Curated Insights 2019.04.19

Making uncommon knowledge common

Part of the reason was that companies benefited from this credibility through obscurity. Real estate brokers have access to significantly more data about the specific houses and the general market via a set of data sources called the MLS. Historically, only brokers had access to MLS data, which gave them leverage over their customers and entrenched their importance as market makers. Similarly, lack of visibility into companies allowed bad ones to put on a good face until prospective employees had already joined. And only large companies could pay for data from compensation research providers, giving them advantage over the potential hires they negotiated with. Many incumbents are able to intermediate their markets and unfairly gain an edge from people’s lack of knowledge. And it’s scary to be the first to buck this trend on your own.

Before Zillow and Glassdoor, if you wanted to look up information about a specific home or company, there wasn’t a webpage for it. Barton’s companies created the definitive page for each house and company. Using a combination of data from authoritative sources (like all the various MLS systems) and user-generated data, they created high quality content unique to each company or listing. Being among the first to do this let them do a huge SEO land grab, which has been hard to displace since.

Barton’s companies take industries that are low frequency and use their Data Content Loops and SEO to acquire users for free and engage them more frequently. While most companies in real estate have super high customer acquisition costs, Zillow is able to get potential sellers even before they are ready to sell, so Zillow is already there when the sellers are ready.

Owning demand ultimately becomes its own compounding loop since becoming a trusted brand builds its own network effects. Consistently building this reputation increases people’s trust in them and makes them a go to destination.

Nobody had yet indexed all the homes in the US and brought them online. While sites like Apartments.com had started to do so for rentals, it wasn’t until Zillow (and Trulia) that this was done for homes. There was fertile search real estate to grab and Zillow rushed out to claim it all using the Zestimate as its spearhead.


Zooplus vs Amazon in battle for the European pet supply market

Many e-commerce companies go through this cycle where their customer acquisition costs look fantastic because early adopters are cheaper to acquire, but then marketing expenses later go through the roof. Ironically, many direct-to-consumer companies in the US have started opening physical stores because that is cheaper marketing than online ads.

Zooplus discussed this on their Q3 2018 call. They said online ad pricing has increased because their competitors are shifting more ad budget to online. Facebook and Google ads are auctions, so more competition means more demand and thus higher prices. Today, 80% of Zooplus’s marketing spend is online ads and Google Shopping. That makes them very susceptible to competitor pressure.

My concern isn’t so much that Zooplus loses share to Amazon, but that Amazon has the scale to price pet food at a lower margin (or loss) if they want to. This could cap Zooplus’s ability to ever earn a profit. Amazon doesn’t need to overtake Zooplus in market share to negatively affect them because Amazon already has enough market share that lowering prices would harm Zooplus. In this scenario, it’s possible that Zooplus keeps their market share, continues to grow along with the online pet supply market, and still never reaches their profitability goal.

Why I don’t think Amazon needs more market share to harm Zooplus is because of the lack of switching costs in Zooplus’s business. Even though Zooplus has a 95% retention rate with its customers, if Amazon lowered their prices 10%, there’s not much that keeps most of Zooplus’s customers using their website. Zooplus seems well aware of this issue and it has tied their hands when it comes to price increases. On the Q2 2018 call, management said they “don’t want to be the first [pet retailer] sticking their head out passing on manufacturer prices increases.”


Amazon 2018 letter to shareholders

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Uber Global Ridesharing Footprint
Percentages are based on our internal estimates of Gross Bookings and miles traveled using our currently available information.

Ensemble Capital: Landstar Systems update

The U.S. truck driver supply is structurally constrained. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a U.S. truck driver is 55 years old. The core “trucking generation” aged 45 to 54 accounts for 29.3 percent of the labor force, while 25 to 34-year-olds are just 15.6 percent of truck drivers. We’ve seen trucking companies offering huge cash signing bonuses to licensed commercial drivers, without a noticeable jump in the driver pool. In short, there aren’t enough young drivers coming up to replace the older ones.

The average Landstar BCO driver earned a record $197,000 in gross revenue. Now, that’s before expenses like gas, maintenance, and tires, but still a great income. In fact, it was so good last year that some BCOs decided to take the last few weeks of December off – they’d already made more money than they needed for the year. The agent node of the Landstar network also had a record-setting 2018, with 608 agents generating more than $1 million of revenue – up from 542 in 2017.

Given this success, we think Landstar’s network is strengthening. It’s attracting more truckers and agents – indeed, Landstar recently said both the BCO and agent pipelines are full, despite a tight labor market. This creates a virtuous cycle. When Landstar adds truckers and agents, more shippers make Landstar their first and only call to move their freight. In turn, more shippers attract more truckers and agents to Landstar. And so on. An important point to make about Landstar is that it generates 70% incremental operating profit margins on net revenue and their market share is under 10%. We think they have plenty of room to drive profit growth in the decade to come.

As for recession risk, Landstar is a capital-light business with a mostly variable cost structure. Remember, BCO-derived gross margins remain steady throughout the cycle. Landstar’s gross margins fall in periods of strong demand, as lower-margin brokerage operations account for a greater percentage of revenue. Without the BCO structure, Landstar would be far more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the industrial economy. So, while far from recession proof, Landstar is recession resistant.

The second technological threat is autonomous-driving trucks. While the technology is perhaps already there, we think regulations will require a human driver or engineer to be in the truck cab for some time to come. Airplanes, trains, and other heavy transportation vehicles, for example, use various amounts of “autopilot” but still have captains, conductors, and engineers at the ready. As we’ve seen with autonomous driving automobiles, there’s massive headline risk for any accident related to driverless vehicles, even if, on the whole they are safer than human-driven vehicles. Also, we expect that any initial shipments by autonomous trucks will carry commodity, low-cost items like boxes of diapers and food. Landstar carries a lot of special loads like automotive, machinery, and hazmat, where we think human drivers will remain the standard due to the costly freight and related liabilities.

Disney already has a booming streaming service. It’s called Hotstar

Disney is taking on Netflix with a new streaming service in the United States. But there’s an even bigger and hotter market where it’s already winning by miles — India. Hotstar, which Disney bought from 21st Century Fox last year, already has nearly as many users as the entire US population. And it’s growing incredibly fast.

The Indian platform now has 300 million monthly active users, Disney (DIS) revealed during its investor day on Thursday. That means its user base has quadrupled in a little over a year — Hotstar had around 75 million monthly active users in India at the end of 2017. Disney is already way out in front thanks to Hotstar. At the end of 2017, the Indian platform dwarfed Amazon and Netflix, which had 11 million and 5 million Indian users respectively, according to Counterpoint Research.

A breast milk ingredient is the hot new health supplement for adults

Global chemical giants DowDuPont Inc. and BASF SE are investing millions to ramp up production of an indigestible sugar found naturally in breast milk. Infant formula makers like Nestle SA can’t get enough of the synthetic ingredient. Now the companies are eyeing a potentially bigger customer: adults. DuPont estimates the annual market could reach $1 billion.

Human milk oligosaccharide is the third most common solid in breast milk, after lactose and fat. HMO escapes digestion, allowing it to reach the colon where it feeds beneficial bacteria. HMOs may explain why breast-fed babies tend to fare better than formula-fed, said Rachael Buck, who leads HMO research at Similac formula-maker Abbott Laboratories.

DuPont plans to spend $40 million building out its HMO production capacity this year, its second biggest capital investment after expanding a factory that makes Tyvek. Meanwhile, it’s partnering with Lonza Group AG to make enough product to meet current demand. DuPont will become a stand-alone company when it splits from DowDuPont on June 1.

After two decades of research, Abbott was first to bring HMOs to the U.S. baby nutrition market in 2016. It’s now expanded to 15 countries. Nestle last year rolled out HMO formula in Gerber and other brands across 40 countries. HMOs nourish bacteria that “train’’ immune system cells, 80 percent of which reside in the gut, said Jose Saavedra, Nestle chief medical officer. The health claims propelled about $600 million in sales of HMO formula last year for each of Abbott and Nestle SA.

Danish biotechnology company Glycom S/A is targeting the adult digestive health market with HMO supplements it began selling in the U.S. and Europe late last year. The company touts its Holigos IBS product as managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including abdominal pain, constipation diarrhea and bloating. It sells 28 doses on Amazon.com for $50.

Recycling isn’t about the planet. It’s about profit.

Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

The hunger of Chinese manufacturers for wood pulp, plastic, and aluminum can’t be met by Chinese suppliers or even big commodity exporters like Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese importers solved this problem by buying enormous amounts of recyclables to substitute for raw materials. China went from bringing in 7 million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013—a 15-fold increase.

Did capitalism kill inflation?

In other words, the capitalists killed inflation. In the decades after World War II, Polish economist Michal Kalecki depicted inflation as a product of the struggle between business and labor. If workers manage to extract big wage increases, their employers recoup the costs by putting through price increases, forcing workers to seek even more, and so on in a wage-price spiral. In contrast, if workers have little or no leverage, as is now the case in many industries, the wage-price spiral never gets started.

The importance of working with “A” players

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team. The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Curated Insights 2019.04.12

You have to live it to believe it

Long-term business and investing skill is the intersection of getting rich and staying rich. Different generations whose formative experience was calm and growth-oriented may be better at getting rich – they’re willing to take risks. But generations whose upbringing was punctuated by crash and decline may be more attuned to staying rich – conservatism, room for error, and rational pessimism. The best investors find a balance between the two, toggling between the two traits at the right time. But that’s rare. And the reason it’s rare even among smart people is because the psychological scars of our experiences don’t discriminate on IQ. Or more specifically, they sit above IQ in the information hierarchy that people use to make decisions.

It’s never clear one way or another. People with different experience than us aren’t necessarily smarter. They just see the investing world through a different lens.

A 13-year-old girl being killed by a drunk driver is something everyone reading this article will agree is atrocious. Yet virtually all of us will say it’s atrocious without taking further action. But Candace Lightner’s daughter was that 13-year-old girl, so she created Mothers Against Drunk Driving to do something about it. Personal experience is often what pushes you from “I get it” to “I get it so well that I’m going to do something about it.”

Same in investing. Spreadsheets can model the historic frequency of big declines. But they can’t model the feeling of coming home, looking at your kids, and wondering if you’ve made a mistake that will impact their lives. Studying history makes you feel like you understand something. But until you’ve lived through it and personally felt its consequences, you may not understand it enough to change your behavior.

“Personal finance is more personal than it is finance,” says Carl Richards. To each their own. I always try to remember that before criticizing others’ decisions. “Your yesterday was not my yesterday, and your today is not even my today,” writes the book Our Kids.

The world’s greatest delivery empire

Behind this $35 billion delivery market isn’t exactly efficiency, though—it’s a fight between Meituan and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s most valuable company. Alibaba and its various subsidiaries dominate the country’s online retail market for physical goods, but Meituan is leading the way in services. Its namesake app, a sort of mashup of Grubhub, Expedia, MovieTickets.com, Groupon, and Yelp, has 600,000 delivery people serving 400 million customers a year in 2,800 cities. Alibaba is betting it can undercut Meituan to death. Both companies are spending billions in an escalating war of subsidies that might persuade even Jeff Bezos to cut his losses.

“They thought the business was group buying. We thought the business was e-commerce for services.”

Once Wang (of Meituan) had control of the meal delivery market, he began to spend more aggressively. He discounted the food so he could upsell users on hotel bookings and airfare. He was the first in China to make movie ticket sales easy online. Within a few years he’d shifted that market from 10 percent digital to more than 60 percent. By mid-2015, soon after Meituan raised $700 million in venture funding from Alibaba and others, Wang had spent so much money to keep up that he needed another round of venture capital.

Alibaba refused to put more money into Meituan, because the younger company wouldn’t fully integrate its app with Alibaba’s, according to Meituan co-founder Wang Huiwen. Wang Xing worried he’d lose control of the business if that happened. Instead, Meituan brokered a deal with Alibaba’s longtime archrival, Tencent Holdings Ltd., best known for its WeChat super-app. Tencent agreed to lead Meituan’s fundraising by pledging $1 billion, merge Tencent’s own delivery service with Meituan, and let the combined company operate independently. “It was a very easy meeting,” Wang says. “What they had, we needed. What we had, they needed.” When Meituan called a board meeting to make things official, Alibaba got 12 hours’ notice and no choice in the matter, according to people familiar with the proceedings. Wang had what he wanted. He’d also made some fearsome enemies.

Artificial intelligence software helps determine drivers’ itineraries. An average driver makes 25 deliveries a day, up from 17 three years ago; that’s about 20 million daily deliveries across the network. For comparison, Grubhub Inc., the U.S. leader and owner of Seamless, delivers fewer than 500,000 meals a day. Meituan’s scale dwarfs that of India’s dabbawalas, who deliver some 80 million pail lunches a year.

The math, and Meituan’s potential, can be dizzying. China’s urban areas have 2,426 people per square kilometer (6,283 per square mile), almost eight times the comparable U.S. population density. While the U.S. has 10 cities with 1 million or more people, China has 156. Deliveries in China cost about $1, compared with $5 in the U.S., iResearch says. Meituan retained about 63 percent of the country’s meal delivery market at the end of 2018, according to Bernstein Research, even as Alibaba spent billions over the previous several years to capture most of the rest.

iBuying is Zestimate 2.0

In the past, other listing portal competitors were relatively undifferentiated. Zillow has been the clear market leader, and there was no credible threat that could unseat it from its powerful position. However, the entry of iBuyers with a service that made instant offers on a home – online – was novel and compelling, just like the Zestimate in 2006. Suddenly, more and more consumers were beginning their home selling process not on Zillow, but on other web sites like Opendoor and Offerpad. This was a key existential threat for Zillow. The iBuyer business model is Zestimate 2.0 – the natural starting point for determining your home’s value. What’s more accurate than an actual offer on your home?

The ETF business is dominated by the Big Three. The SEC is suddenly concerned.

The exchange-traded fund industry has a competition problem. The $4 trillion industry has been unevenly bifurcated for years: Just three firms have steadily held on to 80% of ETF assets in some 600 products. That leaves another 1,600 ETFs and more than 100 firms competing like gunslingers in the Wild West. And there’s a new sheriff in town.

The Big Three— BlackRock ’s iShares, Vanguard Group, and State Street ’s Global Advisors—all have a comprehensive line of funds at hard-to-beat prices. In other words, for the most part, the ETF industry is dominated by good products offered by good companies. But the rest of the asset-management industry, along with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is now asking whether that concentration of power will snuff out innovation, or lead to a dearth of choices for investors.

Curated Insights 2019.04.05

The risk of low growth stocks: Heighten risk to the best companies

Most simply, ROIC measures how many incremental dollars of earnings a company earns by reinvesting their earnings. As a simple illustration, a company with an average 10% ROIC needs to invest 50% of their earnings to grow 5% (10%*50%=5%). A company with a 50% ROIC only needs to reinvest 10% of earnings to grow 5% (50%*10%=5%). In the former case, $0.50 of every dollar of earnings is not needed to fund growth, while in the latter case $0.90 is not needed to fund growth. This means that the higher ROIC company will generate 80% more free cash flow than the average ROIC company making the company 80% more valuable. This is why we focus on ROIC in our analysis. High ROIC businesses are significantly more valuable than average ROIC companies even when they produce the same level of growth.

Sony’s streaming service Crackle sells majority stake to Chicken Soup for the Soul

The transfer of ownership for Crackle, however, arrives at a time when ad-free streaming services like this are seeing newfound interest, with Amazon’s launch of IMDb’s FreeDive, Roku’s The Roku Channel, Walmart’s Vudu, Viacom’s new addition Pluto, Tubi and others now making gains.

As part of the deal, Sony will contribute to the new venture its U.S. assets, including the Crackle brand, user base and ad rep business, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It also will license to Crackle Plus movies and TV shows from the Sony Pictures Entertainment library, as well as Crackle’s original programming, like its shows “Start Up” and “The Oath,” for example.

CSS Entertainment will bring six of its ad-supported networks — including Popcornflix, Popcornflix Kids, Popcornflix Comedy, Frightpix, Espanolflix and Truli, plus its subscription service Pivotshare — to Crackle Plus.

The combination will lead Crackle Plus to become one of the largest ad-supported video-on-demand platforms in the U.S., the companies claim, with nearly 10 million monthly active users and 26 million registered users. The new service will also have access to more than 38,000 combined hours of programming, more than 90 content partnerships and more than 100 networks.

Andreessen Horowitz is blowing up the venture capital model (again)

So Andreessen Horowitz spent the spring embarking on one of its more disagreeable moves so far: The firm renounced its VC exemptions and registered as a financial advisor, with paperwork completed in March. It’s a costly, painful move that requires hiring compliance officers, audits for each employee and a ban on its investors talking up the portfolio or fund performance in public—even on its own podcast. The benefit: The firm’s partners can share deals freely again, with a real estate expert tag-teaming a deal with a crypto expert on, say, a blockchain startup for home buying, Haun says.

And it’ll come in handy when the firm announces a new growth fund—expected to close in the coming weeks, a source says—that will add a fresh $2 billion to $2.5 billion for its newest partner, David George, to invest across the portfolio and in other larger, high-growth companies. Under the new rules, that fund will be able to buy up shares from founders and early investors—or trade public stocks. Along with a fund announced last year that connects African-American leaders to startups, the new growth fund will give Andreessen Horowitz four specialized funds, with more potentially to follow.

Curated Insights 2019.03.29

How concentration affects portfolio performance

Vanguard calculated the returns of Russell 3000 stocks over the last 30 years and found that 47% of stocks were unprofitable investments and almost 30% lost more than half their value. They also found, and this is the big one, that 7% of stocks had cumulative returns over 1,000%.

What is Amazon?

We’ve seen the strategy that Amazon takes when it sees a regulatory threat looming on the horizon; it voluntarily started collecting sales tax in many states before states could force it to do so, and adopted a $15 minimum wage before it drew the full ire of a populist movement. With multiple headquarters distributed across multiples cities and outside access provisioned for all of its key products and services, Amazon seems more likely to break itself up – along its own preferred lines – than it is to be forcibly disassembled by regulators.

Recall Bezos’s 2002 edict: 1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through interfaces, 2) teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces, 3) all interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be exposed to developers in the outside world, and 4) anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.

If every meaningful Amazon product or service is exposed to outside developers via an interface, what does it matter whether Amazon is one single company or many? Antitrust action to break it apart could do nothing that it has not done to itself already; this is no doubt by design.


JD vs Alibaba in the last mile: what’s happening behind the Great Wall

China has more internet users than any other nation in the world, but there’s still plenty of room for e-commerce to grow. The Chinese e-commerce market is growing at an unfathomable rate: from 160 million online shoppers in 2010 to 530 million in 2017. This drove parcel growth of 28%, to over 100 million per day. Despite the current slowdown in economic growth, China’s e-commerce boom is likely to continue.

Consider this: 70% of packages in China are delivered same-day. This speed of delivery contributes to the success of e-commerce in China. Speed of delivery and customer experience are key, and China has both.

Alibaba holds a controlling interest in logistics operator Cainiao, which was set up in 2013 and is a collaboration including warehousing, trucking and the last mile. It’s essentially a massive, asset-light, data-sharing platform, with Alibaba owning very little of the infrastructure.

One of the prime drivers for the creation of Cainiao was to ensure capacity for Alibaba deliveries, but Alibaba and Cainiao depend on all the carriers, such as SF, ZTO and YTO. It now has over two million delivery drivers in the network.

JD has a completely different logistics strategy – it does it all itself. There are over 515 warehouses in its nationwide transportation network. Over 90% of orders from JD.com are delivered same-day or next-day by JD’s own fleet, which now comprises 65,000 drivers.

Forget Photoshop. Adobe is a marketing company now

Factor it all in, and Chief Executive Officer Shantanu Narayen has upended Adobe’s business model and quietly transformed it into that of a marketing company. Adobe has been working full crank to track every interaction a consumer has with a brand: tallying her visits to a brick-and-mortar store and what she buys; using cookies to monitor her web activity and figure out how many devices she has; analyzing her interest in emails about sales or promotions; and incorporating social media monitoring to see what she says about a brand. Adobe can combine all of this with other companies’ data about a person’s income and demographics to try to predict the triggers that would make her buy a new phone or pair of shoes. In essence, Adobe is trying to know a consumer’s decision-making process better than she may know it herself.

Demystifying aviation economics

Despite the narrow-body jets being relatively unattractive from a long-haul fuel efficiency perspective, budget airlines removed first class and were able to pack quite a bit more seats on the plane, lowering unit level economics to being competitive with the best wide-body planes today. Over the past four years, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), usage of narrow-body planes on the transatlantic route has more the tripled to nearly 40% of capacity.

Curated Insights 2019.03.15

Buying into the timeshares Hilton Grand Vacations, Wyndham Destinations, and Marriott Vacations Worldwide

All of the timeshare companies offer some form of financing; in general, they offer consumer loans at low double digit interest rates. These are rather attractive loans, and they can generally be packaged up and sold into the ABS market at mid-single digit rates of returns. As of Q3’18, most of the timeshare companies had ~10% of their enterprise values invested into financing receivables that they hadn’t sold into the ABS market yet. I don’t think it’s appropriate to pull those receivable investments from the timeshare companies’ enterprise valuation calculations since they’re generally valued on an EBITDA calculation that includes earnings from those loans, but I could see an argument for why they should be deducted from their EV calculation (i.e. treated as a cash equivalent). Doing so would make the timeshare companies even cheaper.

The twenty craziest investing facts ever

Why am I using the Dow instead of the S&P 500? They’re effectively the same thing. The rolling one-year correlation since 1970 is .95.

If you had invested from 1960-1980 and beaten the market by 5% each year, you would have made less money than if you had invested from 1980-2000 and underperformed the market by 5% a year.
When you were born > almost everything else.

Dow earnings were cut in half in 1908. The index gained 46%.

Curated Insights 2019.03.08

The difference between the natural world and the investment world

You have to understand that there are no physical laws at work in investing. And the future is uncertain, and vague, and random. And psychology dominates.

Richard Feynman said, “Physics would be much harder if electrons had feelings.” You come in the room, you flip up the switch, and the lights go on. Every time! Why is that? Because the electrons flow from the switch to the lights. They never flow the other way. They never go on strike. They never fall asleep. They never say, ‘Ah today I don’t feel like flowing from the switch to the light.’ That’s physical science.

You have to understand the distinction between your field [architecture] and the field of investing, where there are no laws. There are only tendencies.

Facebook’s privacy cake

Why can Facebook deliver most of the value? Because they are still Facebook! They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.

Why can Facebook deliver most of the value? Because they are still Facebook! They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.


Zillow’s billion dollar seller lead opportunity

Here’s the kicker: Zillow claims about 45 percent of consumers that go through the Zillow Offers funnel end up listing their home. That’s a high conversion rate reflective of a high intent to sell; about 10 times higher than Opcity’s conversion rate. Assuming a 1 percent referral fee, a $250,000 home, and a conversion rate of 45 percent, those 19,800 leads are worth $22 million in revenue to Zillow, almost all profit. Compare that to the estimated profit of its iBuyer business (1.5 percent net profit), which, on 200 houses, is $750,000. The value of the seller leads is worth almost 30 times the profit from flipping houses!


Will Zillow Homes build a durable competitive advantage in the iBuyer market?

Let’s parse through these claims. The argument for Zillow to do their own mortgage lending sounds logical. A traditional home sale results in a 6% fee paid to the realtor. On the other hand, the typical iBuyer charges a seller fee of around 7-9%. However, if Zillow earns an additional 3% by attaching the mortgage, they can decrease their seller fee to be right in line with, or even cheaper than, the traditional realtor model. Home buyers have to get a mortgage anyway, so they shouldn’t care too much if it’s through Zillow—as long as the rates are competitive.

The combination of lower customer acquisition costs and increased monetization per customer could potentially be deadly. If both come to fruition, Zillow can underprice other iBuyers on their seller fee and/or pay more per house than their competitors can afford. It’s even possible that Zillow pays full market price for homes and earns enough just from selling the high-quality leads to agents. In this scenario, I’m not sure how others could compete. No one else owns almost 50% of all real estate web traffic that includes home buyers, home sellers, and real estate agents.

However, if Zillow is forced to pay for customers, or their competitors get enough local traffic organically, Zillow may not be able to earn high returns on capital in this new segment. If seller leads don’t pan out, or if those leads simply cannibalize Zillow’s traditional premier agent business, they may monetize customers at the same rate as other iBuyers. In this scenario, Zillow would simply be one of many in a commoditized industry.

How badly are we being ripped off on eyewear? Former industry execs tell all

When he was in the business, in the 1980s and ’90s, Dahan said it cost him between $10 and $16 to manufacture a pair of quality plastic or metal frames. Lenses, he said, might cost about $5 a pair to produce. With fancy coatings, that could boost the price all the way to $15. He said LensCrafters would turn around and charge $99 for completed glasses that cost $20 or $30 to make — and this was well below what many independent opticians charged. Nowadays, he said, those same glasses at LensCrafters might cost hundreds of dollars.

Butler said he recently visited factories in China where many glasses for the U.S. market are manufactured. Improved technology has made prices even lower than what Dahan recalled. “You can get amazingly good frames, with a Warby Parker level of quality, for $4 to $8,” Butler said. “For $15, you can get designer-quality frames, like what you’d get from Prada.” And lenses? “You can buy absolutely first-quality lenses for $1.25 apiece,” Butler said. Yet those same frames and lenses might sell in the United States for $800.

The Netflix of China might just be wishful thinking

Competition to attract new users means that subscription prices aren’t likely to go up any time soon. Pay television service in China isn’t much more expensive than an online video account, making it harder to encourage people to switch, Dai says. Netflix, charging about $10 a month, doesn’t face that challenge because pay TV in the U.S. costs about $90, he says. Over the past two years, revenue per user at iQIYI, the only one of the three publicly traded in the U.S., has fallen about 12.5% due to promotions to drive up subscriptions.

Although Chinese TV series are still much cheaper to make than U.S. shows—production costs for a top series are about $600,000 per hour, compared with $6-10 million for U.S. prime-time content, Daid wrote in his research note—content costs reached 84% of iQIYI’s revenue in 2018. The figure for Netflix is 48%.

Advertising revenue is destined to drop. That’s a function of the way the Chinese platforms work. Unlike Netflix, which has never had advertisements on its site, ad income makes up almost half of the revenue of Chinese online video platforms. Subscribers can skip ads shown to nonsubscribers before a show starts. If 85% of Chinese households signs up for online-video services—Dai’s assumption—only 15% will be left to watch the ads. At iQIYI, subscriptions have already surpassed ads as a source of revenue, accounting for 43% of the total in 2018, compared with 37% for advertising.

Tariff-Man Trump to preside over $100 billion jump in trade gap

The main long-term driver of persistent trade deficits since 1975 has been the gap between the U.S.’s low savings rate and its attractiveness as an investment destination, fueled partly by the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. That in turn leads to a stronger dollar, which in itself helps increase the trade deficit by lowering the real cost of imports and increasing the local-currency cost of American goods in overseas markets.

Investors are losing millions on overpriced Chinese art

The art-purchase-and-lease offer is particularly appealing for people looking for a high-return alternative investment, but find the world of galleries, art fairs and auction houses intimidating. That’s where the model works, it preys on people by speaking to them in a vocabulary they understand and offering to be a trusted guide through this very opaque market, so buyers probably let their guard down,” says Edie Hu, art advisory specialist at Citi Private Bank in Hong Kong. “There is a mystique to the art market and all of a sudden you have someone who brings it down to your level. Nobody from galleries or auction houses talks about return on investment.”

AFG has set up a booth each year at the Asia Contemporary Art Show in Hong Kong alongside other galleries, and has held lucky draws to win a painting, according to d’Angelique, who said she was contacted by phone “in minutes” after filling out an online survey in 2012 to enter the contest.

She said she doesn’t believe her painting was ever rented out and AFG simply overcharged her and paid the lease premium from the sale proceeds. The leasing contract was drawn up between her and AFG, not a corporate renter. She said AFG wouldn’t tell her who would be leasing her painting.

Curated Insights 2019.03.01

The value chain constraint

To put conservation of attractive profits in generic terms, profit in a value chain flows to whatever company is able to successfully integrate different component pieces of that value chain; the other parts of the value chain then modularize and are driven into commodity competition.

In other words, what matters is not “technological innovation”; what matters is value chains and the point of integration on which a company’s sustainable differentiation is built; stray too far and even the most fearsome companies become also-rans.

The reality is that technology has an amplification effect on business models: it has raised the Internet giants to unprecedented heights, and their positions in their relevant markets — or, more accurately, value chains — are nearly impregnable. At the same time, I suspect their ability to extend out horizontally into entirely different ways of doing business — new value chains — even if those businesses rely on similar technology, are more limited than they appear.

What does work are (1) forward and backwards integrations into the value chain and (2) acquisitions. This makes sense: further integrations simply absorb more of the value chain, while acquisitions acquire not simply technology but businesses that are built from the ground-up for different value chains. And, by extension, if society at large wants to limit just how large these companies can be, limiting these two strategies is the obvious place to start.

The risk of low growth stocks

If a 5% growing business requires a 4% cash flow yield (a free cash flow multiple of 25x, the inverse of 4%) for investors to earn 9%, you can easily do the math to figure out what sort of cash flow yield a 3% growth business or a 1% growth business requires. While a 4% yield plus 5% growth gets you to 9% total return, if a business is only growing at 3%, it needs a 6% cash flow yield. If it is only going to grow at just 1% per year, it needs an 8% cash flow yield.

Now that’s scary. And seriously risky. Because an 8% cash flow yield means a stock is worth exactly half of what it would be worth if it was trading at a 4% cash flow yield. We’re talking about a $100 stock that needs to fall to $50 if the company is only going to grow at 1% rather than 5%. Even a small change, like a 5% business slowing to 4% (in perpetuity) requires the cash flow yield to jump from 4% to 5%. This means a change from 25x cash flow to 20x or a 20% decline in the price. Ouch.

That perpetual 5% growth rate? Remember it is descriptive of the market as a whole. But under the surface, individual companies are experiencing large swings in their growth rate. The market as a whole keeps returning to about 5% growth because that’s approximately the growth rate of the overall economy. But many companies find that while they might be able to reverse temporary periods of decline, once their ongoing growth rate slows down they hit what might be thought of as “stall speed”. In aerodynamics, the stall speed is the minimum speed at which an aircraft must travel to remain in flight. If it slows to a speed below this rate, it will stall and eventually crash.

Zillow is now the Netflix of homes

You already know how Netflix shows you stuff. When you browse, you see Netflix originals plus you see all the content other studios serve through Netflix. Going forward you’ll now see this on Zillow. Why? Because last April they started buying homes directly from sellers, and want to ramp up to buying 5,000 homes a month over the next 3-5 years. How? Fill out a form on their site, get an offer. If you accept, you close in days. If you decline, they pair you with a local non-Zillow agent who can list your home for you the traditional way.

Listing with an agent might be slightly cheaper than the 7% of sales price you might pay to sell to Zillow (or other instant offer firms like Opendoor), but it doesn’t have the same certainty or speed. Since 61% of you sellers are also buying a new home, you’ll need a new mortgage. Zillow bought a mortgage company last year so they can also do your loan—whether you buy your new home directly from them or through another real estate company.

So you might hit Zillow to look for a new home or ask them to buy your existing home. Either way, this is as close as the housing industry has gotten to a one-stop shop. Over time, they might prioritize Zillow listings over non-Zillow listings like Netflix prioritizes Originals, but our TV habits have gotten us used to that already.

Aligning business models to markets

USHG is a constellation of very different restaurants and chains. At one end it has michelin star fine dining restaurants like The Modern and Gramercy Tavern. While at the other end it has the large chain Shake Shack. And many restaurants in between those two ends of the spectrum of pricing and scale.

If you do well you could go on to run a restaurant in USHG’s portfolio. Or if you wanted to open your own restaurant, you could open one with Danny Meyer as part of USHG–or start your own restaurant and have USHG as an early investor. In fact, another possibility is what the three michelin star restaurant 11 Madison Park did. It was a USHG restaurant that they sold to its general manager and head chef, who’d both worked at USHG for years.

By having a portfolio of restaurants at different scales and price points, employees are able grow their careers while staying in the family. And USHG is able to have high retention and invest more in its employees.

Curated Insights 2019.02.22

“Hollywood is now irrelevant,” says IAC Chairman Barry Diller

“Netflix has won this game. I mean, short of some existential event, it is Netflix’s. No one can get, I believe, to their level of subscribers, which gives them real dominance.”

And that includes its closest rival Amazon Prime, which isn’t designed to bid as aggressively on tomorrow’s media stars as Netflix is. “Amazon’s model is saying, ‘If you join Prime, we’re giving you things,’” Diller said. “‘So our job is to get you to join Prime. If we can get you to do that by giving you Black Panther, or whatever, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, then great.’ But that model, to people in the entertainment business, is like, ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’”


Tollymore Investment Partners’ investment thesis on Trupanion

TRUP is vertically integrated; it owns its insurance subsidiary and is responsible for acquiring and servicing existing customers as well as underwriting their insurance. TRUP estimates this vertical integration has eliminated frictional costs of c. 20% of revenues. These economic savings have been donated to consumers in the form of higher claims payout ratios. TRUP’s strategy has therefore been to sacrifice the near-term margin upside of this cost advantage in the pursuit of a larger and stickier customer base and subscription revenue pool. This cost advantage does not manifest itself in lower prices, but rather the highest sustainable expenditure on vet invoices per dollar of premiums.

TRUP has built a database over 15 years using 7.5mn pet months of information and > 1mn claims; it has segmented the market into 1.2mn price categories in order to more accurately underwrite insurance costs for a given pet. Of course, determining the point at which the marginal returns on incremental data diminish is difficult, but according to the CEO it would take a competitor 13 years to replicate this data asset. Although Nationwide is larger by number of pets enrolled, its data are likely to be less comprehensive for two reasons: (1) a lack of data for conditions not covered by policies, such as hereditary and congenital diseases, and (2) pricing categories by state rather than zip code, even though the cost of vet care can vary widely within states. TRUP considers its ability to accurately estimate the costs of pet healthcare costs by granular sub- categories crucial to its leading value proposition. This allows for the provision of more relevant products for the customer.

The addressable market is large and underpenetrated relative to other developed markets. The differences in these other markets are not demographic, social or economic, but rather (1) the length of time comprehensive pet insurance has been available, (2) the value proposition in the form of higher claims payments as a ratio to premiums (higher loss ratios) and (3) vet vs. direct to consumer distribution models. Pet insurance companies in the US typically do not cover hereditary and congenital conditions, which are the forms of illness most likely to be suffered by cats and dogs, they increase rates when claims are made, they impose payout limits, and pay claims according to an estimated cost schedule rather than actual vet invoices. TRUP is different in all these respects and as such expects to grow the addressable market in North America to greater than 1% penetration. In any case, it appears to be the case that TRUP’s value proposition is driving adoption in North America.

The unit economics associated with the pursuit of this opportunity to grow the company’s assets are attractive. The cost to acquire a pet is c. $150, around 3x the average monthly ARPU. Assuming the current 10% discretionary margin and a six-year average pet life, the IRR on new pets is 30-40%. At a 15% discretionary margin the IRR would be double this. I estimate that both ARPUs and discretionary margins would need to decline by 20-25% to render reinvestment in pet acquisition a capital destructive pursuit. This would contradict the economic reality of a market in which pet healthcare costs are increasing mid-single digits as new technologies and treatments are ported over from human healthcare, and the scalability of the business model.

Purchases with plastic get costlier for merchants—and consumers

Merchants paid an estimated $64 billion in Visa and Mastercard credit and debit interchange fees last year, according to new data from an industry publication, the Nilson Report. That is up 12% from a year earlier and up 77% from 2012.

Other fees are on the rise, as well. Visa, the largest U.S. card network, is increasing several fees in April, according to people familiar with the matter. Unlike interchange fees that are paid to card issuers, these fees are collected by Visa.

Visa raised its “credit-card assessment fee” this year by 0.01% for most credit-card purchases made in the U.S. While seemingly small on a percentage or flat-fee basis, the increased fees that Visa will put in place during the first four months of the year are expected to cost U.S. merchants at least an additional $570 million through April 2020, according to estimates by merchants-payments consulting firm CMSPI.

But network fees aren’t the only additional charges merchants face. There are also other fees charged by firms that process merchants’ card transactions. Those, which include the network fees, totaled $14.8 billion on Visa and Mastercard debit and credit transactions in 2018, up 10% from a year earlier and 70% from 2012, according to the Nilson Report.


MSG says the Knicks aren’t for sale. It’s a good time to invest in sports either way.

That $5 billion is a big number, 25% higher than the recent $4 billion valuation by Forbes. And $5 billion amounts to more than $200 per share, or about 71% of MSG’s current stock price. Just because the number is large doesn’t mean it isn’t realistic. Don’t forget the Clippers were sold to former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion in 2014. That year, before the sale was announced, Forbes valued the Knicks at $1.4 billion and the Clippers didn’t crack Forbes top-10 most valuable NBA franchises.

Live TV content is part of the reason the value of sports franchises have swelled. Live content is becoming increasingly more valuable to media outlets like traditional networks and streaming companies. But other factors are also at play. Sports betting is another important avenue for franchise owners to generate brand-new streams of cash. “I think everyone who owns a top four professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in 2018, after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports betting in states other than Nevada.

If the Knicks are sold, MSG would be left with the New York Rangers, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, and the Westchester Knicks of the NBA’s developmental league. In addition to Madison Square Garden itself, MSG also owns the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, the Forum, the Chicago Theatre, and the Wang Theatre.

Curated Insights 2019.02.15

Even God couldn’t beat dollar-cost averaging

My point in all of this is that Buy the Dip, even with perfect information, typically underperforms DCA. So if you attempt to build up cash and buy at the next bottom, you will likely be worse off than if you had bought every month. Why? Because while you wait for the next dip, the market is likely to keep rising and leave you behind.

What makes the Buy the Dip strategy even more problematic is that we have always assumed that you would know when you were at every bottom (you won’t). I ran a variation of Buy the Dip where the strategy misses the bottom by 2 months, and guess what? Missing the bottom by just 2 months leads to underperforming DCA 97% of the time! So, even if you are somewhat decent at calling bottoms, you would still lose in the long run.

I wrote this post because sometimes I hear about friends who save up cash to “buy the dip” when they would be far better off if they just kept buying. My friends do not realize that their beloved dip may never come. And while they wait, they can miss out on months (or more) of continued compound growth. Because if God can’t beat dollar cost averaging, what chance do you have?

Miss the worst days, miss the best days

If you missed just the 25 strongest days in the stock market since 1990, you might as well have been in five year treasury notes. This remarkable data point is almost always followed by “time in the market beats timing the market.”

If by some miracle you managed to miss the 25 best days, you likely would have missed at least some of the worst days as well. You’ll notice a few things. The best days often follow the worst days, and the worst days occur in periods of above average volatility (red dotted line). These volatility spikes happen in lousy markets, so, if you can avoid the very best days, you will probably also avoid the very worst days, thereby avoiding lousy markets.

The chart below shows what happens if you were able to successfully avoid the 25 best and 25 worst days. This would have put you well ahead of the index. Of course this assumes perfect end of day execution, no transaction costs, and most importantly, no taxes.

Why time horizon works

When earnings compound but changes in valuation multiples don’t, the importance of the latter to your lifetime returns diminishes over time. Which is great, because changes in valuation multiples are the most unpredictable part of investing. Assuming earnings compound over time – an assumption, but a reasonable one – here’s what happens when valuation multiples go up or down by, say, 20% in a given year.

Valuation changes have a majority impact on your overall returns early on because company earnings are likely the same or marginally higher than when you made the investment. But as earnings compound over time, changes in any given year’s valuation multiples have less impact on the returns earned since you began investing. So as time goes on you have less reliance on unpredictable things (voting) and more on things you’re confident in (weighing).

Spotify’s podcast aggregation play

Anchor provides a way to capture new podcasters, leading them either to Spotify advertising or, in the case of rising stars, to Spotify exclusives. Critically, because Spotify has access to all of the data, they can likely bring those suppliers on board at a far lower rate than they have to pay for established creators like Gimlet Media.

Spotify Advertising, as I just suggested, makes a strong play to be the dominant provider for the entire podcasting industry. Spotify Advertising is already operating at a far larger scale than Midroll, the incumbent player, and Spotify has access to the data of the second largest podcast player in the market.

Gimlet Media becomes an umbrella brand for a growing stable of Spotify exclusive podcasts. Critically, as I noted above, the majority of these podcasts come to Spotify not because Spotify pays them millions of dollars but simply because Spotify is better at monetizing than anyone else.

Spotify doubles down on podcasts by acquiring Gimlet and Anchor

Spotify has acquired Gimlet Media and Anchor as it doubles down on its audio-first strategy. Gimlet is the podcast production house behind popular shows such as Reply All and The Cut. With Gimlet, Spotify has acquired a team with a proven record in original content production which should enhance its competitive position relative to Apple. Anchor provides easy-to-use software for podcast creation, ad insertion, and distribution, with more than 40% share of new podcasts produced. Anchor’s wealth of data should help Spotify identify and target original content, attracting more users to its ecosystem.

Podcasts should enable Spotify to differentiate its service and reduce its dependence on the music labels. Ever since Spotify’s initial public offering, the bear case has been that it never will deliver attractive returns because the labels will demand an ever-increasing share of its revenues. If its foray into original podcasts is successful, Spotify will convert some of its variable costs into fixed costs, improving its profit margins.

The ad-supported podcast business also is attractive. As shown above, podcast listener hours are roughly 12% those of radio but only 3% of the ad dollars. That gap should close with time. More important, as is the case with TV, traditional radio is in secular decline. A generation from now, podcasts could be the default format for spoken audio. If able to secure a leadership position, Spotify could enjoy a recurring revenue model with much higher margins in the years to come.

How DJI went from university dorm project to world’s biggest drone company

“In the very beginning, we had different competitors but they were small,” said Wang in a 2015 interview with Chinese-language news site of Guangzhou-based NetEase. “We made a lot of the right decisions to stand out in the industry … I think it is DJI’s success that made the drone industry attractive to investors and users.”

Chris Anderson, the chief executive of DJI’s major rival 3D Robotics, was quoted by US media as saying that the Chinese company has been “executing flawlessly” and “we just got beaten fair and square”.

“I do not see any strong competitor for DJI so far,” said Cao Zhongxiong, executive director of new technology studies at Shenzhen-based think tank China Development Institute. “The company can dominate the drone industry for some years to come.”

“We found success on the consumer side and are now leveraging the things we do very well into other industries. We are also expanding to serve different companies, operations and industries globally,” said Bill Chen, DJI’s enterprise partnership manager. He said the use of drones in agriculture will be a particular focus for the company.

DJI has rolled out a development kit so software developers can write applications for specific tasks, signalling the company’s shift from a hardware manufacturer to platform operator. “We aim to build a versatile platform that can be addressed by third-party developers as well,” Chen said.


Here’s what you need to know about Hikvision, the camera maker behind China’s mass surveillance system

The global video surveillance equipment market is expected to grow 10.2 per cent to US$18.5 billion in 2018 thanks to increasing demand for security cameras, according to a report by London-based market research firm IHS Markit in July. China’s professional video surveillance equipment market, which accounts for 44 per cent of all global revenue, grew by 14.7 per cent in 2017, outpacing the rest of the world, which grew by only 5.5 per cent, the report showed.

Around 42 per cent of the company is controlled by state-owned enterprises, with China Electronics Technology HIK Group owning 39.6 per cent of the company as the biggest shareholder. Hikvision had a leading share of 21.4 per cent for the global closed-circuit television and video surveillance equipment market in 2017, according to IHS Markit.

IHS Markit estimated that China had 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private areas in 2017, compared to only 50 million cameras in the US. The researcher expects China to install about 450 million new cameras by 2020. The researcher expects about 450 million new cameras to be shipped to the Chinese market by the end of 2020.

The global success of Marie Kondo -- Japan’s queen of tidying -- points to an important truth for Japan’s economy: there’s massive latent value still to be unlocked as women enter the labor force, research by Bloomberg Economics shows. Unpaid work in the home was worth as much as 138.5 trillion yen ($1.25 trillion) in 2016, or 25.7 percent of GDP, according to estimates by the Cabinet Office. If more women enter the labor force, and more domestic work is monetized, that could prove a double plus for Japan’s economy -- lifting the lackluster rate of growth.

Where big leaps happen

You can be great investor and still spend yourself broke. Ego is easier to develop and maintain than alpha, so good returns without the psychology necessary to hold onto those returns where money can continue compounding can be defeating. The math of compounding ensures that neither those who earn big returns but spend them quickly, or power savers who settle for low returns, will build meaningful wealth. There are many good investors. There are many good savers. It’s the intersection of both that compounding rules wild and big leaps are made.

The same mindset that allows visionaries to see things normal people can’t blinds them to realities normal people understand. If you’re staggeringly good at one thing, your mind probably has little bandwidth for other vital things necessary to make your skill work. Look around. There are a lot of people with crazy good ideas. But many people with crazy good ideas are crazy, and their idea is an outgrowth of a mind that has little patience for things like employee culture and appeasing investors, so their idea never stands a chance. A big leap happens when a visionary mixes with a sober operator who can tame the worst impulses of an otherwise great idea.


Will accountants become the weavers of the 21st century?

Intangible assets now make up 84 percent of the market value of the S&P 500. That’s up from just 17 percent in 1975. We investors clearly value things like investment in brands, new business processes, skills development for employees, R&D, etc., as drivers of future value. In other words, we believe these investments will create revenues in the future. But accounting can’t figure out how to value those non-tangible assets, so it treats those investments as expenses. That just doesn’t make sense.

Curated Insights 2019.02.01

One big thing

For years Seder measured everything on horses. Nostril size. Excrement weight. Fast-twitch muscle fiber density. And for years he came up empty-handed. Then, Seder got the idea to measure the size of a horse’s internal organs using a portable ultrasound. Bingo. He hit pay dirt. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tells of Seder’s discovery in Everybody Lies: He found that the size of the heart, and particularly the size of the left ventricle, was a massive predictor of a horse’s success, the single most important variable. That was it. Heart size was a better predictor of horse racing ability than anything else. And this is what Seder knew when he convinced his buyer to purchase American Pharoah and disregard the other 151 horses at auction. The rest is history.

Hans Rosling echoes this sentiment in Factfulness when he discusses the importance of a single measure in understanding a country’s development—child mortality: Do you know I’m obsessed with the number for the child mortality rate? … Because children are very fragile. There are so many things that can kill them. When only 14 children die out of 1,000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence and so on. So this number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.

Rosling’s use of childhood mortality and Seder’s use of heart size perfectly exemplify the power of heuristics. A heuristic is defined as “any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical, or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.” While Rosling and Seder don’t perfectly describe the systems they are studying with a single measure, they are able to gain important insights with little information. Sometimes it helps to have lots of variables/measures, but sometimes you only need to know one big thing.

Enhancing eBay: A letter to the Board of eBay

While surprising to many, only 10% of items sold on eBay today are sold via auction, and fewer than 20% of items sold are used goods. As a result of its ability to successfully evolve and grow with the broader e-commerce market, eBay today is the world’s second largest online retailer outside of mainland China, with #1 or #2 market positions in most major geographies. Furthermore, eBay owns two other leading franchises – the premier online secondary ticket marketplace (StubHub), and a portfolio of best-in-class international classifieds websites.

Online classifieds is a fast growing industry that has benefited from a stark shift from print to online channels. Against this positive macro backdrop, the usage of online classifieds platforms continues to grow rapidly. As with all network-driven businesses, online classifieds is an industry where scale matters and success is driven by establishing a strong leadership position. In any given geography and vertical, one to two competitors generally take the majority of the market and enjoy compelling economics. Many leading classifieds platforms operate with EBITDA margins in the 40% to 60% range, with some as high as 75%. Based on our review of comparable businesses, conversations with former employees and research on the sector, we believe that eBay Classifieds Group currently operates at a much higher level of profitability than the core Marketplace, with estimated EBITDA margins that should be in the range of 45% to 55%.

As a result of these strong market tailwinds, attractive economics and significant incumbency advantages, leading classifieds businesses garner extremely attractive valuations. The average publicly traded classifieds business trades at a mid-to-high-teens forward EBITDA multiple. Furthermore, there has recently been significant acquisition interest in this space from both strategic and financial acquirers, resulting in transactions all valued at more than 20x EBITDA over the past several years.

As the leading player in a high value business with competitive barriers to entry, StubHub enjoys an attractive economic model. Today, StubHub enables the transaction of more than $4.5 billion in ticket value, up roughly 50% over the past four years. Benefiting from its market-leading position, revenue growth has surpassed GMV growth with sales up nearly 70% over the same time. While StubHub is indeed a “marketplace” for tickets, the very nature of tickets makes this platform and the features required highly distinct from the core eBay Marketplace. Despite efforts over the years to better integrate the two platforms through initiatives such as cross-promoting tickets and merchandise, eBay has never succeeded in extracting meaningful strategic synergies.

StubHub is non-core to the eBay Marketplace but would command significant value as a market-leading, scale business. The second-largest player in StubHub’s market, VividSeats, has been acquired by private equity firms twice in the past three years. The most recent acquisition came in 2017, when it was acquired for ~16x EBITDA. The third-largest player is Ticketmaster, a competitor which is part of the larger LiveNation that conducts not only secondary ticket sales, but also primary ticketing and the production and promotion of live music events. While LiveNation’s other businesses have varying economic profiles, LiveNation currently trades at ~14.5x EBITDA.


Swiping right on InterActive Corp

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests friendship/intimacy/family are far more important than entertainment (sub-set of self-actualization). Pricing for PayTV subscriptions are $80-$120/month, though PayTV is generally regarded as a melting ice cube as consumers shift online. While MTCH being able to command similar ARPUs as PayTV is not my base case, the wide disparity between the ARPUs and relative importance between the two indicates significant latent pricing power for MTCH.

As Tinder’s total addressable market (“TAM”) penetration remains low (est. 50m users vs 600m singles ex-China), TAM is potentially underestimated because of the exclusion of non-singles (as noted above, a significant portion of Tinder users are non-singles), and paid user penetration is low (~4.1m average subscribers vs est. 50m users; OkCupid 2015 paid user penetration was 5.7x that of 2012 while MAU doubled and Tinder’s first-year increase in paid user penetration post-monetization was greater than that of OkCupid in 2012, per MTCH S-1), MTCH can likely grow its Tinder’s subscriber base indefinitely.

Replication of MTCH’s core dating brands is difficult due to the need for network effects stemming from initial user liquidity. Capital is not the limiting factor – dating apps with high marketing spend (i.e. hard paywalls) tend to have inferior economics as a result whereas dating apps with the best economics tend to stem from viral adoption which requires little to no marketing spend (i.e. Tinder).

Risks of new dating apps usurping MTCH’s position is mitigated by user compartmentalization of different apps and a largely unsaturated market. Users tend to compartmentalize different dating apps for different sexual strategies. For example, Tinder/Bumble are geared towards casual sexual strategies whereas Match/Coffee Meets Bagel (“CMB”) are geared towards serious sexual strategies. As a result, the average user uses more than 3 different dating apps at one time – per 2Q18 earnings call.

ANGI is in the business of helping contractors improve job turnover/time utilization and helping consumers access quality home services at lower prices through its marketplaces. Its moat is derived from network effects between consumers and contractors and economies of scale in sales and marketing. Recreating ANGI requires significant and multi-year investments in a large sales force (to attract high-quality contractors) and marketing (to attract consumers) to initiate the flywheel. Matching a contractor with a consumer is incredibly hard as the marketplace needs to have the exact capacity available at the zip code level. In addition, matching algorithms are improved with experience and data, which favors incumbents like ANGI. Moreover, given ANGI is pricing at 3%-4% take rates (per IAC 1Q17 shareholder letter) which are far below any comparable marketplace business; any new competitor would likely need to sustain operating losses due to the relative difference in scale.

ANGI has a long reinvestment runway. 90% of discovery occurs offline for US home services; consumer awareness is the bottleneck – the company with the largest sales and marketing budget and lowest customer acquisition costs (i.e. ANGI) is highly likely to acquire the most mindshare over the long-term. Per IAC 2Q16 shareholder letter, an average household has 6-8 jobs per year, with ANGI taking ~1.5 jobs, implying significant room to grow its “job-share”.

While skeptics view Amazon HomeServices as potential existential threat, this is overblown given Amazon’s core advantages are in product e-commerce, not service. Even if Amazon were to significantly ramp up its home services business, the market remains heavily under-penetrated, allowing multiple long-term winners. Such a scenario would also likely be a net benefit to ANGI as it would raise consumer awareness and hasten the transition from offline to online. Furthermore, it takes many years to build a large network of high-quality service professionals and attract a large consumer base, as ANGI can attest to. At the current time, Amazon’s home service business remains nascent.

In my view, ANGI’s primary competitors are Frontdoor and HomeServe. Frontdoor’s primary market is the US whereas HomeServe is largely UK/EU with some US exposure. Whereas ANGI provides a marketplace connecting consumers and contractors, Frontdoor and HomeServe provide home service plans.

Platforms like YouTube can and do get a large portion of the economics of their creators’ content due to their market position. Vimeo provides content creators with better economics – YouTube and Dailymotion takes 50% and 30% of a content creator’s revenue while Vimeo, in addition to a 10% cut, makes money through content creators subscribing to its creator platform. It allows content creators to monetize their content much more profitably through transactional videos-on-demand (“VODs”) instead of advertisements despite the higher content creation costs of transactional VODs. Per IAC 2Q18 shareholder letter, average revenue per subscriber (“ARPS”) at Vimeo has grown 15% per year for the last 4 years (ARPS was ~$100 per IAC 2Q17 shareholder letter), and is accelerating.

Grainger eyes mid-size companies as it invests more in Zoro.com

Grainger is investing in Zoro—which caters to smaller businesses than the larger customers that tend to use Grainger.com—to further develop its staff, expand its number of available SKUs, improve its website features, and expand its web analytics and digital marketing. In effect, Grainger will help Zoro follow in MonotaRO’s growth curve, Macpherson said.

MonotaRO has “20 million items on their website, and we are making investments in Zoro to be able to expand our offering [on Zoro.com] dramatically over the next several years,” he said on the conference call, according to a transcript from Seeking Alpha. He added that he expects Zoro’s improvement projects to be completed by the end of this year, and that Zoro will “remain profitable through the transition.”

“Zoro continues to grow very strongly,” he continued. He added that Zoro currently has several million SKUs but will eventually expand to more than 10 million. Zoro operates internationally, with dedicated e-commerce sites in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as in the United States. It also maintains an online shop on the Zoro section of eBay Canada.

As it expands its available inventory and improves its website, Zoro is also expected to increase its number of mid-sized companies in its customer base, Macpherson said. But Grainger doesn’t expect it to cannibalize many mid-size company accounts from Grainger.com, which caters more to larger customers seeking its selection of industrial and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) products and services, he said.

Grainger has also been working to increase its overall market share of mid-size companies for industrial supplies—now at about 2%, but down from prior share figures—both by “reengaging some” customers and acquiring new ones, Macpherson said. “I would say the new-customer acquisition has been very solid over the last quarter, and we expect that to continue,” he said, adding: “Most of that is acquiring new customers digitally, and then … building a relationship with those customers.”

Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb Q4 2018 investor letter: a2Milk

a2 is a New Zealand-based producer of premium milk and baby formula with an unusually long story behind it. Sometime around five to ten thousand years ago, scientists believe that a genetic mutation began to proliferate throughout certain global populations of cows, changing the protein with the exciting and original moniker A2. Cows that inherited the mutation, by contrast, started to produce milk containing a second protein labeled–you guessed it–A1. While this is far from settled science, some researchers and nutritionists believe that because people have only been drinking A1-bearing milk for a relatively short period by evolutionary standards, our bodies have a harder time digesting it than “pure” A2 milk.

A good analogy here is Greek yogurt, which is believed in some quarters to confer health benefits you can’t get from regular yogurt. While Greek yogurt, like A2 milk, is a commodity product, companies like Fage and Chobani have built big businesses by wrapping compelling brands around it. a2Milk is attempting to do the same thing, to great effect thus far. Riding powerful consumer trends favoring products perceived to be healthy and natural, a2 has become the leading premium milk brand in Australia while making rapid inroads into the massive and quality-obsessed infant formula market in China. An effort to penetrate the US milk market is also showing early promise. Notwithstanding its remarkable success to date, a2 remains a young company, and much will depend on whether management can navigate a thorny distribution landscape in China, solidify the positioning of an embryonic brand and exploit growth opportunities in new geographies and product lines. With good execution, particularly in China, we think a2 could become a much larger business than it is today, more than justifying the statistically high price-earnings ratio we paid for our shares.

NYSE, Nasdaq rival aims to shed light on fee profits

IEX, which itself pays the big exchanges’ fees for data and connectivity, estimated the big three’s charges are between 10 times and 19 times its own costs for market data and as much as 41 times its costs for physical connectivity. In dollar terms, IEX said that while its yearly cost of providing a type of market data feed to its firm customers is $12,000 each, it pays the NYSE $226,320 and Nasdaq $196,000 annually for a similar offering. IEX’s business model differs from that of the big exchanges because it doesn’t charge its customers annual subscription fees for data and connectivity. Instead, it charges based on the size of customers’ trades executed on the IEX venue.

Their industry group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or Sifma, has been fighting the exchanges’ fee increases in the courts for years. In a letter to the SEC last fall, Sifma provided its own analysis of trading data and other costs. This analysis estimated that in 2018, firms paid about 10 times to 30 times more than they had in 2010 to receive the same market information. This is partly owing to the proliferation of charges incurred for the same basic data, the report noted.

The exchanges don’t disclose profit margins for these kinds of services. In the most recent quarter, Nasdaq said its information-services unit, which includes market data revenues, generated an operating-income profit margin of 65%.