Curated Insights 2018.06.17

What helps or hurts investment returns? Here’s a ranking

An unexpected challenge in performing this exercise is a tendency for some elements to offset others. For example, changes in profits could be offset by widening or contracting price-earnings ratios; sentiment might offset valuation; returns tend to vary inversely with risk. Why does this matter? Because in the real world, one hand giveth while the other taketh away. This concept of cancellation matters a great deal to total portfolio returns.

The overall cost of a portfolio, compounded over 20 or 30 years, can add up to (or subtract) a substantial amount of the returns. One Vanguard Group study noted that a 110 basis-point expense ratio can cost as much as 25 percent of total returns after 30 years. That does not take into consideration other costs such as trading expenses, capital-gains taxes or account location (i.e., using qualified or tax-deferred accounts). The rise of indexing during the past decade is a tacit acknowledgment that on average, cost matters more than stock-picking prowess.

Those people born in 1948 not only managed to have their peak earning and investing years (35-65) coincide with multiple bull markets and interest rates dropping from more than 15 percent to less than 1 percent. They also lucked into a market that tripled in the decade before retirement.

Behavior and discipline > Humility and learning > Longevity and starting early > Valuation and year of birth > Asset allocation > Costs and expenses > Security selection


The forging of a skeptic

I think another thing people have gotten confused about is the sustainable competitive advantage and the moat. Durable competitive advantage and moats are not the same thing as brands. People sometimes use these terms interchangeably. I have also seen people ascribe competitive advantages to brands that don’t have them. For example, retailers — retailers have brands. We all know what Macy’s is, but retailing is fundamentally a bad business.

In essence, the merits of a brand are not the brand itself; they are the qualities of the product that create the consumer loyalty. What attracted him, ultimately, to Coca-Cola is that Coca-Cola’s formula make you more, not less, thirsty, and supposedly has been tested to prove that it doesn’t wear out the palate, no matter how much is consumed. This implies infinite sales potential. The cute commercials and cheery red logo create an association in people’s minds with those qualities. They aren’t what makes it Coca-Cola.

While there are moats that include brands, a brand is not a moat. The moat is whatever qualities are innate to the business that make it difficult to compete with

Worried about big tech? Chinese giants make America’s look tame

They have both funded ventures that offer online education, make electric cars and rent out bicycles. For the giants, such initiatives represent new opportunities for people to use their digital wallets — Ant Financial’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay — and new ways to collect data on consumer behavior. Analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein counted 247 investment deals by Tencent in recent years and 156 by Alibaba, though given the pace of the companies’ deal-making, they said their database was “likely to be perennially incomplete.”

In a report this week, Morgan Stanley predicted that by 2027, the total market in China in which Alibaba could be making money will be worth $19 trillion — more than Amazon’s potential market worldwide.

‘As long as they’re unfriendly, it’s a sign they have confidence’

Keyence keeps up compound sales growth of 14 per cent a year (1986-2016) even with sales in the billions of dollars. It takes seemingly simple products such as barcode readers and sells them for five times the cost of manufacture.

Keyence’s first secret is its production outsourcing. It buys raw materials in bulk and sends them to component suppliers; it collects the components and sends them to assemblers and performs the final inspection of goods itself.

The second secret is what Keyence really sells: not a product, but a way to make a factory more efficient. Graeme McDonald, machinery analyst at Citigroup in Tokyo, says the group’s sales engineers “can often provide an idea of how to improve your manufacturing set-up literally on the site with an idea of the payback time and return on investment”. It offers quick victories — such as a sensor to replace manual inspection, for example — not risky projects. “The products they sell are not capital expenditure, they’re cost to the factory manager,” says Mr Noguchi. If the manager can save a $40,000 salary with a $20,000 gadget, they will sign off quickly, without worrying how much Keyence earns.

The products are high quality, if not necessarily unique. Keyence has a modest research budget and less than a tenth of the US patents held by rival automation companies such as Fanuc.

Fanuc in trouble? Talk to the (robot) hand

Fair enough, it’s a tough world for all iPhone dependents. Here’s a wrinkle in the bear-case thesis, though: Overseas shipments of robots and Robodrills from Yokohama, while down elsewhere, are up sharply to Asia. The volume of robots shipped by the port – mostly Fanuc’s – remains close to its highest in decades, at about 5,000 units in April. The company’s backlog of orders is near to its highest in more than two years, according to Bernstein analysts.

How e-commerce with drone delivery is taking flight in China

It is still waiting to earn back its investment in drone-delivery infrastructure, although it says that making a delivery by drone costs a fifth of the price than by man-and-van, once the driver’s labour is taken into account. Liu Qiangdong, JD’s chief executive, says drone delivery will cut costs by 70% once it is scaled up across the country. Villagers tend to buy washing powder, accessories for their phones, maternity goods and fresh food. The firm has made 20,000 such deliveries to date.

JD may have added drones to daily Chinese village life, but whether they will make financial sense for the company over time remains to be seen. Current models of drone are pricey, although JD says the cost will gradually come down as it scales up the network and builds more drones (it plans to sell those it makes to other firms, as well as use them for its operations). The government approves of its operations in rural areas, and is planning to build a new train station in Suqian next to JD’s drone base. If JD can use drone delivery to cut its costs and attract rural shoppers, that will help the firm compete with its arch-rival in e-commerce, Alibaba, which has not, as yet, seen the value of drone delivery. JD hopes that will prove to be a mistake.


Internet lending is booming in China

The balance of online consumer loans in China has grown about fivefold between 2015 and 2017, reaching 350 billion yuan ($54.6 billion), according to Chinese research company Analysys. According to a survey conducted by research specialist Analysys in December 2017, people between the ages of 24 and 35 accounted for more than 70% of consumer borrowers in China.

Chinese consumers, especially people born in 1980 and later, are less squeamish than their older peers about buying on credit. But the total balance of consumer loans in China is still about 60% lower than that in the U.S. and is expected to continue growing. Analysys estimates that the balance of internet loans in China will more than double to 720 billion yuan in 2019, compared with 350 billion yuan in 2017. That flow of credit will likely give a lift to the Chinese consumer market.

The scooter economy

The mistake in Kalanick’s thinking is two-fold: First, up-and-until the point that self-driving cars are widely available — that is, not simply invented, but built-and-deployed at scale — Uber’s drivers are its biggest competitive advantage. Kalanick’s public statements on the matter hardly evinced understanding on this point. Second, bringing self-driving cars to market would entail huge amounts of capital investment. For one, this means it would be unlikely that Google, a company that rushes to reassure investors when it loses tens of basis points in margin, would do so by itself, and for another, whatever companies did make such an investment would be highly incentivized to maximize utilization of said investment as soon as possible. That means plugging into the dominant transportation-as-a-service network, which means partnering with Uber.

My contention is that Uber would have been best-served concentrating all of its resources on its driver-centric model, even as it built relationships with everyone in the self-driving space, positioning itself to be the best route to customers for whoever wins the self-driving technology battle.

Why you should read those boring 10-K filings

The vast majority of the text changes are concentrated in the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) of the 10-K. These disclosures also tend to be more negative than positive, perhaps because the reports are typically drafted by lawyers who tilt toward disclosing negative trends more than positive ones. When the authors applied natural language text processing to evaluate the changes, they found that 86 percent reflected negative sentiment shifts and only 14 percent positive shifts. Furthermore, the text differences contain useful information for predicting future earnings: Changes in the 10-K written text today predict earnings surprises in the future.

Given this negative bias to the textual changes and their ability to predict future earnings, the study shows that companies with 10-K text modifications experience noticeably lower future stock returns than other firms. For example, the authors construct a portfolio that goes long on companies with no material textual changes and shorts firms that contain such changes. That portfolio earns an abnormal positive return of up to 7 percent per year above the market.

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