Curated Insights 2019.03.29

How concentration affects portfolio performance

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

What is Amazon?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Photoshop. Adobe is a marketing company now

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

Demystifying aviation economics

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

Curated Insights 2019.03.15

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

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

The twenty craziest investing facts ever

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2019.03.08

The difference between the natural world and the investment world

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

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

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

Facebook’s privacy cake

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

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


Zillow’s billion dollar seller lead opportunity

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Netflix of China might just be wishful thinking

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

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

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

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

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

Investors are losing millions on overpriced Chinese art

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2019.03.01

The value chain constraint

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

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

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

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

The risk of low growth stocks

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

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

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

Zillow is now the Netflix of homes

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

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

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

Aligning business models to markets

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

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

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