By JACK HOUGH
The recent threat of a federal anti-trust probe against search giant Google has provoked plenty of comparisons to Microsoft, circa 2000, complete with the stagnation that implies. And the stock price suggests investors lack confidence. At this point, the world's premier Internet property is priced as if it has roughly the growth potential of 70-year-old cereal brand Cheerios or the regulated electricity that flows into New York City homes.
That is, Google (GOOG)
Why is a company that's three years younger than Justin Beiber priced like ones that have been in business since gas lamps lit Manhattan and flour was ground by stone? Growth forecasts offer little clue. Google is expected to increase its profits by at least 15% next year, versus single-digit percentages for the old-economy pair. And Wall Street gushes over Google; 34 of 38 analysts with published opinions on the stock say to buy it. Either the pros are wrong or the stock is plenty cheap.
Shares come with a few turn-offs, to be sure. Chief among them is the lack of a dividend. Google shares would yield 3% if the company spent as generously as General Mills out of its profits and 4.2% if it spent like Con Ed. And the company could afford a 15% one-time dividend today if it wanted to pay one (or close to half that if we exclude cash that it holds offshore to avoid taxation).
Google has a two-thirds share of online search in the U.S., but its share hasn't grown in two years. There's competition from Microsoft (MSFT),
Then there's China. While most companies are boasting in their financial reports about their sales exposure there, Google exited China last year, citing censorship and cyber attacks. In Russia, Google holds a distant second place to Yandex, due in part to the latter's facility with the Russian language.
Finally, there are apps, anti-trust issues and margins. As smart phone users come to rely on specialized programs to handle news, shopping and more, they might bypass Google. While Google is fighting to keep its market share, it must also justify it to federal trade regulators, who have delayed the company's past acquisitions, and who, according to the Wall Street Journal, are preparing a probe of whether Google has abused its search dominance. And the company's expenses have recently climbed, reducing its profit margin from preposterously high to merely exceptionally high.
Now consider some favorable attributes. Google +, the company's two-week old social networking site, debuted to excellent reviews and, according to one estimate, is gaining a million users a day, about what Facebook gained at the height of its growth. What Google lacks in share in China and Russia it makes up for in other markets like Latin America, where Internet penetration is less than half what it is in North America.
As for apps, Google has a big one in Android, its operating system for smart phones and tablets, which has a leading 37% market share in the U.S., versus 27% for iOS, the operating system for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone. Android is free for now, but investment bank Stewart Collins estimates it could bring in $5 billion a year in high-margin sales once Google begins charging, for a 16% boost to today's sales and a larger increase in profit. There's additional potential in the company's Chrome web browser and its Office-like productivity software. And if margins have recently slipped, it's partly because Google has been on a hiring spree and has boosted its spending on research and development, both of which bode well for the future.
All told, shares seem an excellent deal for investors who want exposure to things like social networking, cloud computing, smart phones and overseas development, but who don't want to pay a premium price. About the only thing missing is that 3% dividend yield, and I suspect that if the stock price continues to languish management will soon have to sweeten the deal for shareholders.