Curated Insights 2018.08.31

What will always be true

Think about how profound this is. One of the shortest lived mammals and one of the longest lived both have the same expected number of heart beats at birth. The term for differently sized systems displaying similar behavior is known as scale invariance and can be applied to non-biological systems as well.

As the number of employees increases, company revenue increases slightly exponentially/superlinearly. To be exact, every time the number of employees doubles (a 100% increase), revenue goes up by 112% (more than double). This corresponds to the slope of the line above at 1.12 (on a log-log scale). Note that this does not imply causality between these two metrics, but that, in a successful business, they tend to move together in some organic fashion.

For example, Netflix prides itself on being “lean”, Amazon hires thousands of warehouse workers, and Apple has a large retail presence, yet they all seem to adhere to some natural law related to company size and revenue as seen by their similar slopes. I found the same thing when comparing the number of employees to total assets as well, except the scaling exponent was slightly higher at 1.25:

Even if we cured cancer, we only add 3 years to life expectancy. Of course this is still a noble goal because it would prevent so much pain for so many people, but it doesn’t change the fact that life leads to death. It doesn’t change what will always be true. So take your 2.2 billion heart beats and make them count. They are the only ones you will ever get.

How TripAdvisor changed travel

Over its two decades in business, TripAdvisor has turned an initial investment of $3m into a$7bn business by figuring out how to provide a service that no other tech company has quite mastered: constantly updated information about every imaginable element of travel, courtesy of an ever-growing army of contributors who provide their services for free. Browsing through TripAdvisor’s 660m reviews is a study in extremes.

Researchers studying Yelp, one of TripAdvisor’s main competitors, found that a one-star increase meant a 5-9% increase in revenue. Before TripAdvisor, the customer was only nominally king. After, he became a veritable tyrant, with the power to make or break lives.

As the so-called “reputation economy” has grown, so too has a shadow industry of fake reviews, which can be bought, sold and traded online. For TripAdvisor, this trend amounts to an existential threat. Its business depends on having real consumers post real reviews. Without that, says Dina Mayzlin, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, “the whole thing falls apart”. And there have been moments, over the past several years, when it looked like things were falling apart. One of the most dangerous things about the rise of fake reviews is that they have also endangered genuine ones – as companies like TripAdvisor raced to eliminate fraudulent posts from their sites, they ended up taking down some truthful ones, too. And given that user reviews can go beyond complaints about bad service and peeling wallpaper, to much more serious claims about fraud, theft and sexual assault, their removal becomes a grave problem.

By 2004, TripAdvisor had 5million unique monthly visitors. That year, Kaufer sold TripAdvisor to InterActiveCorp (IAC), the parent company of the online travel company Expedia, for $210m in cash, but stayed on as CEO. For the next few years, TripAdvisor continued to grow, hiring more than 400 new employees around the world, from New Jersey to New Delhi. By 2008, it had 26 million monthly unique visitors and a yearly profit of $129m; by 2010, it was the largest travel site in the world. To cement its dominance, TripAdvisor began buying up smaller companies that focused on particular elements of travel. Today, it owns 28 separate companies that together encompass every imaginable element of the travel experience – not just where to stay and what to do, but also what to bring, how to get there, when to go, and whom you might meet along the way. Faced with such competition, traditional guidebook companies have struggled to keep up. In 2016, Fodor’s, one of the most established American travel guide companies, was bought by a company called Internet Brands.

By 2011, TripAdvisor was drawing 50 million monthly visitors, and its parent company, IAC, decided that the time had come to spin it out as a separate, publicly traded entity. Its IPO was valued at $4bn, but in December, on the first day of trading, shares fell. TripAdvisor was in new and uncertain territory, and no one knew how the company would fare on its own.

Even so, TripAdvisor is still worth only half of what it was in June 2014, and its shares dropped again in August after it missed its revenue forecast. Booking.com and Expedia, which together accounted for 46% of TripAdvisor’s annual revenue last year, largely due to marketing deals, cut back on their advertising spending. Where Maffei saw positive results, the travel industry news site Skift saw warning signs. TripAdvisor had grown by only 2% in the second quarter of 2018, it pointed out, using the words “anaemic” and “sluggish” to describe its situation. Over time, TripAdvisor has grown so large that it has become difficult to explain what it is, exactly: it’s not quite a social network, though it encourages users to “like” and comment on each other’s posts; nor is it a news site, though its business is staked on aggregating legitimate sources to provide an up-to-date portrait of the world; nor is it simply an online marketplace like its competitors Expedia.com and Booking.com. When TripAdvisor first started, consumer reviews were a new and exciting thing; now they are everywhere.

How Hollywood is racing to catch up with Netflix

“The modern media company must develop extensive direct-to-consumer relationships,” AT&T chairman-CEO Randall Stephenson told investors last month. “We think pure wholesale business models for media companies will be really tough to sustain over time.”

“The single worst thing Disney could do is launch a DTC product that consumers find underwhelming,” analyst Todd Juenger of Bernstein Research wrote this month. “We struggle to see how Disney can simultaneously make this [sustained] investment while also de-leveraging, even in a stable macro environment. We fear they will either underinvest in the DTC product, or fail to delever.”

Tucows: High reinvestment rate to drive cash flow growth

“First, and probably most importantly, all of our business lines are significantly recession proof. Relatively speaking, low price items, whether they are domain names or mobile phone service or home Internet, they are core needs, things that people cannot do without. They are not luxuries. They are, in the context of today’s world, necessities. And so we believe our business to be relatively recession-proof.”

“When looking at the Ting Internet pipeline, there are a few things that I want to reiterate up front. First, we are not cash constrained. We are not opportunity constrained. We are resource constrained. There is plenty of opportunity out there.” – TCX CEO August 21, 2018


Fiat Chrysler’s cheapskate strategy for the future of driving

The role of supplier to a bleeding-edge innovator has its perks. Fiat Chrysler is currently in talks with Waymo to license the software it would need to sell full self-driving cars to retail customers. Waymo CEO John Krafcik has said he envisions sharing profits from the robotaxi business with automaker partners in the future. “We’re not disrupting this industry—we are enabling this industry,” Krafcik told Bloomberg in an interview last month.

There are also partnerships with BMW AG and auto supplier Aptiv Plc to bring limited autonomous features, such as automated steering and lane changes, to Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep, Ram, Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands starting in 2019. In that way, without paying billions for research, Fiat Chrysler may end up with access to much of the same technology as big-spending leaders in the field.

More than money, Berkshire’s Todd Combs coming on Paytm board is the best outcome: Vijay Shekhar Sharma

I will say something which in counterintuitive here; in India, distribution is king over data. I think the distribution of Paytm, the reach of Paytm is the reason of the network effect that creates its value, not necessarily the outcome of data which we have not started using yet. I could say that different verticals of our business will use it differently versus the plan that we have in terms of our distribution. Our plan is to distribute it across every nook and corner and get a larger number of consumers. That is the first success that we will have and when we build on top of it as the next set of things.

The massive popularity of esports, in charts

In terms of viewership, the big esports events post even more impressive numbers. The 2017 League of Legends world championship, held in Beijing, drew a peak of over 106 million viewers, over 98 percent of whom watched from within China, according to industry analyst Esports Charts. That’s roughly on par with the audience for the 2018 Super Bowl.

Newzoo estimates that by 2021 esports will be a $1.7 billion industry worldwide. A 2018 Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll found, for instance, that 58 percent of 14- to 21-year-olds said they watched live or recorded video of people playing competitive video games, with a similar percentage reporting that they played such games themselves. Among adults overall, just 16 percent said they watched competitive video gaming.

The business of insuring intangible risks is still in its infancy

“Today the most valuable assets are more likely to be stored in the cloud than in a warehouse,” says Inga Beale, chief executive of Lloyd’s of London.

Intangible assets can be hard to define, let alone translate into dollars (under international accounting standards they are defined as “identifiable non-monetary asset[s] without physical substance”). Yet their growth has been undeniable. In 2015, estimates Ocean Tomo, a merchant bank, they accounted for 84% of the value of S&P 500 firms, up from just 17% in 1975. This does not merely reflect the rise of technology giants built on algorithms; manufacturers have evolved too, selling services alongside jet engines and power drills, and crunching data collected by smart sensors.

As the importance of intangibles has grown, so has companies’ need to protect themselves against “intangible risks” of two types: damage to intangible assets (eg, reputational harm caused by a tweet or computer hack); or posed by them (say, physical damage or theft resulting from a cyberattack). However, insurance against such risks has lagged behind their rise. “The shift is tremendous and the exposure huge,” says Christian Reber of the Boston Consulting Group, “but the insurance industry is only at the early stage of finding solutions to close the gap.”

The biggest antitrust story you’ve never heard

Since 1970, the share of the American stock market owned by large investment firms has grown from 7% to 70%. Collectively, the three biggest private funds — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street — own more than any other single shareholder in 40% of the public companies in the U.S. That means they are often the most influential shareholders of companies that are supposed to be in competition with each other. Such “horizontal shareholding,” as it’s called, may erode competition, boost consumer prices, and possibly violate long-standing antitrust laws.

Respect the predictive power of an inverted yield curve

The silver lining in prior yield curve inversions is a recession did not occur immediately. On average it was 19 months before the onset of a recession. Additionally, the average return for the S&P 500 Index from the date of the inversion to the recession was 12.7%. For investors then, one need not panic at the first instance of an inversion; however, thought should be given to one’s portfolio allocations and make any necessary adjustments during the ensuing months. In short, respect should be given to the potential economic impact of a yield curve inversion.

Curated Insights 2018.07.20

Professor Aswath Damodaran on valuation

The most egregious valuation mistake that I see investment professionals make is mistaking pricing for valuation. Most investment professionals don’t do valuation, they do pricing. What I mean by that is that you price a number to a stock based on what other people are paying for similar stocks. Any time you use a multiple comparable you’re not valuing the company, you’re pricing a company. Ninety percent of the time, when someone says “I’ve valued a company at X”, I always have to stop and ask them, “What do you mean value the company?”. Most of the time when I extract the answer, the answer is that they’ve really priced the company. There’s nothing wrong with pricing. But it’s not valuation. Valuation is about digging through a business, understanding the business, understanding its cash flows, growth, and risk, and then trying to attach a number to a business based on its value as a business. Most people don’t do that. It’s not their job. They price companies. So the biggest mistake in valuation is mistaking pricing for valuation.

The biggest mistake is that VCs don’t value users, they price them. What I mean by that is that if there’s a line of VCs and you go up to a VC and say “I have a million users”, the VC says “Amazing, I’ll pay you $1 Billion”. Most VC’s are still pricing users, with the assumption that all users have value, and that all their data is going to be useful. And I think that’s a dangerous thing. The reason I wrote that paper is to illustrate that users can be valuable, but users can be useless. Moviepass users are useless – there are a lot of them, but I don’t think the marginal Moviepass user adds any value. In fact, I think that they destroy value, because you’re giving them a service for way below cost. Netflix users, are clearly much more valuable as a commodity. I think that we have to differentiate between users, and to do that we have to start asking serious questions about what separates good users from bad users, what separates valuable users from useless users.

Well it’s massively impacted prices. It’s going to mean that there’s going to be a lot more splitting up of the market, like with Uber and Didi in China, and with Uber and Grab’s agreement in Southeast Asia. I think increasingly that the ridesharing companies think that the future lies in each of them carving out markets for themselves where they don’t face competition. Softbank incentivizes that by being invested in all of these companies. Uber, Lyft, and Grab fares will start to go up, and you can thank Softbank for that. They’re the ones in the background impacting how this business is evolving.

It’s a feature not a bug. It’s the nature of young companies and young markets, that you will overvalue them, because you’re looking at clusters of what I call overoptimism. Each cluster, be it the VCs and employees of a company think that they have the answers to the big questions. It’s how markets evolve, and I think that it’s a healthy process. I think that bubbles are not always bad, because they’re what allow us to change and move on. So I think that you can look at bubbles as a bad thing and try to make them go away, but I think that they’re a good feature of markets and allow us to shift from one business to another, from one technology to another.


How internet advertising can grow to $600 billion by 2023

While digital direct response advertising took share from print in the first leg of internet, digital video advertising could take share from TV in the second leg. What would be the impact on budgets of sustained strong growth in internet advertising? If you assume compounded growth rates of 15% for Google, 20% for Facebook, 20% for China, and 12% for everyone else, internet advertising would reach $620 billion by 2023—a figure that’s larger than the entire global advertising market today.

One might say that that is sufficient proof that internet advertising must slow down less it exceeds its total addressable market. But it’s just as dangerous to assume that the size of advertising market is a static number or a fixed percent of global GDP.

Amazon in particular has potential to contribute out-sized growth. Already roughly half of US consumers start their product search on Amazon, bypassing Google’s most important search ads. These shoppers see Amazon’s sponsored product ads which are highly valuable and result in direct measurement of sales. Amazon’s $3 billion ad business is growing quickly and could dampen Google’s search business in the coming years.

Analysts and investors have historically underestimated the size of the internet advertising market and continue to do so based on a static set of assumptions. Yet, more than any other medium, internet advertising has evolved and re-invented itself constantly. The drivers of growth today – mobile, video, and programmatic – barely existed ten years ago. There’s no telling what the next ten years might bring.


Texas to pass Iraq and Iran as world’s No. 3 oil powerhouse

Texas is pumping so much oil that it will surpass OPEC members Iran and Iraq next year, HSBC predicted in a recent report. If it were a country, Texas would be the world’s No. 3 oil producer, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia, the investment bank said.

The combined output of the Permian and Eagle Ford is expected to rise from just 2.5 million barrels per day in 2014 to 5.6 million barrels per day in 2019, according to HSBC. That means Texas will account for more than half of America’s total oil production. By comparison, Iraq’s daily production is seen at about 4.8 million barrels, while Iran is projected to pump 3 million. Oil supplies from Iran are likely to plunge due to tough sanctions from the United States.


Beijing did a tech reality check on its industrial champions. The results were not amazing

The ministry questioned the companies about 130 “core components and materials”, finding them reliant on imports for 95 per cent of central processing unit and CPU-related chips for their computers and servers. The companies also depended on foreign suppliers for 95 per cent of the advanced manufacturing and testing components on production lines for various sectors, including rockets, large aircraft and even cars, according to the report published on Friday. About a third of the “key materials” covered by the survey were not available in China, the state news agency reported, without detailing the items covered or when the survey was conducted.

Google fined a record $5 billion by the EU for Android antitrust violations

While many had expected Google to face its own “Microsoft moment,” the EU doesn’t seem to be forcing any strong future oversight on Android or asking Google to modify its software to include a ballot for alternative browsers or search engines.

This decision seems to be more about preventing Google from bundling its services to Android, than forcing the company to change Android significantly. Phone manufacturers will still be free to bundle Chrome and Google search apps if they wish, but they won’t be forced to do so, and they’ll be free to offer devices with forked versions of Android.

Amazon’s share of the US e-commerce market is now 49%, or 5% of all retail spend

The figures are also remarkable not because of their size, but because of Amazon’s pace has not slowed down. Its sales are up 29.2 percent versus a year ago, when it commanded 43 percent of all e-commerce retail sales.

The rocket ship for Amazon’s growth at the moment is its Marketplace — the platform where Amazon allows third-party sellers to use its retail and (if they choose) logistics infrastructure to sell and deliver items to Amazon shoppers. It’s currently accounting for 68 percent of all retail sales, working out to nearly $176 billion, versus 32 percent for Amazon’s direct sales, and eMarketer projects that by the end of this year, Marketplace’s share will be more than double that of Amazon’s own sales (it’s already about double).


Amazon set for Prime Day ad revenue bonanza

The need to advertise to cut through the crowd on Prime Day underscores the growing contribution of advertising to Amazon’s business. While its Amazon’s core retail operations generate the majority of its revenue, executives and analysts see advertising as a promising growth area. Its “other” revenue segment, mostly derived from advertising, more than doubled to $2bn in the first quarter and the company flagged the high-margin business as “a strong contributor to profitability”.

Amazon’s slice of the $100bn US digital ad market is still very small: 2.7 per cent, or fifth place, this year compared with Google’s 37.2 per cent and Facebook’s 19.6 per cent, according to eMarketer. Its share is expected to reach 4.5 per cent by 2020, passing Microsoft and Verizon’s Oath to climb to third place, while Google and Facebook are predicted to lose ground.


Mark Mahaney, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, estimates that by 2022 Amazon’s ad revenues will top $25bn and generate more than $8bn in incremental operating profit, making the business “as impactful” to the company as Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing business, is today.

Travel giant Booking invests $500M in Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing

Besides Booking.com and Agoda, Booking also operates Kayak, Priceline.com, Rentacars.com and OpenTable, all of which makes it a powerful ally for Didi. That’s particularly important since the Chinese firm is in global expansion mode, having launched services in Mexico, Australia and Taiwan this year. Beyond those three, it acquired local ride-hailing company 99 in Brazil and announced plans to roll into Japan.

Beyond boosting a brand and consumer touchpoints, linking up with travel companies makes sense as ride-hailing goes from simply ride-hailing to become a de facto platform for travel between both longer haul (flights) and short distance (public transport) trips. That explains why Didi has doubled down on dock-less bikes and other transportation modes.

Reuters reports that the unit, which was formed in April and consists of Didi’s car rental, sales, maintenance, sharing and gas services businesses, could be spun out in a deal worth $1.5 billion. The thinking is apparently that Didi’s IPO, which is said to be in the planning stages, would run smoother without these asset-heavy businesses involved.


Spotify’s new tool helps artists and labels reach its playlist editors

The company says that, today, more than 75,000 artists are featured on its editorial playlists every week, plus another 150,000 on its flagship playlist, Discover Weekly.

These days, artists and labels ask for intros to playlists editors, believing that getting to the right person will give them an edge in having their tracks selected for a playlist. The new submissions feature aims to change this process, while also driving artists and labels to use Spotify’s own software for managing profiles and tracking their stats on the service.

We want to make something crystal clear: no one can pay to be added to one of Spotify’s editorial playlists. Our editors pick tracks with listeners in mind. They make these decisions using data about what’s resonating most with their community of listeners.

What are cobots? Understanding the newest wave of smart robot reinventing whole industries

Now, incumbents are playing catch-up against Teradyne’s cobot division Universal Robots (UR), which currently claims around 60% of the cobot marketshare. Big names like ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa, KUKA, and Robert Bosch, which are all better known for their low-tech robots, have followed UR into the cobot market. (It’s estimated that Fanuc has between 6% and 10% of cobot market share, and Yaskawa’s is even smaller.) And partnerships are springing up: Kawasaki is now working with its Swiss rival ABB to standardize robotic programming.

One big reason could be labor costs rising worldwide. Because of economic growth, wages in industrialized countries have soared. In China, for example, average wages have more than doubled since 2006, and the country is no longer considered a destination for low-cost outsourcing. In fact, China is now so expensive that it’s losing consumer electronics jobs to lower-cost neighbors like Vietnam, pushing its robot demand to grow more than 20% just last year.

Expensive labor is also tilting the scale for more localized manufacturing, and robotics are enabling a new wave of re-shoring (the return of manufacturing to the United States). In a 2015 survey by BCG, 20% of US-based manufacturers surveyed said they were actively shifting production back to the US from China, or were planning to do so over the next two years. The majority said lower automation costs have made the US more competitive.

Subsequently, firms are increasingly turning to cobots, which these days are easily programmable, cheaper than traditional labor, and even inexpensive compared to “dumb” robots. For all of these reasons, cobot makers are selling more units at lower prices than ever before.

How has the average US house size changed?

Over the past 95 years, average [residential home] floor area has increased from 1048 square feet to 2657 square feet, which equates to a 2.5x increase. Furthermore, the average floor area per person has more than quadrupled, from 242 square feet to 1046! Essentially, it’s likely that one person nowadays has the same amount of space as a family back in the 1920s.

Curated Insights 2017.07.02

Too hot to fly? Climate change may take a toll on air travel

Hotter air is thinner air, which makes it more difficult — and sometimes impossible — for planes to generate enough lift.

As the global climate changes, disruptions like these are likely to become more frequent, researchers say, potentially making air travel costlier and less predictable with a greater risk of injury to travelers from increased turbulence.

A no-fly window of even a few hours at a particular airport could have a ripple effect across airline operations while further squeezing airlines’ already tight profit margins.

Home Capital, WTF just Happened?

This deal bought Buffett a favour from the government for upcoming infrastructure investments. He meet with PM Trudeau and Finance Minister Morneau just before this deal.

Buffett sees a Canadian house crash coming. By taking a 38% stake in a tiny bank that he can keep capitalized through a crash, this gives him a vehicle to buy some of the larger banks if/when they run into trouble. Say housing is down 50% in Canada (which is how much I think housing drops); my personal view is that CIBC is in big trouble in that scenario. BRK, through HGC, can buy CIBC. That would be a meaningful investment, and it breaks BRK into the profitable Canadian banking oligopoly. By owning 40% of HCG, perhaps Buffett can get around any foreign ownership restrictions when looking to buy some or all of a Big 6 bank.

Rigetti Computing

But quantum computing — which unlike classical computing, is based on nature’s more complex operating system of quantum mechanics — will take the world by surprise. Even established veterans of the first few computing revolutions could be caught off guard, unable to foresee the jump from impressive demo to devastatingly impressive production machine. How so? Because it turns out that quantum computing has its own Moore’s law, and that law takes exponential scaling to a whole new level.

In the quantum hyperscaling Moore’s Law, the speed of a quantum computer is exponential in the number of coherent quantum elements or “qubits” — that is, 2^q. But successfully incorporating technological advances in using silicon technology would enable the qubits themselves to follow Moore’s law (q = 2^n)… making the resulting performance power of the quantum computer 2^2^n. This means that the performance of quantum computing is exponentially more rapid than Moore’s Law. It’s as if Moore’s law itself sped up like Moore’s law.

Morgan Stanley: Cloud computing is at ‘an inflection point’ — but how big will it get?

“That 20 percent is a very important number because if you look at other adoption cycles, whether it’s notebooks, smartphone penetration, the x86 server, even digital music and video games, when you get to that 20 percent penetration point, that curve inflects and growth accelerates.”

The real threat of artificial intelligence

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs and replacing them with other jobs.

This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it.

The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.”

…most of the money being made from artificial intelligence will go to the United States and China. A.I. is an industry in which strength begets strength…

While a large, growing population can be an economic asset, in the age of A.I. it will be an economic liability because it will comprise mostly displaced workers, not productive ones.

Ends, Means, and Antitrust

…the U.S. is primarily concerned with consumer welfare, and the primary proxy is price. In other words, as long as prices do not increase — or even better, decrease — there is, by definition, no illegal behavior.

The European Commission, on the other hand, is explicitly focused on competition: monopolistic behavior is presumed to be illegal if it restricts competitors which, in the theoretical long run, hurts consumers by restricting innovation.

Market dominance is, as such, not illegal under EU antitrust rules. However, dominant companies have a special responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition, either in the market where they are dominant or in separate markets. Otherwise, there would be a risk that a company once dominant in one market (even if this resulted from competition on the merits) would be able to use this market power to cement/further expand its dominance, or leverage it into separate markets…

Lessons From the Collapse of Banco Popular

Don’t trust bank stress-test results.

Regulators should require banks to maintain higher leverage ratios, another measure of capital adequacy. And yet this is a regulatory requirement the Trump administration wants to loosen.

Don’t reach for yield if you’re not ready for the risk.

Roadmap for MSCI Emerging Markets Index inclusion

China A: MSCI inclusion decision

China represents roughly 17% of global GDP, 11% of global trade, and 9% of global consumption but today comprises only a 3.5% weight in the MSCI ACWI Index