For many months, I’ve warned investors to sell Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) stock and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) stock because of the political risk both companies faced. I warned that Facebook stock had become disliked by those on the left for its privacy violations (many people on the right already abhorred it because they believe that it’s biased).
So I’m not too surprised that both are apparently going to be probed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). What does surprise me is that many pundits are arguing that AMZN stock and FB stock are unlikely to be hurt by the agency’s decisions.
A Closer Look at Facebook Stock
One argument I’ve heard is that the FTC is only concerned about protecting consumers these days, so the agency won’t take action against today’s tech companies, which help consumers.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case under the Trump administration. Not only has the FTC apparently taken the time to launch anti-monopoly probes of FB and AMZN, but the agency seemed to prepare for the move in February, when it launched “a task force dedicated to monitoring competition in U.S. technology markets, investigating any potential anti-competitive conduct in those markets, and taking enforcement actions when warranted.” ”
That sounds like the agency is indeed interested in taking action to promote more competition in tech markets, even if doing so doesn’t directly help consumers. Although Amazon and Facebook haven’t hurt consumers, AMZN has damaged many retail businesses, real estate firms, and workers, while FB has violated users’ privacy and arguably hurt the conservative movement.
Additionally, there’s a major precedent in the not-too-distant past for the FTC taking action against a tech giant based primarily on monopoly concerns, rather than concerns about consumers.
As many may realize, I’m referring to the federal government’s 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). That lawsuit very possibly would have led to the break-up of the company if the judge handling the case, who ordered such a break-up, had not committed an indiscretion.
In any event, the settlement “barred Microsoft from entering into Windows agreements that excluded competitors from new computers, and forced the company to make Windows interoperable with non-Microsoft software,” according to The Seattle Times. It also likely led to the premature departure of Bill Gates as Microsoft CEO.
Furthermore, The Times says that the settlement ended the company’s “monopoly on computing,” and the newspaper indicated that the settlement contributed to the stagnation of Microsoft stock between 2001 and 2011.
Possible Implications for Amazon and Facebook Stock
The FTC’s probe could definitely have similar implications for AMZN and Facebook stock. From October 1998, when MSFT’s initial trial began, to the then-peak of MSFT stock in 2000, the shares nearly doubled. But in those dot-com boom days, that actually wasn’t a good performance.
For example, during the same period, Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) and Yahoo (now known as Altaba (NASDAQ:AABA)) soared nearly five-fold. So Facebook Amazon could very well tremendously underperform the rest of tech for the next couple of years.
Given that the FTC sought (and almost obtained) a break-up of Microsoft, it could force these two giants to split up. For example, Amazon could be forced to separate its cloud business from its ecommerce unit.
Some have argued that the owners of AMZN would actually be helped by that outcome. But I think it’s hard to predict how investors will react to the separation of AMZN’s highly profitable, fast-growing cloud business, which faces some tough competition, from its barely profitable but near-monopolistic ecommerce business, which many believe could become a huge money-maker over the longer term.
Similarly, what will investors think about FB stock if its hugely profitable but somewhat stagnated Facebook website is separated from its hardly-monetized but rapidly growing Instagram website? It’s hard to know.
The Bottom Line on Amazon Stock
With its penalties on Microsoft, the FTC successfully prevented the company from excluding competing web browsers from interfacing with its operating system. As a result, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that the agency could order Amazon to allow brick-and-mortar retailers to advertise on Amazon and sell their products on the website.
At first glance, one could argue that such an outcome could greatly help AMZN stock. But if the Targets (NYSE: TGT) and Wal-Marts (NYSE: WMT) of the world succeed in pushing mom-and-pop businesses off of Amazon and onto competing sites like eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), it’s easy to see how Amazon’s growth and Amazon stock would be hurt by that scenario.
A worse outcome for the owners of Amazon stock will be if the big-box retailers can find ways to frequently lure consumers from Amazon onto their own websites.
Alternatively, the agency could prevent certain items from being sold on Amazon’s website, like groceries, furniture, apparel, or over-the-counter drugs. Such a scenario would also be seen as quite negative for the outlook of Amazon stock, I believe.
The Bottom Line on Facebook Stock
For its part, FB relies tremendously on allowing marketers to target ads based on demographics, and it tracks the web surfing of Facebook users. Presumably, it also uses the latter information for ad-targeting purposes.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the FTC could prohibit Facebook from using certain information for ad targeting and prevent it from tracking the sites its users visit. Such restrictions would make Facebook much less attractive to marketers, causing its profits and Facebook stock to tumble meaningfully.
Finally, in the wake of these types of forced break-ups and/or restrictions, Bezos and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg could decide to leave their respective companies, following in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Gates. If FB and AMZN are forced to find new CEOs, the companies respective stocks will probably drop sharply, due to the new uncertainties the companies would face.
Given the potentially devastating penalties that the FTC could easily decide to impose on FB and AMZN, I urge investors to sell all their shares of AMZN stock and FB stock at this point.
As of this writing, the author did not own shares of any of the stocks named.