Towards the end of the 1990s tech stock bubble, “new media” – i.e., the Internet — was ascendant and old media like magazines, newspapers and broadcast TV were yesterday’s news. This was reflected in relative stock valuations, which gave Internet pioneer AOL the ability to buy venerable media giant Time Warner for what looked (accurately in retrospect) like an insane amount of money.
Now fast forward to 2017. Online retailing is crushing bricks-and-mortar, giving Amazon.com, Inc.(NASDAQ:AMZN) all the high-powered stock it needs to do whatever it wants. And what does it want? Apparently to run grocery stores via the acquisition of Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM), the iconic upscale-healthy food chain.
Amazon is going to apply its advanced technology – online ordering, fast delivery, drones, autonomous cars, whatever – to the quintessentially meatspace business of selling groceries. And it’s paying $13 billion to find out if this is a good idea.
Whether it is or isn’t is less important than what this type of M&A says about the mindset of a given cycle’s favored companies. When undreamed-of amounts of money start pouring in (as with the dot-coms of old and today’s Big Tech) it changes the perception of risk. $13 billion is a terrifying amount of money to bet on a new and untested idea – except in the context of a near-trillion dollar market cap, where it seems downright modest.
When the next bear market hits, though, that kind of money might seem a bit hubristic.
As with so many other extraordinary recent market events (record-high stock prices combined with record-low volatility, negative yields on government bonds, soaring debt/GDP combined with falling inflation), Amazon/Whole Foods might or might not be the bell that rings at the top. But when the history of this time is written, there’s a good chance that it will be somewhere on the list.