Here’s a headline you don’t like to see if you’re worried about a possible social-media/tech bubble:

Slate wrote this toward the end of March:

Candy Crush’s Terrible Market Debut Shows We’re Not in a Tech Bubble

The stock performance of one company among thousands doesn’t show much of anything, much less that tech valuations are reasonable.

Particularly when that company is not a growth stock. King Digital Entertainment, a UK social-gaming outfit caught lightning in a bottle with the game Candy Crush Saga but the fad is already fading. King’s big mistake was taking a quarter too long to launch its IPO, which means instead of its charts looking like this:

They looked like this:


Candy Crush parent King Digital couldn’t sell an exponential growth story, and its stock dropped 16 percent on its first day of trading. It’s a good thing that not every IPO soars—it would be a sure sign that something was wrong if they did—but it’s hardly a sign that there’s no tech bubble. King ended up still valued at $7 billion even as its (considerable) net income was already plummeting and revenue was beginning to slide.

And there were lots of tech IPOs that faltered back before the dot.com bubble popped, but the bubble kept expanding anyway. When it burst it wiped out trillions of dollars of wealth that had often been moved from safer and/or more productive areas and hit regular investors—aka the “dumb money”—particularly hard.

Take 1-800-Flowers.com for instance. It never closed above its August 1999 IPO price and was down 29 percent two weeks after it went public. Its shares today are down 81 percent in real terms.

But August 1999 was well before the most damaging stage of the dot.com bubble. The Nasdaq doubled between then and March 2000, before plummeting 76 percent over the next two-and-a-half years. Even now, 14 years later and five years into an enormous bull run, the Nasdaq is still 16 percent below its 2000 levels, and 38 percent lower if you adjust for inflation:

Don’t get me wrong, while there have been clear signs of speculative fever, this is not 1999 all over again. The valuations aren’t nearly as insane, many or most of the businesses are actually businesses, and much of the action has shifted to private markets. So far, anyway.

Actually, right now we’re in the middle of a significant downturn for tech stocks, though it’s far too early to tell whether it proves to be the breaking of the fever or just a short-term correction before it shoots up again. Facebook, LinkedIn, Pandora, Netflix, and Twitter are all down between 18 and 31 percent over the last month (as are Zynga and Groupon, whose stocks flamed out long ago). That’s brought Facebook’s P/E down to 86, LinkedIn’s to 730, and Netflix’s to 183. Twitter and Pandora lose money, so they don’t have any “E.” Even Amazon has sold off 15 percent over the last month. The 20-year-old company’s P/E is now a mere 543.

Perhaps investors were spooked by a company valued at 100 times earnings buying a company valued at 950 times sales, which is what happened when Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion.

Or maybe the Coupons.com IPO made the echoes of the dot.bomb era impossible to ignore.

Two weeks before the Candy Crush IPO went sideways, Coupons.com—one of those late 1990s dot.coms that didn’t get to go public before the bust—skyrocketed 103 percent on its debut, despite never having posted an annual profit in its more than 15 years of existence. Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Weil marveled:

This is one of those days where I realize I don’t understand anything about finance or capital markets. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t get it. People are saying things like “this time is different” again in news articles about initial public offerings by Internet companies, and they mean it. All I can do is watch, dumbfounded.

Coupons.com has nosedived since then, shedding 38 percent.

Even after the recent correction, though, the Nasdaq’s average P/E is still at 32, nearly double that of the S&P 500.

What I’m concerned about is how the intellectual groundwork (so to speak) for a potential final phase of a bubble is laid.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.