Few investments have fared better over the past two years than shares of graphics chip leader NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA). NVIDIA stock has soared about 475% since the beginning of 2015, transforming a mid-cap chip company into a tech giant valued at over $110 billion.
Can NVIDIA stock possibly continue its epic run? There's one reason to believe it could -- the company is involved in nearly every major tech trend that will transform the industry in the coming years and decades. But there's a downside -- the stock is now pricier, relative to revenue, than it was during the heyday of the dot-com bubble.
If there's a trend, NVIDIA is there
NVIDIA still derives the bulk of its revenue from its PC gaming GPUs. The company enjoys a dominant market share, accounting for about 70% of all discrete GPUs sold during the second quarter of this year. Rival AMD, which recently launched new high-end GPUs aimed at loosening NVIDIA's grip, remains a distant second.
But it isn't the growth or the potential of the gaming business that's driving NVIDIA stock higher. Point to any major tech trend, and NVIDIA is probably involved:
- Virtual and augmented reality: A powerful GPU is needed to power VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. Standalone headsets, untethered to a PC, will still require powerful graphics processing capabilities. NVIDIA's Tegra mobile chips can serve this purpose.
- Cloud computing: All of the major cloud infrastructure providers, including Amazon Web Services and Azure, offer NVIDIA GPUs for rent. GPUs can accelerate enterprise workloads that are well-suited for the highly parallel architecture of GPUs. NVIDIA's datacenter revenue, which includes sales to cloud computing giants, is on a $1.6 billion annual run rate and more than doubling year over year. NVIDIA is also planning its own GPU cloud service.
- Artificial intelligence: One notable enterprise workload that NVIDIA's GPUs are being used to accelerate is artificial intelligence. One recent win for NVIDIA in this area: Retailer Wal-Mart is planning to build massive data centers powered by NVIDIA's GPUs to run AI workloads. IDC estimates that total spending on cognitive and AI systems will grow at a 55% annual rate through 2020, reaching $46 billion. NVIDIA is in a position to win a significant chunk of the market.
- Self-driving cars: NVIDIA's DRIVE PX platform, which is essentially a supercomputer for automobiles, is the core of the company's efforts to power the self-driving car of the future. Tesla is already including NVIDIA hardware in every car that comes off the line, and other automakers, including Toyota, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, are building their self-driving efforts around NVIDIA's DRIVE PX platform.
- Cryptocurrency: The surge in cryptocurrency prices this year looks an awful lot like a mania that will eventually collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. But until then, NVIDIA is benefiting from the fact that GPUs are far more efficient than CPUs at mining the hundreds of different flavors of cryptocurrencies that have popped up.
With NVIDIA's growth potential from these areas impossible to pin down, investors have become increasingly euphoric, pushing up the stock to dizzying heights. As long as this growth story remains intact, the stock could certainly continue to move higher.
NVIDIA is a far larger, and far more profitable, company than it was during the dot-com bubble. In 1999, NVIDIA produced $374.5 million of revenue and $38.1 million of net income. In 2016, the company produced $6.9 billion of revenue and $1.7 billion of net income.
But there's one metric that should induce some caution among those considering an investment in NVIDIA. The stock trades for around 17 times last year's revenue, a multiple that's far beyond anything the stock achieved during the mania of the dot-com bubble.
Relative to earnings, NVIDIA stock is pricey, trading for 66 times last year's earnings. That's a high price to pay, and it assumes that earnings will continue to grow at a blistering pace for quite some time. There's certainly plenty of growth potential, but there's also plenty of competition. When it comes to powering self-driving cars, there's no shortage of other companies vying for a spot, including Intel and NXP Semiconductors. In AI, Alphabet's Google has developed its own custom AI chip that it claims vastly outperforms GPUs. And demand from cryptocurrency miners could disappear tomorrow if the market turns.
NVIDIA is the ultimate growth stock, with the company planting a flag in almost every major trend currently captivating investors. If you're willing to pay a high price for growth, NVIDIA is the stock for you. But if growth doesn't keep pace with ever-rising expectations, don't be surprised if the stock takes a tumble.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Timothy Green has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Nvidia, and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends Intel and NXP Semiconductors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.