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.

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