- CFTC data show highest net bearish positions since June 2011
- Powershares QQQ saw biggest withdrawal among all equity ETFs
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s newfound love for Apple Inc. comes as the rest of Wall Street is souring on technology stocks.
Hedge funds and large speculators raised short positions in the Nasdaq 100 Index e-mini futures for a third straight week, pushing net bearish bets to the highest level in five years, according to data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. PowerShares QQQ Trust, the biggest exchange-traded fund tracking the tech-heavy gauge, has seen $5.4 billion pulled this year for the biggest withdrawal among all equity ETFs.
Contrast that with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire, which added Apple at a time when technology stocks are trailing the broader market by the most since the dot-com collapse. The divergence highlights the age-old challenge: do you wait for prospects to improve before buying, or jump in when things look bleak?
“This is not the first time Buffett has moved into out-of-favor areas ahead of the market,” said Jerry Braakman, chief investment officer of First American Trust in Santa Ana, California, where the firm oversees about $1 billion. “This is part of his prowess and lends to his mystique.”
Sentiment toward technology has worsened as disappointing earnings from International Business Machines Corp. to Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. fueled skepticism that the industry will quickly restore growth amid sluggish global demand and rising competition. Gina Martin Adams, an equity strategist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC, cut her recommendation on tech shares earlier this month, citing earnings that “have struck a more cautious tone.”
First-quarter profit among computer and software makers in the S&P 500 showed a beat margin of 1.4 percent, versus the 3.8 percent compiled members in the broad gauge. Earnings in the current period will fall 5.9 percent, worse than any S&P 500 groups except for commodity producers, analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg show.
While Buffett has historically avoided technology stocks, Berkshire has nibbled on the industry in recent years, adding stakes in IBM and Visa Inc. The firm held 9.81 million Apple shares, or $1.07 billion worth, as of March 31, according to a regulatory filing from the billionaire’s Omaha, Nebraska-based company.
Even after a 3.7 percent bounce triggered by Berkshire’s disclosure of a stake Monday, Apple shares are still down 30 percent from the all-time high reached in 2015. The company reported its first quarterly drop in revenue in 13 years and warned that the decline would continue. At 10.5 times reported profit, Apple is at valued at about half the multiple of the S&P 500.
Other tech stocks are nowhere near as cheap even after trailing the market by the most at this time of year since 2002. Down 5.9 percent since January, the Nasdaq 100 has lagged behind the S&P 500 by 6.1 percentage points and is traded at 22 times earnings, compared with 19 for the broad equity measure.
The combination of dim profit outlooks and higher valuations has emboldened bears. Investors have pulled $1 billion out of the QQQ fund in May, poised for the fourth month of outflows this year. Hedge funds and speculators reversed their bullish stance in the last three weeks, with net short positions on Nasdaq 100 futures rising above 9,300 contracts, the most since June 2011, data compiled by CFTC show. In mid April, they were net long by more than 50,000 contracts.
“People who are looking for the next quarter are seeing the momentum is not there and they’re sellers,” said Tom Wirth, senior investment officer for Chemung Canal Trust Co., which manages $1.7 billion in Elmira, New York. “Those who have a long-term view are buying quality companies at affordable prices.”