Curated Insights 2020.02.21

The secret of stock picking

The fundamental error in defaulting to low valuation instead of deep fundamental underwriting work as a top of-funnel screen is best explained if one were to imagine the stock market as a retail store. You speak to the salesperson and they say to you, “OK, we have 1000 different things you can buy. These 800? They’re all the same price. These 100? They’re super nice and very expensive. Finally, we have these 100 that no one wants. They’re very cheap.” Now, imagine after that he told you, “Oh, and a thousand people already picked through the cheap ones.”

Investing is a very difficult and complex game, and many money managers will lose regardless of style. The opportunity lies in expanding one’s skillset from purely fundamentals to understanding how and why other investors lose and using these structural factors to determine how to allocate capital based on fundamental views. In poker terms, one needs to know the quality of a hand (fundamental views), positioning and the texture of the board (flows, pricing views), and how the weaknesses of other players will allow you to profit from that information (structural inefficiencies).

Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitor, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view.

Social Cost Arbitrage: Don’t forget the pecking order. Micromanagement: At the firm level, active managers increasingly have to justify individual positions to LPs, meaning investments not only have to be attractive to the manager, but also saleable to the client. Depending on the biases of the clients, managers may be unable to take advantage of insights because they risk losing clients. Boss Bias: Managers may have concerns with or even obsessions about a particular issue (election risk, fed balance sheet, etc.) that put employees in a bad spot because they will get fired if a particular investment does poorly around that same time that the issue manifests. Employees will not escalate ideas that they know go against their boss’s biases. Boy Who Cried Wolf: Individuals inside institutions generally cannot escalate views that have been escalated previously multiple times, even if the conditions for a good investment were not met in prior iterations. Managers scoff at pitches they have heard before.

Land of the undead

My colleague Aswath Damodaran says Amazon isn’t an ecommerce company or a cloud company, but a disruption platform that through great execution and unparallelled access to cheap capital, uses the flywheel effect to spin into completely different industries.

The sheer volume of people on Amazon (82% of households in the US) makes the platform more appealing to advertisers. Amazon Media Group is now a $15 billion business, the third-largest advertiser in the world behind Facebook and Google. More advertising results in more products, which leads to more purchases, which leads to greater investment in Amazon Prime Video to continue to increase the stickiness … and the wheel flies.

Apple owns distribution via iOS (the wealthiest 1.4 billion people on the planet). That’s the island all survivors fight on. Apple collects a toll on every SVOD service via the app store. In addition, the Cupertino firm has greased the rails they own, and can remove most of the friction from the 19 steps needed to download and sign up for Netflix on your iPhone (vs. 3 steps for Apple TV+). People will opt for a sh**ty seat in coach on an Airbus A330 vs. a first-class cabin on the Queen Mary 2 to get from London to NYC.

In the context of the streaming wars, SVOD adds momentum to the flywheel. Movies and entertainment evoke powerful emotions. The connective tissue of the flywheel is increasingly emotion. The NPS score (consumers’ emotional connection to a company) is negative to zero for ecommerce and internet companies, but it’s strong for SVOD companies. Loving Fleabag means you’ll buy your next toaster from Amazon, not Target or Williams-Sonoma.

The result? In the last 13 months Apple and Amazon have added Disney, AT&T/Time Warner, Fox, Netflix, Comcast, Viacom, MGM, Discovery, and Lionsgate to their market capitalization. Read the last sentence again.

Music titans tune into rising valuations

The case for these deals is obvious. Recorded music revenues have been growing quickly for the past three years, topping $19bn in annual sales. But the industry is dominated by three large companies whose values had not been repriced to match their growing businesses. Universal Music and Sony Music exist within much larger French and Japanese conglomerates — while Warner Music is privately controlled by Mr Blavatnik’s Access Industries.

Both Mr Bolloré and Mr Blavatnik will retain control of their companies while getting a handsome return. Universal’s Tencent deal valued the company at a multiple of 30 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. A similar multiple would price Warner Music at $19bn, although analysts expect that the valuation could be closer to $12bn to $15bn, given that Universal is the biggest player. 

When you were born > everything else

One of my favorite data points ever, courtesy of Nick Maggiulli, is that 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.

YouTube’s secretive top kids channel expands into merchandise

Jay Jeon runs Cocomelon, a YouTube channel dedicated to nursery rhymes and original songs, whose animated kids and creatures generate about 2.5 billion views in a typical month. That translates into as much as $11.3 million in monthly ad revenue, according to estimates from industry analyst Social Blade. In terms of viewership, an average Cocomelon video dwarfs the turnout for most of the world’s sports leagues, pop stars, and scripted TV. It’s the second-most-watched YouTube channel, trailing only T-Series, India’s music king.

Now, however, the Jeons and their team of about 20 employees are ready to merchandise. Their first forays beyond YouTube include albums of the channel’s popular songs and, later this year, Cocomelon toys, made by Jazwares, known for its Cabbage Patch Kids and Pokémon dolls. Jeon says he’s also thinking about ways to develop a full-length theatrical movie based on the show. (In a normal week, Cocomelon uploads one original video that’s a few minutes long, plus a longer compilation of old footage.)

Curated Insights 2020.02.07

“25-year-olds should not pay a 31.3x Shiller PE to buy their grandparent’s equities”

“Let’s start with what I’d tell a 25-year-old to not do with investment capital,” answered the CIO. He’d been asked how our youth should invest for 10-15yrs. “I’d tell them to not blindly follow their parents and grandparents as they pay ever higher multiples for a shrinking pool of equity assets,” he continued. In 1982 when Baby Boomers were coming of age, they paid a 6.6x Shiller price-to-earnings ratio for the S&P 500. By 1990 when the median Baby Boomer was 35-years-old, they had bid the Shiller PE to 16.5x. That same year, Baby Boomers owned 33% of all US real estate assets by value. Fast forward to 2020, the median Millennial is 31-years-old and they own just 4% of US real estate assets. If they scrape together a few bucks after paying down student loans, they must pay a 31.3x Shiller PE multiple to buy the S&P 500. “To win a game, play to your strengths, exploit your opponent’s weakness,” said the CIO. “As people age their creativity slips away. Their imagination withers. Their risk appetite fades. Their ambition dwindles. Their drive slides. And this leaves them incapable of reimagining the world, let alone building that future,” he said. “But as people age, they do accumulate capital. And recognizing that this is their only remaining competitive advantage, they unsurprisingly lobby for policies that enhance its value.” Baby Boomers are the wealthiest cohort in all human history. They’ve shifted the game’s rules to entrench their interests. Which has both limited competition for their companies and artificially shrunk the pool of investable equity assets. “There’s too much capital in the world today relative to too few equity assets. 25-year-olds should not pay a 31.3x Shiller PE to buy their grandparent’s equities. They should play to their strengths and fight to build new companies that unseat established ones. Creating new equity assets to ease the acute shortage.”


Underutilized fixed assets

Underutilized fixed assets are the topic of this essay. But all the other variants, such as underutilized variable assets, are important to understand as well. Food delivery is a great example of this. Many people often express disbelief that food delivery startups, have been able to get as many restaurants to sign up for them while charging large take rates (sometimes north of 30% now) from the merchants. “How do these restaurants afford it?” these skeptics ask. What these skeptics fail to understand, is that restaurants do not view deliveries the same way they view customers dining in. There are many factors that restaurants are constrained on including, ingredients, labor, kitchen capacity, and dining space.

For walk-in diners, the primary constraint is dining space. There is an immovable cap on how many tables a restaurant has, and thus how many turns they can do a night. This real estate space is a fully utilized fixed asset. So a startup bringing new diners to a restaurant is entering a zero sum game, especially during peak hours when a restaurant knows they can likely fill all their tables. If a restaurant accepts a diner from a startup and pays them a take rate, this replaces a diner that would have walked in for free. This is the reason why restaurants often don’t list their prime hours on sites like OpenTable. They know they can fill their limited number of tables, so why pay OpenTable a fee for it?

But delivery is different. Real estate space is not relevant to delivery orders. Instead the two main constraints for restaurant delivery are labor and kitchen capacity. Kitchen capacity is an underutilized fixed asset. Most kitchens can handle more orders than they handle each day, but never need to because there’s not enough space in the restaurant for more diners. Like all underutilized fixed assets, restaurant owners are very happy to have their kitchens handle more orders if makes sense.

The other constraint is labor. Restaurants may have some underutilized labor, depending on how busy they are. However, if they have any significant number of delivery orders, they likely would need to have their workers do more shifts, or hire new workers. So labor is an underutilized fixed asset up to some point, but then primarily a variable asset for restaurants.

So when a startup brings new delivery orders to a restaurant, their main question is whether the delivery will be profitable net of the variable costs like ingredients and labor of the restaurant. Other factors like real estate costs are already fixed and so not factored in by restaurants. If these delivery orders are profitable, restaurants are happy to do any and all incremental orders–and will happily pay a higher take rate in return for bringing them the customer. And if the startup brings more customers than they have workers to handle–they’re overjoyed to hire new workers, as long as the economics make sense.

Variable assets are great because they can scale well. However, they are far less preferable to underutilized fixed assets for a number of reasons. Their primary weakness is that they can be copied by competitors. Underutilized fixed assets when discovered are have a huge amount of stored value. The first company to properly use them can increase their value significantly. However, after they’ve burned through this arbitrage, future competitors must find a new way to get advantaged distribution fast. This isn’t true for variable assets as we can see in food delivery. The field is increasingly competitive with Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Doordash all competing in increasingly costly battles.

Why market timing can be so appealing

Why is this so unimpressive? Because I would expect a strategy that literally knows the future to outperform by more than 40 basis points (0.4%) a year! The fact that it doesn’t just goes to show how silly the pursuit of market timing can be.

What does this mean for you? It means that you shouldn’t worry about getting the absolute lowest price when making equity purchases. In fact, you are very likely (95% of the time) not going to get the best price when you buy into the market.

But the good news is that this won’t matter all that much in the long run. Why? Because, for markets with a long-term positive trend, the timing decisions you make with your excess cash won’t be that important.

As you can see, DCA purchases at higher average prices compared to the Absolute-Bottom strategy. More importantly though, the divergences between the average prices are largest during bear markets (i.e. 1974, 2008), but start to converge during bull markets.

This tells us that timing decisions only have a significant impact once in a while (i.e. during big bear markets), so we shouldn’t spend any time worrying about them. Because you will likely lose more by waiting in cash than what you would gain if you did successfully time the market. Choose wisely.

YouTube is a $15 billion-a-year business, Google reveals for the first time

On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15 billion last year and contributed roughly 10 percent to all Google revenue. Those figures make YouTube’s ad business nearly one fifth the size of Facebook’s, and more than six times larger than all of Amazon-owned Twitch.

Separately, Google says YouTube has more than 20 million subscribers across its Premium (ad-free YouTube) and Music Premium offerings, as well as more than 2 million subscribers to its paid TV service. Alphabet says revenues from those products are bundled into the “other” category, which made $5.3 billion last quarter and also includes hardware like Pixel phone and Google Home speakers. That makes it hard to gauge the specific performance of any one product bundled under that category.

U.S. consumers spend more time in TikTok than Amazon Prime Video: App Annie

TikTok saw explosive growth in the U.S. in 2019, growing 375 percent year-over-year in terms of time spent on the platform. U.S. consumers spent some 85 million hours on TikTok in 2019, up from 15 million during the same time last year


CTV’s “walled garden risk” and implications for Trade Desk

The negative take is that Amazon sees potential fragmentation coming to the CTV industry (not just Amazon Fire, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV but also players like Xbox, Samsung, Playstation, Comcast…etc). In case viewership fail to aggregate at the CTV platform level, Amazon wants to be able to aggregate them at the SSP level.

As Amazon Publisher Services (APS) signs up more CTV platforms, this aggregation of eyeballs gives it negotiating leverage over ad buying platforms like TTD.

The article also indicates that Amazon’s SSP is best used with Amazon’s DSP. Whether Amazon extend that optimization to its partnership with TTD remains to be seen. Again, Amazon has the leverage here.

The positive take (for TTD) is if Amazon’s SSP could be used on say Xbox or Playstation, that further shifts CTV industry away from walled garden approach. Also, APS actually allows ad buying from Trade Desk, so the more platforms APS hooks up with, the more TTD benefits.


Worldline to buy Ingenico for $8.6B in major payments consolidation play

The deal underscores two big themes in fintech, and specifically payments. The first is that the shift in payments and spending habits to more digital platforms has meant an increasing amount of fragmentation in the payments space, with each player getting a cut of the transaction: this means that a company doing business in this area needs economy of scale in order to make decent returns. The deal will give both companies a lot more economy of scale.

The second is a bigger theme of consolidation among larger players in part to better compete with the long tail of smaller and more fleet-of-foot fintech companies that have found a lot of traction in this new wave of commerce. While Stripe, Adyen, Google, Apple, Amazon and many of the others may not individually do enough competitive damage against Worldline or Ingenico, their collective presence could.

“Together we create the European World-Class leader in digital payments,” said Grapinet in a statement. “I am convinced that the combination of our respective remarkable talents [SIC] pools, joint capabilities and state-of-the art offers will procure our combined Company an outstanding value proposition to pursue an exceptional growth benefitting to all our clients, banks and merchants alike and to all our business partners. This is a landmark transaction for the industrial consolidation of European payments, highly value creative for all our stakeholders and for the shareholders of both companies, and which ambitions to reinforce the role of Europe within the global digital payment ecosystem.”

Why it only costs $10k to ‘own’ a Chick-fil-A franchise

At $4.2m per store, Chick-fil-A’s average revenue is the highest of any fast-food chain in America, dwarfing both direct competitors (KFC; $1.2m) and bigger brands (McDonald’s; $2.8m). That’s especially impressive considering that all Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sunday.

Based on these figures, Chick-fil-A’s 15% royalty alone (not including its 50% cut of profits) might work out to around $600k per store, per year. (And remember: It still owns the property and equipment.)


Creating a competitive shaving market

According to the research firm Euromonitor, Gillette held 47 percent of the US men’s razor market in 2018, with Edgewell’s brands, which include Schick and Wilkinson Sword, combining for 13.6 percent of the industry. The Harry’s brand, which started selling online but now has a large presence in both Target and Walmart stores, had just a 2.6 percent share at the time, according to Euromonitor. Dollar Shave Club owned 8.5 percent of the US market in 2018, according to Euromonitor, and is owned by Unilever, following a $1 billion acquisition in 2016.

So the FTC thinks that stopping a merger of the number two and four brands in a market is good for competition? I think it is bad for competition and keeping Harry’s and Schick separated will just allow Unilever and P&G to dominate this market going forward. I don’t understand what the FTC is thinking or doing with this case in the least.

Ditch your car: Ridesharing is more cost effective

Can ride-sharing really replace cars? The numbers say if you drive less than 10,000 miles, maybe. However, ride-sharing is a better option for low-mileage users as compared to driving according to this analysis. There are different ways to value your time, which could impact how you value ride-sharing versus driving. But you have more freedom with a car, and don’t have to worry about other passengers, the driver, or not being in control of the vehicle.

Overall, the driving experience is pretty subjective. From a quantitative viewpoint, it’s sometimes cheaper to get a ride share. Qualitatively, it all depends on what you value.

Curated Insights 2019.11.22

The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising

The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection. Consider the following: if Amazon buys clicks from Facebook and Google, the advertising platforms’ algorithms will seek out Amazon clickers. And who is most likely to click on Amazon? Presumably Amazon’s regular customers. In that case the algorithms are generating clicks, but not necessarily extra clicks.

I had never really thought about this. Algorithmic targeting may be technologically ingenious, but if you’re targeting the wrong thing then it’s of no use to advertisers. Most advertising platforms can’t tell clients whether their algorithms are just putting fully-automated teenagers in the waiting area (increasing the selection effect) or whether they’re bringing in people who wouldn’t have come in otherwise (increasing the advertising effect).

What powered such a great decade for stocks? This formula explains it all

Shockingly, a vast majority of the gains over the past decade can be explained almost exclusively by improving fundamentals. Earnings growth and dividends explain nearly 97% of the annual returns for the 2010s. So the change in valuations have played a minor role in explaining the gains during this cycle.

The 1980s and 1990s both experienced a massive repricing in terms of valuations outpacing the underlying corporate fundamentals. The 2000s saw a correction in terms of both fundamentals and sentiment because of the strong performance in those prior decades.

The mining of media (or the “streaming wars” are just a battle)

Today, however, the marginal cost of distributing content to an incremental consumer is approximately zero. And the consequence here is profound. Under this model, the unit economics of all viewers/subscribers improve as you add more viewers/subscribers (e.g. a $100MM show costs $100MM irrespective of how many users you have, but the per user cost goes down). This doesn’t mean giving away said service for free or at an artificially low price solve for profitability. However, it does mean that the more people who have your service, the less you require from each subscriber to generate a profit. And if you have a guaranteed business model – say, selling another iPhone, Showtime subscription, ad impression, datapoint, or two-year wireless subscriptions – there are incentives to maximize your userbase (more people you can upsell to) and the amortization of fixed costs (the higher your unit contribution).

Alibaba aims to deliver with $16bn courier venture

When it set up Cainiao six years ago, Alibaba was an asset-light company, spending only Rmb2.5bn that year. The logistics arm was a joint venture alongside a group of Chinese courier firms, a retailer, and a property company. In 2016, a group of private investors poured in a further Rmb10bn.

The original plan was to use Alibaba’s data in partnership with the networks of the courier companies. “We established Cainiao because we hope to use the power of our infrastructure, and the power of our data, to help these delivery companies, to provide better service to consumers,” said Jiang Fan, president of Tmall and Taobao.

But today, Alibaba is moving, like Amazon, to build out its own delivery platform, acquiring stakes in delivery companies, running a network of warehouses and installing 40,000 lockers across China so that customers can pick up their parcels.

In part, it has been forced to improve delivery by its rival JD.com, which has offered same day delivery in some Chinese cities for years. By contrast, shoppers have complained that items bought from Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao platforms could be stuck in transit for days and battered by the time they arrived at your door.

The beauty of Singles Day

In fact, Estée Lauder broke its 2018 sales record a mere 25 minutes after pre-sales for the e-commerce festival started, and was the first brand in the history of 11.11 to reach one billion RMB in pre-orders alone. Meanwhile, the beauty brand that landed at the top of the list by midnight on November 12 was L’Oréal Paris, which surpassed Estée Lauder along with L’Oréal Group-owned Lancôme in the final 11.11 beauty ranking. These two brands, along with fourth-place Olay, also achieved over 1 billion RMB GMV in sales.


Why Nike quit Amazon, but doubles down on Tmall

Nike may have chosen to forgo its partnership with Amazon, but working with local e-tailers has become vital for consumer brands in China. 100% of activewear brands now sell on Tmall, and 82% sell on rival JD.com. As traffic to Baidu continues to decline and consumers begin their purchase journey on Tmall, the ecosystem is increasingly important as a content and marketing platform. According to Gartner L2’s most recent data, 96% of index activewear brands include video on Tmall, and 65% feature celebrity content on the platform. 83% of tracked activewear brands feature a “brand zone” at the top of search results, where brands put marketing messages front-and-center to crowd out third-party sellers.

Balsa shortage threatens wind power rollout

Better known for its use in model aircraft, table-tennis bats and surfboards, balsa is a key component of many wind turbine blade cores because it is both strong and lightweight. Prices have almost doubled in the past 12 months and suppliers are warning that the balsa shortage threatens a bottleneck in new wind farm developments next year. The wood is grown almost exclusively in Ecuador, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Producers in the Latin American country have benefited from the shortage, saying prices are likely to keep rising next year.

BlueMountain: the hedge fund that lost its way

As it outlined its conviction to investors last December, BlueMountain said the shares could be worth $60 because the market was overestimating the utility’s wild fire liabilities. BlueMountain’s opening $200m bet on PG&E had been at an average share price of close to $46. Last November, it added another 3.7m shares at an average share price of about $24, regulatory filings show. Late last month PG&E shares slumped to a record low of below $4 after the company cut off power to almost 3m Californians in an attempt to avoid the risk of more wild fires. Analysts at Citigroup have warned that the stock may become worthless.

Curated Insights 2019.09.06

Where the opportunities are in regulated marketplaces: Managed marketplaces

The licensing of workers was more critical in a “pre-internet” world, since licenses established consumer trust by signaling the skills or knowledge required to perform a job. But today, digital platforms can mitigate the need for (some) licensing by establishing trust and ensuring quality through other means — such as user reviews, platform requirements, and other mechanisms like pre-vetting and guarantees.

“Managed marketplaces” models in particular can be helpful in establishing user trust, because they intermediate parts of the service delivery, adding value by taking on functions like identifying high-quality providers, standardizing prices, and automating matching between demand and supply. As scrutiny around safety for marketplaces continues to rise, the importance of trusted labor becomes even more significant. In childcare, for instance, people don’t want to just see a list of all possible caregivers — they want to know with certainty that the providers they’re hiring are trustworthy and qualified, and a managed marketplace can capitalize on this user need by thoroughly vetting all supply.

Managed marketplaces can greatly mitigate the need for licensing because users trust the marketplace itself, particularly on the highly managed side of the spectrum. Such platforms can enable high-quality, but unlicensed, suppliers to offer services alongside licensed providers — and in doing so, promote entrepreneurship and alleviate supply constraints.


The Big Short’s Michael Burry explains why index funds are like subprime CDOs

The dirty secret of passive index funds — whether open-end, closed-end, or ETF — is the distribution of daily dollar value traded among the securities within the indexes they mimic. In the Russell 2000 Index, for instance, the vast majority of stocks are lower volume, lower value-traded stocks. Today I counted 1,049 stocks that traded less than $5 million in value during the day. That is over half, and almost half of those — 456 stocks — traded less than $1 million during the day. Yet through indexation and passive investing, hundreds of billions are linked to stocks like this. The S&P 500 is no different — the index contains the world’s largest stocks, but still, 266 stocks — over half — traded under $150 million today. That sounds like a lot, but trillions of dollars in assets globally are indexed to these stocks. The theater keeps getting more crowded, but the exit door is the same as it always was. All this gets worse as you get into even less liquid equity and bond markets globally.

This structured asset play is the same story again and again — so easy to sell, such a self-fulfilling prophecy as the technical machinery kicks in. All those money managers market lower fees for indexed, passive products, but they are not fools — they make up for it in scale. Potentially making it worse will be the impossibility of unwinding the derivatives and naked buy/sell strategies used to help so many of these funds pseudo-match flows and prices each and every day. This fundamental concept is the same one that resulted in the market meltdowns in 2008. However, I just don’t know what the timeline will be. Like most bubbles, the longer it goes on, the worse the crash will be.


Debunking the silly “passive is a bubble” myth

So index funds hold less than 15% of shares in public companies. And according to former Vanguard CEO Bill McNabb, indexing in stocks and bonds globally represents less than 5% of global assets.

When you buy an index fund of the total stock market, you are literally buying the stock market in proportion to the shares held by all active investors. If you sum up the collective holdings of active managers, what you basically get is a market-cap-weighted index. Index fund investors are simply buying what the active investors have laid out for them.

Charley Ellis wrote in his book, The Index Revolution, that indexing accounts for less than 5% of trading, with the remaining 95% or so done by active investors. This will always be the case, no matter the amount of money flowing into index funds.

When an index fund investor sells, they’re technically selling their holdings in direct proportion to their weighting in the index. So there is little market impact involved. Again, index fund investors are simply owning stocks in the proportion that all active investors own stocks. Plus, index funds never lever up your holdings. They never receive a margin call. They don’t put 30% of your holdings in Valeant Pharmaceuticals. And no index fund has ever closed up shop to spend more time with their family.

Why the Periodic Table of Elements Is More Important Than Ever

How Amazon’s shipping empire is challenging UPS and FedEx

Amazon now delivers nearly half of its orders, compared with less than 15% in 2017, according to estimates from research firm Rakuten Intelligence. It is now handling an estimated 4.8 million packages every day in the U.S. … The U.S. Postal Service, once the primary carrier of Amazon parcels, delivers about half the share of packages than it did two years ago.

Asahi’s voracious thirst sees it take crown as king of M&A in Asia

At a news conference in Tokyo this month, Mr Koji said the company would focus on strengthening its three core markets in Japan, Europe and Australia: “That will be our priority and we’ll subsequently consider whether we will do further merger and acquisition deals.”

Suntory, known for its Yamazaki whisky, bought US spirits maker Beam for $16bn in 2014, creating the world’s third-largest spirits maker. Before that, Kirin had made a disastrous foray into Brazil with a $3.9bn acquisition of family-owned Schincariol in 2011.

Asahi went on a buying spree of its own with a $1.3bn acquisition of New Zealand’s Independent Liquor in 2011 and other smaller deals in Australia, China and Malaysia. In the decade before 2016, it spent $3.9bn on 24 outbound deals, according to Dealogic, but none had any serious impact on its balance sheet. Their geographical reach was limited, with its overseas business making up less than 15 per cent of revenues.

Deep dive into the General Electric-Markopolos case – Here: The Baker Hughes accounting

Admittedly, GE has never been at the forefront of conservative accounting application. Looking into the history of the company we can find a couple of examples of quite aggressive representations of its economic situation. But with regard to the Baker Hughes accounting we cannot find anything wrong (but of course, it could be that we missed something). Moreover, the Markopolos report does not come even close of what is necessary to assess the accounting treatment here. We do not want to judge to harshly on the report (with regard to the Baker Hughes accounting) because at least the economics are correct – but also disclosed by GE – but all in all the Markopolos report really seems to be a bit light in accounting from our subjective point of view.

The Amazon is not Earth’s lungs

The Amazon produces about 6 percent of the oxygen currently being made by photosynthetic organisms alive on the planet today. But surprisingly, this is not where most of our oxygen comes from. In fact, from a broader Earth-system perspective, in which the biosphere not only creates but also consumes free oxygen, the Amazon’s contribution to our planet’s unusual abundance of the stuff is more or less zero. This is not a pedantic detail. Geology provides a strange picture of how the world works that helps illuminate just how bizarre and unprecedented the ongoing human experiment on the planet really is. Contrary to almost every popular account, Earth maintains an unusual surfeit of free oxygen—an incredibly reactive gas that does not want to be in the atmosphere—largely due not to living, breathing trees, but to the existence, underground, of fossil fuels.

After this unthinkable planetary immolation, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere dropped from 20.9 percent to 20.4 percent. CO2 rose from 400 parts per million to 900—less, even, than it does in the worst-case scenarios for fossil-fuel emissions by 2100. By burning every living thing on Earth. “Virtually no change,” he said. “Generations of humans would live out their lives, breathing the air around them, probably struggling to find food, but not worried about their next breath.”

Why Indonesia is shifting its capital From Jakarta

As well as bursting at its seams, the city is sinking. Two-fifths of Jakarta lies below sea level and parts are dropping at a rate of 20 centimeters (8 inches) a year. That’s mostly down to the constant drawing up of well water from its swampy foundations. Stultifying traffic congestion and polluted air are a daily reality for Jakarta’s 10 million inhabitants. The gridlock costs an estimated 100 trillion rupiah ($7 billion) a year in lost productivity for the greater Jakarta area, known as Jabodetabek, encompassing 30 million people.

Jakarta will keep growing. The population is on course to reach 35.6 million by 2030, helping it topple Tokyo as the world’s most populous city. Since the greater metropolitan area generates almost a fifth of Indonesia’s GDP, Jakarta will continue to be the country’s main commercial hub. There’s a $43 billion plan to sort out the traffic, including a Mass Rapid Transit rail line that opened in 2019. As for Jakarta’s submergence problem, the president is planning a giant wall to keep big waves out.

Better is fragile — different is king

Most of us grew up believing that, to compete, we need to be better than the competition. We need better skills, better players, better résumés. But what happens when your best is no longer good enough? What happens when that amazing software application you just spent beaucoup bucks developing is blindsided by an even better program? One that’s less expensive, to boot?

Better is fragile. It can be trampled in a nanosecond. Attempting to be better puts companies on a hampster wheel, running faster and faster—and in the same direction as everyone else—to keep up. Better is weak.

Different is king. When you can differentiate yourself in the market, you step off the hamster wheel, never to return. You only look back to witness the frenzy your brand is causing in the hamster cage you left behind.

Here’s your choice: Spend a lot of time and money in pursuit of better. Or find what makes you different, and then do it on purpose.


A silent interlude

Warren Buffett hasn’t been reading five newspapers every day for seven decades for no reason. The trick is to find the right balance between exposure to the news while honing the ability to distinguish between news and noise.


Running your trading as a business

Imagine that you are pitching your trading business to a venture capitalist. How will you convince the VC that this is a business worth investing in?

Reasonable investing philosophies

Personal finance > investing, at all income levels, because a good saver who doesn’t invest will be fine but a great investor mired in debt and overspending can be wiped out.

Curated Insights 2019.08.09

Good for Google, bad for America

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Netflix is not a tech company

Hence, Netflix isn’t using TV to leverage some other business – TV is the business. It’s a TV company. Amazon is using content as a way to leverage its subscription service, Prime, in much the same way to telcos buying cable companies or doing IPTV – it’s a way to stop churn. Amazon is using Lord of the Rings as leverage to get you to buy toilet paper through Prime. But Facebook and Google are not device businesses or subscription businesses. Facebook or Google won’t say ‘don’t cancel your subscription because you’ll lose this TV show’ – there is no subscription. That means the strategic value of TV or music is marginal – it’s marketing, not a lock-in.

Apple’s position in TV today is ambivalent. You can argue that the iPhone is a subscription business (spend $30 a month and get a phone every two years), and it certainly thinks about retention and renewals. The service subscriptions that it’s created recently (news, music, games) are all both incremental revenue leveraging a base of 1bn users and ways to lock those users in. But the only important question for the upcoming ‘TV Plus’ is whether Apple plans to spend $1bn a year buying content from people in LA, and produce another nice incremental service with some marketing and retention value, or spend $15bn buying content from people in LA, to take on Netflix. But of course, that’s a TV question, not a tech question.

Why we sold Trupanion

Why is Trupanion not outpacing the industry when it is the first name many pet owners hear? It could be that pet owners hear about pet insurance from their vet, go home, compare prices, and choose a more affordable option. It’s not an impossible problem for Trupanion to solve, but again, consumers don’t typically understand insurance value until they file a claim.

But at an investor event we attended a few months ago, Darryl said that he was making plans to switch to an executive chairman role in 2025. While we understood Darryl’s choice on a personal level, it also sharply increased our uncertainty around whether company management will be able to successfully build a moat and transform pet insurance as we had hoped. In our opinion, Trupanion will continue to need a visionary leader in the CEO role and finding another visionary to replace Rawlings will be a massive challenge.

Given the industry’s rapid growth, we think it’s perfectly normal for both regulators and pet insurance companies to have some growing pains. While Trupanion has been fined, faces more state investigations, and admits it should have paid more attention to regulators as a stakeholder, we considered these matters minor to our thesis. Regulators may require Trupanion’s Territory Partners to be licensed in all states, but this is more like a speed bump rather than a roadblock.


TGV Intrinsic on MercadoLibre

Network effects are among the highest entry barriers for competitors to build and leverage business. As market leader, MercadoLibre has been able to permanently focus on strengthening the network effects of the marketplace and eliminate points of conflict in transaction processing between buyer and seller. The most important point of conflict between seller and buyer in the past were the payment arrangements. To simplify this process, MercadoLibre launched its own payment service “MercadoPago” in 2004 (comparable to PayPal). MercadoPago provides a secure way to pay for goods and simplified the coordination between buyers and sellers in terms of payment. Today, over 90% of the value god goods sold on MercadoLibre is paid with MercadoPago, which equates to a payment volume of 11 billion US dollars.

Apart from that, logistics costs in many Latin American countries pose a major hurdle for buyers and sellers. The investments required to setup one’s own logistics system are high, delivery times in Latin America are relatively long, and service is rather mediocre. With the founding of MercadoEnvios in 2013, MercadoLibre took over an ever more extensive control over the logistics of goods in several steps. Today, MercadoEnvios operates its own logistics centres, takes over the first mile from the seller or organises the last mile to the end customer with selected partners. In 2018, at least part of the logistics was taken over by MercadoEnvious for 66% of the goods sold through the marketplace. Thanks to the sizeable investments in a proprietary payment system and the continuous expansion of its own logistics, MercadoLibre has massively expanded its marketplace and the network effect that has been set in motion over the past two decades. The value of these investments is reflected in the growth in the number of transactions amounting to 28% per annum over the past decade.

The value of this ecosystem lies in the ever-growing economy of scale. MercadoLibre has more touch points with its customers than its competitors, be it specialised online retailers, payment service providers, or logistics companies. At each of these points of contact, MercadoLibre can distribute its costs in customer acquisition to more services than its competitors. As a result, the costs for new customers per product are lower than for competitors. Second, MercadoLibre can freely decide which areas of a customer relationship to monetise and which not. For example, MercadoLibre may offer MercadoPago payment service to new brick-and-mortar retailers for free but would require a marketplace transaction fee for this merchant’s online product sales. A specialised payment provider does not have this flexibility. As a result, MercadoLibre has created a flexible and cost-effective customer acquisition engine that only very few companies have.


Zebras can change their stripes

Since 2012, JUVE has gone on to secure many other high profile “free” transfers with established winners such as Dani Alves and Sami Khediera, but then also find those that have significant upside potential like Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, and Emre Can. By far, the most impactful and value-accretive “free” transfer was Paul Pogba. In 2012, Juventus signed 19 year-old Pogba from Manchester United, and only four seasons later (and after winning four league titles) sold him back to Manchester United for a world-record fee of $116 million. In total, since 2011, the top 10 free transfer signings by Juventus have created $204m of value (i.e. market value of the players at time of signing) and over $135 million of cash from transfer sales proceeds. Yes, Pogba was an outlier, but JUVE has utilized the free transfer market better than any other club over the past decade.

Let us not forget this is a business, and Ronaldo prints money. Before the ink dried on the contract, the Ronaldo effect took Juventus, and Italy, by storm. His name generated over $60 million in jersey sales in one day – that is the best global branding a club can ask for. JUVE’s Twitter account showed a 10% increase in followers on the day he was signed. Then ESPN acquired the U.S. Serie A TV rights at a massive step-change in the fee ($55 million per year, versus $28 million previously) only one month later. And to no one’s surprise, the first game aired on August 18th showcasing Ronaldo in his new black and white jersey. Your author duly signed up for ESPN+ exclusively to live stream I Bianconeri. The acquisition led to a nice bump in GreenWood’s performance, and most importantly, Ronaldo helped his team win another Serie A title.

The periodic table of investments

Winner-take-all phenomenon rules the stock market, too

Just 1.3% of the world’s public companies account for all the market gains during the past three decades. Outside the U.S., the gains are even more concentrated, with less than 1% of all equities driving all of the net appreciation in share prices.

Just five companies — Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.Com Inc., Alphabet Inc. (Google) and Exxon Mobil Corp. — accounted for 8.3% of global net wealth creation. It is hard to imagine a greater example of the winner-take-all distribution — these five companies account for just 0.008% of the total sample set of 62,000 publicly traded companies. Expand that to the top 0.5%, or 306 companies, and they account for 73% of global net wealth creation. The best performing 811 companies (1.33% of the total) accounted for all net global wealth creation.


Negative rates could happen in America, too

What’s behind negative interest rates? Many observers blame central banks like the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan (BOJ) that are taxing banks’ excess reserves with negative deposit rates and have made bonds scarcer by removing them from the market through their purchase programs. The BOJ now owns about half and the ECB about 30% of the bonds issued by their respective governments, according to Bloomberg.

However, we believe central banks are not the villains but rather the victims of deeper fundamental drivers behind low and negative interest rates. The two most important secular drivers are demographics and technology. Rising life expectancy increases desired saving while new technologies are capital-saving and are becoming cheaper – and thus reduce ex ante demand for investment. The resulting savings glut tends to push the “natural” rate of interest lower and lower.

LBOs make (more) companies go bankrupt, research shows

According to researchers at California Polytechnic State University, roughly 20 percent of large companies acquired through leveraged buyouts go bankrupt within ten years, as compared to a control group’s bankruptcy rate of 2 percent during the same time period.


Is great information good enough? Evidence from physicians as patients

We compare the care received by a group of patients that should have the best possible information on health care service efficacy—i.e., physicians as patients—with a comparable group of non-physician patients, taking various steps to account for unobservable differences between the two groups. Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly better in adhering to both low- and high-value care guidelines than non-physicians – but not by much and not always.


Health facts aren’t enough. Should persuasion become a priority?

Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge. In other words, those with the least understanding of science had the most science-opposed views, but thought they knew the most.

Curated Insights 2019.07.19

Disneyland makes surveillance palatable—and profitable

Despite these familial concerns, Disney’s data mining never faced the sort of scrutiny that Silicon Valley has. The reason is fairly simple: Disney World is the real-world manifestation of a walled garden, a family-friendly environment without a perceived risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content like on YouTube or Twitch. Wired once called this data-driven customer relationship “exactly the type of thing Apple, Facebook and Google are trying to build. Except Disney World isn’t just an app or a phone—it’s both, wrapped in an idealized vision of life that’s as safely self-contained as a snow globe.”


Ray-Ban owner in talks for GrandVision at $8 billion value

By adding GrandVision, which sells prescription glasses, contact lenses and other eyecare products, EssilorLuxottica would gain more than 7,000 stores in more than 40 countries. GrandVision operates under retail brands including Brilleland and For Eyes. In addition to its well-known sunglass labels, including Oakley, EssilorLuxottica owns store chains like LensCrafters and Pearle Vision.

EssilorLuxottica’s interest in GrandVision comes only two months after the company defused a leadership dispute that weighed on its shares. The eyecare maker, the result of a merger of France’s Essilor and Italy’s Luxottica, said in May that it would seek a new chief executive officer — an effort to find a compromise between Chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio and Vice Chairman Hubert Sagnieres. The dispute flared up after the companies sealed their $53 billion merger last year, with Del Vecchio saying he wanted to appoint his deputy as CEO and Sagnieres countering that the Italian was making false statements in an effort to seize control of the group.


Shopify and the power of platforms

This is how Shopify can both in the long run be the biggest competitor to Amazon even as it is a company that Amazon can’t compete with: Amazon is pursuing customers and bringing suppliers and merchants onto its platform on its own terms; Shopify is giving merchants an opportunity to differentiate themselves while bearing no risk if they fail.

Curated Insights 2019.07.12

Spotify’s moats, management, and unit economics

Podcasting is a relatively nascent industry that is booming. As the #2 podcast player in the world, Spotify should benefit greatly from this trend. While Apple continues to dominate podcasting, their share has quickly fallen from 80% to 63% the past few years. Meanwhile, Spotify has been gaining share every year.

Around 85% of Spotify’s content is controlled by the three big record labels, plus MERLIN (a digital rights agency that represents thousands of independent labels). It’s great when a company has captive customers that results in pricing power. It’s not great when a company is a captive customer of their suppliers and thus has less control over their costs. With that being said, Spotify has a lot of power over the record labels as well.

In 2018, streaming accounted for 47% of global recorded music revenue—and Spotify has almost 70% market share of global streaming revenue. Look at the below chart showing industry revenues over time (purple is streaming revenue). If the major record labels want to continue enjoying the growth they’ve experienced the past few years, they have to work with Spotify.

China’s total number of births dropped over 10% last year

The total number of births in China last year dropped by 2 million from 2017, the National Bureau of Statistics announced at a news conference on Monday. The massive drop — from 17.23 million to 15.23 million — indicates that China’s birth rate last year was the lowest the country has seen since famine-stricken 1961.

Curated Insights 2019.06.28

Facebook, Libra, and the long game

And this is when this bet would pay off for Facebook (and the second point I missed in my earlier analysis): the implication that digital currencies will do for money what the Internet did for information is that the very long-term trend will be towards centralization around Aggregators. When there is no friction, control shifts from gatekeepers controlling supply to Aggregators controlling demand. To that end, by pioneering Libra, building what will almost certainly be the first wallet for the currency, and bringing to bear its unmatched network for facilitating payments, Facebook is betting it will offer the best experience for digital currency flows, giving it power not by controlling Libra but rather by controlling the most users of Libra.

Forget the mall, shoppers are buying Gucci at airports

For the first time last year, Estée Lauder Co. generated more revenue at airports globally than at U.S. department stores, which for decades had been beauty companies’ biggest sales driver … “Very few channels have almost guaranteed traffic,” said Olivier Bottrie, who heads Estée Lauder’s global travel-retail business. “When a department store goes away, it’s not a major catastrophe. But if a major airport went away, it would be a major catastrophe.”

Employees who stay in companies longer than two years get paid 50% less

Staying employed at the same company for over two years on average is going to make you earn less over your lifetime by about 50% or more …

In 2014, the average employee is going to earn less than a 1% raise and there is very little that we can do to change management’s decision. But, we can decide whether we want to stay at a company that is going to give us a raise for less than 1%. The average raise an employee receives for leaving is between a 10% to 20% increase in salary.

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 2019.05.10

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.