s problems in the EU are just one of many. Its Waymo self-driving car unit is embroiled in a lawsuit with privately held Uber. There’s a class-action lawsuit over an alleged gender pay gap at the company. YouTube is still dealing with an advertiser boycott over the nature of certain ad placements.

There’s a sense that Google’s reputation is changing. The fun-loving upstart who “doodled” on its home page and whose motto was “Don’t Be Evil” now is seen as a behemoth. Concerns about just how much data Google has — and what it does with it — are only increasing. Here, too, there are parallels to Microsoft. And given that MSFT stock was stagnant for a decade even after the dot-com boom, that could spell trouble for GOOGL stock.

Yes, It Matters

There is a case that these issues aren’t enough to offset the bull case for Google stock. InvestorPlace author Josh Enomoto in fact made that case just recently. CPC rates are declining  but usage is soaring, more than offsetting that weakness. Billion-dollar lawsuits are still not changing the market value of GOOGL stock all that much. And even I’ve argued that the company’s “moonshots” have the ability to move Google stock.

With a fortress balance sheet and a reasonable P/E multiple, it could look as if Alphabet’s problems are creating an opportunity in GOOGL — not highlighting the risk in the stock. From that standpoint, once the current, still-minor, issues are resolved, Google stock will resume its upward march.

But I remain skeptical. Legal problems aren’t bringing Alphabet down by any means, but they can have an impact on the margins (in some cases, literally). And I still question whether Alphabet really can win beyond advertising. Its Google Home project is well behind the Echo from, Inc (NASDAQ:AMZN). Google Wi-Fi looks to be in second place behind router incumbent Netgear, Inc (NASDAQ:NTGR). Waymo may be a billion-dollar flop. Nest has disappointed in the early going. Google Fiber has quietly been scaled back.

The inability to win outside advertising doesn’t seem like a big deal. Legal problems don’t seem to have a big impact. But the sum of those issues matters.

$1,000 for GOOGL Is Too Much

At the end of the day, Google stock remains increasingly reliant on the advertising business. That’s a business where, all else equal, prices are declining, quickly.

That’s a dangerous proposition. It’s why I’ve been concerned about Alphabet’s inability to diversify successfully. And if that reliance is combined with increasing legal and regulatory risk, it gets tougher and tougher to be bullish on Google stock.

Vince Martin is long shares of Netgear, Inc., but has no positions in any other securities mentioned.

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