I was with some friends this weekend and one of them was talking about an investment committee meeting he attended and there was a discussion at that meeting about some of the threats out there in the macro investment landscape. One of them was “vanishing liquidity” and the significant change in net cash flows from the global oil sector. Oil producing regions have gone from being a massive cash generator to a relatively small one in the past few years. Now this could well be a temporary thing as the oil market adjusts to some new realities. This post is not really about oil, even though that word is in the title of this post.
As I pondered that, I thought about oil’s role as the thing that captured the economic surplus of the industrial revolution. You can’t run factories, railroads, trucks, etc without carbon-based products and in particular oil. So oil has been a cash/capital magnet for the wealth that the industrial revolution produced. Those that owned oil producing assets (or better yet, oil producing regions) sat back and collected the economic surplus of the industrial revolution and that has been a path to vast wealth and economic power.
What is that same thing in the information revolution? And where is cash piling up around the world? On tech company balance sheets, of course. Apple has $200bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $53bn of cash in the six months ending March 2015. Microsoft has $110bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $30bn of cash in the year ended June 2015. Google/Alphabet has $70bn of cash on its balance sheet and produced $14bn of cash in the six months ended June 2015. Facebook could have $20bn of cash in the next year and could be producing $20bn of cash a year soon. Amazon, the company that “will never make money” surprised Wall Street last week with strong profits and it seems to me that they are going to start producing cash like these other big tech companies now.
It makes sense to me that software is the oil of the information revolution. Companies that control the software infrastructure of the information revolution will sit back and collect the economic surplus of the information revolution and that will be a path to vast wealth and economic power. It has already happened but I think we are just beginning to see the operating leverage of these software based business models. The capex spending necessary to be a software infrastructure provider at scale has shielded the cash producing power of these companies (and many others) and may continue to do that for a time, but I suspect at some point the profits are going to overtake the capex at a rate that the cash will be flowing out of software companies the way that oil flows out of wells.
Full Disclosure: The Gotham Gal and I own a lot of Alphabet stock and also shares in several hundred other software based businesses. We are long software.