Will the surging dollar punish big tech earnings?

MarkRubens | iStock / 360 | Getty Images

MarkRubens | iStock / 360 | Getty Images

As the five giants in U.S. consumer technology prepare to report earnings next week, investors are showing a surprisingly amount of skepticism about their prospects.

Over the past three months, Apple (up 9.1 percent as of Thursday’s close) is the only one of the five to top the S&P 500’s 7.1 percent gain. Shares of Facebook, Google and Amazon.com are all in the red over that stretch, while Microsoft has gained 6.2 percent.

Reading too much into quarterly stock swings can be dangerous, but the underperformance is notable. After all, these are the companies at the center of a computing revolution that starts with the mobile phones and cloud computing and extends into drones, virtual reality and all manners of wearables and connected devices.

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Barry James, who helps oversee about $6 billion in assets at James Investment Research, sees two main reasons for the megacap tech lag: Rotation to small-cap stocks and a historically strong dollar.

First, the small-cap story. The Russell 2000 Index of smaller stocks has been trounced by the S&P 500 over the past year, gaining 0.8 percent, while the larger stock benchmark rallied 12 percent.

The lag made small caps so cheap relative to their growth outlook in an improving economy that money managers are finally starting to pounce. In the past three months, the Russell is up 8.5 percent, beating the S&P 500 by almost 1.5 percentage points.

“The fourth quarter saw small caps start to take off,” said James, who described his current buying of smaller companies as “nibbling.” “We’re putting more on our buy list. We’re just starting to add them bit by bit.”

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James’ firm in Xenia, Ohio, still owns some Microsoft and Apple, and he likes their long-term prospects, but the rising dollar could wreak some havoc. Half of Microsoft’s revenue comes from outside the U.S., while Apple generates more than 60 percent of its sales internationally. For the three other big tech companies, the number ranges from 40 percent to 55 percent.

A higher dollar means that goods and services purchased in other countries from U.S. companies are getting more expensive, and thus less attractive. The dollar is gaining steam not just from an improving domestic economy, but also from weakness across the Atlantic, where European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced plans Thursday for a 60 billion euro ($70 billion) a month bond-buying program.

“The number one sector affected by the dollar is the tech sector because they export so much,” James said. “It makes it challenging for sure, and overseas earnings aren’t so good.”

Representatives from Google and Facebook declined to comment. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Here’s a little more on each company heading into next week’s earnings:

Microsoft kicks off the big five announcements on Monday. While the stock has slightly lagged the broader market over the past three months, it’s jumped 31 percent in the past year, thanks largely to Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella’s deeper push into cloud computing.

Microsoft proved this week that there’s no shortage of innovation coming out of Redmond, Washington, as the company unveiled an augmented reality headset that projects holograms onto the real world.

Apple, the biggest U.S. company by market cap, reports results on Tuesday. Shares of the Cupertino, California-based company have topped the group on a three-month, six-month, and 12-month basis, with investors giddy about a new line of iPhones and the potential for the upcoming Apple Watch to be the next killer consumer gadget.

Evercore analyst Rob Cihra expects the Apple Watch to add 4 percent to revenue this year and account for 36 percent of the company’s growth. The price-to-earnings ratio will increase as Apple “proves it can lead another new product category with unique competitive advantages and premium positioning that others will find tough to match,” Cihra wrote in a Jan. 5 report.

Facebook reports on Wednesday, followed by Amazon and Google on Thursday. All three stocks are down over the past quarter, though Facebook’s 12-month gain still sits at 35 percent due to massive growth in mobile advertising.

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Google, meanwhile, has dropped 7.9 percent over the past year, and Amazon is down 23 percent. For Google, which is pushing into every market imaginable, from health care and finance to education and space, the challenge remains finding a sustained revenue driver in mobile as desktop search matures. Not since early 2013 has the company reported quarterly sales growth in excess of 20 percent.

For Amazon, the story remains the same: no profit. Investors comfortable with CEO Jeff Bezos‘ spending almost every last dollar acquiring and satisfying new customers at the expense of earnings may find appeal in a dominant e-commerce company that trades for 1.7 times revenue.

But Canaccord Genuity analyst Michael Graham lowered his target on the stock price earlier this month to $300 from $310. “With increasingly negative sentiment towards low-earnings stocks in the group, and in the absence of top-line acceleration, we believe margin improvement will be needed for the stock to work in the mid-term,” he wrote.

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