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How big tech just keeps getting bigger

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Ether fever dreams

After the bell on Thursday, a trio of major tech companies released their earnings reports en masse. And the results were strong, with each firm beating both revenue and profit expectations set by Wall Street.

In unison Friday, the reporting firms, Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon rallied to fresh highs. Their competitors that round out our collection of the biggest technology firms from the United States, a collective we loosely call the Big 5, also performed strongly on the day. That news broke on Friday that the US economy performed with confidence in the third quarter likely didn’t hurt.

That the biggest tech companies are doing just fine doesn’t shock. The tech industry’s stock market rally has gone on so long by this point that it can be difficult to recall a time when things were different. Indeed, the combined value of the Big 5 — our three recently-reporting firms, plus Apple and Facebook — has roughly doubled since early 2014, when the group was worth a more pedestrian $1.5 trillion.

Now comfortably north of $3 trillion in collective weight, it’s fair to ask why these firms have done so well in recent quarters. There is no correct single answer to a question with that much complexity, but we can take a lesson from each company’s quarterly results as a good starting point for comprehension.

So, in order, we’ll examine Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon’s most recent quarterly results, working to understand why they resonated as much as they did with Wall Street, and what we can learn from it.

Microsoft

The pride of Redmond beat analyst expectations in the most recent quarter, posting $24.5 billion in revenue, ahead of an expected $23.56 tally, and earnings per share of $0.84 (adjusted), ahead of expectations of $0.72.

Those figures are impressive on their own, as TechCrunch charted, underscoring that, on an earnings-per-share basis, Microsoft put up its two best quarters since at least the start of its fiscal 2015. Not bad.

But the company managed to do something more than merely beating top- and bottom-line financial expectations in the quarter. In addition, Microsoft quickly met its promised cloud revenue goal several quarters ahead of its self-imposed timeline.

The firm promised to grow its commercial cloud revenue run rate to a $20 billion annual pace by the end of its fiscal 2018 (which ends with the conclusion of the second calendar quarter of 2018). Instead, Microsoft crossed the mark in its most recent quarter, the first of its fiscal 2018. So three quarters early.

And that implies that by the end of its fiscal 2018, Microsoft’s commercial cloud revenue collective will be far above the $20 billion run rate mark. It could even be large enough for Microsoft to break out revenue from Azure, its cloud computing platform that competes with AWS, as its own line item. After all, if Surface has to report its own numbers, why not Azure?

Regardless, Microsoft’s market cloud-future continues to come into focus. The firm’s various fuck-ups — the recent, final days of Windows Phone have been testament to the fact that not all bets bear out, even when they are purchased for billions — aside, its cloud wagers are paying out. Office 365 outsells traditional office, Azure is growing quickly, and the collected enterprise-facing cloud services that Redmond sells are doing $5 billion a quarter at current tip.

If you were a market observer concerned that Microsoft might miss cloud as it missed mobile a few times, the company now has material counterarguments at the ready.

All that and a short-term revenue and profit beat means that Microsoft shareholders are enjoying a nice price jump today.

The big get bigger. And cloudier.

Amazon

Amazon’s quarter beat expectations handily, managing to grow its revenue 34 percent year-over-year to $43.7 billion. Analysts had expected a far-slimmer $42.14 billion in top line. The firm’s profit also beat expectations, with the firm managing $0.52 per share when the markets had expected $0.03.

Confused about how the street could have been so far off? That’s Amazon for you.

Shares in the company didn’t merely rally, however, after the beat. They soared, closing the week’s trading today up over 13 percent. That’s a staggering result for a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars — each percent they gain is billions of dollars in value created, after all.

So what could have driven the company’s massive gain in value? It seems possible that the firm’s re-acceleration of revenue growth while beating on profits could be the secret sauce that investors fancy. Indeed, looking back to Amazon’s year-ago third quarter, the firm said this: “Net sales increased 29% to $32.7 billion in the third quarter, compared with $25.4 billion in third quarter 2015.”

This year, the firm grew at a faster pace, namely 34 percent, which is a dramatic improvement as it increased its percentage gains from a larger base this year, making the result doubly impressive.

So, yes, Amazon managed to beat expectations in the most-recent quarter, but its ability to run faster at this age seems to have impressed Wall Street.

The big get bigger. And faster.

Alphabet

Alphabet, the entity that takes credit for Google’s profit and debits its side-project tab against the same accounts, had a great quarter. The firm posted revenue of $27.8 billion, ahead of an expected $27.2 billion tally, and earnings per share of $9.57, far ahead of an anticipated $8.33 per-share figure.

Shares of Alphabet rallied following the news, pushing the value of Alphabet shares over the $1,000 mark. What caused that 5 percent bump? Was it merely a beat on top and bottom lines?

No, it doesn’t look like it. To explain what is going on at Alphabet, Matthew Lynley, my co-host on Equity, pulled the critical changed metric from the Alphabet earnings:

Google’s cost-per-click — a metric that helps define how valuable its ads are — grew 1% quarter-over-quarter this year. While still down 18% year-over-year, that tiny nudge forward is likely going to be a big positive signal for Google as it looks to show that its advertising business won’t be challenged by other platforms and it is still going to remain a critical ad buy even as user behavior shifts to mobile.

Google has done well in the global shift to mobile, but the impact on its cost per click, or CPC, was chronic. Each quarter, Google would sell more ads, and see the revenue per ad it could earn fall, on average. And on the company grew. But this time, Google sold more ads, and they were worth more on an average, per-ad basis.

A change in the winds, perhaps, and one that could tell investors that the era when each quarter Google had to make up more ground selling ads than it lost in seeing their average value fall could be over. And if it is, the firm could be in good shape to keep growing at a healthy clip.

And since Alphabet remains more than majority-Google from a revenue perspective, what is good for the Google is good for the gander named Alphabet.

And the big get bigger. And more profitable on a per-click basis.

That is a bit of what went down last week. We skipped so very much. Things like Surface at Microsoft, AWS and Whole Foods at Amazon, and Other Bets at Google. But sometimes you have to excise to march, and we’ve come full circle.

What will be fun to watch will be if Facebook and Apple can manage strong results, as well. If all of the Big 5 pull that off then the tech cycle must have at least another turn left in it.