Curated Insights 2019.05.31

China, leverage, and values

This is the true war when it comes to technology: censorship versus openness, control versus creativity, and centralization versus competition. These are, of course, connected: China’s censorship is about control facilitated by centralization. That, though, should not only give Western tech companies and investors pause about China generally, but should also lead to serious introspection about the appropriate policies towards our own tech industry. Openness, creativity, and competition are just as related as their counterparts, and infringement on any one of them should be taken as a threat to all three.

Long Zillow. Short real estate agents?

Return on homes sold before interest expense (4-5% target):
$255,000 x 4% = $10,200 per house x 60,000 houses = $612 million.

Adjusted EBITDA before adjacent opportunities (2-3% target):
$255,000 x 2% = $5,100 per house x 60,000 houses = $306 million.

Their email says something like this:

Mr. Prescott,

We noticed you have looked at this house on 523 Elm St. seven times over the past month. Great news! This house just became part of our inventory😁

We are prepared to offer you $275,000 for you current house.

We will sell you 523 Elm St. for $315,000.

Since you have $100,000 of equity in your current house (they know this because they financed it), we are prepared to offer you a 15-year mortgage for $215,000 at a 3.5% interest rate.

Your TOTAL out-of-pocket expenses for this transaction will be $4,300 (people like certainty; moving will $100 dollar you to death).

In addition, here are three dates we can move you out of your current house, and into your new house.

Attached are some repairs we think this house will need and what they will cost. If you choose to go forward with any of them, we will proceed with the repairs, and the costs will be rolled into your mortgage at no additional out-of-pocket cash for you.

This offer will expire in 72 hours.

Again, your total OUT-OF-POCKET cash, should you accept this offer, will be $4,300 dollars. And not a penny more.

If you would like proceed, just click “Accept this Offer” and one of our agents will be in touch with you shortly…

Cordially,
Future Zillow

The inside story of why Amazon bought PillPack in its effort to crack the $500 billion prescription market

Spending on U.S. prescription medications is approaching $500 billion a year and growing up to 7% annually, according to IQVIA, a provider of health data. Roughly 60% of American adults have at least one chronic illness, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes, and 40% have two or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The retail drug market for prescriptions has been dominated by large pharmacy chains, including CVS and Walgreens, and independent pharmacies, which all count on a few middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to negotiate prices, as well as a handful of large drug distributors.

Field notes: Highlights from Huawei

Huawei has about 700 mathematicians, 800 physicists, 120 chemists, six or seven thousand basic research experts, and more than 60,000 engineers. We have compiled more than 15,000 research experts to turn capital investment into knowledge. We have more than 60,000 practical personnel to develop products and turn that same knowledge back into capital [into revenue]. We have always supported scientists outside the company to conduct research.

Curated Insights 2019.05.17

Uber's biggest underestimation would be thinking its competition was just the taxi and limousine market in the U.S., a $4.2 billion opportunity. That turned out to be way too small. Instead, Uber's revised total addressable market is all vehicle and public transport trips, according to its S-1 filing. That's now a $5.7 trillion market size.

The investor who turned down Uber at a $5m valuation

In its 2010 seed round, Uber raised $1.6m according to Pitchbook, giving it a $5.4m valuation. On Friday, it closed its first day of trading publicly with a valuation of around $70bn. That was significantly below the $100bn valuation the company had recently hoped to achieve, but it still meant early investors were able to cash in on huge returns.

But he was wary. Having lived in London for many years previously, he said he knew how strong the taxi lobbies were. In Los Angeles, he knew that everyone had their own cars and never took cabs. This was clearly going to be a niche, local service for certain cities only, he thought. 

WeWork wants to become its own landlord with latest spending spree

Neumann took control of 65 percent of WeWork’s voting equity as part of a 2014 funding deal—while celebrating, he partied so hard he broke a floor-to-ceiling window in his office, according to a person familiar with the incident—and since then, he’s been known to make company-level decisions on what look, from the outside, like whims. When WeWork sold bonds for the first time a year ago, it originally planned to sell $500 million worth, but the final number was $702 million, because 702 was deemed a lucky number, a source familiar with the matter says. Neumann referred a question on the number to his general counsel, who declined to comment. It’s unclear what strategic value WeWork’s investment in an indoor wave pool company offered, but Neumann does love to surf.

Curated Insights 2019.05.10

Why you’ll never invest in the next big short

Greenblatt’s Gotham Capital funded Burry’s investment fund when he decided to quit medicine and become a full-time investor. They even took an ownership stake that was rewarded handsomely when Burry’s value investments performed well right out of the gate. But when Burry got interested in betting against the housing market in 2005-2006, Greenblatt, along with many other investors in the fund, balked.

Burry so believed in his bet against these terrible housing loans that he eventually put a gate on his fund. In hedge fund speak, this means he made it harder for his investors to withdraw capital. Greenblatt and company threatened to sue and it almost forced Burry to give up on his trade of a lifetime:

“If there was one moment I might have caved, that was it,” said Burry. “Joel was like a godfather to me—a partner in my firm, the guy that ‘discovered’ me and backed me before anyone outside my family did. I respected him and looked up to him.”

Of course, Burry was proven right. By June 2008 his fund was up nearly 500% from its inception in 2000 versus a gain of just 2% in the S&P in that time. He and his investors made out like bandits from his housing short. Greenblatt is a legend and he almost let one of the greatest trades ever made slip away because he didn’t understand it. But can you blame him?

In 2006, the S&P 500 was up more than 15% while Burry lost close to 20% because the housing market had yet to roll over. Burry was a tried and true value investor so betting against the housing market was an enormous style drift on his part. And gating your fund after a horrendous year isn’t a great signal to investors. If someone like Greenblatt nearly whiffed on the greatest trade of all-time, what chance would you have at seeing something like this through?

Burry sent an email in the fall of 2008 to some of his friends that read: “I’m selling off the positions tonight. I think I hit a breaking point. I haven’t eaten today, I’m not sleeping, I’m not talking with my kids, not talking with my wife, I’m broken.” It’s hard enough to make money when the markets are in upheaval but Burry was basically betting against the entire system here. You get the sense from reading Lewis’s book that, although they made a ton of money, the people who pulled this off didn’t delight in the situation even after being proven right. It exacted a toll on everyone involved.

To his founding investor, Gotham Capital, he shot off an unsolicited e-mail that said only, “You’re welcome.” He’d already decided to kick them out of the fund, and insist that they sell their stake in his business. When they asked him to suggest a price, he replied, “How about you keep the tens of millions you nearly prevented me from earning for you last year and we call it even?”

Larry Fink, Barclays and the deal of the decade

Mr Fink swooped. In March 2009, he began negotiating with Bob Diamond and John Varley, then president and chief executive of Barclays respectively. The $15.2bn cash-and-stock deal they announced in June transformed BlackRock into a financial services colossus and ultimately changed the shape of the global investment industry. Barclays, in turn, managed to avoid a government bailout but it has since been accused of selling its crown jewel.

In one stroke the purchase made BlackRock the world’s largest fund manager, with $2.8tn in assets. Ten years on, it oversees $6.5tn and has a market value of more than $74bn. More importantly, it ensured the company, which was then best known as an active fixed income manager, had a large foothold in part of the asset management industry known as passive investing. BGI, through its iShares brand, was a leader in exchange traded funds, where funds passively track an index of shares instead of making active bets on stock prices of different companies. Since 2009, assets managed in ETFs globally have ballooned from just over $1tn to a record $5.4tn.

Barclays secured a 19.9 per cent BlackRock stake as part of the BGI deal, which was valued at $13.5bn when announced but rose to $15.2bn when it completed six months after a 62 per cent surge in BlackRock shares. “Selling that stake in 2012 turned out to be a bad move,” said Mr Weight. The divergence in fortunes of the respective shareholders has been stark. BlackRock has outperformed Barclays by 470 per cent in common currency terms since the BGI deal. During the decade Barclays shares have dropped more than 40 per cent, while BlackRock is up 160 per cent.

Curated Insights 2019.05.03

James Harden and alpha

Advantage is only an advantage if others don’t have the same advantage.

Do you meet with company management? So do 30 sell-side analysts and 100 buy side analysts and PMs every quarter. Do you build your own, bespoke, earnings models? So does half the buy side. Do you interview competitors, customers, and suppliers? So does half the buy side. Do you pull credit-card history, satellite images, and other big data in real time? So does half the buy side. If you think you have a sustainable informational edge, you’re either deluding yourself, or you have inside information.

We are not playing an information game. Everyone has the information. The question is how objective can you be when you process it, and might Mr Market see the same information with bias?

Vanguard patented a way to avoid taxes on mutual funds

To understand how the process works, consider an investor who owns a portfolio of stocks. If one is sold for more than what it cost, capital-gains tax is due on the difference. Theoretically, owning stocks through a mutual fund or ETF works the same way. If the fund sells a stock for a profit, the taxable gain shows up on each investor’s end-of-year Form 1099. But thanks to an obscure loophole in the tax code, ETFs almost always avoid incurring taxable gains.

The rule says that a fund can avoid recognizing taxable gains on an appreciated stock if the shares are used to pay off a withdrawing investor. The rule applies to both ETFs and mutual funds, but mutual funds rarely take advantage of it because their investors almost always want cash.

ETFs use it all the time, because they don’t transact directly with regular investors. Instead, they deal with Wall Street middlemen such as banks and market makers. It’s those firms, not retail investors, that expand the ETF by depositing assets or shrink it by withdrawing. These transactions are usually done with stocks rather than cash. The middlemen, in turn, trade with regular investors who want to buy and sell ETF shares.

Trading with middlemen presents ETFs a tax-cutting opportunity. Whenever one of these firms makes a withdrawal request, an ETF can deliver its oldest, most appreciated stocks, the ones most likely to generate a tax bill someday.

If the ETF wants to cut its taxes further, it can generate extra withdrawals just to harvest the tax break. A heartbeat is when an ETF asks a friendly bank or market maker to deposit some stock in the fund for a day or two, then take different stock out. Some critics call these trades an abuse of the tax code. But with the help of heartbeats, most stock ETFs, even ones that change holdings frequently, are able to cut their capital-gains taxes to zero.

Thanks to winnings on stocks like Monsanto, the fund reported $6.51 billion of capital gains in 2018. But for the 17th straight year since it got an ETF share class, the fund distributed no taxable gains to investors. The ETF ensured that the vast majority of the gains, $6.49 billion, weren’t taxable. The balance was probably canceled out by tax losses from earlier years.

You’re not getting enough sleep—and it’s killing you

He ran down all the ways in which sleep deprivation hurts people: it makes you dumber, more forgetful, unable to learn new things, more vulnerable to dementia, more likely to die of a heart attack, less able to fend off sickness with a strong immune system, more likely to get cancer, and it makes your body literally hurt more. Lack of sleep distorts your genes, and increases your risk of death generally, he said. It disrupts the creation of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, and leads to premature aging. Apparently, men who only sleep five hours a night have markedly smaller testicles than men who sleep more than seven.

Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on the weekends). Sleep in a cool room. If you are lying awake in bed, listening to the litany of worries your brain is churning through, get up, go into a different room, and do an activity, then return to bed when you’re ready. “You wouldn’t sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why lay in bed waiting to get tired,” he told a TED attendee who’d asked for advice. Meditate to calm your nervous system and your mind. Don’t default to sleeping pills, which are “blunt instruments that do not produce naturalistic sleep,” he said. Eventually, he said, he may be able to offer an “affordable, portable” brain-stimulating device that would use transcranial direct-current stimulation to help people have deeper sleep.

Curated Insights 2019.04.26

Spotify’s stock is risky because the music industry is not changing fast enough

The international market is a different story. Tencent Music Entertainment Group (TME) dominates China. (Spotify has taken a minority stake in the company.) Outside of China, Spotify is the clear global market leader, with an estimated 31% market share, ahead of Apple (AAPL), at 17%; Amazon.com (AMZN), at 12%; and Sirius XM Holdings (SIRI), which now owns Pandora, at 11%, according to Credit Suisse . YouTube’s paid music services are still relatively small, but one survey found that free YouTube videos accounted for nearly half of the time that people in 18 countries spent listening to music.

Most of the world doesn’t pay for streaming music, choosing to listen on the radio or to pirate content, which still accounts for 38% of the market, Credit Suisse says. The bullish case for Spotify implies that many of those people can be persuaded to pay up. Even bearish analysts expect the company to more than double its global paid subscriptions over the next five years.

Curated Insights 2019.04.19

Making uncommon knowledge common

Part of the reason was that companies benefited from this credibility through obscurity. Real estate brokers have access to significantly more data about the specific houses and the general market via a set of data sources called the MLS. Historically, only brokers had access to MLS data, which gave them leverage over their customers and entrenched their importance as market makers. Similarly, lack of visibility into companies allowed bad ones to put on a good face until prospective employees had already joined. And only large companies could pay for data from compensation research providers, giving them advantage over the potential hires they negotiated with. Many incumbents are able to intermediate their markets and unfairly gain an edge from people’s lack of knowledge. And it’s scary to be the first to buck this trend on your own.

Before Zillow and Glassdoor, if you wanted to look up information about a specific home or company, there wasn’t a webpage for it. Barton’s companies created the definitive page for each house and company. Using a combination of data from authoritative sources (like all the various MLS systems) and user-generated data, they created high quality content unique to each company or listing. Being among the first to do this let them do a huge SEO land grab, which has been hard to displace since.

Barton’s companies take industries that are low frequency and use their Data Content Loops and SEO to acquire users for free and engage them more frequently. While most companies in real estate have super high customer acquisition costs, Zillow is able to get potential sellers even before they are ready to sell, so Zillow is already there when the sellers are ready.

Owning demand ultimately becomes its own compounding loop since becoming a trusted brand builds its own network effects. Consistently building this reputation increases people’s trust in them and makes them a go to destination.

Nobody had yet indexed all the homes in the US and brought them online. While sites like Apartments.com had started to do so for rentals, it wasn’t until Zillow (and Trulia) that this was done for homes. There was fertile search real estate to grab and Zillow rushed out to claim it all using the Zestimate as its spearhead.


Zooplus vs Amazon in battle for the European pet supply market

Many e-commerce companies go through this cycle where their customer acquisition costs look fantastic because early adopters are cheaper to acquire, but then marketing expenses later go through the roof. Ironically, many direct-to-consumer companies in the US have started opening physical stores because that is cheaper marketing than online ads.

Zooplus discussed this on their Q3 2018 call. They said online ad pricing has increased because their competitors are shifting more ad budget to online. Facebook and Google ads are auctions, so more competition means more demand and thus higher prices. Today, 80% of Zooplus’s marketing spend is online ads and Google Shopping. That makes them very susceptible to competitor pressure.

My concern isn’t so much that Zooplus loses share to Amazon, but that Amazon has the scale to price pet food at a lower margin (or loss) if they want to. This could cap Zooplus’s ability to ever earn a profit. Amazon doesn’t need to overtake Zooplus in market share to negatively affect them because Amazon already has enough market share that lowering prices would harm Zooplus. In this scenario, it’s possible that Zooplus keeps their market share, continues to grow along with the online pet supply market, and still never reaches their profitability goal.

Why I don’t think Amazon needs more market share to harm Zooplus is because of the lack of switching costs in Zooplus’s business. Even though Zooplus has a 95% retention rate with its customers, if Amazon lowered their prices 10%, there’s not much that keeps most of Zooplus’s customers using their website. Zooplus seems well aware of this issue and it has tied their hands when it comes to price increases. On the Q2 2018 call, management said they “don’t want to be the first [pet retailer] sticking their head out passing on manufacturer prices increases.”


Amazon 2018 letter to shareholders

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Uber Global Ridesharing Footprint
Percentages are based on our internal estimates of Gross Bookings and miles traveled using our currently available information.

Ensemble Capital: Landstar Systems update

The U.S. truck driver supply is structurally constrained. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a U.S. truck driver is 55 years old. The core “trucking generation” aged 45 to 54 accounts for 29.3 percent of the labor force, while 25 to 34-year-olds are just 15.6 percent of truck drivers. We’ve seen trucking companies offering huge cash signing bonuses to licensed commercial drivers, without a noticeable jump in the driver pool. In short, there aren’t enough young drivers coming up to replace the older ones.

The average Landstar BCO driver earned a record $197,000 in gross revenue. Now, that’s before expenses like gas, maintenance, and tires, but still a great income. In fact, it was so good last year that some BCOs decided to take the last few weeks of December off – they’d already made more money than they needed for the year. The agent node of the Landstar network also had a record-setting 2018, with 608 agents generating more than $1 million of revenue – up from 542 in 2017.

Given this success, we think Landstar’s network is strengthening. It’s attracting more truckers and agents – indeed, Landstar recently said both the BCO and agent pipelines are full, despite a tight labor market. This creates a virtuous cycle. When Landstar adds truckers and agents, more shippers make Landstar their first and only call to move their freight. In turn, more shippers attract more truckers and agents to Landstar. And so on. An important point to make about Landstar is that it generates 70% incremental operating profit margins on net revenue and their market share is under 10%. We think they have plenty of room to drive profit growth in the decade to come.

As for recession risk, Landstar is a capital-light business with a mostly variable cost structure. Remember, BCO-derived gross margins remain steady throughout the cycle. Landstar’s gross margins fall in periods of strong demand, as lower-margin brokerage operations account for a greater percentage of revenue. Without the BCO structure, Landstar would be far more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the industrial economy. So, while far from recession proof, Landstar is recession resistant.

The second technological threat is autonomous-driving trucks. While the technology is perhaps already there, we think regulations will require a human driver or engineer to be in the truck cab for some time to come. Airplanes, trains, and other heavy transportation vehicles, for example, use various amounts of “autopilot” but still have captains, conductors, and engineers at the ready. As we’ve seen with autonomous driving automobiles, there’s massive headline risk for any accident related to driverless vehicles, even if, on the whole they are safer than human-driven vehicles. Also, we expect that any initial shipments by autonomous trucks will carry commodity, low-cost items like boxes of diapers and food. Landstar carries a lot of special loads like automotive, machinery, and hazmat, where we think human drivers will remain the standard due to the costly freight and related liabilities.

Disney already has a booming streaming service. It’s called Hotstar

Disney is taking on Netflix with a new streaming service in the United States. But there’s an even bigger and hotter market where it’s already winning by miles — India. Hotstar, which Disney bought from 21st Century Fox last year, already has nearly as many users as the entire US population. And it’s growing incredibly fast.

The Indian platform now has 300 million monthly active users, Disney (DIS) revealed during its investor day on Thursday. That means its user base has quadrupled in a little over a year — Hotstar had around 75 million monthly active users in India at the end of 2017. Disney is already way out in front thanks to Hotstar. At the end of 2017, the Indian platform dwarfed Amazon and Netflix, which had 11 million and 5 million Indian users respectively, according to Counterpoint Research.

A breast milk ingredient is the hot new health supplement for adults

Global chemical giants DowDuPont Inc. and BASF SE are investing millions to ramp up production of an indigestible sugar found naturally in breast milk. Infant formula makers like Nestle SA can’t get enough of the synthetic ingredient. Now the companies are eyeing a potentially bigger customer: adults. DuPont estimates the annual market could reach $1 billion.

Human milk oligosaccharide is the third most common solid in breast milk, after lactose and fat. HMO escapes digestion, allowing it to reach the colon where it feeds beneficial bacteria. HMOs may explain why breast-fed babies tend to fare better than formula-fed, said Rachael Buck, who leads HMO research at Similac formula-maker Abbott Laboratories.

DuPont plans to spend $40 million building out its HMO production capacity this year, its second biggest capital investment after expanding a factory that makes Tyvek. Meanwhile, it’s partnering with Lonza Group AG to make enough product to meet current demand. DuPont will become a stand-alone company when it splits from DowDuPont on June 1.

After two decades of research, Abbott was first to bring HMOs to the U.S. baby nutrition market in 2016. It’s now expanded to 15 countries. Nestle last year rolled out HMO formula in Gerber and other brands across 40 countries. HMOs nourish bacteria that “train’’ immune system cells, 80 percent of which reside in the gut, said Jose Saavedra, Nestle chief medical officer. The health claims propelled about $600 million in sales of HMO formula last year for each of Abbott and Nestle SA.

Danish biotechnology company Glycom S/A is targeting the adult digestive health market with HMO supplements it began selling in the U.S. and Europe late last year. The company touts its Holigos IBS product as managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including abdominal pain, constipation diarrhea and bloating. It sells 28 doses on Amazon.com for $50.

Recycling isn’t about the planet. It’s about profit.

Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

The hunger of Chinese manufacturers for wood pulp, plastic, and aluminum can’t be met by Chinese suppliers or even big commodity exporters like Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese importers solved this problem by buying enormous amounts of recyclables to substitute for raw materials. China went from bringing in 7 million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013—a 15-fold increase.

Did capitalism kill inflation?

In other words, the capitalists killed inflation. In the decades after World War II, Polish economist Michal Kalecki depicted inflation as a product of the struggle between business and labor. If workers manage to extract big wage increases, their employers recoup the costs by putting through price increases, forcing workers to seek even more, and so on in a wage-price spiral. In contrast, if workers have little or no leverage, as is now the case in many industries, the wage-price spiral never gets started.

The importance of working with “A” players

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team. The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Curated Insights 2019.04.12

You have to live it to believe it

Long-term business and investing skill is the intersection of getting rich and staying rich. Different generations whose formative experience was calm and growth-oriented may be better at getting rich – they’re willing to take risks. But generations whose upbringing was punctuated by crash and decline may be more attuned to staying rich – conservatism, room for error, and rational pessimism. The best investors find a balance between the two, toggling between the two traits at the right time. But that’s rare. And the reason it’s rare even among smart people is because the psychological scars of our experiences don’t discriminate on IQ. Or more specifically, they sit above IQ in the information hierarchy that people use to make decisions.

It’s never clear one way or another. People with different experience than us aren’t necessarily smarter. They just see the investing world through a different lens.

A 13-year-old girl being killed by a drunk driver is something everyone reading this article will agree is atrocious. Yet virtually all of us will say it’s atrocious without taking further action. But Candace Lightner’s daughter was that 13-year-old girl, so she created Mothers Against Drunk Driving to do something about it. Personal experience is often what pushes you from “I get it” to “I get it so well that I’m going to do something about it.”

Same in investing. Spreadsheets can model the historic frequency of big declines. But they can’t model the feeling of coming home, looking at your kids, and wondering if you’ve made a mistake that will impact their lives. Studying history makes you feel like you understand something. But until you’ve lived through it and personally felt its consequences, you may not understand it enough to change your behavior.

“Personal finance is more personal than it is finance,” says Carl Richards. To each their own. I always try to remember that before criticizing others’ decisions. “Your yesterday was not my yesterday, and your today is not even my today,” writes the book Our Kids.

The world’s greatest delivery empire

Behind this $35 billion delivery market isn’t exactly efficiency, though—it’s a fight between Meituan and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s most valuable company. Alibaba and its various subsidiaries dominate the country’s online retail market for physical goods, but Meituan is leading the way in services. Its namesake app, a sort of mashup of Grubhub, Expedia, MovieTickets.com, Groupon, and Yelp, has 600,000 delivery people serving 400 million customers a year in 2,800 cities. Alibaba is betting it can undercut Meituan to death. Both companies are spending billions in an escalating war of subsidies that might persuade even Jeff Bezos to cut his losses.

“They thought the business was group buying. We thought the business was e-commerce for services.”

Once Wang (of Meituan) had control of the meal delivery market, he began to spend more aggressively. He discounted the food so he could upsell users on hotel bookings and airfare. He was the first in China to make movie ticket sales easy online. Within a few years he’d shifted that market from 10 percent digital to more than 60 percent. By mid-2015, soon after Meituan raised $700 million in venture funding from Alibaba and others, Wang had spent so much money to keep up that he needed another round of venture capital.

Alibaba refused to put more money into Meituan, because the younger company wouldn’t fully integrate its app with Alibaba’s, according to Meituan co-founder Wang Huiwen. Wang Xing worried he’d lose control of the business if that happened. Instead, Meituan brokered a deal with Alibaba’s longtime archrival, Tencent Holdings Ltd., best known for its WeChat super-app. Tencent agreed to lead Meituan’s fundraising by pledging $1 billion, merge Tencent’s own delivery service with Meituan, and let the combined company operate independently. “It was a very easy meeting,” Wang says. “What they had, we needed. What we had, they needed.” When Meituan called a board meeting to make things official, Alibaba got 12 hours’ notice and no choice in the matter, according to people familiar with the proceedings. Wang had what he wanted. He’d also made some fearsome enemies.

Artificial intelligence software helps determine drivers’ itineraries. An average driver makes 25 deliveries a day, up from 17 three years ago; that’s about 20 million daily deliveries across the network. For comparison, Grubhub Inc., the U.S. leader and owner of Seamless, delivers fewer than 500,000 meals a day. Meituan’s scale dwarfs that of India’s dabbawalas, who deliver some 80 million pail lunches a year.

The math, and Meituan’s potential, can be dizzying. China’s urban areas have 2,426 people per square kilometer (6,283 per square mile), almost eight times the comparable U.S. population density. While the U.S. has 10 cities with 1 million or more people, China has 156. Deliveries in China cost about $1, compared with $5 in the U.S., iResearch says. Meituan retained about 63 percent of the country’s meal delivery market at the end of 2018, according to Bernstein Research, even as Alibaba spent billions over the previous several years to capture most of the rest.

iBuying is Zestimate 2.0

In the past, other listing portal competitors were relatively undifferentiated. Zillow has been the clear market leader, and there was no credible threat that could unseat it from its powerful position. However, the entry of iBuyers with a service that made instant offers on a home – online – was novel and compelling, just like the Zestimate in 2006. Suddenly, more and more consumers were beginning their home selling process not on Zillow, but on other web sites like Opendoor and Offerpad. This was a key existential threat for Zillow. The iBuyer business model is Zestimate 2.0 – the natural starting point for determining your home’s value. What’s more accurate than an actual offer on your home?

The ETF business is dominated by the Big Three. The SEC is suddenly concerned.

The exchange-traded fund industry has a competition problem. The $4 trillion industry has been unevenly bifurcated for years: Just three firms have steadily held on to 80% of ETF assets in some 600 products. That leaves another 1,600 ETFs and more than 100 firms competing like gunslingers in the Wild West. And there’s a new sheriff in town.

The Big Three— BlackRock ’s iShares, Vanguard Group, and State Street ’s Global Advisors—all have a comprehensive line of funds at hard-to-beat prices. In other words, for the most part, the ETF industry is dominated by good products offered by good companies. But the rest of the asset-management industry, along with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is now asking whether that concentration of power will snuff out innovation, or lead to a dearth of choices for investors.

Curated Insights 2019.04.05

The risk of low growth stocks: Heighten risk to the best companies

Most simply, ROIC measures how many incremental dollars of earnings a company earns by reinvesting their earnings. As a simple illustration, a company with an average 10% ROIC needs to invest 50% of their earnings to grow 5% (10%*50%=5%). A company with a 50% ROIC only needs to reinvest 10% of earnings to grow 5% (50%*10%=5%). In the former case, $0.50 of every dollar of earnings is not needed to fund growth, while in the latter case $0.90 is not needed to fund growth. This means that the higher ROIC company will generate 80% more free cash flow than the average ROIC company making the company 80% more valuable. This is why we focus on ROIC in our analysis. High ROIC businesses are significantly more valuable than average ROIC companies even when they produce the same level of growth.

Sony’s streaming service Crackle sells majority stake to Chicken Soup for the Soul

The transfer of ownership for Crackle, however, arrives at a time when ad-free streaming services like this are seeing newfound interest, with Amazon’s launch of IMDb’s FreeDive, Roku’s The Roku Channel, Walmart’s Vudu, Viacom’s new addition Pluto, Tubi and others now making gains.

As part of the deal, Sony will contribute to the new venture its U.S. assets, including the Crackle brand, user base and ad rep business, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It also will license to Crackle Plus movies and TV shows from the Sony Pictures Entertainment library, as well as Crackle’s original programming, like its shows “Start Up” and “The Oath,” for example.

CSS Entertainment will bring six of its ad-supported networks — including Popcornflix, Popcornflix Kids, Popcornflix Comedy, Frightpix, Espanolflix and Truli, plus its subscription service Pivotshare — to Crackle Plus.

The combination will lead Crackle Plus to become one of the largest ad-supported video-on-demand platforms in the U.S., the companies claim, with nearly 10 million monthly active users and 26 million registered users. The new service will also have access to more than 38,000 combined hours of programming, more than 90 content partnerships and more than 100 networks.

Andreessen Horowitz is blowing up the venture capital model (again)

So Andreessen Horowitz spent the spring embarking on one of its more disagreeable moves so far: The firm renounced its VC exemptions and registered as a financial advisor, with paperwork completed in March. It’s a costly, painful move that requires hiring compliance officers, audits for each employee and a ban on its investors talking up the portfolio or fund performance in public—even on its own podcast. The benefit: The firm’s partners can share deals freely again, with a real estate expert tag-teaming a deal with a crypto expert on, say, a blockchain startup for home buying, Haun says.

And it’ll come in handy when the firm announces a new growth fund—expected to close in the coming weeks, a source says—that will add a fresh $2 billion to $2.5 billion for its newest partner, David George, to invest across the portfolio and in other larger, high-growth companies. Under the new rules, that fund will be able to buy up shares from founders and early investors—or trade public stocks. Along with a fund announced last year that connects African-American leaders to startups, the new growth fund will give Andreessen Horowitz four specialized funds, with more potentially to follow.

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%.