Will Silicon Valley’s Tech Fortunes Dissolve like the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt Fortunes? No

Because Silicon Valley is the news,

Apple Is Basically a Small Country Now:

No modern tech company has approached the value of trading companies of the 1700s, though, and the Dutch East India Company trumps them all. The shipping juggernaut was the world’s first publicly traded company. At its height, according to several estimates, it was worth the equivalent of more than $7 trillion in 2015 dollars. That’s a seven with 12 zeros after it—or Apple’s valuation today 10 times over.

However, despite its size and importance, the Dutch East India Company wasn’t a great investment, and the share price only increased 100% over a 200-year period, which amounts to just one-third of a percent a year (which is 1/10 the average annual inflation rate of the US):

By comparison, Google stock surged from $100/share in 2004, to $2000/share where it is presently.

As is the case with many ‘blue collar’ stocks and industries, fortunes come and go quickly. The Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie fortunes quickly dissolved, as did their companies. Standard Oil lasted 40 years before becoming part of Exxon Mobile. The Vanderbilt fortune was hurt by the introduction of new forms of transportation that cut into the railroad business:

As the family inheritance was dispersed between more and more descendants, New York Central was undergoing changes. The transport business had peaked in late 1920s, but freight soon declined and by the end of World War II trucks, barges, airplanes and buses had cut into its industry. Between 1946 and 1958 it dropped four of its six fast daily passenger runs between New York and Chicago.

By the mid-20th century, the Vanderbilt fortune had all but dissolved and the lavish mansions, in disrepair, were torn down:

Indeed, all of their New York city homes had been torn down by 1947. Today, the wrought iron gates from a Vanderbilt mansion are now the entrance to a 5-acre conservatory garden in Central Park; Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt’s block-long house in Manhattan’s midtown district 57th Street is now occupied by high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman.

The Rockefeller family, once worth as much as $340 billion in 2016 dollars at the time of John .D Rockefeller’s death in 1937, is worth no more than $10 billion today:

Despite the family’s immense wealth, the Rockefellers no longer stand atop America’s financial hierarchy. At $10 billion, the family ranks 24th on Forbes’ list, a far cry from the heyday of John D. Rockefeller, who became the world’s first billionaire in 1916, a sum equal to $30 billion today, adjusted for inflation. In a sense, this underestimates the oil scion’s wealth. By the time Rockefeller died in 1937, his assets equaled 1.5% of America’s total economic output. To control an equivalent share today would require a net worth of about $340 billion dollars, more than four times that of Bill Gates, currently the world’s richest man.

However, much of this money is in special philanthropy trusts and is inaccessible to 5th and 6th generation descendants of John Rockefeller, who comparatively have very little.

The Carnegie fortune suffered a similar fate:

It was the height of the Gilded Age in 1889, and Andrew Carnegie, a pioneer in the steel industry, laid out why he would be donating the bulk of his wealth – an estimated $350 million (worth about $4.8 billion today). The work, called “The Gospel of Wealth” was published 125 years ago this summer, and still undercuts the wobbly balance Americans walk between capitalism and social responsibility.

100 years later, it was all gone:

By the second generation, the remnants of the Gilded Age were just about gone. Now the relatives have had to say goodbye to the island. Many began donating their land to the National Park Service in the 1970s because, in part, they did not have the money to continue the upkeep.

The Carnegie Steel Company was sold in 1901 to the United States Steel Corporation for $480 million ($14.1 billion in 2016 dollars), of which $226 million went to Carnegie himself. 115 years later, the U.S. Steel Company is still an independent publicly traded company. But has it been a good investment?

The market cap of US Steel today is $4 billion, a 70% decline from the inflation-adjusted purchase price. After factoring in dividends, the picture improves, but only slightly. US steel closed on 7/28/2016 at $23/share. The dividend-adjusted close on May 1991 was $15 (meaning that someone who bought in May 1991 would have made 53% after factoring in uninvested dividends). But that still lags inflation. $10.00 in 1991 had the same buying power as $18.04 in 2017.

In agreement with the HBD thesis, compare that to IBM, a high-IQ company and industry, which would would have turned a $1000 investment in 1920 into millions today. [2]

Were the Carnegie and Rockefeller fortunes misappropriated? Probably. The problem with philanthropic trusts is that the person managing the money doesn’t have a direct financial incentive to ensure it is managed optimally; only that he gets paid. My belief is that the return on investment, both for the general public but also the decedents, would have been far greater had the money been put into treasury bonds than scattershot philanthropic projects.

My prediction is, the Unites States of GFAAM (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft) has attained a state of permanent ascendance and will not suffer the same fate of the steel/rail/oil industries of yesteryear, because going back to the article yesterday, high-IQ industries are much less sensitive to macro factors, are better managed, and have permanent market dominance and impassable moats (it’s much easier to make steel than it is to get 1/6 of the entire world population on your social network, or 95% of all major websites hosting your ads). Also, America’s high-IQ wealthy elite won’t squander their fortunes, unlike the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, whose fortunes dissolved in less than two generations due to proliferate spending and gross mismanagement (as a consequence of low IQs and high time preference). The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, unlike the Carnegie and Rockefeller funds, won’t be frittered on philanthropy projects–and the money will last for a very long time, and unlike the Rockefeller fund, beat inflation.

One thing that’s interesting (but not too surprising if you read the HBD series) is how no one in tech (with the exception of dotcom bubble) ever lost a fortune–whereas with low-IQ industries and mid-witted Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes that are involved in mining, commodities, and autos–fortunes come and go like the tides. The biggest losers in the 2008 crisis were not the banks but actually mining and energy companies, which fell and never recovered. And then in 2014 and 2015 it happened again as oil prices plunged. For example, Russian oligarchs lose $11bn in just 10 days during oil price crash. Riches-to-rags stories like these are very common for the mid-IQ rich, whose fortunes are fleeting. But for high-IQ rich such as Gates, Buffett, Paul Allen, Larry and Page of Google, Bezos, Ellison, Carlos Slim, Waltons, etc…their fortunes keep growing year after year, to no end. Gates has topped the Forbes 400 list the list since the early 90’s, and he’s still always in the top 3. Same for Buffett, who has topped the list since the early 90’s. Musk and Zuckerberg are new entrants to the Forbes top-10 list, and I guarantee they won’t be going anywhere either.

Furthermore, I predict 50 years from now, Facebook, Google, and Amazon will be more important than they already are, and may even begin to take over roles that are normally associated with federal and state governments, such as healthcare, infrastructure, education, and maybe even defense, which will probably lower wasteful spending, and it will be interesting to see how Google handles healthcare…it will probably be an improvement over how it’s presently done. [3]

[2] A counterargument is that many non-tech stocks (such as Philip Morris, which owns the Marlboro brand) have done well, as shown below. Warren Buffett made his fortune investing in boring, low-tech companies. Although Altria continues to perform well, such successes are very rare. The problem with low-tech stocks is that their business models can be reproduced easily, whereas with Google, Microsoft, or Amazon that is not the case. There’re thousands of steel, mining, and drilling companies, but only one Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Also, for the past decade, there haven’t been that many low-tech investing successes. I can only think of a few: Sherwin-Williams Co stock (which went from $60 in 2010 to $350 today), and Altria. Due to both macro and mirco economic factors, it’s harder to start to ‘brick and mortal’ business than it was decades ago, due to start-up costs being too high.

[3] Walmart is already doing that