Curated Insights 2018.08.31

What will always be true

Think about how profound this is. One of the shortest lived mammals and one of the longest lived both have the same expected number of heart beats at birth. The term for differently sized systems displaying similar behavior is known as scale invariance and can be applied to non-biological systems as well.

As the number of employees increases, company revenue increases slightly exponentially/superlinearly. To be exact, every time the number of employees doubles (a 100% increase), revenue goes up by 112% (more than double). This corresponds to the slope of the line above at 1.12 (on a log-log scale). Note that this does not imply causality between these two metrics, but that, in a successful business, they tend to move together in some organic fashion.

For example, Netflix prides itself on being “lean”, Amazon hires thousands of warehouse workers, and Apple has a large retail presence, yet they all seem to adhere to some natural law related to company size and revenue as seen by their similar slopes. I found the same thing when comparing the number of employees to total assets as well, except the scaling exponent was slightly higher at 1.25:

Even if we cured cancer, we only add 3 years to life expectancy. Of course this is still a noble goal because it would prevent so much pain for so many people, but it doesn’t change the fact that life leads to death. It doesn’t change what will always be true. So take your 2.2 billion heart beats and make them count. They are the only ones you will ever get.

How TripAdvisor changed travel

Over its two decades in business, TripAdvisor has turned an initial investment of $3m into a$7bn business by figuring out how to provide a service that no other tech company has quite mastered: constantly updated information about every imaginable element of travel, courtesy of an ever-growing army of contributors who provide their services for free. Browsing through TripAdvisor’s 660m reviews is a study in extremes.

Researchers studying Yelp, one of TripAdvisor’s main competitors, found that a one-star increase meant a 5-9% increase in revenue. Before TripAdvisor, the customer was only nominally king. After, he became a veritable tyrant, with the power to make or break lives.

As the so-called “reputation economy” has grown, so too has a shadow industry of fake reviews, which can be bought, sold and traded online. For TripAdvisor, this trend amounts to an existential threat. Its business depends on having real consumers post real reviews. Without that, says Dina Mayzlin, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, “the whole thing falls apart”. And there have been moments, over the past several years, when it looked like things were falling apart. One of the most dangerous things about the rise of fake reviews is that they have also endangered genuine ones – as companies like TripAdvisor raced to eliminate fraudulent posts from their sites, they ended up taking down some truthful ones, too. And given that user reviews can go beyond complaints about bad service and peeling wallpaper, to much more serious claims about fraud, theft and sexual assault, their removal becomes a grave problem.

By 2004, TripAdvisor had 5million unique monthly visitors. That year, Kaufer sold TripAdvisor to InterActiveCorp (IAC), the parent company of the online travel company Expedia, for $210m in cash, but stayed on as CEO. For the next few years, TripAdvisor continued to grow, hiring more than 400 new employees around the world, from New Jersey to New Delhi. By 2008, it had 26 million monthly unique visitors and a yearly profit of $129m; by 2010, it was the largest travel site in the world. To cement its dominance, TripAdvisor began buying up smaller companies that focused on particular elements of travel. Today, it owns 28 separate companies that together encompass every imaginable element of the travel experience – not just where to stay and what to do, but also what to bring, how to get there, when to go, and whom you might meet along the way. Faced with such competition, traditional guidebook companies have struggled to keep up. In 2016, Fodor’s, one of the most established American travel guide companies, was bought by a company called Internet Brands.

By 2011, TripAdvisor was drawing 50 million monthly visitors, and its parent company, IAC, decided that the time had come to spin it out as a separate, publicly traded entity. Its IPO was valued at $4bn, but in December, on the first day of trading, shares fell. TripAdvisor was in new and uncertain territory, and no one knew how the company would fare on its own.

Even so, TripAdvisor is still worth only half of what it was in June 2014, and its shares dropped again in August after it missed its revenue forecast. Booking.com and Expedia, which together accounted for 46% of TripAdvisor’s annual revenue last year, largely due to marketing deals, cut back on their advertising spending. Where Maffei saw positive results, the travel industry news site Skift saw warning signs. TripAdvisor had grown by only 2% in the second quarter of 2018, it pointed out, using the words “anaemic” and “sluggish” to describe its situation. Over time, TripAdvisor has grown so large that it has become difficult to explain what it is, exactly: it’s not quite a social network, though it encourages users to “like” and comment on each other’s posts; nor is it a news site, though its business is staked on aggregating legitimate sources to provide an up-to-date portrait of the world; nor is it simply an online marketplace like its competitors Expedia.com and Booking.com. When TripAdvisor first started, consumer reviews were a new and exciting thing; now they are everywhere.

How Hollywood is racing to catch up with Netflix

“The modern media company must develop extensive direct-to-consumer relationships,” AT&T chairman-CEO Randall Stephenson told investors last month. “We think pure wholesale business models for media companies will be really tough to sustain over time.”

“The single worst thing Disney could do is launch a DTC product that consumers find underwhelming,” analyst Todd Juenger of Bernstein Research wrote this month. “We struggle to see how Disney can simultaneously make this [sustained] investment while also de-leveraging, even in a stable macro environment. We fear they will either underinvest in the DTC product, or fail to delever.”

Tucows: High reinvestment rate to drive cash flow growth

“First, and probably most importantly, all of our business lines are significantly recession proof. Relatively speaking, low price items, whether they are domain names or mobile phone service or home Internet, they are core needs, things that people cannot do without. They are not luxuries. They are, in the context of today’s world, necessities. And so we believe our business to be relatively recession-proof.”

“When looking at the Ting Internet pipeline, there are a few things that I want to reiterate up front. First, we are not cash constrained. We are not opportunity constrained. We are resource constrained. There is plenty of opportunity out there.” – TCX CEO August 21, 2018


Fiat Chrysler’s cheapskate strategy for the future of driving

The role of supplier to a bleeding-edge innovator has its perks. Fiat Chrysler is currently in talks with Waymo to license the software it would need to sell full self-driving cars to retail customers. Waymo CEO John Krafcik has said he envisions sharing profits from the robotaxi business with automaker partners in the future. “We’re not disrupting this industry—we are enabling this industry,” Krafcik told Bloomberg in an interview last month.

There are also partnerships with BMW AG and auto supplier Aptiv Plc to bring limited autonomous features, such as automated steering and lane changes, to Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep, Ram, Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands starting in 2019. In that way, without paying billions for research, Fiat Chrysler may end up with access to much of the same technology as big-spending leaders in the field.

More than money, Berkshire’s Todd Combs coming on Paytm board is the best outcome: Vijay Shekhar Sharma

I will say something which in counterintuitive here; in India, distribution is king over data. I think the distribution of Paytm, the reach of Paytm is the reason of the network effect that creates its value, not necessarily the outcome of data which we have not started using yet. I could say that different verticals of our business will use it differently versus the plan that we have in terms of our distribution. Our plan is to distribute it across every nook and corner and get a larger number of consumers. That is the first success that we will have and when we build on top of it as the next set of things.

The massive popularity of esports, in charts

In terms of viewership, the big esports events post even more impressive numbers. The 2017 League of Legends world championship, held in Beijing, drew a peak of over 106 million viewers, over 98 percent of whom watched from within China, according to industry analyst Esports Charts. That’s roughly on par with the audience for the 2018 Super Bowl.

Newzoo estimates that by 2021 esports will be a $1.7 billion industry worldwide. A 2018 Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll found, for instance, that 58 percent of 14- to 21-year-olds said they watched live or recorded video of people playing competitive video games, with a similar percentage reporting that they played such games themselves. Among adults overall, just 16 percent said they watched competitive video gaming.

The business of insuring intangible risks is still in its infancy

“Today the most valuable assets are more likely to be stored in the cloud than in a warehouse,” says Inga Beale, chief executive of Lloyd’s of London.

Intangible assets can be hard to define, let alone translate into dollars (under international accounting standards they are defined as “identifiable non-monetary asset[s] without physical substance”). Yet their growth has been undeniable. In 2015, estimates Ocean Tomo, a merchant bank, they accounted for 84% of the value of S&P 500 firms, up from just 17% in 1975. This does not merely reflect the rise of technology giants built on algorithms; manufacturers have evolved too, selling services alongside jet engines and power drills, and crunching data collected by smart sensors.

As the importance of intangibles has grown, so has companies’ need to protect themselves against “intangible risks” of two types: damage to intangible assets (eg, reputational harm caused by a tweet or computer hack); or posed by them (say, physical damage or theft resulting from a cyberattack). However, insurance against such risks has lagged behind their rise. “The shift is tremendous and the exposure huge,” says Christian Reber of the Boston Consulting Group, “but the insurance industry is only at the early stage of finding solutions to close the gap.”

The biggest antitrust story you’ve never heard

Since 1970, the share of the American stock market owned by large investment firms has grown from 7% to 70%. Collectively, the three biggest private funds — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street — own more than any other single shareholder in 40% of the public companies in the U.S. That means they are often the most influential shareholders of companies that are supposed to be in competition with each other. Such “horizontal shareholding,” as it’s called, may erode competition, boost consumer prices, and possibly violate long-standing antitrust laws.

Respect the predictive power of an inverted yield curve

The silver lining in prior yield curve inversions is a recession did not occur immediately. On average it was 19 months before the onset of a recession. Additionally, the average return for the S&P 500 Index from the date of the inversion to the recession was 12.7%. For investors then, one need not panic at the first instance of an inversion; however, thought should be given to one’s portfolio allocations and make any necessary adjustments during the ensuing months. In short, respect should be given to the potential economic impact of a yield curve inversion.

Curated Insights 2018.08.24

Tech firms account for 60% of profit margin growth in the past 20 years

The information technology sector – which contains the bulk of superstar firms – accounts for 60% of the increase in S&P 500 profit margins over the past 20 years, while the “adjacent tech” sector, comprising the health care (including biotech firms) and consumer discretionary sectors (incl. firms such as Booking Holdings and Expedia) accounts for 40% of the rise. It also means the bulk of the market – i.e., all firms ex. tech, healthcare and consumer discretionary – have seen no margin growth at all since 1998.

Dear Elon: An open letter against taking Tesla private

First, as a private company, Tesla will be unable to capitalize on its competitive advantages as rapidly and dramatically as it would as a public company, an important consideration given the network effects and natural geographic monopolies to which autonomous taxi and truck networks will submit. Second, in the private market, Tesla would lose the free publicity associated with your role as the CEO of the public company not only with the bestselling mid-sized premium sedan in the US, but also arguably in the best position to launch a completely autonomous taxi network nationwide in the next few years. Just ask Michael Dell: he wants to lead a public company once again for a reason. Third, you will deprive most of your individual investors of a security to bet on you and your strategy, ceding that opportunity to high net worth and institutional investors. Finally, if you do not take Tesla private, you will be surprised and gratified at investor reaction once they realize and understand the scope and ramifications of your long-term vision and strategies.

Thoughts on Xiaomi’s eighth anniversary and inaugural month as a public company

As of March 2018, Xiaomi already had 38 apps with more than 10 million monthly active users, and 18 apps with more than 50 million monthly active users, including the Mi App Store, Mi Browser, Mi Music, and Mi Video apps. Rather than paying search engines to acquire users, Xiaomi is essentially getting paid for acquiring users through selling its smartphones. This allows Xiaomi to have a negative CAC (customer acquisition cost) for its Internet services.

Another under-appreciated pillar of Xiaomi’s growth is its “ecosystem strategy.” Xiaomi strategically invests in many startups as well as the many Internet services providers they work with, both in China and outside of China. Companies in the Xiaomi ecosystem include SmartMi (air purifiers), Zimi (power banks), Huami (Mi bands), Chun Mi (rice cookers), and 80-plus more. Thanks to these prolific investments, you can find a wide variety of products in any Xiaomi store, from scooters to ukeleles (see below). As a result, every time consumers visit a Xiaomi store, they can find something new, and the frequency of store visits is a lot higher than typical smartphone brands, even Apple.

Ensure the price of the hardware is as low as possible so the company can grow market share and users. Sell the phones online, direct-to-consumer, bypass the middlemen, and past the enormous cost savings to consumers. Overtime, the company will monetize on Internet services.

When Yahoo! Invested in Alibaba (another GGV portfolio company) in 2005, the world had 1 billion Internet users. Now, the world has 3.5 billion Internet users. Over the last 13 years, Alibaba’s valuation increased 100 times from $5 billion to $500 billion. The fact that China was the fastest growing market for Internet users during this period, coupled with Alibaba’s amazing ability to execute, turned the company into a growth miracle. In the next 12-13 years, the world will most likely grow to 5 billion Internet users. The world’s next 1 billion Internet users that will come online in the next decade – via affordable but high-quality smartphones – are outside of the US. They are in the 74 countries that Xiaomi is already in today. Going forward, Xiaomi is very well-positioned to take advantage of the next phase of growth through selling hardware, software, and bundled Internet services, as well as by investing in partner companies in those countries.


Does Tencent Music deserve a Spotify-like valuation?

Tencent Music this year could generate revenue less than half of Spotify’s projected $6 billion. Tencent Music is profitable, which is rare in music-streaming. The firm pulled in roughly two billion yuan ($290 million) in net income last year. Spotify, in contrast, reported a net loss of about $1.4 billion last year, although nearly $1 billion of that was due to a one-time financing charge.

In terms of users, Tencent Music is way bigger than Spotify. Tencent Music operates streaming service QQ Music as well as karaoke and live-streaming music apps Kugou and Kuwo. The three services had a combined 700 million monthly users in China as of September 2017, according to Tencent Music. Tencent Music operates a fourth service, the karaoke app WeSing, which at the end of last year had more than 460 million registered users. By comparison, Spotify had 180 million monthly users and 83 million paid subscribers as of June, the company has said. But Spotify’s ratio of paid versus free users is higher than at Tencent Music, where only a fraction of its Chinese users pay for music.

The secret of Tencent Music’s profitability is virtual goods and cheap music rights. Most of its revenue comes from non-subscription services including karaoke and live-streaming services, where users can pay to send virtual gifts to performers.

Swelling clout of US corporate giants is depressing pay, analysts say

As the economic weight of a small number of highly profitable and innovative “superstar” companies has increased, workers’ slice of the pie has fallen in their industries. This may have contributed to a broader fall in labour’s share of income that has been particularly noticeable in the US since the beginning of the 2000s. At the same time, corporate profitability has surged to record highs. 

Goldman Sachs analysts say rising product and labour market concentration has imposed a drag of 0.25 percentage points on annual wage growth since the early 2000s. They also stress, however, that America’s dreary productivity growth is a bigger problem.

ARK Disrupt Issue 138: GPUs, crypto, fintech, mobility, and disease

Turing will be able to perform graphics, deep learning, and ray tracing operations simultaneously, a first for any processor. The Turing GPU can perform 10 billion operations per second, enabling ray tracing in real time. In addition, it is capable of 125 trillion deep learning operations and 16 trillion graphics operations per second. Nvidia and other chip companies rarely dedicate hardware to a specific algorithm in the absence of a large market opportunity. Nvidia posits that the $2,000 Turing ray tracing GPU will target 50 million artists and designers globally. A 10% hit rate would create a $10 billion market, nearly matching Nvidia’s annual revenue today.

Because 98% of all genetic diseases are polygenic, that is involving more than one gene, the clinical utility of whole genome sequencing (WGS) is taking on new importance. To date, roughly two million whole human genomes have been sequenced. If DNA sequencing costs continue to drop by 40% per year, the number of whole human genomes sequenced should increase at 150% rate per year. As a result, genome-wide association studies should power poly-epigenetic models of disease and result in molecular diagnostic tests which introduce more science into health care decision-making.

Why battling bugs is a booming business, and may be getting bigger

Preventing pest infestations—or mitigating them after the fact—is particularly important for restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. Not only can regulators impose heavy fines or shut down businesses that violate health ordinances, customers who encounter a bug-infested business may shame them on social media. “In the age of customer review apps such as Yelp, businesses are well-aware that a customer report or, worse, photo of a pest infestation can be shared around the internet within minutes and potentially damage their brand,” says Zhu. With reputations at stake, businesses in the food and beverage, hospitality, and health care sectors are especially inclined to hire a pest control company promptly when faced with an infestation. In fact, many commercial customers schedule routine treatments to prevent potential infestations, providing pest control companies with a recurring revenue stream.

The companies best positioned to thrive in this environment are those with access to sufficient capital to acquire or open new locations. Operating an extensive branch network confers a number of competitive advantages, including the opportunity to generate greater brand recognition through cost-effective advertising and the ability to operate with lower average costs due to economies of scale. In recent years, consolidation has been intense in North America, which is still home to about half the world’s pest control companies. In fact, four of the 100 largest pest control companies in the US were acquired in May 2018 alone, two of them by US-based Terminix, and one each by European firms Rentokil and Anticimex.

Despite modern pesticides and the efforts of tens of thousands of companies, pest control remains a Sisyphean task. “It’s easy to kill bugs, but it’s much harder to keep them from coming back,” Zhu says. For the foreseeable future, the bedbugs will continue to bite—and demand for professional pest control services should continue to grow.

Litigation finance offers investors attractive yields

Funds that invest in litigation are on the rise. In the past 18 months some 30 have launched; over $2bn has been raised. Last year Burford Capital, an industry heavyweight, put $1.3bn into cases—more than triple the amount it deployed in 2016. Lee Drucker of Lake Whillans, a firm that funds lawsuits, says he gets calls weekly from institutional investors seeking an asset uncorrelated with the rest of the market—payouts from lawsuits bear no relation to interest-rate rises or stockmarket swings.

Returns are usually a multiple of the investment or a percentage of the settlement, or some combination of the two. Funders of a winning suit can expect to double, triple or quadruple their money. Cases that are up for appeal, where the timespan is short—usually 18-24 months—and the chance of a loss slimmer, offer lower returns. New cases that are expected to take years offer higher potential payouts.

As funders compete for high-quality investments, opportunities in new markets arise. Bentham IMF, a litigation funder based in New York, has joined Kobre & Kim, a law firm, to set up a $30m fund for Israeli startups to pursue claims against multinationals—for example, over trade-secret violations. A burgeoning secondary market is likely to develop further, allowing investors to cash out before long-running suits are closed. Burford recently sold its stake in an arbitration case concerning two Argentine airlines for a return of 736%. Such mouth-watering profits should keep luring capital into the courtroom.

Network-based businesses will disrupt all sectors of the economy

Networks are even more powerful because their foundations are even stronger. Large corporations leveraged mass production, mass distribution, and economies of scale. Networks leverage mass computation, mass connectivity, and network effects. Because computation and connectivity improve at exponential rates, the owner of a network has insurmountable advantages over the owner of a traditional corporation.

Corporations believe that bits enhance atoms. Networks recognize that bits are the new capital and atoms are the new labor.

Dragon quest

China now has over 100 cities with populations topping one million, compared to the entire continent of Europe which has a paltry 34. Ever heard of Zhengzhou? Don’t worry if not, it’s a tier two city in Henan province that only just makes it into China’s top 20, yet it has a bigger population than the whole of Denmark. Expressed another way, China already has more millennials than the US has people.

China is of course the world’s second biggest economy and poised one day to reach the top, but consider this: if its per capita wealth were to catch up with that of Hong Kong’s, then its resulting GDP would not just surpass the United States’ today, but triple it. This is more simply reflected in the fact that each year approximately 35 million Chinese enter the middle and affluent classes. No wonder multinationals around the world are flinging everything they have at the country.


China reaches 800 million internet users

The U.S is estimated to have around 300 million internet users. The number of internet users in China is now more than the combined populations of Japan, Russia, Mexico and the U.S., as Bloomberg noted. The new statistic takes internet adoption in the country to 57.7 percent, with 788 million people reportedly mobile internet users. That’s a staggering 98 percent and it underlines just how crucial mobile is in the country.

Jakarta, the fastest-sinking city in the world

It sits on swampy land, the Java Sea lapping against it, and 13 rivers running through it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that flooding is frequent in Jakarta and, according to experts, it is getting worse. But it’s not just about freak floods, this massive city is literally disappearing into the ground.

“If we look at our models, by 2050 about 95% of North Jakarta will be submerged.”

It’s already happening – North Jakarta has sunk 2.5m in 10 years and is continuing to sink by as much as 25cm a year in some parts, which is more than double the global average for coastal megacities. Jakarta is sinking by an average of 1-15cm a year and almost half the city now sits below sea level. The impact is immediately apparent in North Jakarta.

There is technology to replace groundwater deep at its source but it’s extremely expensive. Tokyo used this method, known as artificial recharge, when it faced severe land subsidence 50 years ago. The government also restricted groundwater extraction and businesses were required to use reclaimed water. Land subsidence subsequently halted. But Jakarta needs alternative water sources for that to work. Heri Andreas, from Bandung Institute of Technology, says it could take up to 10 years to clean up the rivers, dams and lakes to allow water to be piped anywhere or used as a replacement for the aquifers deep underground.

We all have it now

Think about that. It took 7 months for the biggest volcanic explosion in the last 10,000 years, one that affected the global climate and killed twice as many people as any other volcanic explosion in recorded history, to become news. If the same event were to happen today, we could have someone tweeting it within minutes and we would probably have video footage online within the hour. This is possible because of the democratization of information. We all have it now. Historically, having an informational edge was worth something. Being faster or having better access meant making more money. Not anymore.

This is where we are. Only those using advanced quantitative techniques have any chance of exploiting anomalies in the data. The rest of us will need to do something else. We went from a world of privileged access to information to a world where a single tweet can change everything. A world where anyone can break the story, anyone can get the data, and anyone can be a media company. If, as Brendan Mullooly points out, today’s edges are tomorrow’s table stakes, what does that leave the typical investor to do? The answer lies in a maxim from Jim O’Shaughnessy: you must arbitrage human nature.


Buyback derangement syndrome

Investors generally do not spend the money paid out in buybacks on champagne bubble baths or other forms of consumption. Rather, they reinvest it in other stocks and bonds. Buybacks thus facilitate a movement of capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

Yet another claim is that much of the market rise over the last few years has been from buybacks. The numbers don’t bear this out. The direction is plausible, as researchers have found that share prices do tend to increase—by around 1%—when buybacks are announced. Several explanations have been offered for this positive reaction including that investors see repurchases as a signal that management thinks shares are undervalued, and that investors cheer when management returns cash to shareholders rather than, perhaps, wasting it on “empire building.” These explanations are behavioral effects at the margin.

Indexers will cause the next stock market crash?

My Bloomberg colleague Eric Balchunas points out that during the 2008 credit crunch, the money flows were into index funds and exchange-traded funds; more than $205 billion was put into these funds while active funds experienced $259 billion in outflows. In other words, the 57 percent sell-off of U.S. equity markets during the financial crisis gives us a good idea how passive indexers will behave when markets crash: they become net buyers while active funds become net sellers.

Beyond the 2008 crash, we have seen several market corrections since 2009. As my colleague, Michael Batnick observed, from May to October 2011, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell about 20 percent. Again, between May 2015 and mid-February 2016 the S&P 500 fell about 14 percent. Other indexes, such as the Russell 2000 fell even more. And what happened? Passive index funds continued to gain market share at the expense of actively managed funds.

Which raises the question: Just who was “cruelly exposed” in those corrections? By all lights, it looks like it was the actively managed funds.

Curated Insights 2018.08.17

Not enough people are paying attention to this economic trend

Haskel and Westlake outline four reasons why intangible investment behaves differently:

  • It’s a sunk cost. If your investment doesn’t pan out, you don’t have physical assets like machinery that you can sell off to recoup some of your money.
  • It tends to create spillovers that can be taken advantage of by rival companies. Uber’s biggest strength is its network of drivers, but it’s not uncommon to meet an Uber driver who also picks up rides for Lyft.
  • It’s more scalable than a physical asset. After the initial expense of the first unit, products can be replicated ad infinitum for next to nothing.
  • It’s more likely to have valuable synergies with other intangible assets. Haskel and Westlake use the iPod as an example: it combined Apple’s MP3 protocol, miniaturized hard disk design, design skills, and licensing agreements with record labels.

For example, the tools many countries use to measure intangible assets are behind the times, so they’re getting an incomplete picture of the economy. The U.S. didn’t include software in GDP calculations until 1999. Even today, GDP doesn’t count investment in things like market research, branding, and training—intangible assets that companies are spending huge amounts of money on.


How Box conquered the enterprise and became a $1.7 billion company in a decade

However, what most people failed to understand—and continue to misunderstand to this day—is that Dropbox was never launched as a competitor to Box. The use cases were completely different. Box.net and Dropbox may have shared some similar underlying technologies (and an uncomfortably similar name), but the focus of Dropbox was cloud-based file management for the consumer market. Box was focused on file sharing. By the time Dropbox launched in 2007, Box.net had already largely abandoned the consumer market in favor of the enterprise. There were other key differences between the two products, such as the necessity of installing a dedicated Dropbox directory on a user’s local machine versus Box.net’s entirely cloud-based interface. Additionally, the two companies’ target markets and business models couldn’t have been more different.

Levie knew SharePoint was Box’s biggest competitor, so he did what any inventive, irreverent entrepreneur would do—he took out a billboard advertisement on a stretch of highway on Route 101 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The ad promised SharePoint users that Box would pay for three months of SharePoint access if they didn’t prefer Box. In February 2009, Box went one step further in its media assault on Microsoft by erecting another billboard, this one highlighting the many aspects of SharePoint that were most unpopular among its user base.

While the enterprise market represented a unique chance for Box to pivot away from the increasingly competitive consumer market, essentially shifting the focus of the entire company was no small undertaking. Until that point, Box had used a freemium business model. This worked fine for the consumer market, but it was completely unsuitable for the enterprise. This meant Box would not only have to radically redesign its product from the ground up but also restructure its entire business model.

By acquiring Increo, Box immediately gained access to Increo’s innovative document collaboration tools. This was crucial. It wasn’t enough for Box to offer cloud-based storage or integrations with Salesforce and Office. It had to offer additional value as competing tools vied for dominance.

The consumerization of enterprise IT driven by Box and other forward-thinking companies wasn’t merely an attempt to cultivate a unique value proposition or drive adoption. It reflected much broader shifts in computing in general. The advent of Web 2.0 apps created a new design paradigm that placed emphasis on ease of use and accessibility across multiple devices over complex file management tools. Smartphones fundamentally changed the way we think of computing. For an enterprise software company like Box to be at the forefront of trends in usability was impressive.

OneCloud was an excellent example of how consumer-focused design informed Box’s broader strategy. The company had built a platform for developers in 2011 known as the Box Innovation Network, which functioned similarly to an app marketplace. OneCloud was an extension of this idea, only it was intended exclusively for mobile devices. This would later become a predictable cycle in Box’s development. New features were added to the product to meet emerging needs, and those features were presented to users in ways that directly mirrored those of consumer apps and sites.

What’s more important, however, is how well Box converted its free users to paid subscribers. Consumer apps like Evernote convert free users to paid plans at a rate of approximately 3%. Box was converting free users to paid plans at a rate closer to 8%, including major corporate customers such as Bank of New York and ambient advertising powerhouse Clear Channel. As a result, Box achieved revenues of more than $11M in 2011.

Because most of Box’s sales calls came from companies that had already been using the product, Box’s sales teams were typically able to close 60% of those deals within two weeks—an impressive figure, especially considering the often months-long sales cycles typically associated with the enterprise market.

Box has done an excellent job of not only carving out its own niche in an increasingly competitive space but also by applying design and UX principles of consumer-focused SaaS products to redefine how enterprise software looks, feels, and works. With its keen focus on usability, ease, and simplicity, Box has become a leading force in the consumerization of the enterprise and has shaped how other enterprise software companies approach their products.

Ad tech firm poised to surge 50%

Bid factoring is essentially a linear equation that enables marketers to apply multipliers to different targeting parameters. This approach makes it easier to value each user individually and dynamically, allowing marketers to more easily reach their target users. Bid factoring saved time for marketers through automation and removed the need to store tons of line item permutations, therefore lowering data storage costs.

When Green started The Trade Desk, his goal was to “build a company for the next 100 years.” He did not want to follow the same mistakes that other companies in the space made such as having a conflict of interest by being on both the buy and sell side. Green decided to build a demand side platform because he believed the demand side of the advertising transaction will always have the advantage. In advertising it will always be a buyer’s market because it is easy to add supply by having an extra impression on a web page or additional 30-second spot to a commercial break to meet increased demand. This basic economic reality means advertising supply is more elastic than demand and will forever put the buy side in the power position.

The Trade Desk would also be transparent and not charge unsustainable take rates. Green believed once the digital advertising industry matures, total transaction costs to purchase a digital ad would be $0.20-$0.30 for every $1.00 spent, with roughly $0.15-$0.20 going to the DSP and $0.05-$0.10 being split between the SSP and the ad exchange. The Trade Desk could have charged much higher take rates but decided to charge customers what it believed would be the fair end-state price for their services. While take rates could become lower as competition potentially increases, similar to what happened with discount stock brokerages, barriers to entry and the DSP’s ability to provide increasing value to advertisers overtime should preserve prices.

As the ad market has grown, the number of auctions has increased exponentially. In order for a DSP to win an auction, it now takes many more looks. For each ad campaign, costs have increased while revenues remained fairly flat, increasing operating leverage. DSPs that have half the ad spend as The Trade Desk will struggle because they will incur the same amount of expense per ad campaign but monetize less, making it much more difficult to be profitable if you are a smaller player and don’t have the scale.

Every day The Trade Desk’s customers log into their platform to use the data and analysis to value ad inventory and run marketing campaigns. Advertisers provide their customer data and publishers provide their user data, which The Trade Desk uses to help advertisers value media for their specific needs. As The Trade Desk accumulates more data over time, its insight and analysis add more value to its customers, creating a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.


Nvidia’s new Turing architecture is all about real-time ray tracing and AI

Nvidia describes the new Turing architecture as “the greatest leap since the invention of the CUDA GPU in 2006.”

“Hybrid rendering will change the industry, opening up amazing possibilities that enhance our lives with more beautiful designs, richer entertainment and more interactive experiences,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang. “The arrival of real-time ray tracing is the Holy Grail of our industry.”

The new RT cores can accelerate ray tracing by up to 25 times compared to Nvidia’s Pascal architecture, and Nvidia claims 10 GigaRays a second for the maximum performance.

With NGX, Nvidia today also launched a new platform that aims to bring AI into the graphics pipelines. “NGX technology brings capabilities such as taking a standard camera feed and creating super slow motion like you’d get from a $100,000+ specialized camera,” the company explains, and also notes that filmmakers could use this technology to easily remove wires from photographs or replace missing pixels with the right background.


Tesla’s autonomous opportunity is severely underappreciated

We estimate that net revenue for autonomous platform providers – those companies that own the software technology stack for autonomous ride-hailing services – should exceed $2 trillion by 2030, roughly equal to our expectations for automaker revenue at that time. Unlike their auto-manufacturing peers, however, autonomous platform providers should see software-like margins, be less capital-intensive, and enjoy network-effect-driven regional competitive dominance. So, while autonomous platform providers may generate the same revenue as automotive manufacturers, ARK believes these providers will generate six times the operating earnings and consequently will prove to be substantially more valuable. In fact, ARK estimates autonomous platforms will be worth more than the entire $4 trillion global energy sector.

An enhanced Autopilot package with the ability to self-drive costs $5,000 upfront or $6,000 for customers who choose to wait and buy later. Payment for this feature alone can be thought of as nearly pure profit on every Tesla sold. In addition, once Tesla launches the Tesla Network, its autonomous ride-hailing network, it could collect platform fees, similar to Uber’s model today, from every autonomous ride charged to the consumer. Given a rate of $1 per mile to the end consumer and over 100,000 miles per year per vehicle, Tesla could benefit from $20,000 in high-margin platform fees per car per year. Over a five-year lifetime, a single Model 3 could generate $40,000 in net cash flow. Even investors optimistic about Tesla’s prospects project the Model 3 cash flow at $4,000 and one-time in nature. In effect, each Model 3 sale could generate 10 times more cash flow than investors currently understand.

Google’s targeted ads are coming to a billboard near you

Digital outdoor ad spending is growing at 15 percent annually, and will overtake traditional outdoor outlays by 2020, according to PwC. But Google is the 800-pound gorilla that’s not yet in the room. It would give the company another major edge over Facebook, which doesn’t have the same access to location-based mobile data.


Alibaba tweaks a controversial legal structure

There are three problems with VIEs. First, key-man risk. If the people with nominal title die, divorce or disappear, it is not certain that their heirs and successors can be bound to follow the same contracts. Second, it is not clear if the structure is even legal. China’s courts have set few reliable precedents on VIEs and the official position is one of toleration rather than approval. Third, VIEs allow China’s leading tech firms to be listed abroad, preventing mainlanders from easily owning their shares and participating in their success.

Alibaba’s proposed change is aimed at tackling the first problem, key-man risk. At the moment four of its five VIEs are nominally owned by Jack Ma, the firm’s leader, and Simon Xie, a co-founder and former employee. After the restructuring, the two men will no longer be the dominant counterparties. Instead the VIEs will be owned by two layers of holding companies, which will sign contracts with Alibaba. These holding companies will ultimately be nominally owned by a broader group of Alibaba’s senior Chinese staff. The idea is that if anyone gets run over by a bus, then the scheme will not be disrupted, because nominal control is spread among a wider group of people. The new approach is far from perfect but it is an improvement. If all goes to plan it will be completed by 2019. Other tech firms may feel pressure to follow.

$1b+ market map: The world’s 260 unicorn companies in one infographic
60+ startups disrupting IKEA in one market map

SoftBank’s Son says WeWork is his ‘next Alibaba’

It is rare for Son, who casts a wide net with his startup investments, to commit so much resources to a single company. But he said WeWork is more than just a renter of office space: it is “something completely new that uses technology to build and network communities.”

The use of shared space to forge connections is not unique to WeWork. The company’s edge lies in the steady flow of data it collects on members, which is shared with other locations and can be accessed by users of the WeWork app around the world. The idea is that more data means more innovation — a model that underlies Son’s excitement about the company.

What MoviePass can teach us about the future of subscription businesses

Pricing is so powerful that playing with it requires great skill and precision. MoviePass should have done its price experimentation at the outset and on a local basis. It could have optimized the price points and tested alternative pricing models quietly, instead of jerking millions of customers around. Even a slight tweak — such as moving to a club pricing model like Costco’s — might have solved its cash-flow problems.

These kinds of tweaks could also have enabled the company to consider regional pricing strategies, given that its cost of goods (the full price of movie tickets, which it pays theater operators) varies from $8 in Nebraska to over $15 in New York. This case is also a good reminder that the United States has local profit pools. It is silly to think that a one-size-fits-all national strategy is the right approach for a market as ethnically and economically diverse as the United States.

MoviePass failed to recognize how the behavior of superconsumers, customers who are highly engaged with a category and a brand, differs from that of average consumers — and how, if not anticipated, this difference can create problems for a company’s cost model. It can especially be a problem if the company uses a “buffet” model of fixed price and unlimited quantities, as MoviePass did.

Quantum computers today aren’t very useful. That could change

Quantum computers are, however, far more prone to errors than binary machines. Instead of using electric signals to generate a series of zeros and ones like a conventional computer, quantum computers rely on the real-world, mechanical behavior of photons, which are packets of microwave energy. The machines require a complex, multi-layered refrigeration process that brings quantum chips to a temperature just above absolute zero. By eliminating certain particles and other potential interference, the remaining photons are used to solve computational problems. The true magic of this system is how photons can become entangled and produce different but related results. Scientists only partially understand why it works the way it does.

A quantum chip doesn’t look like much with the naked eye. Through an optical microscope, though, you can see the quantum logic gate that makes everything possible. The team here is working on a process of stringing together 16-qubit chips to execute on the 128-qubit design. Essential to this is a new kind of quantum chip that communicates results in three dimensions instead of the current two, which allows Rigetti to fit the chips together like puzzle pieces and turn them into a single, more powerful computer. “What we’re working on next is something that can be scaled and tiled indefinitely,” Bestwick said.

Why the future belongs to ‘challenge-driven leaders’

The consensus view of Mr. Marchionne, relayed by hundreds of tributes, is that he possessed an unusual blend of vision, technical expertise, analytical rigor, open-mindedness and candor. The remembrances also agreed on something else: he was a bona fide eccentric. “God bless you, Sergio,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told Mr. Marchionne during a January conference call. “We’re never going to see anyone like you again.”

The trajectory of great ideas

“Being right is the enemy of staying right because it leads you to forget the way the world works.” – Jason Zweig. Buddhism has a concept called beginner’s mind, which is an active openness to trying new things and studying new ideas, unburdened by past preconceptions, like a beginner would. Knowing you have a competitive advantage is often the enemy of beginner’s mind, because doing well reduces the incentive to explore other ideas, especially when those ideas conflict with your proven strategy. Which is dangerous. Being locked into a single view is fatal in an economy where reversion to the mean and competition constantly dismantles old strategies.

Survivorship bias on wheels

One last thing: When it was introduced as new in 1984, the 1985 Testarossa listed for $90,000 (but dealers charged huge premiums over list due to “Ferrari fever.”) You can still find Testarossas for that original list price — meaning the net returns over 43 years has been precisely zero — before maintenance, storage and repair costs.

As a comparison, in 1985, the benchmark S&P500 was about 200, and it closed yesterday at 2,821.93. That generated an average annual return of about 8.5%, returning 1,400% price appreciation since then, and, with dividends reinvested, over 3,000% total return (in nominal terms, like the chart above, neither is adjusted for inflation).

Selecting investments after the fact is easy; ask yourself this question: What car do you want to buy as an investment for the next 34 years to be sold in 2052?


Curated Insights 2018.08.10

Climbing the wall of worry: Disruptive innovation could add fuel to this bull market

This explanation of the flattening yield curve seemingly suggests that “this time is different,” but this time is not different in the context of disruptive innovation. During the 50 years ended 1929, the last time that three or more general purpose technology platforms were evolving simultaneously, the yield curve was inverted more than half of the time.1 The disruptive innovations of that time – the internal combustion engine, telephone, and electricity – stimulated rapid real growth at low rates of inflation. Through booms and busts in an era without the Federal Reserve and with minimal government intervention, US real GDP growth averaged 3.7% and inflation 1.1%, while short rates averaged roughly 4.8% and long rates roughly 3.8%.2 The yield curve was inverted. So, this time is not different, but investors do have to extend their time horizons to understand the impact of profound technological breakthroughs on the economy.

They all fall down

$1 invested in Disney in 1970 is now worth $197. $1 invested in the S&P 500 is worth $125, for comparison. The 19,500% return in Disney had plenty of bumps in the road. The stock lost 10% on a single day 11 times, including a 29% loss on October 19, 1987. Disney gained 11.5% for 48 years. But of course, there is a huge difference between 11.5% for 48 years and 11.5% every year for 48 years.

These returns were earned only by those able to withstand a massive amount of pain. Disney experienced 13 separate bear markets over the last 48 years, including an 86% crash during the 1973-74 bear market. The S&P 500 experienced just four over the same time.

Nobody could have known in real-time what the future held for this company, or whether its best days were behind it, but these would have been very real questions during every decline along the way. Disney hit an all-time high in January 1973, and wouldn’t see those levels again until 1986. It made a high in April 2000 and then didn’t get back there until February 2011.

Spotify’s playlist for global domination

This has been Ek’s plan all along: to get the music industry so dependent on Spotify that even the doubters can’t live without it. “We need this company to be robust,” Borchetta says of Spotify. “It’s important to the ecosystem of the whole business that they are successful.”

The Spotify team realized that they needed a mobile product that could be accessed by everyone, not just paying subscribers. And they needed it quickly. They had already been negotiating with labels about licensing rights for a free mobile version, but the deals weren’t done. Nor were engineers ready with a product. The sudden crisis sparked company-wide urgency. When the licensing deals were finally signed, in December 2013, “we literally just pushed the button on the same day to get it out there,” says Soderstrom of the new app. There was no time for rigorous testing. “If it had taken another six months, it might have been too late to recover.” The strategy worked: At the end of 2013, Spotify had 36 million users and 8 million paying subscribers; by January 2015, it announced 60 million and 15 million, respectively. Forty-two percent of time spent on Spotify was now via phones and 10% on tablets, the first time mobile listening surpassed desktop.

The new free tier has been a top priority for more than a year. It reflects how important it is for the company to keep acquiring new customers (and turn them into paying ones), but it also has its own commercial element. “Billions of people listen to radio, and most of that today isn’t monetized very efficiently,” Ek says as we chat on the couch in his Stockholm office. “Commercial radio, that’s conservatively a $50 billion industry globally. The U.S. radio industry is $17 billion, close to the size of the whole global recorded music industry, which is $23 billion. And what do people listen to? Primarily music.” Ninety percent of Spotify’s current revenues come from subscriptions, but if the free product expands, so can Spotify’s radiolike advertising business. As Ek notes, with typical understatement, “We still have a lot of room to grow.”

Ek didn’t see the value at first—”Oh, this is going to be a disaster,” he recalls thinking about one playlist innovation—but playlisting did more than increase Spotify’s consumer appeal. It turned Spotify into a user’s personal DJ. The company told investors in its prospectus, filed last February, that “we now program approximately 31% of all listening on Spotify” via playlists, which has created powerful new brands within Spotify such as Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino!. There are now Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino! concert series, pointing the way toward an even broader role for the company within the music business, where it’s generating live event and merchandising revenue without having to pay record labels.

He’s succeeded in the [music] business because he’s extremely patient and not high on his own supply, meaning he has not been susceptible to the vices that ruin people in entertainment. Ek’s personality has opened the door to a different kind of relationship with musical artists from what prevailed in the era of cocaine-snorting, thieving record execs. So far, Ek has been focused on changing how creators get paid; in streaming, an artist is compensated every time a song is played, creating lifetime revenue (albeit a fraction of a penny at a time), whereas in the old model they got paid (sometimes) after selling a CD or download. But that’s only the beginning. “Spotify’s first eight to 10 years were focused on consumers,” says R&D chief Soderstrom. “The next eight to 10 will be focused on artists.”

Spotify for Artists is the most visible example of this new directive. The service, which launched in its current form in 2016, allows musicians to access data on who is listening to their work on the platform and to personalize their presence to enhance engagement. Iconic rock band Metallica, which once helped sue Napster out of existence, used this data on tour to customize its setlists based on what local fans listen to most. Smaller artists have used it to identify where to tour, and to activate their superfans. “Whatever your genre is, you can find an audience,” says Spotify chief marketing officer Seth Farbman.

Ek has been talking a lot this year about Spotify’s mission to get 1 million artists to make a living off the platform, but he doesn’t mean there will be 1 million Lady Gagas or Bruno Marses. Financial analysts often compare Spotify to Netflix—a comparison Ek pushes back against—but Ek’s vision of the future looks more like YouTube: a meeting spot for creators and fans, in groups both large and small, and Spotify benefits when transactions happen in this “marketplace.” Ek says: “In that model, it’s almost like you’re managing an economy.”

“The major-label system was built out for the 5,000 biggest artists in the world,” Carter notes. “If we’re going to [enable] a million artists to make a living, that’s going to require an entirely different ecosystem.” In this world, “an artist might be happy making $50,000 a year, supplementing income from other work to help pay their mortgage, raise their kids, by doing what they love. I’m just as committed to that kind of artist. How do we make it so there are a lot more winners,” Carter says, “to redefine what it means to be a winner?”


The definitive timeline of Spotify’s critic-defying journey to rule music

May 2013: Spotify makes its first acquisition: Tunigo, which already helped users find, create and share new music and playlists on Spotify. Turned out to be a good one! It still underpins the company’s editorial playlist strategy to this day.

March 2014: Spotify acquires The Echo Nest, a startup that specializes in using machine learning to make recommendations and predict the type of music users will want to listen to, generating playlists from that data as well as helping advertisers reach those music fans. This also was a great acquisition! It underpins the algorithmically generated playlists such as Discover Weekly.

Is a change goin’ to come?

Last year, according to the IFPI, global revenues for recorded music (as opposed to live performance) grew 8.1 per cent to $17.3bn, driven by digital revenue’s 19.1-per-cent increase to $9.4bn. Of this digital revenue, streaming did the heavy lifting, as the $6.6bn from subscriptions and advertising constituted a 41-per-cent increase from the previous year. In what perhaps will be seen as a watershed moment, digital revenues accounted for the highest proportion of total recorded revenues for the first time ever, at 54 per cent. In nominal terms, music-industry revenues are still 32 per cent below its 1999 peak. Convert the dollars from Prince’s favourite year to today’s, and you’ll find artists, labels, publishers and the like are earning 54 per cent less than they used to.

Despite the launch of advertising channel Vevo, which Mr Morris led, musicians are still getting nickel-and-dimed by Alphabet’s platform and its competitors. Last year, video streaming accounted for a mammoth 55 per cent of all music listened to online, according to the IFPI. In turn, it only contributed 15 per cent of the revenues that Spotify and friends did.

FAANGs are more solo acts than a tech supergroup

The five biggest stocks in the S&P 500 have accounted for an average of 12.3 percent of the index since 1990, the earliest year for which numbers available. By comparison, the index’s allocation to the five FAANGs is 12.8 percent.

There are lots of surprises. First, not all FAANGs are growth stocks, as measured by historical earnings and revenue growth and predicted earnings growth. Apple, for example, scores a negative 0.1 for growth. Google’s growth score is a modest 0.4.

Second, they’re not all wildly expensive, based on stock price relative to book value, earnings, cash flow and other measures. Apple is slightly more expensive than average, with a value score of 0.05. Google and Facebook score a negative 0.45 and 0.39 for value, respectively — not cheap but far from the richest.

Third, some are higher quality than others, as measured by profitability, leverage and stability of operating results, and not in the order investors might think. Apple has a reputation for sky-high profits and reliable revenue, and yet it scores 0.15 for quality. Meanwhile, Netflix spends lavishly on programming and has negative cash flow, and its quality score is 0.63 — second only to Google’s score of 0.68.

Nor is it likely that the FAANGs will ever have much in common because their attributes are constantly changing. Apple, for example, was a much different bet five years ago, scoring high for growth and low for quality and momentum. The probability that all five stocks will be similarly situated at any given time is exceedingly low.

Elon Musk has some fun with Tesla

Now Tesla does have debt: It has three different convertible bonds, but it also has $1.8 billion of straight bonds that it issued last August to quite receptive investors. Those bonds have sold off since issuance and are rated Caa1 at Moody’s, which, again, are not auspicious signs for adding like 20 times as much debt. And my general assumption about Tesla bonds is that they operate on sort of a Netflix theory, in which bondholders get their security not from the company’s cash flows but from the knowledge that there’s a whole lot of equity value beneath them. If you issue billions more dollars of bonds to get rid of that equity, then why would anyone buy the bonds? FT Alphaville notes that the pressure of public markets, for Tesla, “surely pales in comparison to the pressure to maintain bank/ bond covenants and make interest payments.” “Even if say $40 billion could be financed in the high yield market,” note analysts at Barclays, “the annual interest bill would consume $2.7 billion in cash.”

The eight best predictors of the stock market

• The Philosophical Economics blog’s indicator is based on the percentage of household financial assets—stocks, bonds and cash—that is allocated to stocks. This proportion tends to be highest at market tops and lowest at market bottoms. According to data collected by Ned Davis Research from the Federal Reserve, this percentage currently looks to be at 56.3%, more than 10 percentage points higher than its historical average of 45.3%. At the top of the bull market in 2007, it stood at 56.8%. This metric has an R-square of 0.61.

• The Q ratio, with an R-squared of 46%. This ratio—which is calculated by dividing market value by the replacement cost of assets—was the outgrowth of research conducted by the late James Tobin, the 1981 Nobel laureate in economics.

• The price/sales ratio, with an R-squared of 44%, is calculated by dividing the S&P 500’s price by total per-share sales of its 500 component companies.

• The Buffett indicator was the next-highest, with an R-squared of 39%. This indicator, which is the ratio of the total value of equities in the U.S. to gross domestic product, is so named because Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett suggested in 2001 that is it “probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”

• CAPE, the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, came next in the ranking, with an R-squared of 35%. This is also known as the Shiller P/E, after Robert Shiller, the Yale finance professor and 2012 Nobel laureate in economics, who made it famous in his 1990s book “Irrational Exuberance.” The CAPE is similar to the traditional P/E except the denominator is based on 10-year average inflation-adjusted earnings instead of focusing on trailing one-year earnings.

• Dividend yield, the percentage that dividends represent of the S&P 500 index, sports an R-squared of 26%.

• Traditional price/earnings ratio has an R-squared of 24%.

• Price/book ratio—calculated by dividing the S&P 500’s price by total per-share book value of its 500 component companies—has an R-squared of 21%.

It’s not terribly hard to find a measure that shows an overvalued market. Then, use a long time period to show the market has performed below average during your defined overvalued period. That’s easy. The difficulty is timing the market. For example, during the housing bubble, what I found interesting was how many people were right, that housing was indeed in a bubble. Lots of people realized it. Also, lots of people thought it would burst in 2004. Then in 2005. Then in 2006. They were right, but their timing was way off. Even if you know the market is overpriced, that doesn’t tell you much about how to invest today.


Hot chart: The A-D Line is roaring higher

You have two options as an investor: you could listen to the media or you could listen to the market. They’ve been pushing the notion lately that only a handful of Tech stocks are leading the way for the market, suggesting a weakening breadth environment. In the real world, however, we are participating in a united rally among Tech stocks as a group.

In fact, the Equally-Weighted Technology Index went out just 0.4% away from another all-time weekly closing high, just shy of it’s record high set last month. This is the Equally-Weighted Index, not the Cap-weighted index that the bears are suggesting is pointing to weakening breadth because the big names are such a large portion. If it was true that only a handful of names are going up and market breadth is deteriorating, the Equally-weighted index, which takes the extra-large market capitalization stocks completely out of the equation, would not be behaving this way.

So when someone tells you that breadth is weakening and only a handful of names are driving the market’s gains, you know they haven’t done the work themselves. They’re just regurgitating what they read or overhead somewhere, which happens a lot.

Natural maniacs

A problem happens when you think someone is brilliantly different but not well-behaved, when in fact they’re not well-behaved because they’re brilliantly different. That’s not an excuse to be a jerk, or worse, because you’re smart. But no one should be shocked when people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you don’t like.

There is a thin line between bold and reckless, and you only know which is which with hindsight. And the reason there’s a difference between getting rich and staying rich is because the same traits needed to become rich, like swinging for the fences and optimism, are different from the traits needed to stay rich, like room for error and paranoia. Same thing with personalities and management styles.

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after,” John Boyd once said.

These maxims are always true

In 1962, Warren Buffett began buying stock in Berkshire Hathaway after noticing a pattern in the price direction of its stock whenever the company closed a mill. Eventually, Buffett acknowledged that the textile business was waning and the company’s financial situation was not going to improve. In 1964, Stanton made an oral tender offer of $11​1⁄2 per share for the company to buy back Buffett’s shares. Buffett agreed to the deal. A few weeks later, Warren Buffett received the tender offer in writing, but the tender offer was for only $11​3⁄8. Buffett later admitted that this lower, undercutting offer made him angry.[12] Instead of selling at the slightly lower price, Buffett decided to buy more of the stock to take control of the company and fire Stanton (which he did). However, this put Buffett in a situation where he was now majority owner of a textile business that was failing.

Being stubborn can cost you money. Buffett has talked about that at length over the years. But what is interesting is Buffett operated Berkshire from 1962 to 1985 and made millions of dollars without doing any publicity. No mass media. No hype. Can you imagine that today?

You know what gets you more customers? Execution. Delighting them. Focusing on them.

Scorched earth: the world battles extreme weather

Lloyds, the London-based insurance market, estimates that as much as $123bn in global gross domestic product in cities could be at risk from the impact of a warming planet, including windstorms and floods.

Meanwhile a 2015 study by the journal Nature found that due to climate change, global incomes were likely to be one-fifth lower in 2100 than they would be with a stable climate. And later this year the UN will issue a landmark report that quantifies the impact of 1.5C of warming, compared with 2C. Leaked copies suggest that the world will pass the 1.5-degree warming target by about 2040.

Curated Insights 2018.08.03

Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky

Apple did it the old fashioned and the new fashioned way – great products, great marketing, incredible innovation, brilliant people, global supply chain, incessant improvements and updates, buybacks and dividends, R&D and M&A, domestic hiring and international outsourcing, wild creativity and diligent bean-counting. They had it all and used it all. It’s an amazing story. Many of us were able to be along for the ride.


Business lessons from Rob Hayes (First Round Capital)

It is a red flag for me if the founders have 20 slides in their deck on their product and are not getting into issues like distribution, team or other parts of the business. There have been very few products that cause people to beat a path to the door of the business on their own [like Google or Facebook]. Successful companies almost always have operators running them who know how to market, sell, manage an income statement and hire.


Why do the biggest companies keep getting bigger? It’s how they spend on tech

The result is our modern economy, and the problem with such an economy is that income inequality between firms is similar to income inequality between individuals: A select few monopolize the gains, while many fall increasingly behind.

The measure of how firms spend, which Mr. Bessen calls “IT intensity,” is relevant not just in the U.S. but across 25 other countries as well, says Sara Calligaris, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. When you compare the top-performing firms in any sector to their lesser competition, there’s a gap in productivity growth that continues to widen, she says. The result is, if not quite a “winner take all” economy, then at least a “winner take most” one.

What we see now is “a slowdown in what we call the ‘diffusion machine,’” says Dr. Calligaris. One explanation for how this came to be is that things have just gotten too complicated. The technologies we rely on now are massive and inextricably linked to the engineers, workers, systems and business models built around them, says Mr. Bessen. While in the past it might have been possible to license, steal or copy someone else’s technology, these days that technology can’t be separated from the systems of which it’s a part.

This seemingly insurmountable competitive advantage that comes with big companies’ IT intensity may explain the present-day mania for mergers and acquisitions, says Mr. Bessen. It may be difficult or impossible to obtain critical technologies any other way.

Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason

Facebook didn’t intend for any of this to happen. It just wanted to connect people. But there is a thread running from Perkins’ death to religious violence in Myanmar and the company’s half-assed attempts at combating fake news. Facebook really is evil. Not on purpose. In the banal kind of way.

Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans. The company’s singular focus on “connecting people” has allowed it to conquer the world, making possible the creation of a vast network of human relationships, a source of insights and eyeballs that makes advertisers and investors drool.

But the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them.

The solution is not for Facebook to become the morality police of the internet, deciding whether each and every individual post, video, and photo should be allowed. Yet it cannot fall back on its line of being a neutral platform, equally suited to both love and hate. Arendt said that reality is always demanding the attention of our thoughts. We are always becoming aware of new facts about the world; these need to be considered and incorporated into our worldview. But she acknowledged that constantly giving into this demand would be exhausting. The difference with Eichmann was that he never gave in, because his thinking was entirely separated from reality.

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps—like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Thinking about Facebook

If you accept that assumption, 35% EBIT margins on $97 billion in sales would equal $34 billion in operating income. Inversely, that implies more than $60 billion in expenses (COGS + OpEx). This suggests that Facebook’s run rate expenses will more than triple from 2017 to 2022. Over that same period, these assumptions would result in cumulative revenue growth of around 140%.

Let me give you one example to show just how much money we’re talking about here (over $40 billion in annual expenses). It’s assumed that Facebook will need to hire many people for its safety and security efforts. If it adds an additional 20,000 employees and pays them $200,000 each (not a bad salary!), that would cost them $4 billion a year. For some context, Facebook announced back in October that it planned on hiring an additional 10,000 safety and security personnel by the end of 2018. I’ve tried to give them plenty of room, and this still only covers roughly 10% of the incremental costs we need to account for to push operating margins to the mid-30s.

Here’s my point: I have a tough time understanding how Facebook can possibly need to spend this much money. It seems to me that this is largely a choice, not a necessity.


Apple’s stock buybacks continue to break records

No company has bought back more shares since 2012 than Apple. It has repurchased almost $220 billion of its own stock since it announced in March 2012 that it would start to buy back shares. That is roughly equivalent to the market value of Verizon Communications. Over that period, the number of Apple’s shares outstanding has dropped by just over a quarter.

Waymo’s self-driving cars are near: Meet the teen who rides one every day

Tasha Keeney, an analyst at ARK Invest, says that Waymo could choose to offer an autonomous ride-hailing service today at around 70 cents a mile—a quarter of the cost for Uber passengers in San Francisco. Over time, she says, robotaxis should get even cheaper—down to 35 cents a mile by 2020, especially if Waymo’s technology proves sturdy enough to need few human safety monitors overseeing the autonomous vehicles remotely. “You could see software-like margins,” Keeney says.

Bill Nygren market commentary | 2Q18

A closer look reveals that Gartner stock fell when management opted to substantially increase selling and marketing expenses to pursue accelerated organic growth, which in turn decreased the company’s reported earnings. The way GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) works, because the future benefit of a marketing expense is uncertain, the cost is immediately expensed. But at a company like Gartner, these marketing expenses could easily be seen as long-term investments in company growth. That’s because a Gartner customer tends to remain with the company for a long time—a little more than six years, on average. So we adjusted the sales and marketing expenses to reflect a six-year life, just like GAAP would treat the purchase of a machine that was expected to last six years. With that one adjustment, Gartner’s expected EPS increased by almost $3. Using our adjusted earnings, which we believe reflect a more realistic view of those intangible assets, Gartner appears to be priced as just an ordinary company.

Ferrari slumps after CEO says Marchionne target is ‘aspirational’

Ferrari is banking on Camilleri getting up to speed quickly to press ahead with Marchionne’s plan. While Marchionne was planning to retire from Fiat Chrysler in 2019, he was meant to stay on at Ferrari for another five years. His succession plan was not as advanced at the Maranello-based company as it was at FCA.


WeWork is just one facet of SoftBank’s bet on real estate

If the market opportunity is big, SoftBank will typically make investments in regionally dominant companies operating in that sector. After all, if worldwide dominance is difficult to obtain for any one company, SoftBank is so big that it can take positions in the regional leaders, creating an index of companies that collectively hold a majority of market share in an emerging industry.

Heineken inks $3.1 billion deal to grow in hot China market

The deal will help Heineken gain a tighter foothold in a crowded field by leveraging China Resources Beer’s extensive distribution network, while also sharing in the returns of China’s beer market leader. China is now the second-largest premium beer market globally, and is forecast to be the biggest contributor to premium volume growth in the next five years.

Under the deal, Heineken’s operations in the country will be combined with those of China Resources Beer, and the Dutch brewer will license its brand to the Chinese partner on a long-term basis, according to company statements Friday. China Resources Beer’s parent company will acquire Heineken shares worth about 464 million euros ($538 million). Heineken will also make its global distribution channels available to China Resources’ brands including Snow, according to the statement.

Branded Worlds: how technology recentralized entertainment

There are two answers to the first question: cost and time. Maybe it’s a lot easier to shoot and edit movies/TV than it used to be, but sets, locations, actors, scripts — those are all expensive and difficult. Better amateur work is still far from professional. And while it’s true we’re seeing interesting new visual modes of storytelling, e.g. on Twitch and YouTube, it’s very rarely narrative fiction, and it’s still distributed and monetized via Twitch and YouTube, gatekeepers who implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) shape what’s popular.

More importantly, though, democratizing the means of production does not increase demand. A 10x increase in the number of TV shows, however accessible they may be, does not 10x the time any person spends watching television. For a time the “long tail” theory, that you could make a lot of money from niche audiences as long as your total accessible market grew large enough, was in vogue. This was essentially a mathematical claim, that audience demand was “fat-tailed” rather than “thin-tailed.”

China is building a very 21st century empire—one where trade and debt lead the way, not armadas and boots on the ground. If President Xi Jinping’s ambitions become a reality, Beijing will cement its position at the center of a new world economic order spanning more than half the globe. Already, China has extended its influence far beyond that of the Tang Dynasty’s golden age more than a millennium ago.
It used to be the case that active portfolio management was the default investment style. Over time, and with the help of academic finance, we have come to realize that there are other factors at work. The most obvious of which is the market factor or beta. It is this insight that underlies the rise in index investing. A trend which by all accounts is still in place.