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Tech firms emerge as big winners in new COVID-19 economy

Tech stocks are defying gravity in the midst of what may be the worst economic downturn in a century. 

On Thursday, the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite turned positive for the year, after plunging more than 20 percent at one point in March from a record high hit a month earlier, even as indexes such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average remained down about 15 percent from 2019.

To some extent, the relative strength of tech stocks is the result of people increasingly turning to technology during a time of social isolation. But analysts say it's also a sign of what's to come as COVID-19 reshapes the economy.

“Investors now are looking forward to those kinds of business models and companies that will not only survive this environment but thrive as a result of it,” said Scott Clemons, chief investment strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman.

That people have turned to technology during lockdowns and social distancing orders is self-evident to anyone living through the pandemic, but the data is still stark.

Online video meetings company Zoom went from just under 13 million active users in February to over 300 million in April. Its stock price has soared 130 percent this year despite security issues that forced its CEO to apologize. 

Netflix saw a 22 percent growth in its global subscribers, bringing its total to 182 million. Its stock price has increased by a third, and is significantly higher than before the pandemic.

As people have turned to online orders, Amazon has seen its stock rise 24 percent, and the company is looking to hire thousands of new workers.

At the same time, major retailers including J. Crew and Neiman Marcus have filed for bankruptcy protections.

A survey by polling company Morning Consult found double-digit rises in people using their devices since the pandemic, including 33 percent who said they are watching more video content, even as a plurality said their smartphone usage hasn't changed.

“We went from this world where everything was in person, where people would go to a restaurant for happy hour or saw your coworkers, and all of a sudden, in the last eight or so weeks, for most Americans tech is this foundation for them," said Sam Sabin, who follows technology for Morning Consult.

“Most people aren’t always aware of how much we use technology, so the fact that at least a third of Americans noticed that they’re spending more time with their tech is notable,” she added.

Clemons says those changes will leave a lasting imprint on consumer and business habits after the pandemic ends.

“Even when there is a vaccine and everything is back to whatever normal is, when you look at the margin, there will be patterns that stick,” he said.

Gallup poll from April supports that view.

It found that people were participating in activities online more than before, including 18 percent who said they are doing more virtual consultations with their doctors and 14 percent who say they are having groceries delivered more frequently.

And when Gallup asked people if they expected to keep up their new habits after the pandemic, large majorities said they would for activities such as ordering groceries (59 percent), ordering food for delivery (76 percent), and getting medicine or medical supplies online (71 percent).

Not every tech company has thrived as a result of the pandemic. Companies that popularized the sharing economy and the gig economy have seen their fortunes fade. Uber and Lyft have flailed as people stay home and avoid sharing close quarters with strangers in cars, while Airbnb has laid off a quarter of its workforce as travel has dried up.

But the rally toward tech, as with the rally in the market from March lows, may be overstated.

“I do worry, a little bit, that they’ve anticipated it so mightily that it might be a little bit ahead of itself,” Clemons, from Brown Brothers Harriman, said.

Brett Ewing, chief market strategist at First Franklin, agrees, saying that investors are rushing toward stocks that look like safe bets during uncertain times.

“Investors are crowding to one side of the boat,” he said. “Going forward, we don’t think that’s the opportunity. We think that the other side of the boat, when it flips, is going to be the place to be,” he added.

In his view, the small and medium stocks that have been hard-hit have more room to grow once the path forward on a public health front becomes clearer.

He also wonders if people will end up reverting to previous habits as soon as they are able to meet up again in person.

“The question is, after this pandemic, do people still want to do Zoom calls, or are they going to say ‘I don’t want to do that anymore, it reminds me of the pandemic and lockdown,’ ” he said.

Clemons has little doubt the current state of events will leave its marks on people's behaviors, though he says the exuberance around it may be overstated at the moment.

If companies reassess the need for travel and expensive office space when video meetings have become the norm, even marginal changes could have big implications.

“There’s an old tech adage that applies here, which is that the implications of change are always overstated in the short run and understated in the long run,” he said.