Had Ruth Porat stayed at Morgan Stanley, she might have spent the latest quarterly earnings day schlepping to the bank’s Times Square headquarters to explain a $911m loss incurred in the Archegos fiasco.
Instead, now based in California as chief financial officer of Google’s parent group Alphabet, she got to announce a whopping $50bn share buyback.
Investors are delighted, crediting Porat with bringing much-needed discipline since she swapped Wall Street for Silicon Valley almost six years ago.
Even as Porat appeared on the earnings call this week, the company was dismantling its grandiose Loon project, an ambitious attempt to beam the internet down to earth from giant balloons floating in the stratosphere.
In March, two months after Alphabet announced that it would cancel Loon, Porat coolly told a conference: “We’re increasing our investments in some areas where it makes sense. We’re pulling back or even shutting down, as in the case of Loon, where it makes sense.”
The axe fell even though there was late interest in some of the assets from a potential buyer, according to two people familiar with the matter. Porat was unwilling to keep paying the considerable running costs while a deal was explored. And so another expensive item was crossed off her list.
This no-nonsense attitude is welcomed by investors such as Walter Price, whose £1.2bn Allianz Technology Trust has Alphabet as its largest position.
“Rather than trying to find the next Google through venture investing, they are taking existing assets like Google Cloud Computing and YouTube and focusing on improving the returns from these attractive and high-growth segments,” said Price. “The rest of the cash flow is going into share buyback, a financial strategy that we like.”
In this hard-headed view of capital allocation, the only fault to be found is that Alphabet indulged the Loonatics for years. Now revenues are growing faster than headcount and operating expenses have fallen as a percentage of revenue.
The logical next step is for Alphabet to abandon its pretensions to be a stable of companies and scrap the silly name, a 2015 coinage designed to emphasise there were other businesses in the group beyond Google.
Back then Google founder Larry Page wrote: “We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!”
Indeed, the alpha has been considerable. The stock is up 240 per cent over that period compared with a 101 per cent increase in the S&P 500. However, that has nothing to do with any of the wackier projects. It is down to the strength of the core advertising-supported business.
It is not quite austerity at the Googleplex. Porat has stressed that Alphabet will continue to invest in costly areas such as the cloud computing business, absorbing losses when necessary. However, the mood music is far less positive for more far-fetched endeavours.
That still leaves a nagging doubt: could the discipline be dialled up too far? Other companies are taking advantage of starry-eyed investors and abundant funding.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX operation is competing with UK government-backed OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper to deploy constellations of low-earth orbit satellites to deliver broadband from space, the same game Loon tried to master for 10 years.
Musk, meanwhile, celebrated winning a contract to deliver a lunar lander for a Nasa space mission. Google used to talk about moon shots; now other companies are doing them for real.