One amusing parlor game for investors is guessing which stocks that have risen substantially over the past five years will continue to show gains in the next five years.
It's harder than it sounds, given that one has to guess about both broad-market trends and about the fates of individual companies and stocks.
When the game was played back in 2012 it was at an off-the-record dinner for a group of journalists including myself, hosted by the chief of a prominent semiconductor maker. This chip executive, who also had a head for investing and markets, and a keen interest in stock prices, asked those around the table whether they thought Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) stock would be higher in five years' time, or lower. Apple's stock had risen 436% in the five years preceding that dinner.
After everyone gave an answer, the seasoned chip executive confidently predicted Apple's stock would actually be lower in five years' time, not higher. The executive was wrong, however: Apple shares went on to double in the ensuing five years.
A testimony, perhaps, not only to this captain of industry's lack of faith in the bull market already then underway, but also an inability to conceive of an already gigantic company seeing substantial stock-price appreciation. Apple was at the time already worth around $380 billion, and talking about it growing to a trillion dollars was not something that happened every day.
Likewise, for shares of the FAANG names, it's very difficult to conceive of substantial share-price gains, given how the group has flirted with the trillion-dollar market cap threshold in the past year, a level Apple actually reached for the first time on August 1 of last year, when it crossed $200 per share.
In the coming five years, a closer look reveals that relative price appreciation may favor Apple, Alphabet (GOOGL - Get Report) , Tesla (TSLA - Get Report) and Facebook (FB - Get Report) , while Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) , Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) and Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) seem more of a stretch, based simply on how far each has risen.
Apple's stock is now at $805 billion; a doubling in share price seems rather hard to conceive of. The same can be said for Amazon ($796 billion market cap), and Microsoft ($818 billion). Facebook and Alphabet, at $466 billion and and $784 billion, respectively, are somewhat less daunting, but not by much. It's hard to imagine Facebook, in particular, becoming the next trillion-dollar-company, given all its travails.
By contrast, Tesla and Netflix have less-demanding capitalizations, at $52 billion and $155 billion, respectively. With Apple having broken the trillion-dollar barrier once, it's easier now to conceive of Tesla or Netflix simply doubling from here.
Looking at their relative returns of the past five years, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook have been the laggards of the FAANGs, rising 120%, 88% and 54%, respectively. That compares to 353%, 183%, and 231%, respectively, for Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix.
Can Amazon reasonably rise more than three times its current price, perhaps achieving a value over $2 trillion? With the latest earnings report from the company, some kind of mid-double-digits revenue growth is apparently the new normal, according to analysts covering the company.
Although Amazon has continued to find new frontiers in the past five years, especially with the move into bricks-and-mortar retail, size really does have to catch up with these giants at some point. The idea of these companies' stocks becoming multiples of their current value seems less and less realistic.
Hence, perhaps more modest gains for all the FAANGs, something less than a doubling of share price, is to be expected. A rotation of leadership would not be unreasonable, placing the laggards in front the next five years, while the best performers cool off.
To be sure, it's worth taking a second look at the disparity between leaders and laggards. Satya Nadella was appointed chief executive officer of Microsoft in February, five years ago. Up until his appointment, Microsoft had basically been left for dead by many in the tech investment community.
Its stock had been moribund for something like a decade. It's not very surprising that its shares surged nearly three-fold in the five years following his appointment. Nadella and Microsoft's CFO, Amy Hood, have maintained financial discipline at the company and given enough teasers about growth in its cloud business to keep the shares rising nicely.
As for Amazon and Netflix, they are the only two of the FAANGs who are consistently seen to be opportunistically invading markets. In the case of Netflix, it has invaded the world media market, expanding to every locality except China in the past five years. In Amazon's case, it has been invading so many markets, from video to health care, that the company is synonymous with the phenomenon of invading markets.
Remember, this is a parlor game, and one can't be too scientific about how to approach the matter. With smaller gains in order, it may simply be time for some kind of reversal among very large tech stocks, favoring the recent laggards -- meaning Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Tesla.