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Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the ‘stay at home’ stocks

March 10, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

As investors head to the exits over coronavirus fears, savvy stock-pickers may find value in some of the companies that are discarded in the panic. One person’s trade can be another person’s treasure.

Tech may be one industry that stands out.

As bosses order employees to work from home, conference organizers cancel events, and consumers hole up, tech companies that cater to “remote” activities could offer upside. These businesses may get a lift from people staying indoors, even as other parts of the economy falter.

Call them the “stay at home” stocks. Think video conferencing, video games, video streaming, and food delivery. Any company that sells alternatives to in-person interaction could be a winner.

Working from home

The poster child stay-at-home stock: Zoom Video Communications, a company whose video conferencing service lets people chat virtually. Its app has been rising in popularity as businesses order workers to clear out of offices. Amid Monday’s market rout, during which the S&P 500 index plunged more than 6%, Zoom closed mostly unchanged at $113.40 after dropping nearly 10% during mid-day trading.

Another pick in the video conferencing arena is Alibaba, whose DingTalk unit also provides video conferencing software. Though it is just one small part of the ecommerce giant’s operations, DingTalk has been catching on in China, ground-zero for the coronavirus outbreak. Students there are using the technology to attend classes remotely amid school closures (even if it’s against their will).

Alibaba has slipped lately. Shares are down 8.4% over the past month, about half that springing from Monday’s carnage. The company has a price-to-earnings ratio—a common measure of how expensive a stock is— of about 21, which could signal a buying opportunity considering that its much-smaller rival, JD.com, has a price-to-earnings ratio of 34.

Ordering takeout

Everyone has to eat, even in an epidemic. That makes a compelling case for food deliverer Grubhub, whose share price on Monday recovered roughly half its losses—about $2 of $4, per share—by market close, ending just under $50 per share.

Food delivery can be a tough market though. Grubhub faces stiff competition from rivals like DoorDash, a startup with a gut-punching $13 billion private valuation, and Uber, with its fast-growing Uber Eats division. (Uber shares are down nearly 30% over the past month, but the food delivery business could cushion further downside from travel-wary passengers taking fewer rides.)

Of course, people could tighten their belts and forgo the extra spending on food delivery altogether.

Catering to couch potatoes

Shut-ins may stave off cabin fever with tech entertainers, such as video game makers. Stuck on the couch, people could start spending more money with Activision Blizzard (which shed $2.60, or 4.4%, on Monday), Electronic Arts (dropped $6.70, or 6.3%), or Nintendo (down $1.50, or 3.4%). They could also look to Tencent, the parent of the Chinese everything app WeChat and a major backer of Fortnite-designer Epic Games, among other studios, which fell 4.5%.

Video streamers are an obvious choice too. High-flying Netflix and Amazon, with its Amazon Prime streaming service, come to mind. Apple’s nascent Apple TV+ could win fans, though the iPhone-maker will likely struggle for some time with disruptions to its hardware supply chain in China. Disney, with its new Disney+ streaming service, offers another choice, though a slowdown at its theme parks is inevitable.

Staying fit

If coronavirus keeps catching on, sweat-seekers may opt for alternatives to germy gyms. Already, shares in Planet Fitness, the iron-pumping chain, are down 36% from a record high of nearly $88 last month.

As yoga studios and spin classes clear out, substitutes could take their place. Peloton, maker of Internet-connected, stationary workout bikes, could attract new customers. But the high price of Peloton’s products—a cycle runs more than $2,000, not including annual subscriptions—could easily land them on the discretionary spending chopping block if the world slips into a prolonged downturn.

Staying at home

The “stay at home” stocks are by no means sure bets, of course. If the coronavirus continues its rampage, the fallout could precipitate a global recession and hammer the stock market more than it has already. Tech stocks frequently trade at high price-to-earnings ratios, meaning they can be volatile and quick to deflate in a downturn.

But if people are forced to stay indoors, these tech stocks might be among the most attractive bets.

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