Curated Insights 2018.09.14

Risk, uncertainty and ignorance in investing and business – Lessons from Richard Zeckhauser

People feel that 50% is magical and they don’t like to do things where they don’t have 50% odds. I know that is not a good idea, so I am willing to make some bets where you say it is 20% likely to work but you get a big pay-off if it works, and only has a small cost if it does not. I will take that gamble. Most successful investments in new companies are where the odds are against you but, if you succeed, you will succeed in a big way.” “David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.

…in any probabilistic exercise: the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters…. even though Ruth struck out a lot, he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters…. Internalizing this lesson, on the other hand, is difficult because it runs against human nature in a very fundamental way… The Babe Ruth effect is hard to internalize because people are generally predisposed to avoid losses. …What is interesting and perhaps surprising is that the great funds lose money more often than good funds do. The best VCs funds truly do exemplify the Babe Ruth effect: they swing hard, and either hit big or miss big. You can’t have grand slams without a lot of strikeouts.

Risk, which is a situation where probabilities are well defined, is much less important than uncertainty. Casinos, which rely on dice, cards and mechanical devices, and insurance companies, blessed with vast stockpiles of data, have good reason to think about risk. But most of us have to worry about risk only if we are foolish enough to dally at those casinos or to buy lottery cards….” “Uncertainty, not risk, is the difficulty regularly before us. That is, we can identify the states of the world, but not their probabilities.” “We should now understand that many phenomena that were often defined as involving risk – notably those in the financial sphere before 2008 – actually involve uncertainty.” “Ignorance arises in a situation where some potential states of the world cannot be identified. Ignorance is an important phenomenon, I would argue, ranking alongside uncertainty and above risk. Ignorance achieves its importance, not only by being widespread, but also by involving outcomes of great consequence.” “There is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.


Hank Paulson says the financial crisis could have been ‘much worse’

While Bear Stearns’ failure in normal markets would not hurt the U.S. economy, we believed that the system was too fragile and fear-driven to take a Bear Stearns bankruptcy. To those who argue that Bear Stearns created moral hazard and contributed to the Lehman failure, I believe just the opposite—that it allowed us to dodge a bullet and avoid a devastating chain reaction.

If Bear had failed, the hedge funds would have turned on Lehman with a vengeance. Lehman would have failed almost immediately and the result would have been much worse than Lehman’s September failure, which occurred after we had stabilized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bank of Americaacquired Merrill Lynch. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if this whole thing started before we’d stabilized Fannie and Freddie.

An interview with Tim Geithner on this topic was done recently at the Yale School of Management and he speaks much more authoritatively on the limits of the Fed powers than I, but here goes. While our responses may have looked inconsistent, Ben, Tim, and I were united in our commitment to prevent the failure of any systemically important financial institution. But we had a balkanized, outdated regulatory system without sufficient oversight or visibility into a large part of the modern financial system and without the necessary emergency powers to inject capital, guarantee liabilities, or wind down a non-banking institution. So we did whatever we could on a case-by-case basis.

For Lehman, we had no buyer and we needed one with the willingness and capacity to guarantee its liabilities. Without one, a permissible Fed loan would not have been sufficient or effective to stop a run. To do that, the Fed would have had to inject capital or guarantee liabilities and they had no power to do so. Now, here’s the point that I think a lot of people miss: In the midst of a panic, market participants make their own judgments and a Fed loan to meet a liquidity shortfall wouldn’t prevent a failure if they believed Lehman wasn’t viable or solvent. And no one believed they were.

AIG is a cautionary tale. We should not have let our financial regulatory system fail to keep up with modern financial markets. No single regulator had oversight visibility or adequate powers to deal with AIG. Its insurance companies were regulated at the state level, its holding company was like a giant hedge fund sitting on top of the insurance companies, and it was regulated by the ineffective Office of Thrift Supervision, which also regulated—get this—Countrywide, WaMu, IndyMac, GE Capital. They all selected their regulator. So you get the picture, it’s regulatory arbitrage.

And I’m concerned that some of the tools we effectively used to stave off disaster have now been eliminated by Congress. These include the ability of Treasury to use its exchange stabilization fund to guarantee the money market funds, the emergency lending authority the Fed used to avoid the failure of Bear and AIG, and the FDIC’s guarantee of bank liabilities on a systemwide basis, which was critical.

The global smartphone supply chain needs an upgrade

At the peak in October 2017, smartphone components accounted for over 33% of exports from Taiwan, 17% of those from Malaysia and 16% from Singapore. Smartphones comprise 6% of Chinese exports. Memory chips flow from South Korea and Vietnam; system chips from Malaysia, Taiwan and elsewhere; and displays from Japan and South Korea. Rich-world firms, such as Qualcomm, sell licences to use their intellectual property (IP). The parts are then assembled, mainly by armies of Chinese workers.

Apple and 13 of its chip suppliers earn over 90% of the total pool of profits from the Apple system. Meanwhile the tail of other firms doing more basic activities must pay for most workers, inventories and fixed assets (see chart). So they have in aggregate a weak return on equity, of 9%, and a net profit margin of just 2%. Their earnings have not risen for five years. They include assemblers such as Taiwan’s Hon Hai and niche component makers, some of which are visibly struggling. On August 22nd AAC Technologies, a specialist in making phones vibrate, said its second-quarter profits fell by 39% compared with the previous year.

Apple, Samsung and most semiconductor makers could ride out such tensions, with their high margins and cash-laden balance-sheets. But the long chain of other suppliers could not, given their razor-thin margins, big working-capital balances and fixed costs. Tariffs could push them into the red. Of the 132 firms, 52% would be loss-making if costs rose by just 5%. And a ZTE-style cessation of trade would be disastrous. If revenues dried up and the 132 firms continued to pay their own suppliers, short-term debts and wages, 28% of them would run out of cash within 100 days.

If you are running a big firm in the smartphone complex, you should be reimagining things in preparation for a less open world. In a decade, on its current trajectory, the industry will be smaller, with suppliers forced to consolidate and to automate production. It may also be organised in national silos, with production, IP, profits and jobs distributed more evenly around the world. Firms will need to adapt—or be swiped away.

The story of Box: A unicorn’s journey to public success

The early days of Box’s selling file sharing and collaboration have largely been replaced by big corporate wins. One measure of Box’s success is its penetration of the Fortune 500—from 52% in the second quarter of 2016 to 69% in the same quarter of fiscal 2019. About 58% of Box’s total revenue comes from enterprises of 2,000 employees or more.

In Box’s recently completed fiscal quarter, it closed 50 deals of more than $100,000, compared with 40 a year ago; 11 deals of more than $500,000, versus eight a year ago; and two deals of more than $1 million, compared with four a year ago. It expects a strong pipeline of seven-figure deals in the back half of this year.

But in encouraging its salespeople to pursue bigger deals, Box increasingly faces competition from deeper-pocketed competitors in a total addressable market pegged at $45 billion, based on market research by Gartner and IDC.

Soccer fans, your team is coming after you

At the time of its 2012 initial public offering, Man United counted 659 million fans worldwide. Analysts estimate the team’s revenue this year will be about 587 million pounds ($763 million) — just $1.16 per supporter. Twitter Inc. has just 338 million active monthly users, yet enjoys revenue of $2.4 billion and a market value of $27 billion.

Digital marketing provides the opportunity for teams to put themselves in the middle of the sale of a service or product. It’s not simply about using a website or an app to sell fans more jerseys or baseball caps. It’s about turning the team into a platform, a way of connecting brands to customers, in the same way as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. already do.

Much in the way that price-comparison websites charge insurers or credit card companies for connecting them to customers, a sports team could, for example, offer its own exclusive video content with another provider’s mobile phone contract and take a cut of the proceeds. If that meant each fan were to spend just one more dollar a year with the club, it would provide a significant boost to sales.


Alibaba-backed apparel-sharing company YCloset brings sharing economy to a new level

Founded in December 2015, YCloset charges a monthly membership fee of 499 yuan and allows female users to rent unlimited clothes and accessories country-wide. Furthermore, users can choose to buy the apparel if they like to and prices fluctuate according to the rent count. Thus far, 75% of the income comes from membership fees and the remaining comes from sales of clothing. YCloset positions itself as a company that offers affordable luxury, professional and designer brand clothing. The company hopes to have the top famous brand to drive the long-tail brands.

In terms of business model, YCloset gradually shifted from one-time supplier purchase to brand partnerships with clothing companies. Brand partnerships allow revenue sharing between YCloset and their partners. To these clothing companies, YCloset gave them a new revenue, at the same time, they may get consumer insights from the data YCloset collects. In the future, YCloset will have joint marketing campaigns with the brands and assist in incubating new brands.

Autonomous delivery robots could lower the cost of last mile delivery by 20-fold

Last mile delivery – the delivery of goods from distribution hubs to the consumer – is the most expensive leg of logistics because it does not submit to economies of scale. The cost per last mile delivery today is $1.60 via human drivers but could drop precipitously to $0.06 as autonomous delivery robots proliferate.

Autonomous delivery robots are roughly seven times more efficient than electric vehicles on a mile per kilowatt basis. The major costs for autonomous delivery robots are hardware, electricity, and remote operators. Unlike in electric vehicles, the battery is not the largest cost component in slow moving robots. Air resistance is a function of velocity squared, suggesting that a robot traveling at four miles per hour loses much less energy than a car traveling at highway speeds to air resistance. As a result, rolling robots do not require large batteries, lowering both hardware and electricity costs relative to more traditional electric vehicles.

If rolling robots enable last mile delivery for $0.06 per mile, artificial intelligence could be advanced enough to improve their unit economics. A remote operator responsible for controlling robots in difficult or confusing situations probably will oversee roughly 100 robots, accounting for more than half of the cost per mile, as shown below. As autonomous capability improves, remote operators should be able to manage larger fleets of robots, bringing down the costs per robot.


Hospitals are fed up with drug companies, so they’re starting their own

A group of major American hospitals, battered by price spikes on old drugs and long-lasting shortages of critical medicines, has launched a mission-driven, not-for-profit generic drug company, Civica Rx, to take some control over the drug supply. Backed by seven large health systems and three philanthropic groups, the new venture will be led by an industry insider who refuses to draw a salary. The company will focus initially on establishing price transparency and stable supplies for 14 generic drugs used in hospitals, without pressure from shareholders to issue dividends or push a stock price higher.


Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years

There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades. Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.

More than 90 per cent of Chinese teens access the internet through mobile phones, says report

The proportion of Chinese children under 10 years old who use the internet – which was only 56 per cent in 2010 – reached 68 per cent last year. More than 90 per cent of Chinese minors, those aged up to 18, can now access the internet through mobile phone and over 64 per cent of primary school kids have their own smartphones. Nearly 85 per cent of Chinese minors use WeChat, compared to only 48 per cent five years ago, but Chinese juveniles are still more fond of QQ, while Chinese adults prefer WeChat as a social app.