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Michael Dell Gets $12B Richer with Break from Public Eye (bloomberg.com)
139 points by walterbell 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 108 comments

> Dell’s fortune is now $27 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s 500 richest people, up from $15 billion in 2013.

If he had simply parked his money in a s&p 500 index with dividends reinvested, his $15B would have grown to $26.6B. All without breaking a sweat or exposing himself to concentrated risk.

His investment and turnaround of Dell was successful to be sure, but not nearly as spectacular as the article seems to be implying.

If Michael Dell "parked" his money in stocks over the last 5 years, the prices would have been altered. Boards might have made different decisions, and his liquidity might have been compromised. There's no way to guarantee that it would have been a better result.

edit: Also my long standing challenge, point out the index fund billionaire. We all want to meet that person who's winning so hard, by doing nothing.

> If Michael Dell "parked" his money in stocks over the last 5 years, the prices would have been altered.

No they wouldn't have been, at least not materially. Michael Dell's entire fortune is about $30 billion. That's literally a rounding error on Vanguard's entire assets under management, which is over $5 trillion. That's just Vanguard - Fidelity and Blackrock each have over $6 trillion as well.

I think you're vastly underestimating the amount of liquidity available in the market if you think any single billionaire could materially move the prices of a major, diversified fund.

> Also my long standing challenge, point out the index fund billionaire. We all want to meet that person who's winning so hard, by doing nothing.

Do you mean someone who became a billionaire by taking a relatively small net worth and parking it in index funds? Or do you mean a billionaire who maintains and grows their fortune by parking it index funds?

The former is ludicrous to the point of being a strawman, and I don't understand what it proves by being true. The latter is trivially true and demonstrates that billionaires do choose to passively grow their fortunes.

>The former is ludicrous to the point of being a strawman, and I don't understand what it proves by being true. The latter is trivially true and demonstrates that billionaires do choose to passively grow their fortunes.

The point is that it's a direct refutation of the real strawman argument: that Michael Dell, self-made billionaire, is an idiot because he could have _possibly_ made more money at some point by engaging in a different economic activity. He didn't become a billionaire by passive investing, he became a billionaire by actively building businesses, which he continues to do.

WRT to liquidity let's say that Dell wanted to invest $15B over 2013 in the stock market. That's $70MM every single trading day of the year. The SEC, thinks that $20MM in a calendar day is a large investor that could affect markets, and require 13H form registration. So it's clear the SEC at least doesn't agree with the premise that a single billionaire cannot affect the market.

That's not the argument you were responding to, though. This was: "His investment and turnaround of Dell was successful to be sure, but not nearly as spectacular as the article seems to be implying."

I think you might be interpreting the original claim too harshly. Yes, literally parking $15 billion in the SPX wouldn't have worked (or at least, he couldn't have done so immediately without altering prices).

But attacking that example doesn't diminish the spirit of the claim. If we step back from the SPX and talk about investing in a diversified portfolio of equities in general, it's fully possible to quickly invest $15 billion without meaningfully altering the price. The reality of the past decade's bull market is that Michael Dell could have invested $15 billion into the market and turned it into $26 billion.

Of course, that's just the positive claim; it remains a normative as to whether or not he should do anything. But from a purely numerical perspective: yes, he could have invested in diversified stocks and gotten a comparable return.

Responding to your edit:

> So it's clear the SEC at least doesn't agree with the premise that a single billionaire cannot affect the market.

Rule 13h-1 isn't a useful heuristic here, for two reasons:

1. It was philosophically inspired by, and designed to track trading activity of, HFT firms. In particular, the idea is to keep a closer eye on very fast trading activity which could suddenly correlate in the same direction. If the aggregate activity of many amateur investors begins to correlate it's not necessarily a problem; it is a problem if many traders over a certain threshold begin to correlate strongly. Notably, this is why the rule includes a "circuit breaker" clause for halting trading.

2. The rule specifically excludes ETFs exchanging hands. In other words, this rule wouldn't apply to someone who approached a very large firm with billions of dollars to pour into a collection of ETFs.

I agree that with _a lot_ of effort Dell could have invested $15B in the stock market in 2013 and done well for himself.

My objection is to the claim that he's somehow incompetent because he didn't outperform the market with his activity. He basically got the same returns for himself as he would have "in the market", and created economic opportunity for tens of thousands of people in the process. To me, that's a great success.

You're moving the goalposts with each post.

These are the questions:

Could you have made $2700 in 2018 out of $1500 in 2013 easily by investing in an index? Yes.

Could Michael Dell have used the exact same method to make $27B in 2018 out of $15B in 2013 by investing in an index, without changing the conditions of that index such that the method wouldn't work? Yes.

You seem to now be focusing on the question "Is Michael Dell a stupid dumb idiot or a saint?"

You're assuming that investing in stocks does not create economic opportunity for people.

Of course it does, every bit as much as if the person created a company with the money instead.

> point out the index fund billionaire. We all want to meet that person who's winning so hard, by doing nothing.

Are you joking? Look at the Forbes 400 richest. Look at the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances.

The person with power in San Francisco is not the 24 year old MIT Grad FAANG SWE who can barely afford his mortgage, but the LP for the VC who has founders coming to try to get that series A. Or the activist investors making Apple give a dividend.

Billionaire heirs are "winning so hard" all over the place in index funds. S&P 500 2008-2018 return is 167% on low inflation. Even factoring in inflation it's over 100% - billions more than doubled in a decade. 2008 was an off year, but even factoring around that is still a huge win.

Doing nothing for a decade, and more than doubling a few billion after inflation? Yes that is winning so hard.

The biggest beneficiaries are the heirs who expropriate labor time from those who work, not those working and creating wealth.

As others have mentioned already, 2008-2018 was a historic bull run and not at all representative. Anyone buying in 2008 or even sometime later was effectively making a very risky bet that the then-current recession would be over quickly and that growth would pick up again. The conventional wisdom at the time was rather different, as I'm sure you're quite aware of.

Yes, but it's the same time period of Dell's growth so it's most relevant. His investment return would also be far more surprising over most other 10 year periods. As it is... he just matched the broad market so risk (and effort) adjusted it's actually not good at all.

You can invest in the market, too. If you're low income, you won't even have to pay any capital gains tax on it. I.e. after taxes you'll get significantly better returns than billionaires.

The US Stock Market is worth about 35 trillion dollars. I don't think a .042% investment would be expected to make a significant difference in its performance over the last 5-6 years.

You've clearly never seen a trade book.

edit: With 100% less snark the trillions in the stock market is illiquid, while $15 Billion over a short period of time (as to benefit of the 5 years of growth) is not a trivial thing to accomplish without changing prices when those trades hit the books.

You could do with a lot less condescension to be frank.

I don't really understand your claim with respect to liquidity, either. Be precise. Are you talking about slippage? Do you really think someone parking billions of dollars in the market would do so without staggering it to avoid prices moving against them? It's not like he's just going to throw $15 billion into the SPX and hope the daily volume adjusts without a problem.

Michael Dell's fortune wouldn't change the market dynamics one bit. Apple's last buyback program was $100b, many times what Dell had and this is exclusively to purchase shares of one company in the S&P 500.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are traded per day on the various US stock exchanges.

15 billion remains not a lot in the grand scheme of things.

Just chiming in to reaffirm that you are correct.

Further adding value by mentioning there is an art to trading an illiquid position

Michael Dell would have needed to make special considerations than just hitting the sell button to get prices remotely close to the last things printed on screen.

You clearly never vwapped.

The average daily volume of SPY is ~$15B. If Dell increased that by 1% so as to minimally affect the markets, he could cycle in and out of $27B over the course of a year. Diversified over several index funds, or even creating his own, he could do it much faster. That seems a lot more liquid than his current situation.

I agree though, nobody gets massively rich on passive investment. You get massively rich on active schemes (whether that is via entrepreneurship or investing), and then you passively collect when the scale of your wealth grows to the point where the liquidity of passive schemes is more important.

> nobody gets massively rich on passive investment

If they'd invested, say, $5m in AMZN when it opened, they'd be a billionaire today.

That's active investment, in that you have to actively select Amazon and not one for the hundred other companies that listed and went nowhere.

> That's active investment

Nope. Buying something doesn't make it "active". Active means you are involved in managing the business. My example was buying AMZN and literally doing NOTHING with it for 20 years. It's the very definition of passive investing.

I'm sorry, but I believe you're quite mistaken with the definitions, at least as they are conventionally used (from Bloomberg [1]):

> Active investing is what used to just be called investing — buying or selling individual stocks or bonds.


> Passive investments track indexes, which are groups of securities that are alike in some way.

[1]: https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/active-vs-passive-invest...

"Passive investing methods seek to avoid the fees and limited performance that may occur with frequent trading. Passive investing’s goal is to build wealth gradually. Also known as a buy-and-hold strategy, passive investing means buying a security with the intention to own it long term. Unlike active traders, passive investors do not seek to profit from short-term price fluctuations or market timing. "


Besides, it doesn't make much sense to call someone an "active" investor who literally did nothing with it for 20 years. He wouldn't have even had to account for it on his taxes, as AMZN hasn't paid any dividends.

With the Vanguard index fund, the IRS is going to come looking for their cut every year.

$21 billion represents 0.1% of the SP500 market cap.

Sums that small don't significantly affect board decisions especially if they come from passive investors. For comparison, Vanguards SP500 fund (VOO) has market value $400B.

Had Dell gradually bought SP500 index over a year, the effect on price would have been minimal.

> Had Dell gradually bought SP500 index over a year, the effect on price would have been minimal.

But this is the whole point: you need to be careful when investing this kind of sum, because you may end up negatively impacting the market.

It's all about scale.

VOO is only about $90B. But if you add up all the variations of vanguard sp500 index funds, it seems to be well over $500B.

You’re not going to become a billionaire by investing in index fund but it’s a lot safer than active investing.

On average, you’ll do better in index funds but there’s a lot more variance in active investing. I’m up 400% over the past 4 years or so active investing (although at one point I had lost 50% of my initial stake). A coworker of mine lost 90% of his money this year. You’re not going to see either of those outcomes with index investing.

I honestly don’t understand why people think they can apply conventional investment approaches to such vast amounts of money.

Because they can? Nevada's pension fund is run by one guy who parks it all in Vanguard.

The whole point of a pension fund is that you can only add money and never take it back.

It doesn't work out if many people try to cash out.

Nevada PERS is one of the worst examples as well, missing it's investment targets over pretty much any period of time you can define.

Because its targets were quite high. CalPERS much higher fees missed its similar assumptions.

Pensions do pay out you know when people retire

Well at least he's not putting it all on black :-) Pensions funds should not blindly put 100% in equity.

Btw I have had a briefing from a trustee of one of the really big UK pension funds and they in no way invest like that.

Given the briefing was under "Chattem House Rules" I cant say who and which major firm got sacked :-)

They have index funds for bonds also.

$26 billion is not such a vast amount on the scale of the economy or the stock market, especially on the timescale of years. It is only vast relative to the amounts of money people are familiar with in everyday life. Financial markets are rather more robust than some people think, and can handle moving money around. Do you have a more specific argument in mind, or is it based purely on the vastness of the sums involved?

That’s the GDP of a smaller, developing nation. There are many hedge funds that manage less than that.

Amazon’s whole HQ2 competition took the US by storm and indirectly led to tons of speculative real estate investment all over the country, yet it involved much less than $26 billion...

Yes, such a sum will likely not have a noticeable effect on the US stock market as a whole, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sum that can be invested as easily as many seem to assume.

It's usually wrong to compare fixed amounts of money (units of $) with GDP (units of $/year), "stocks vs flows". As far as I know, Amazon's HQ2 was much more to do with public relations and lobbying than anything to do with money, and I believe "took the US by storm" is a great exaggeration of the actual events, so I don't find what you're saying convincing. As others have pointed out, pension funds noticeably don't have a problem investing large amounts of money despite being in a similar situation. All the aspects you seem to be worried about are routinely handled in the financial markets.

I understand the difference. I was just using GDP to demonstrate that the amount of money we’re talking about could run a country’s entire economy for a year.

The competition for HQ2 was fierce across the US. States and cities were bending over backwards to meet Amazon’s demands. Any whiff of activity or rumor was covered by both national and regional news. Real estate investors were buying up land in virtually every state. All of this for a potential economic benefit much lower than this $26 billion we’ve been talking about. It was a nationwide frenzy.

Again, the point is that investing $26 billion can have an effect depending on how it is invested, not that it will definitely have an effect.

I'd certainly notice the lump sum of $26 billion in my bank account.

$27 billion is not that much on a global scale, and it won't greatly alter prices if spread out.

Why not? The stock markets are large enough that you could easily invest billions of dollars and get average results. The main reason to do something else is if you can get above-average results (which can include considerations like lower drawdowns, less exposure to a single currency, etc.)

Care to prove them wrong? Or at least make an argument?

The point is not that people are becoming rich by investing in index funds, but that rich people mostly do no better than people investing on those funds. Rich people are not special as a population, except for having a lot of money.

Except that this is a much more complex affirmation than it appears. I do think people making this point are deluded, ignoring the complexity of the situation. What, of course, does not mean that they are wrong, only that the affirmation doesn't add any new information,

> Also my long standing challenge, point out the index fund billionaire

OPs point was Dell experienced an average return and could have done this without all the work he did to take Dell private and then public again. The key is he was already one of the richest people in the world (from incredible percentage gains in the early days of Dell), once you're up there you can indeed passively invest and have huge returns for no work. The trick is all about getting the initial fortune.

> his liquidity might have been compromised

Index funds are one of the best liquid investments esp. compared to other high return ones like Real Estate of Venture Capital.

> edit: Also my long standing challenge, point out the index fund billionaire. We all want to meet that person who's winning so hard, by doing nothing.

I am not really sure what your point is. Can you please clarify? As far as I know, no one suggests index funds as a path to making billions. If you want to be a billionaire, either be born as one or go all in on a single crazy bet and hope it grows tremendously.

That’s you assuming he did it for the money.

It's hard to get exact figures, but about half of Gates' net worth is estimated to have come from investing – though admittedly his money manager, Michael Larson, likely uses a very active, hands on style.

The Dell story isn't over and comparison over a 5 year period probably isn't long enough to illuminate whether or not Michael Dell's investment beat the S&P-500. If Dell as a public company outperforms the S&P-500 going forward (which is not outside the realm of possibility), the 10 year return (or even the 6 year return!) could significantly outperform the market. You're calling it too soon.

But during this time company also invested money and paid salaries to their employees, so the figure is higher. That is certainly better than just parking the money somewhere, no?

What he did is "parking his money somewhere". If he bought an index fund, that means someone would have sold 12B so that he could buy 12B. That one with he 12B in cash would then do something with it.

My point is that there is no difference. This just how investment works in general.

The risk is very different.

"Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect or creeping determinism, is the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it."

It's meaningless to compare realized returns; it's only interesting to compare expected returns. Like if you say you're better than me at poker, it's pointless to play one round and compare our winnings, since randomness of a single round of poker far exceeds any difference in our skills.

Going with the poker example, your skill is higher than mine if your expected return per round is greater than mine.

One way to get a decent estimate is to repeat the experiment many times, while keeping external factors roughly similar. With poker, it's relatively easy: let's go to the same casino, spend a whole night playing at different tables (to avoid the luck of playing versus all noobs or versus all pros at a given table). Then compare our winnings. Better yet, repeat it over a few days, to get even more data points.

But in the case of a single large decision, such as Dell's investment, it's incredibly hard to estimate the expected returns. Maybe Dell's investment was an amazing decision, and he was all but certain to make $50B from it - and only due to an unusually unlucky random events, he only made ~$12B. Or maybe his investment was really bad, and he was likely to lose all his money, except through sheer dumb luck things actually worked out to a $12B profit.

If Dell went into the turnaround business, like Buffett, we could at least average out his performance over a dozen companies he tried it on. It would be still a very very rough estimate (e.g., due to survivor bias: Dell wouldn't turn around a dozen companies if he was losing a few billion per attempt: he would stop after 1 or 2). But at least it would be something.

As things stand, I doubt anyone can make a convincing case about whether Dell's investment was a good or bad idea.

By the way, even for S&P 500, it's not easy to estimate expected returns. But perhaps, over the 5 year period, they are around 30-60% -- depending on your opinion about various economic and financial models and assumptions. So I guess they were a bit better than expected over the period in question.

I think the economy would be much better if it rewarded risk taking (in a sense that a person has a plan to conquer the status quo and executes it) more in contrast to rewarding the behavior that makes the big ones even bigger. Index investing does not necessarily trickle down, because it channels the capital not to cover companies investments but to buy them from existing shareholders.

> buy them from existing shareholders

Who sell the stocks in order to raise funds to do other things. Of course it trickles down.

Sure, but it's all a bit different if you have the chance to revive a company that you founded and carries your name.

In fairness, he’d be a lot poorer if he had never started Dell and instead invested those seed funds in the S&P.

Or he could have just put it AMZN and he would have $45 billion now. What a fool!

I've made similar calculations on all sorts of investments, like collectibles, gold, real estate, etc. Index funds beat them. And besides, index funds are very liquid, and transaction costs are low.

You're assuming he's optimizing his life for $

False This implies that he could have actually sold his stake for $15B (which is not true)

It'd be a bit like "EIIR selling Scotish holdings" or "Pope selling Vatican"

Thanks. I wish articles in general would provide a lot more context for numbers.

The stock market has phenomenal returns until you try realizing them. Then you quickly find out that the 'price' quoted daily means about as much as your horoscope, the more so the large sums of money you try and move.

The bid ask spread for a large s&p 500 or total market fund is basically zero. The daily volume there is well into the billions.

At $100, sure. At $100,000 million ... I also have a bridge to sell you.

You can’t simply park $15B is s&p without affecting prices. The reason s&p was able to grow so much is because of companies like dell who try to improve and grow instead of just parking money in s&p

Dell went private at a low value, and public at a high one. This means they're doing the opposite of what you say: liquidating index shareholders at low prices, and then going public again at high ones, forcing index investors to sell low and buy high.

I am not talking about dell specifically, I am talking about this idea that people have, when they disregard someone if they don’t beat the return they would get just by investing in s&p

Surely this is pretty obviously true for any (US) business person? The S&P 500 represents the top 500 market listed companies, so if you run a company that (within an order of magnitude or two) has the same capitalisation as one of the index companies, then you should expect (on average) to have the same returns as the index. Maybe some people earn a bit more, some less, but they are all operating in the same economy with the same risks and so forth.

Yeah during a historic bull market. Plus indexing will stop working eventually.

When? There is a glut of global capital and a 90 year+ history that shows the market grows at 7 percent annually. What contravening data do you have?

> When?

"3,453 days later, the US bull market becomes the longest on record" [0]

> There is a glut of global capital

"The ECB halts quantitative easing" [1]

"Bank of Japan signals exit from quantitative easing, but …" [2]

"Everyone Is Talking About Rate Hikes, But The Fed's Balance Sheet Might Be More Important" [3]

Money Stock / Real Gross Domestic Product appears to be stabilizing [4]. Given the global tightening of monetary policy, this is consistent with reduced availability of capital in the future (per unit of real economic activity).

> 90 year+ history that shows the market grows at 7 percent annually

"Past performance is not necessarily an indication of how the Trust will perform in the future." [5]

> What contravening data do you have?

"The Nikkei Index is still 40% below its all-time high of 39,000, which was hit at the end of December 1989. It took nearly 20 years before the Japanese stock market hit bottom." [6]

[0] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/22/longest-bull-market-since-wo...

[1] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2018/12/13/t...

[2] http://www.atimes.com/article/bank-of-japan-signals-exit-fro...

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/petertchir/2018/12/19/everyone-...

[4] https://imgur.com/a/RA62s4e

[5] https://us.spdrs.com/library-content/public/SPDR_500%20TRUST...

[6] https://www.stockinvestor.com/32465/japan-nikkei-high/

This needs to be reiterated every time someone claims they made some massive financial success.

If you're worse off than an S&P index fund then you're not a genius - you're an idiot.

Wow. No.

Its only appropriate to compare returns against the sp500 if you are taking on exactly the same amount(and type) of risk as the sp500.

By this bad logic, bonds are a terrible investment and nobody should ever buy them because the s500 is better.

Same goes for owning private companies, although it is murkier to see.

That's probably his point. Bonds have less return than shares because they have less risk.

A single company is always going to be riskier and more volatile than the sp500.

There are many single companies with a lower beta than the sp500.

To be fair, it seems like Dell took a larger risk than the typical S&P 500 investor. So I think it would be fair to say his performance is even worse than that naive comparison would suggest.

I wouldn't necessarily characterize Dell as an idiot though. :)

This is assuming the goal is just “make money”, that’s always the sole objective function relentlessly pursued.

In the last year I have met 4 billionaires - and what I have observed was that above a certain level of extreme wealth it’s not about just making more money, it’s about forfilling autonomy, mastery and purpose, which might mean a non-optimal financial strategy, but is rewarding in other ways.

To nitpick the point a bit, there are valid and smart reasons for seeing below S&P returns. Bonds lower your returns; over the past decade, especially, foreign markets have under-performed the S&P500. You should have some idea why you're under-performing the S&P500 :-).

Well to be fair, someone has to actually run those 500 companies in the index.

Exactly! You can't really call Microsoft stupid for trying to run their business instead of taking all its money and putting it in an index fund. That argument is so strange

“You’re an idiot” - wow, what a short sighted comment.

One can invest, take risks, and fail. Doesn’t make you an idiot. Majority of startups fail. Doesn’t mean the founders are idiots.

>If you're worse off than an S&P index fund then you're not a genius - you're an idiot.

You aren't an entrepreneur, are you?

Some of it is probably because it's something productive to do. Say you are Michael Dell and already have tens of billions of dollars. What do you do with your time? Sit around and read?

A huge part of the economy of Austin is Dell and I am sure he likes being part of the action and an engine for the local economy and his employees.

Could it be possible that his goals included more than just "make cash pile bigger"? I would argue he got significant value out of taking the reins of his company (which bears his name) and turning it around.

> Dell announced it would become a public company again through a complex arrangement that involved buying back tracking shares for VMware, the software business that Dell owns an 80 percent chunk of. ...

> ... Taking over an existing listed stock allowed Dell to avoid the usual IPO process...

Huh? Can someone please explain this to me like I'm a 5 year old?

Big private company wants to trade shares publically but doesn't want to go through the whole process of an IPO... so the big private company buys a smaller publically traded company. Now big company has "merged" is a publically traded company.

Is this considered a loophole in the system?

No, it’s a well known maneuver. Was popular in the past few years to reduce taxes.

From an Washington Post article: “The idea behind the business maneuver, called a corporate inversion, is simple: a U.S. company merges with a foreign one and moves its headquarters abroad, avoiding the high U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent on foreign income”.

To be clear, a corporate inversion is generally used to reduce taxes. I believe when you're simply doing it to avoid the IPO process it's just called a backdoor listing.

It's not the ELI5 version but Matt Levine has a detailed writeup about it.


So, how long until all the progress they made while a private company is ruined?

They'll go private again and emerge much richer. Financial engineering :)

Yet another way the market is rigged against the main street investor. Successful founders of this vintage love to build their company on public money, then use their considerable leverage to take the company private after dramatic growth. I wonder if Dell will live long enough to repeat the entire process...

Doesn't that benefit public investors though when the company is public? Better than the company staying private through it all, right?

So he didn’t increase the value of the company that much, he just increased his stake. Right?

He increased the value of the company as well, as he diversified it and made it "stronger". Also, he bought it from the public at a premium so they also made good money off of it. And he also increased his stake, dunno how that happened though ...

How much of this growth is from "financial engineering"?

> The man who became famous selling computers more cheaply over a newish thing called the internet

As is well known Dell started this out of a dorm room in 1984 and was successful and famous well before the Internet ...

Their revenue and stock price was basically flat until 1996, when they launched their website with direct sales on the web. Then their revenue skyrocketed.

It's fair to say that they didn't really get famous until they started selling on the internet in 1996.

> It's fair to say that they didn't really get famous until they started selling on the internet in 1996

Simply (and with due respect) not true.

What are you defining as 'famous'? Michael Dell was definitely famous prior to the internet.

Here is an article from the New York Times in 1992 (July 1992). Besides I specifically remember him and stories about Dell from the 1980's. (I am probably much older than you are is my guess..)


Further the article states that sales were 1.7 billion in 1992 (in 1992 dollars that is way more 'today').

I'm assuming you mean wide-scale commercial internet service providers and the world-wide web application(s). The internet existed long before 1984.

'Wide scale commercial' is what is implied in the article. I don't think Dell sold many computers over the 'internet' that existed in the 1980's. [1]

Edit: Here you go (wikipedia):

"PC's Limited advertised the systems in national computer magazines for sale directly to consumers, and custom assembled each ordered unit according to a selection of options. This offered buyers prices lower than those of retail brands, but with greater convenience than assembling the components themselves. Although not the first company to use this model, PC's Limited became one of the first to succeed with it. The company grossed more than $73 million in its first year of trading. In 1987, the company dropped the PC’s Limited dba to be Dell Computer Corporation and began expanding globally".

[1] I used the arpanet so yes I know about the timeline.

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