‘Britain’s Warren Buffett’ and market sage Rob Arnott are skeptical about Nvidia’s AI boom

Every time investors have braced themselves for the AI bubble to burst in the last few months, a new eye-popping data point comes out to prove them wrong and send money flowing back into the stock market.

The latest shock was Nvidia’s latest quarterly earnings, which managed to surpass investors’ already sky-high expectations and set records for valuation increases. Investors have since been falling over themselves to declare a golden era of AI application.

And it’s not just Nvidia. Companies across the supply chain, including established brands like ASML and exciting upstarts like Arm, have enjoyed booming valuations since investors caught wind of the excitement around AI.

But there are dissenters within the ranks who are warning against a continued boom for AI and Nvidia’s place at its peak.

In each investor’s scope is one standout point, you should be wary of the early success of the first-mover.

‘Disruptors are often disrupted’

Fortune’s Shawn Tully spoke with two investors who remain skeptical of Nvidia’s boom and the wider AI rally in general.

The first was Rob Arnott, the founder and chairman of Research Affiliates, which oversees investment strategies for $139 billion worth of mutual funds and ETFs.

“It was usually not true that first, the new technology brought on change nearly as rapid as the markets predicted,” he told Fortune. “And second, it was often not true that these will be the dominant players 5 or 10 or even 20 years in the future.”

In addition to skepticism about the long-term power of the first-mover, Arnott thinks Nvidia’s current valuation is too high, leaving no room for negative shocks or disappointing results.

AI boom is like a soccer stadium

Terry Smith, the 70-year-old fund manager labeled “Britain’s Warren Buffett,” knows a thing or two about bubbles from his decades at the helm of the U.K.’s biggest retail investor-driven funds.

Smith’s investment strategy is similar to Warren Buffett’s, picking stocks based on their underlying value in search of long-term rewards, leading to his nickname. It appears to be why he’s staying away from the current rally.

In his annual letter to shareholders published in January, Smith said investors believe they have been able to pick the winners and losers of the AI rush.

“If it can do so at this stage it would seem to me to be a break with tradition,” Smith said.

In a similar sentiment to Arnott, Smith pointed to the first movers in every major technological milestone, like Yahoo’s early command over the search engine to Nokia’s dominance of mobile phones and Myspace’s initial popularity as a social media platform.

Smith said there may not be any winners from the AI boom at all. To hammer this point home, he used a “football stadium” (soccer) analogy.

“As the game becomes exciting and the striker runs into the penalty area with the ball, the second row of spectators stands up to get a better view,” Smith wrote.

“This blocks the view of those in the third row who follow suit. Pretty soon all the spectators are standing but no one has a better view than before, but they are all less comfortable.”

Speaking on stockbroker AJ Bell’s Money and Markets podcast last week, Smith said he still didn’t own any shares in Nvidia, or any of the other “Magnificent Seven” group of stocks for that matter.

‘It’s not the first movers who usually win, it’s the second movers’

Fortune’s Tully also spoke with accountant Jack Ciesielski, the former author of Analyst’s Accounting Observer.

Like Smith, Ciesielski was able to point to other early leaders in previous great leaps forward in previous technology booms, and they’re tough for even nerds to remember.

“Remember what happened in word processing and early PCs,” he says. “First, you had the likes of WordPerfect, Ami Pro and Lotus, along with Commodore, Radio Shack and Eagle. But they lost, and the prizes went to Apple and Microsoft.

“It was the same in the early days of The Internet. The companies that laid the cable such as UUNET and Lucent got big valuations, and are no longer with us. But those that thrived turned out to be the Amazons, Googles and companies that used the pipes.”

Ciesielski surmises: “It’s not the first movers who usually win, it’s the second movers.”

Canal systems

Ciesielski is far from alone in pointing out that second movers usually take the spoils, and it’s not just a phenomenon of the tech world. Indeed, it’s something that stretches back centuries to the industrial revolution.

Speaking to Fortune’s Will Daniel, Goldman Sachs’ chief global equity strategist and head of macro research in Europe, Peter Oppenheimer made a comparison with the London canal systems of the 18th century.

At the time, there was a flurry of investment into canal operators at the forefront of vastly improved transport links that displaced the horse and carriage.

Instead, it was the companies utilizing the canals for their products that became long-term winners. The lesson for AI means the biggest winners of the tech boom could be people utilizing it to make new products and services.

“The biggest winners are the people that can use the technologies to develop new products and services.”

The bulls of the AI world—and its current kingmakers—still hold the high ground. But wary investors will give them food for thought: is Nvidia the next Apple, or Radioshack?

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