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Investing in the metaverse: 13 stocks to buy for 2022

January 20, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

It was in the fall of 2021 that things really changed.

In late October, social media giant Facebook announced a bold move: It was rebranding and would henceforth call itself Meta. The name change was in reference to the “metaverse,” a term that’s a bit tricky to neatly define but encompasses a network of 3D virtual spaces, often accessed through things like virtual reality or augmented reality, that can include everything from virtual meeting places to gaming to virtual concerts and shopping experiences. Many consider it a part of the next form of the internet (Web 3.0).

Facebook’s switch to the name Meta, alongside its third quarter announcement that it would spend about $10 billion on its metaverse unit in 2021, was what some on Wall Street consider a turning point for metaverse awareness.

“I think that was the inflection point for the market, and people got a heck of a lot more serious [about the metaverse] after Facebook,” suggests James Tierney, chief investment officer of concentrated U.S. growth at AllianceBernstein.

Indeed, previously, “metaverse” was a “barely used word on the Street,” Daniel Ives, managing director and senior equity analyst focused on tech at Wedbush Securities, tells Fortune. In recent months, however, “it’s become one of the hottest themes from a Wall Street perspective. Every investor is trying to figure out how to play it.”

The metaverse as a concept is nothing new, having been coined in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash in the early 1990s. But its rise in tech titans’ ambitions and the explosion of interest from consumers and companies alike have garnered serious investor attention.

At the moment, the number of “pure plays” on the metaverse are fairly limited for an equity investor. “It’s very early days, and I think many investors are tiptoeing into how to invest in the metaverse,” offers Ives, though he doesn’t think this is all just hype.

In general, money managers say they still don’t know exactly what the metaverse will look like or how it will impact business models. “The end point we’re talking about is not months and years—it’s like decades,” Ankur Crawford, executive vice president and portfolio manager at Alger, posits.

But there are plenty of companies that are investing in the metaverse, building hardware that will serve as an on-ramp to the metaverse and making products that will support its infrastructure. That’s where analysts and money managers see the most compelling opportunities—at least for now.

For investors keen on capitalizing on the burgeoning space, in one way, shape, or form, Fortune asked portfolio managers and analysts which stocks they could bet on. 

The tech giant play

The battle for who will win the metaverse is just heating up, and Big Tech isn’t about to sit on the sidelines.

In fact, companies are pouring billions into building out their contributions to the metaverse. For some money managers like AllianceBernstein’s Tierney, “we’d much rather have a company like…a Facebook, like a Microsoft, like an Amazon that has a play” on the metaverse, “that has plenty of potential upside, but the base business is going to drive [the stock] up,” even if, five or 10 years down the road, the metaverse turns out to “be a complete zero.”

It’s no surprise, then, that money managers like Tierney believe Meta (FB, $318), formerly Facebook, is the “best way to play” the metaverse. Meta has made its ambitions to dominate the metaverse abundantly clear, with its Oculus VR headset business and the company’s vision of living, gaming, and meeting in a 3D virtual space, like Meta’s Horizon platform. Tierney notes Meta has a few strengths for investors: “Their base business is strong, continuing to grow; we think there’s a good growth runway there,” he says (the Street expects Meta to grow revenue by 19% in the 2022 fiscal year). But he frames Meta’s $10 billion investment in its metaverse unit in 2021 (and more moving forward) as a potential plus from a valuation standpoint: Meta’s current trailing price/earnings ratio is under 24 times earnings; take “that spending away and you’re [in the] high teens or around 20 P/E. So you’re [either] underappreciating the base business, or you’re getting the metaverse option for free,” he suggests. “Either way, as an investor, I think that’s pretty attractive.” What’s more, he believes the fact that Meta is shelling out the big bucks for the metaverse is a “bit of a moat around their business” against more up-and-coming competitors. However, the company is still facing headwinds in the real world, including an antitrust lawsuit that could potentially force it to sell its prized Instagram and WhatsApp businesses, and a reported Federal Trade Commission-led probe over its VR business for possible anticompetitive practices.

Meanwhile Microsoft (MSFT, $303) has also made its “hunger to become more of a metaverse play” known, as Wedbush’s Ives puts it, with its intention to work on metaverse games for Xbox (the company also just agreed to buy video-game maker Activision Blizzard for roughly $69 billion) and its move to incorporate metaverse capabilities into its product suite, like its recently announced Mesh for Teams, an avatar-populated meeting space for companies (as part of its mixed reality Mesh platform). Ives, for one, predicts the company “is going to be aggressive both organically as well as through acquisitions in terms of attacking the metaverse.” Alger’s Crawford also believes Microsoft should be a “dominant player in the ’enterprise metaverse’” pointing to its HoloLens mixed reality product, which helps companies (and even customers like the U.S. Army) improve efficiency through things like training and job support, and is ripe for the metaverse (though its current iteration “isn’t quite as developed as it should be,” she suggests). AllianceBernstein’s Tierney also notes their cloud business Azure should benefit over time if the metaverse takes off.

That’s also true of Amazon (AMZN, $3,178), he says, whose Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud unit should make both stocks “natural plays.” But outside of the cloud, one “home run” application of the metaverse and VR could be helping retail businesses that sell things like apparel reduce the cost of online returns, Tierney says. That could benefit Amazon, whose e-commerce business is a “meaningful” part of the company (there are already functions like virtual try-on, and Amazon has long been maneuvering to reduce returns with things like 3D models, though Tierney notes “capabilities will improve”). “Using some of these tools to reduce the return rate is going to be a huge No. 1 sales booster, but secondly, and more importantly, a huge profit improver if you can cut down on the returns,” Tierney notes. “I think that makes a whole lot of sense for Amazon to get in simply for that reason alone.” At its current levels, however, the stock is expensive, trading at nearly 82 times forward earnings.

Tech giant Apple (AAPL, $170), meanwhile, is also on money managers’ lists as a company that could benefit from the metaverse, likely through hardware or potentially as a builder of places in the metaverse—or, as Alger’s Crawford hopes, both. Apple “is a trusted platform by many consumers, and the consumer metaverse is the natural extension of what they have today,” Crawford suggests. Analysts like Wedbush’s Ives predict Apple will launch a VR/AR headset this year, a product that’s been rumored but not yet announced by the company. If and when such a product comes to market, Ives believes “that will be a watershed event around the highway on to the metaverse.”

Indeed, Ives suggests, “The first part of the metaverse is getting consumers on to the metaverse, and a lot of that is going to be through Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.”

The infrastructure bet

It may not be the sexiest way to play the metaverse, but for investors not wishing to put all their eggs in one metaverse winner’s basket, opting for stocks that will build the infrastructure for the metaverse, like semiconductors, can provide a safer bet while still offering exposure to the trend. And it could eventually be a lucrative choice: In December, Intel predicted that there would need to be a massive 1,000 times increase in computational power if the metaverse were to truly take form.

According to those like Brian Colello, director of technology equity research at Morningstar, the “most concrete effort in the metaverse is Facebook’s capital expenditure plans and how they plan to build out data center capacity for the metaverse right away,” he tells Fortune. “That’s a boost for companies with cloud and data center exposure.” Stocks that fit that bill, Colello says, include AMD (AMD, $132) and Arista Networks (ANET, $127).

One name Crawford says she’s “super excited about” is semiconductor titan Nvidia (NVDA, $259), whose products like graphics processing units (GPUs) should make it “a huge beneficiary” of the metaverse, given its infrastructure will depend on lots of computing. “They’ve become almost an enabler on the compute side,” says Crawford. “On a go forward basis, every device…will likely need to have a graphics engine, not to mention all the compute that will need to be done in the cloud somewhere.” She also points to the firm’s platform Omniverse, which lets creators “build sites, digital twins of towns and cities, which then run on [Nvidia] GPUs or potentially inside of a [Nvidia]-run data center.” Therefore Nvidia “plays in both the hardware—compute—as well as the software creation,” she notes. All of that could boost Nvidia’s already strong business: Analysts project Nvidia can grow revenues by roughly 18% in the 2022 fiscal year, though the stock trades at a lofty 52 times forward earnings having run up 124% in 2021.

For a less expensive stock valuation-wise, both Crawford and Shekhar Pramanick, a portfolio manager of the Columbia Seligman Global Technology Fund, favor Micron Technology (MU, $93), a semiconductor company that makes memory and storage chips. For the metaverse to work, with its headsets and data centers and platforms, “you’re going to need to do fast compute, [and] you’re going to need the memory for that,” Crawford says. All that high compute processing “usually has a large amount of memory and DRAM, dynamic RAM, as well as something called flash memory for storage,” notes Pramanick. That’s where Micron comes in. In fact, Crawford estimates that the adoption of compute “locally and in the cloud” will fuel the need for memory (and Micron’s memory chips), and even a “small inflection in demand” could see DRAM chip growth increasing by two to three times “in each end point” over time to serve the metaverse, she predicts. Micron trades at a modest forward P/E of under 11, and the Street expects the company can grow sales by 16% in the fiscal year ending August 2022.

Those trends could also bode well for Lam Research (LRCX, $679), an equipment supplier that makes gear companies use to produce semiconductors. Pramanick believes Lam will benefit from the “added computing and memory demand that the metaverse will bring.” At a forward price/earnings ratio of roughly 20, the stock won’t break the bank, and analysts estimate it can grow revenues by over 20% in the fiscal year ending June 2022 (though growth is expected to taper off to single digits the following year).

When it comes to practically accessing the metaverse through something like a VR headset, the last thing consumers want is to have visuals that create “motion sickness and jerkiness” if the “display drivers are not operating at a very high frequency” in the headset, notes Pramanick. That’s where companies like Synaptics (SYNA, $234) stand to benefit. Synaptics makes, among other things, display driver chips that go into AR and VR headsets, “which require very high-resolution displays,” Pramanick says. What’s more, he likes the company’s underlying business, pointing out that it has a relatively new management team (with CEO Michael Hurlston hired in 2019) that has “completely changed the company,” and has improved operating profits and gross margins—the latter of which increased from around 44% in the quarter ended September 2020 to over 53% in the same quarter in 2021. Though not currently a large portion of the company’s revenue, CEO Hurlston said in the company’s latest earnings call that its VR component has “become something a little bit more meaningful” and that he saw “really good growth prospects.”

All those chips will need to be tested, of course, which is where a stock like Teradyne (TER, $156) could come in. Along with competitor Advantest, the pair have about 80% to 90% of the total market share, according to Bloomberg. Pramanick also points out that Teradyne’s core business is chugging along: The company is “extremely profitable,” Pramanick notes, with nearly $1 billion in profits over the past 12 months (and analysts estimate Teradyne can grow earnings by nearly 12% in the 2022 fiscal year).

Meanwhile Matterport (MTTR, $13), a spatial data company that renders 3D versions of real-life buildings, could be another play on the metaverse. In Ives of Wedbush’s words, Matterport “basically [creates] digital twins of real estate that now will start to be used more and more in a digital world.” He also highlights the company’s partnership with Meta on a data set of 3D spaces for academic research, and expects “them to have more technology partnerships to ink.” Matterport’s stock rose over 45% in 2021 (it began trading via a SPAC merger in July), and the Street estimates it can grow revenues by nearly 47% in 2022.

The crypto angle

The metaverse, according to those like BTIG fintech and crypto analyst and managing director Mark Palmer, can be split into two: one more permissioned, or centralized, metaverse (think tech platforms), and the “open metaverse,” which is the decentralized blockchain sphere that entails things like NFTs. “I think that, increasingly, that distinction is going to be made between the open metaverse and everything else,” he says. Palmer’s focus is on the open metaverse.

He declares that as of right now, investors are “quite limited, at least in the public realm,” in ways to play the blockchain-enabled aspect of the metaverse.

But one stock that is on the public market (currently trading on the Toronto stock exchange, though it plans to list on the Nasdaq in the first quarter of 2022) is Galaxy Digital (TSX: GLXY, $16), the crypto investment manager headed up by Mike Novogratz. In particular, Palmer points to the firm’s investment affiliate, Galaxy Interactive—“This is $650 million spread between two funds, and it’s part of a publicly traded company,” Palmer notes. Galaxy Interactive is investing in NFTs (a big component in the metaverse) and The Sandbox, a blockchain-enabled metaverse platform. “What they’re investing in is, for the most part, the open metaverse,” says Palmer. “That’s where I anticipate there are gonna be a lot more ways to play that going forward.”

All stock prices calculated as of Jan. 18, 2022.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify Galaxy Interactive’s investment in The Sandbox.

This article is part of Fortune’quarterly investment guide for Q1 2022.