The days of easy money in the stock market are now over

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Ignore stock valuations and companies’ fundamentals at your peril.

Churchill Capital Corp. IV a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that had been rumored to merge with a Tesla-wannabe, Lucid Motors, finally announced Monday night that it is indeed going to do so. And in a classic Wall Street reaction, the market “sold the news” after long having “bought the rumor.”

CCIV was up 500% from when it went public as a blank-check company, and today the stock market has wiped half of what its market value was perceived to be Monday at noon. This is a stock that I had warned about earlier this month as one of the many “Random Number Generators” (RNGs) that should be avoided. People and institutions who had for weeks been buying CCIV at $40, $50, $60 or even $70 per share have suddenly seen a huge wipeout of value.

They’re now, maybe, looking around at their other RNG SPACs and wondering if they should actually look at the valuations.

Reviewing this week’s ugly stock-market action in a broader context, you might note that Tesla Inc. at $900 — after the company reported a not-so-great quarter that included some questions about gross margin expansion — is looking like it could have been a top-maker itself.

Many questionable EV stocks continued to rally for a week or two before getting their comeuppance this week. At least for a day or two. It will be interesting to look back in a month to see what the non-TSLA EV stocks do from here. I expect most to move much lower even than today’s quotes, which are much lower than last week’s quotes.

Piling into ARK

These days everybody wants to be Cathie Wood from ARK Invest. She was an early bull on Tesla and bitcoin and some of the the other themes that long-time followers of mine and I got into even earlier than she did. Her actively managed ETF, ARK Innovation ETF being the most famous, has performed very well, and her commentary has been spot on for a couple years now.

Read: These are the stocks helping to tank the high-flying ARK Innovation ETF over the past week

But I have bad news. Even as I am a fan of Cathie’s and wish her and her investors all the best, I can’t help but think of the story of George Gilder, with whom I’ve become friends in the decades since I wrote this in 2001 for (I just realized this article was published just two weeks after 9/11.):

“Investors need to heed a few rules when evaluating companies in their portfolio: Cash is king, as cash flow becomes increasingly difficult to judge on an ongoing basis. As such, a simple glance at a company’s balance sheet can tell you a lot about whether it’s worthy of investment. Now that the huge daily run-ups of telco stocks are gone forever, the potential rewards of any business with questionable viability aren’t worth the risk of your capital. Look for real revenue on the books. As tech guru George Gilder and his followers have learned (at least, I hope they have by now), great technology doesn’t translate into a great investment. Companies need sales channels, and they need products for which there are immediate uses. You might be surprised that I didn’t mention profitability in that list. Profitability is naturally important, but even companies like Cisco probably won’t be profitable this quarter and perhaps for several more, as they’ll have to continue aligning capacity, employees and inventory with demand.

Let me repeat the caveat here: You’ll never see the type of returns, at least in telecom and telecom-tech stocks, that we saw almost daily in the late 1990s. That’s another reason why these tech mutual fund guys, who keep preaching to stay the course, will take forever to get back to even.”

The hangover

Telecom and telecom-tech stocks never again saw the kind of returns they did back in the late 1990s. I think the same can be said of EV stocks and many other of the favorites that Cathie Wood and her crowd of blind followers are these days plowing into as they put their money to work regardless of valuations.

Here’s what George had to say in 2002:

“In retrospect, it’s obvious that I should’ve subtly said, ‘Hey, things have gotten out of hand at JDS Uniphase, and it’s not worth what you’d have to pay for it,’” he says. Each month, he thought about providing a warning to his subscribers, and he decided against it every time. He had witnessed firsthand what others had dubbed the “Gilder effect”: the steep spike in a stock after he added that company to his list. It wasn’t unheard of for the price of a stock to jump by more than 50 percent within an hour of a newsletter’s release. If I had said, ‘Hey, this is a top, you should all sell,’ it would’ve been a cataclysmic event,” he says. “I’d think about telling people that they should sell half their holdings, and each time I’d conclude that my subscribers would be enraged. I also wondered what I’d precipitate if I did it.” Fully 50 percent of his readers had signed up for the report at what Gilder now calls the “hysterical peak” of the market. “Half of my subscribers would have been eternally grateful [for a warning], but the other half – the new ones – would’ve been enraged because they had just come in,” he says. “It was quite terrifying. I really didn’t know what to do.” In the end he did nothing. And soon enough, he had an entirely new set of distractions to fret over. “In the past, we’d sell out our investor conferences within two weeks,” Gilder says. “But in 2001, we sent out the same literature and the same invitations, and five or seven people signed up.” He lost the deposits that were placed to reserve hotel space for the gatherings. Newsletter renewal rates plummeted. A huge tax bill came due. By spring 2002, he’d laid off nearly half of his staff. “You can be just fabulously flush one moment, and then the next, you can’t make that last million-dollar payment to your partners, and there’s suddenly a lien on your house,” he says.

Many of the best stocks on George’s list at the top in 1999 ended up going down 99% or more. Many went to zero, even as their technologies and ideas carried on and built the internet we all use every day now.

CCIV is likely a harbinger of more pain for those who ignore valuations and fundamentals.

Cody Willard is a columnist for MarketWatch and editor of the Revolution Investing newsletter. Willard or his investment firm may own, or plan to own, securities mentioned in this column.

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