Curated Insights 2017.08.20

Apple has the best business model for generating cash

Apple’s $64B of operating cash flow was nearly as much as that of Alphabet ($36B), Facebook ($19B), and Amazon ($17B) combined. In essence, Amazon is doing as well financially as Facebook. Google is generating as much cash as Amazon and Facebook put together. Apple is generating nearly as much cash as Amazon, Facebook, and Google combined.

Apple’s $51B of TTM free cash flow is $3B more than the free cash flow produced by Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon combined. In what may come as a surprise, Apple is bringing in 70% more free cash flow than Microsoft, who is still considered to possess one for the more lucrative business models in existence.

Apple is a design company focused on selling tools capable of fostering superior experiences. Scale is considered a byproduct of a properly functioning business model. Facebook and Google are service companies focused on offering free, data-capturing services to as many people as possible. The business models are dependent on achieving scale in order to access as much data as possible. Amazon is a retail platform company focused on getting you to buy more stuff over time. Scale in terms of purchase volume is needed in order for the cash flow/reinvestment cycle to continue.

Instead, we have non-hardware companies pontificate how hardware won’t matter in the future. In reality, the opposite will likely occur. Hardware will matter more going forward. The wearables industry represents a good example of this in practice. Meanwhile, the way smartphone and tablet components are mattering more now than ever to AR and AI is another hole in the “hardware won’t matter” thesis.


No one knows how much money WeChat is making, and investors are too bullish to care

…the success of Honor of Kings as an example of WeChat’s indirect influence on Tencent’s revenue growth. “When you go into the game, it becomes all about playing with your WeChat friends, and looking at their scores and achievements,” he says. Honor of Kings is currently ranked the top-grossing game in China’s iOS App Store (registration required), and four other Tencent titles fill out the top 10.

…pointing to WeChat’s low take on payments (Stripe and PayPal each charge about 3%) and its aggressive discounts, speculates it’s a loss leader. Tencent executives, meanwhile, have downplayed its role in making money for the company. “We consider payment at this point in time as to [sic] infrastructure service rather than a service that generates profit for us. And I think that status will maintain for quite some time.”

“Payments are the gateway to lending. And because you’re tracking the same consumer across so many platforms, you know the credit score of the consumer and you have very few non-performing loans.”


How Baidu will win China’s AI race—and, maybe, the world’s

But to train the algorithms that will deliver the intelligence to transform our cities, it needs data. To wit: The company with the most data wins.

Clearly, he saw more opportunity across the Pacific: In China, 731 million people—nearly twice the entire population of the United States—are online. Says Lu: “China has the structural advantage.”

We’re the first major company to clearly separate the perceptual and the cognitive layer. Perceptive capability and the cognitive are related, but they are quite different. Most of the [other] AI platforms bundle them together.

But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems.

It’s just like the phone ecosystem today. The phone ecosystem is the largest silicon software ecosystem. I believe the same thing will happen for the autonomous system. The car is going to build a larger ecosystem. And the same set of capabilities—hardware, sensors, chip sets, software—will be used to build industry robots, home robots. We want to have hundreds of companies and universities all at work on this, building a very large ecosystem. Then we can build robots, build drones, and build all those autonomous systems. So, to me, autonomy is a key.

…because China is highly, highly fragmented. There’s more than 250 car OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], unlike the United States, which is a heavily concentrated industry. None of the OEMs will have the full capabilities to build out deep R&Ds. With our code base that we released on July 5, [we will make it possible for] one person to assemble a vehicle in three days that can do autonomous driving in limited forms and start on R&Ds.

We’re competing against nobody. We enable each OEM, whether it’s Bosch, Continental, or Nvidia, to be able to do more.


Amazon has largest A.I. platform in the world, its machine learning guru boasts

Despite the lack of notoriety, “inside Amazon we’ve been doing machine learning for over twenty years,” he notes, and anyway, “We have more machine learning running on the platform than anywhere else” he claims, meaning AWS is doing more A.I. than Google or any other facility in the world.

“Today, machine learning is very technical,” he says, but overtime, and with Amazon’s help, it is going to be simpler and simpler to apply machine learning to any number of different applications, “and to do it with high accuracy.”

Wood noted another important development, the shift from just the “training” phase of A.I., where a computer deduces patterns, to the “inference” stage, where it responds to user requests based on what it’s learned.

…what he thinks of machines making machines, meaning, machine learning being able to design new algorithms for machine learning, a kind of self-reflexive moment in A.I. “Absolutely,” says Wood, “It’s already happening. There are customers on AWS who are training bots to to make algorithms.” One example is something called Bandits, where machines face off against one another, with one machine trying to deduce learning models while the other is trying to trick it with falsehoods.

Amazon expands program that pays Alexa developers for top-performing voice apps

It’s notable that the Alexa platform has managed to attract a sizable group of developers ahead of any formal compensation program, or support for traditional app monetization business models, like freemium apps, paid apps, and advertising. Despite this, Alexa’s app store has grown to over 15,000 skills in a relatively short period of time – after all, the Echo speaker – Amazon’s first Alexa device – wasn’t even available to the public until July 2015.

That said, direct payouts for skills is a program that can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, developers will demand more control over their businesses, rather relying on some inscrutable algorithm. In the meantime, Amazon will face competition from rivals, including Google Home and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod – both from companies who have a better understanding of how an app store ecosystem works.


Amazon in talks to offer event ticketing in U.S.

…the U.S. ticketing market as ripe for attack. Consumers dislike ticket fees, and venue owners, sports leagues and teams want more distributors for their tickets as they seek to boost sales. Access to tickets could be another means to lure members to the Amazon Prime shopping club. For music acts and sports teams, selling tickets through Amazon could help sell their merchandise.

Amazon has had conversations to partner with Ticketmaster as a potential way to get into ticketing in the United States, but those conversations have stalled over who would control customer data, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.

Ticketing would likely make money for Amazon, which has a patchy record of profitability. Ticketmaster generated $1.6 billion in revenue from initial sales of tickets to events in 2016, according to estimates by research firm BTIG. That figure does not include revenue from the reselling of tickets, which BTIG estimates at $250 million.


Amazon looks to new food technology for home delivery

If the cutting-edge food technology comes to fruition, and Amazon implements it on a large scale, it would be a major step forward for the company as it looks to grab hold of more grocery customers shifting toward quick and easy meal options at home.

The pioneering food-prep tech, known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS… The method involves placing sealed packages of food in pressurized water and heating them with microwaves for several minutes, according to 915 Labs.

“They obviously see that this is a potential disruptor and an ability to get to a private brand uniqueness that they’re looking for. They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go.”

“They have to leapfrog to MATS because they don’t have the refrigerated supply chain like we have in the U.S.”

Facebook buys computer vision startup focused on adding objects to video

…could be useful as Facebook pursues additional video filter creation technology, both for its live streaming efforts, and for platforms like Instagram Stories.

…being able to add objects to live video and remove them or cover them over on the fly is also something that can be put to interesting use in the emerging field of augmented reality.

The world’s shipping companies are going super-sized

A massive consolidation is underway in the $500 billion global industry and the survivors now enjoy big economies of scale and increased demand, one year after excess capacity caused the sector’s worst-ever crisis — the bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co.

These super-sized shipping companies wield much more pricing power over manufacturers and retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. The five biggest container lines control about 60 percent of the global market, according to data provider Alphaliner. Shipping rates are climbing, and an index tracking cargo rates on major routes from Asia is about 22 percent higher than it was a year earlier.

“Since the demise of Hanjin Shipping, flight to quality has become more noticeable in the container shipping business,” said Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul. “That’s why the market is becoming more and more dominated by top players with big ships and those that don’t have could become more and more obsolete.”


The awesome but mostly unknown story of Carlsberg beer in China (Part 1, Part 2)

It was a daring strategy. Inland China was the one region that was not yet dominated by the large SOE brewers. It was still open territory. But you also need to have a picture in your mind of Western China circa 2003. It was the poorest part of China. It was a massive and undeveloped territory. There was little infrastructure and even less money.

A review of Sunny’s Carlsberg presentation in 2006 is fascinating. Western China had exceptionally low per-capita beer consumption. In Eastern China in 2005, it ranged from 30-80 liters per person, but in Tibet and Ningxia it was only 10-15 liters. And in Yunnan and Xinjiang it was closer to 3 liters. That could of course mean big growth one day. More likely, it meant small money in difficult geographies for the foreseeable future.

Across the board, it was a strategy of regional dominance. They were building a competitive advantage based on local economies of scale in marketing, distribution and production. And they were racing to become a giant in the West.


Deep learning could discover new plant species hidden in centuries of herbarium data

…but the valuable info in these slowly vanishing temples to the plant kingdom needs to be modernized in order to be of use to an increasingly digital-first scientific community.

They trained a plant-identification algorithm on a quarter million images of plant samples, and set it to work IDing new sheets. It matched the species picked by human experts exactly 4 out of 5 times, and 90 percent of the time the correct species was in the algorithm’s next few guesses.

“People feel this kind of technology could be something that will decrease the value of botanical expertise,” study co-author Pierre Bonnet told Nature. “But this approach is only possible because it is based on the human expertise. It will never remove the human expertise.”

CRISPR’d pigs offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage

The findings represent an important breakthrough in the potential for xenotransplantation, or the use of animal organs in humans. Currently there are more than 117,000 men, women and children on the donor waiting list in the U.S., 22 of whom die each day from lack of a matching donor. The ability to use a pig heart, lungs or other body parts could shore up the shortage and save numerous lives.

This is the first time researchers have been able to demonstrate they were able to inactivate PERV and open the way for xenotransplantation without cross-species contamination.

CRISPR holds enormous potential to wipe out diseases in both humans and animals, upend our food system and has many other applications we likely don’t see yet. Just last week, U.S. scientists were able to demonstrate they could successfully CRISPR out a faulty heart gene mutation in human embryos. However, there is still a lot to take into account before applying the technology to fully formed human beings.


The death of the internal combustion engine

And then there is oil. Roughly two-thirds of oil consumption in America is on the roads, and a fair amount of the rest uses up the by-products of refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel. The oil industry is divided about when to expect peak demand…

Meanwhile, a scramble for lithium is under way. The price of lithium carbonate has risen from $4,000 a tonne in 2011 to more than $14,000. Demand for cobalt and rare-earth elements for electric motors is also soaring. Lithium is used not just to power cars: utilities want giant batteries to store energy when demand is slack and release it as it peaks. Will all this make lithium-rich Chile the new Saudi Arabia? Not exactly, because electric cars do not consume it; old lithium-ion batteries from cars can be reused in power grids, and then recycled.

Housing for the long run?

Housing beat stocks mostly because the returns were less than half as volatile. Thanks to the magic of compounding, this created a performance gap of more than 2 percentage points each year, on average, since 1950, with an even bigger gap if you start the clock in 1870.

Housing has beaten stocks since 1950 because rental income has been better than dividend income, not because house prices have grown more than stock prices.

It’s possible to imagine a world where most housing is owned by large diversified investment trusts that anyone can invest in, but until then, “housing for the long run” is not a practical investment strategy.


Sustainability of hedge-fund reinsurers questioned

Such reinsurers generally engage in “low-margin and low-volatility (property/casualty) reinsurance business,” and try to generate returns for investors through hedge fund investment or other strategies.

The fund reinsurers’ strategy is a half success, as they outperform traditional reinsurers’ investment record. This is still not enough to offset underwriting losses, says S&P, leaving the fund reinsurers trailing their more established brethren in total return.

“We continue to believe that HFRs need to focus as much on the additional risks of their overall strategies as they do on the higher investment returns,” S&P said, adding that “HFRs will continue to evolve, learn from their earlier brethren’s mistakes, and nibble at the edges of the reinsurance market as they carve out a niche for themselves.


ASEAN at 50

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353). This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

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