Under Pichai, Alphabet's moonshot projects may face more scrutiny

Caroline Valetkevitch and Noel Randewich, Reuters

Posted at Dec 05 2019 07:33 AM

Under Pichai, Alphabet's moonshot projects may face more scrutiny 1
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during signing ceremony committing Google to help expand information technology education at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas, US. October 3, 2019.Brandon Wade, Reuters/file

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO - Alphabet's leadership change has some investors hoping that the owner of Google will take a hard look at the cash-burning ventures championed by its founders.

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced on Tuesday they were stepping aside as executives of the Internet behemoth they founded 21 years ago, with trusted lieutenant Sundar Pichai, who has run the core Google search business since 2015, taking the reins as CEO of parent Alphabet.

Shares of Alphabet rose 2 percent on Wednesday, with some investors saying Pichai's pragmatic approach and his background at Alphabet's core business may make him less patient about money-losing projects fostered in recent years by Page and Brin. 

One of the biggest changes for Pichai will be taking responsibility for those so-called "moonshots," which are aimed at diversifying Alphabet's business.

Alphabet has plowed billions of dollars into ventures Wall Street has never been completely sold on, including self-driving cars, atmospheric balloons to deliver internet service, delivery drones and smart contact lenses.

"The question is, will they continue to spend money on these other bets? Under the new leadership, are they going to take a harder look at all of these businesses and start to try to focus more on ones that provide growth," said Daniel Morgan, a portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company, which owns Alphabet shares worth over $100 million. "That would add an extra excitement about the stock."

Alphabet's Other Bets division, which includes those ventures, had an operating loss of $3.4 billion last year, compared to a $36.5 billion operating profit delivered by Google. Pichai now faces the challenge of balancing the potential benefit of bold, uncertain bets about future technology with their short-term costs.

Investments in Other Bets have already been cut over the last two years, as Alphabet pushes more money into Google's cloud computing and consumer hardware businesses. Pichai could continue that trend.

"I don't think this means they're going to discard their other bets. I think they'll continue to explore other potential business opportunities, but those may be under greater scrutiny," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC, which holds shares of Alphabet on behalf of its clients.

Page and Brin, both 46, will remain directors of the parent company and still control it through their ownership of preferred shares. As of April, Page held 26 percent of Alphabet's total voting power, Brin 25 percent and Pichai less than 1 percent.

King Lip, chief investment strategist at Baker Avenue Asset Management in San Francisco, said he expected decisions to be made faster under Pichai, who has spent 15 years at Google and rose to prominence while leading the development of Google's Chrome browser.

"He can execute more effectively without having to worry about stepping on the toes of Page and Brin," Lip said.

The company's stock has risen 70 percent since Pichai became CEO of Google, which accounts for close to 99 percent of Alphabet's total revenue.