The History (and Future) of the Stock Market’s Biggest Sectors

Today, half of the top 10 ranking companies by market capitalization are technology and communications companies. While these companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook may receive the lion’s share of attention, technology and communication companies as a whole have surged to become the dominant sector in financial markets over the past few decades. And despite the stronger fundamentals of these companies relative to the dot-com boom 20 years ago, there are still questions about the sustainability of the dominance of this sector going forward. So what does the history of the U.S. stock market tell us about sector dominance?

The combined information technology and communications sectors today represent slightly more than 20% of the U.S. stock market, and this sector has largely dominated the market over the last 40 years, excluding the rise of finance and real estate over the years leading into the Great Recession and a short resurgence of energy and materials during the early 1990s. But this dominance hasn’t lasted as long or had as large a share of the market as other sectors in the past.

In the earliest days of the market, the financial sector made up almost 100% of the U.S. stock market. Unlike most banks of the time, U.S. banks were corporations that raised capital through issuing securities, made attractive by the development of active trading markets in the 1790s. Thanks to this, the organization of financial institutions that developed was astounding – the number of state-chartered banks increasing from three in 1790 with total capital of $3.1m dollars to 584 in 1835 with total capital of $308.4m and the U.S. experienced the most rapid spread of banking institutions seen in any country over these decades. These were the growth stocks of their time and enabled the development of the economy as a whole, no different from the dominance of the financial sector in many of the emerging markets of today. These stocks were also increasingly bought by overseas investors enticed by the huge potential gains from investing in the emerging market of the time, and this flow foreign capital would reach huge proportions in the first half of the 19th century and in the railroad age that followed.

Within 50 years, the financial sector’s share fell by more than half as transportation stocks began to boom. And while the exploding railroad system in the U.S. certainly made railroad investments seem like the future of the stock market, its greater value came from the astronomical benefits to the wider economy that would ultimately shrink the relative market share of the transportation sector. These rail networks unlocked the vast wealth the U.S. interior and enabled the velocity of commerce to increase dramatically.

Aside from immediate increase in business for the steel and lumber industries that the developing railroad system created, the movement of goods and people allowed entrepreneurship to flourish further now that companies could scale and distribute goods to a wider market. In addition, the railroad infrastructure spanning across the country enabled the quicker and easier deployment of telegraph infrastructure, which would revolutionize communication. The railroad also facilitated the large-scale transport of coal and oil that would power the growing country.

Despite its importance to the industrialization of the U.S. and its role as the transportation backbone of the economy, by the First World War transportation was no longer the leading sector in the economy and by 1925 had shrunk to less than 10% of the total stock market. There was physically no more room to expand the infrastructure and the sector’s relative importance shrank as a result as capital sought out higher rates of return in emerging sectors. Energy and materials would come to dominate over the next 60 years to meet the insatiable demand for fuel and gasoline, energy to keep the economy running and raw materials that served as inputs to the various industries producing new goods, ranging from household appliances to cars and airplanes, for the U.S. and the world to consume. While brief periods of leadership from the emerging technology sector interspersed the dominance of the energy and materials sector, the relative importance of energy and materials would remain until the surge in communications and information technology during the 1980s.

The breakup of Bell System in 1983, the company that held a near-monopoly over telephone services in most of the U.S., triggered a boom in the deployment of fiber-optics networks in the country by new players in the sector that would lay the backbone for the Internet boom in the 1990s. Much of this fiber-optics network was laid along the same railroads that enabled the spread of the telegraph in the 19th century. Around this same time, the personal computer was making its way first into businesses and then into homes across the country. These developments first led to a surge in investments in the telecommunication networks that were creating the infrastructure necessary for this communication. Afterwards, in the 1990s, capital flowed en masse into the innovations and companies that were born as a result of this networking effect.

With groundbreaking developments such as the initial securitization of financial institutions and the paradigm shifting opportunities that the computer and internet revolutions have created, initially there is a massive wave of excitement, speculation and overvaluation. We’ve seen in it in the past and we’ll see it again in the future. But what does that mean for the information technology sector and its top players going forward? The speed of innovation has never seemed faster, but history has shown that the dominant companies that drove the previous waves of technology remain dominant for a long time. And the reach, earnings power and sheer wealth of information, the currency of our time, which these companies possess is larger than anything we’ve seen in the past.

Today’s technology is enabling new businesses and innovations in every corner of the economy, revolutionizing how companies do business and expanding the realms of possibility. The dominant technology companies understand these opportunities better than anyone else, and we’re already starting to see them make lateral investments into other sectors, deploying their vast capital and using their troves of data to further redefine the way we live. One sector that we have our eye on and that could be the greatest beneficiary of today’s technology revolution is biotechnology. Often overlooked until it’s too late, our health is our most valued commodity. The possibilities for technology to improve and lengthen our time here, whether that’s through devices that monitor our vitals and recognize irregularities before any doctor could, big data analysis that can identify and help prevent disease, etc., could be the most valuable deployment of capital that’s ever occurred. We don’t know how this will play out, but we’re excited to be along for the ride.