Curated Insights 2019.09.20

The financial Turing test

Imagine we could simulate the universe where each time you are born to different set of parents with a different genetic makeup. Sometimes you are born a man. Sometimes you are born a woman. Sometimes black. Sometimes white. Sometimes smart. Sometimes not. Etcetera etcetera. What would you do to have the highest probability of becoming financially secure regardless of your background?

If you wanted to re-state this question more simply, it is: How do you get rich without getting lucky?


Product-user fit comes before product-market fit

The jump from product-user fit to product-market fit is no trivial leap. Skipping what to focus on during the product-user fit stage and prematurely racing to spark the market adoption can actually decelerate your path to product-market fit. Forcing growth on a product that isn’t yet ready for broader adoption will not ultimately convert to a market of highly retained, happy users. And if you don’t listen to the early power users closely enough, you may never discover the insights that get you to a world-class product.

Power users are the biggest sign of product-user fit. Making the leap from product-user fit to product-market fit is about listening to these users to evolve your product to attract more users. When exploring products that have only been in market for a short amount of time, the behavior of power users is often more interesting and important than any aggregate metrics. If the goal is to “make something people want,” then continuously talking to and observing early power users is the only way to really understand what drives both user retention and non-user activation.

5 reasons to consider buying Berkshire Hathaway

First, we think Berkshire’s broad diversification provides the company with additional opportunities and helps to minimize losses during market and/or economic downturns. Berkshire remains a broadly diversified conglomerate run on a completely decentralized basis, with a collection of moaty businesses operating in industries ranging from property-casualty insurance to railroad transportation, utilities and pipelines, and manufacturing, service, and retailing. The economic moats of these operating subsidiaries are built primarily on cost advantage, efficient scale, and intangible assets, with some of these businesses being uniquely advantaged as well by their ability to essentially operate as private companies under the Berkshire umbrella. The operating subsidiaries also benefit from being part of the parent company’s strong balance sheet, diverse income statement, and larger consolidated tax return.

Berkshire’s unique business model has historically allowed the company to–without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs–move large amounts of capital from businesses that have limited incremental investment opportunities into other subsidiaries that potentially have more advantageous investment options (or put the capital to work in publicly traded securities). The managers of Berkshire’s operating subsidiaries are encouraged to make decisions based on the long-term health and success of the business, rather than adhering to the short-termism that tends to prevail among many publicly traded companies. Another big advantage that comes from operating under the Berkshire umbrella is the benefit that comes with diversification not only within the company’s insurance operations, but also within the organization as a whole. In most periods, it is not unusual to see weakness in one aspect of Berkshire’s operations being offset by the results from another or from the rest of the organization.


We can be weird, or it can be public

WeWork seems to be facing the traditional tradeoff: Stay private, keep control, but lose access to billions of dollars of funding, or go public, raise unlimited money, and have to act normal. If it does either of those things, that will mark a sort of end of an era. At the height of the unicorn boom, big tech companies could stay private without giving up the benefits of being public, or they could go public without taking on the burdens of being public. Now they might have to make hard choices again.

Shopify is now a major player in e-commerce. Here’s how it happened, according to the COO

Over the years, we’ve also realized as we grow bigger, we have incredible economy of scale. If you were to aggregate all our U.S. stores [customers’ sales volume] we would be the third-largest online retailer in the U.S. Amazon is first, eBay second, and Shopify is a very close third. What that means is when we go to the payment companies, when we go to the shipping companies or go to anyone, we negotiate on behalf of more than 800,000 merchants. Instead of keeping the economies of scale for ourselves, we distribute [the benefits] to the small businesses. I think that’s why we have been really successful.


The foodoo economics of meal delivery

The newbies, born more recently, have turned a once-tidy business into a food fight. They include listed firms such as Meituan of China and Delivery Hero of Germany, Uber Eats (part of Uber), Ele.me (owned by China’s Alibaba), and privately held DoorDash, based in San Francisco, and Deliveroo, from London. For most of them, delivery is their core business, so they share their cut of the bill with riders as well as restaurants. This substantially broadens the market to restaurants offering everything from steak to Hawaiian poké bowls. But margins suffer. Funded largely by venture capital, they have thrown subsidies at customers, forcing their veteran rivals onto the defensive. To catch up, the veterans are investing in advertising and delivery networks—at a big cost. This week Grubhub and Just Eat reported slumping earnings, and Takeaway mounting losses, as they spent heavily to fend off the upstarts.

The only mouthwatering aspect of the delivery business is its potential size. According to Bernstein, a brokerage, almost a third of the global restaurant industry is made up of home delivery, takeaway and drive-throughs, which could be worth $1trn by 2023. In 2018 delivery amounted to $161bn, leaving plenty of room for online firms to expand; the seven largest increased revenues by an average of 58%. Their businesses support the trend of 20- and 30-somethings to live alone or in shared accommodation, with less time and inclination to cook. In China, by far the biggest market for food delivery, one-third of people told a survey that they would be prepared to rent a flat without a kitchen because of the convenience of delivery. Delivery also fits neatly with the gig-economy zeitgeist, alongside ride-hailing firms such as Uber, Lyft and China’s Didi.

Moreover, potential growth may be overstated. Subsidies make true demand hard to gauge. When delivery charges and service fees eventually rise, which they will have to if profits are to materialise, some customers may flee. In the meantime, cheap money lets firms undercut rivals but distorts incentives. The war of attrition could get even worse if giants like Amazon muscle in, as it has tried to do by buying a stake in Deliveroo (the deal is stalled at present because of antitrust concerns). Alibaba, Amazon’s Chinese counterpart, uses Ele.me as a loss leader helping drive traffic to its profitable e-commerce sites.

Untangling the threads: Stitch Fix is a bargain

There have been numerous ecommerce 2.0 flameouts over the past decade (e.g. Gilt Groupe, Fab.com, Birchbox, Shoedazzle, Beachmint, One Kings Lane). Venture capitalists flocked to these businesses due to large addressable markets and strong top-line growth. To be fair, there have been some big winners (e.g. Wayfair) which can justify the VC game. But as Bill Gurley points out, innovations around pricing or distribution — think flash sales and subscriptions in a box — don’t represent core differentiation or sustainable competitive advantages. Additionally, these startups had access to hundreds of millions of VC funding and therefore weren’t forced to prove out the unit economics before scaling rapidly.

Are Airbnb investors destroying Europe’s cultural capitals?

The definitive story of how a controversial Florida businessman blew up MoviePass and burned hundreds of millions

Farnsworth’s pitch to MoviePass: $25 million for 51% of the company, two seats on the five-member board, and a promise to drop the monthly subscription price, temporarily, from $50 to $9.95, with the goal of hitting 100,000 subscribers. If all went well, the next step would be taking MoviePass public. But Farnsworth’s plan worried Spikes; to him, $10 a month was too low. At that price MoviePass would start losing money when a subscriber used the service more than once a month.

In the US, the average price for a movie ticket is about $9; if a customer ordered a ticket every day for a month (the maximum the MoviePass plan allowed), it would cost MoviePass about $270, of which the subscriber’s fee would cover just $10. But in July 2017, the MoviePass board agreed to the deal. And on August 15, the price drop went into effect. Thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and press attention, within two days subscriptions jumped from about 20,000 to 100,000. MoviePass had transformed from a scrappy startup trying to keep the lights on to a disrupter in the making.

But Spikes saw a looming disaster. The company was overwhelmed by its overnight success and couldn’t keep up with demand. A quarter-million new subscribers were signing up every month, and MoviePass customer-service lines were flooded with complaints from people who had been waiting weeks for their cards. MoviePass had lowballed the number of cards it would need after the price drop. It got to a point where the vendor making the MoviePass cards didn’t have enough plastic and had to call on its competitors to fulfill all the card orders. “We all knew we were selling something we couldn’t deliver on,” one former staffer said.

Pat Dorsey: Never put any moat on a pedestal

The same way you evaluate any other business, which is trying to think about the present value of future cash flows. This is an area where the world has changed pretty significantly over the past couple of decades because, 30 years ago, most investments were done via the balance sheet. They were investments in buildings, in factories, in railroads, in locomotives and all those came out of the balance sheet. Today, a lot of investment happens out of the income statement. If you are a software company, and you are acquiring new customers, who might have a nine to 10-year lifespan with the business, that comes out of sales and marketing, and so that depresses your current margins.

But it seems insensible to me to argue that I should not invest in a customer who could be with me for 10 years and who will pay me 3% more every year as I raise prices. Why is that not just as valuable an investment as a machine that will wear out in 10 years? One is an appreciating asset and the other is a depreciating asset. The former — the customer — comes by way of investing through the income statement and depresses current margins. As for buying the machine, it is just a capital expenditure. If you have a business that is re-investing heavily today, a software company or an Amazon for example, you have to think about the incremental unit economics. How much does it cost to acquire each customer and how much value do they deliver over some span of time, and then try to think about what does this business look like at steady state, say in a five or 10-year timeframe. You know what margins it will have once the investment slows down and then you discount those cash flows back to the present.

So far, Uber and Lyft have competed very heavily on price. That was evident in both of their IPO filings, they have been trying to undercut each other on price, which is not the sign of a healthy competitive dynamic that’s going to result in great return for shareholders. Maybe that will change, I don’t know. But, when I see two big companies trying to basically undercut each other on price and, it’s not really clear who is going to win, I’d rather just stay on the sidelines and watch. One of the most important things for an investor to do is to maximise return on time. By analysing Uber and Lyft, we probably aren’t going to get a lot of advantage, because everybody and their mother is trying to have an opinion on these things, and it’s just not clear how the competitive dynamics will pan out long term. So we’ve spent literally zero time on them!

A lot of it comes down to the unit economics of the business. Boeing and Airbus need to absorb a lot of fixed costs. Building an aircraft factory, investing and designing a new aircraft, requires a lot of very high fixed costs, and so they need to absorb that. And so, each incremental plane sold is very important to both companies. So they need to take market share from each other. Whereas for Visa and Mastercard, their fixed cost for the payment networks, those costs were sunk decades ago. Their network is there. It exists. So there’s no incentive to compete on price, because they don’t have the same economics of cost absorption.

When to sell and when a moat is weakening are really two different questions. But I would say, the biggest signal that a moat is weakening is the lack of pricing power. If a business historically had been able to raise prices and is no longer able to raise prices, that generally indicates that its competitive advantage is weakening or disappearing.

Howard Stern is getting ripped off

Take a look at Joe Rogan, who currently has the most popular talk show podcast with over 200 million downloads per month. This number comes from Joe himself¹, but let’s assume he was exaggerating and it’s only 100 million downloads per month.

Assuming he sells ads at a low $18 CPM (cost per thousand listeners) and sells out his ad spots, he’s making approximately $64mm in annual revenue. If he’s on the higher end, at $50 CPM, he could be making as much as $240mm per year². The only factor that would change this is how many free ads Joe gives to companies that he has a personal equity stake in (like Onnit, the supplement brand he co-owns).

That means that Joe makes somewhere between $64-$240 million per year in revenue from his podcast advertising alone—and that’s handicapping his audience by half what he claims to have. That number also doesn’t include any additional revenue generated from his wildly popular YouTube channel, which has over 6 million subscribers.

Based on existing advertising revenues alone, Joe Rogan could easily be worth over a billion dollars, even if he doesn’t realize it. If estimates are correct, he owns a business that produces somewhere in the neighborhood of $60-$235 million/year in profit and is likely growing at 30–50% annually (assuming his audience is growing alongside the podcast ecosystem)³. If it were publicly traded, his podcasting business could easily fetch a valuation in the billions.

Even the small stresses of daily life can hurt your health, but attitude can make a difference

When people talk about harmful stress — the kind that can affect health — they usually point to big, life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one. A growing body of research suggests that minor, everyday stress — caused by flight delays, traffic jams, cellphones that run out of battery during an important call, etc. — can harm health, too, and even shorten life spans.

Curated Insights 2019.08.23

The WeWork IPO

Given this vision, WeWork’s massive losses are, at least in theory, justifiable. The implication of creating a company that absorbs all of the fixed costs in order to offer a variable cost service to other companies is massive amounts of up-front investment. Just as Amazon needed to first build out data centers and buy servers before it could sell storage and compute, WeWork needs to build out offices spaces before it can sell desktops or conference rooms. In other words, it would be strange if WeWork were not losing lots of money, particularly given its expansion rate.

What is useful is considering these two graphics together: over 300 locations — more than half — are in the money-losing part of the second graph, which helps explain why WeWork’s expenses are nearly double its revenue; should the company stop opening locations, it seems reasonable to expect that gap to close rapidly. Still, it is doubtful that WeWork will slow the rate with which is opens locations given the company’s view of its total addressable market.

The sheer scale of this ambition again calls back to AWS. It was in 2013 that Amazon’s management first stated that AWS could end up being the company’s biggest business; at that time AWS provided a mere 4% of Amazon’s revenue (but 33% of the profit). In 2018, though, AWS had grown by over 1000% and was up to 11% of Amazon’s revenue (and 59% of the profit), and that share is very much expected to grow, even as AWS faces a competitor in Microsoft Azure that is growing even faster, in large part because existing enterprises are moving to the cloud, not just startups.

WeWork, meanwhile, using its expansive definition of its addressable market, claims that it has realized only 0.2% of their total opportunity globally, and 0.6% of their opportunity in their ten largest cities. To be fair, one may be skeptical that existing enterprises in particular will be hesitant to turn over management of their existing offices to WeWork, which would dramatically curtail the opportunity; on the other hand, large enterprises now make up 40% of WeWork’s revenue (and rising), and more importantly, WeWork doesn’t have any significant competition.

In short, there is a case that WeWork is both a symptom of software-eating-the-world, as well as an enabler and driver of the same, which would mean the company would still have access to the capital it needs even in a recession. Investors would just have to accept the fact they will have absolutely no impact on how it is used, and that, beyond the sky-high valuation and the real concerns about a duration mismatch in a recession, is a very good reason to stay away.

Pershing Square on Berkshire Hathaway

Berkshire’s primary asset is the world’s largest insurance business, which we estimate represents nearly half of Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In its primary insurance segment, Berkshire focuses on the reinsurance and auto insurance segments. In reinsurance, Berkshire’s strong competitive advantages are derived from its enormous capital base, efficient underwriting (a quick yes or no), ineffable trustworthiness, and its focus on long-term economics rather than short-term accounting profits, all of which allows the company to often be the only insurer capable of and willing to insure extremely large and/or unusual, bespoke insurance policies. We believe that Berkshire’s reinsurance business, operating primarily through National Indemnity and General Re, is uniquely positioned to serve its clients’ needs to protect against the increasing frequency and growing severity of catastrophic losses. In auto insurance, Berkshire subsidiary GEICO operates a low-cost direct sales model which provides car owners with lower prices than competitors that rely on a traditional agent-based sales approach. GEICO’s low cost, high quality service model has enabled it to consistently gain market share for decades. The enduring competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance businesses have allowed it to consistently grow its float (the net premiums received held on Berkshire’s balance sheet that will be used to pay for expected losses in the often distant future) at a higher rate and a lower cost than its peers. While Mr. Buffett is best known as a great investor, he should perhaps also be considered the world’s greatest insurance company architect and CEO because the returns Berkshire has achieved on investment would not be nearly as good without the material benefits it has realized by financing these investments with lowcost insurance float.

For more than the last decade, Berkshire has grown its float at an 8% compounded annual growth rate while achieving a negative 2% average cost of float due to its profitable insurance underwriting, while incurring an underwriting loss in only one out of the last 15 years. These are extraordinary results particularly when compared with the substantial majority of insurance companies which lose money in their insurance operations and are only profitable after including investment returns. Furthermore, we believe that Berkshire’s cost of float will remain stable or even decline as its fastest growing insurance businesses (GEICO and BH Primary) have a lower cost of float than the company’s overall average. Since the end of 2007, we estimate that Berkshire has averaged a nearly 7% annual rate of return on its insurance investment portfolio while holding an average of 20% of its portfolio in cash. Berkshire has been able to produce investment returns that significantly exceed its insurance company peers as the combination of the company’s long-duration float and significant shareholders’ equity allow it to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in publicly traded equities, while its peers are limited to invest primarily in fixed-income securities. We believe these structural competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance business are enduring and will likely further expand. Berkshire also owns a collection of high-quality, non-insurance businesses, which include market-leading industrial businesses, the largest of which are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Precision Castparts, an aerospace metal parts manufacturer. While Berkshire’s non-insurance portfolio is comprised of highly diversified businesses that have been acquired during the last 50 or so years, we estimate that the portfolio derives more than 50% of its earnings from its largest three businesses: Burlington Northern (>30%), Precision Castparts (~10%), and regulated utilities (~10%).

While we have utilized a number of different approaches to our valuation of Berkshire, we believe it is perhaps easiest to understand the company’s attractive valuation by estimating Berkshire’s underlying economic earnings power, and comparing the company’s price-earnings multiple to other businesses of similar quality and earnings growth rate. Using this approach, we believe that Berkshire currently trades at only 14 times our estimate of next 12 months’ economic earnings per share (excluding the amortization of acquired intangibles), assuming a normalized rate of return of 7% on its insurance investment portfolio. While generating a 7% return on such a large amount of investment assets is not a given—particularly in an extraordinarily low-rate environment—we believe that Berkshire’s ability to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in equity and equity-like instruments and hold them for the long term makes this a reasonable assumption. Based on these assumptions, we believe that Berkshire’s valuation is extremely low compared to businesses of similar quality and growth characteristics.

WeWTF

The last round $47 billion “valuation” is an illusion. SoftBank invested at this valuation with a “pref,” meaning their money is the first money out, limiting the downside. The suckers, idiots, CNBC viewers, great Americans, and people trying to feel young again who buy on the first trade — or after — don’t have this downside protection. Similar to the DJIA, last-round private valuations are harmful metrics that create the illusion of prosperity. The bankers (JPM and Goldman) stand to register $122 million in fees flinging feces at retail investors visiting the unicorn zoo. Any equity analyst who endorses this stock above a $10 billion valuation is lying, stupid, or both.


The dating business is IAC’s best asset — and its greatest challenge

Match is among IAC’s greatest hits. The stock has nearly doubled this year alone, thanks largely to soaring Tinder membership. IAC sold a portion of Match in a 2015 IPO at $12. The stock is now $85, and IAC’s Match stake is worth close to $19 billion. It accounts for more than 90% of IAC’s current $21 billion market value.

This month, Levin and IAC disclosed a solution to the Match problem. The company is considering distributing Match shares to its shareholders in a tax-free transaction. And IAC is thinking about a similar handoff of its 84% stake in ANGI Homeservices (ANGI). That operation is a $4.3 billion market-cap business that IAC created in 2017 by acquiring publicly traded Angie’s List and merging it with IAC-owned HomeAdvisor.


How big stars maximise their take from tours

Historically, tours were loss-leaders used to promote albums. As revenues from recorded music have collapsed and productions have become increasingly elaborate to draw the crowds, ticket prices have risen steeply. The cost of a concert ticket in America increased by 190% between 1996 and 2018, compared with 59% for overall consumer prices. But as the continued success of scalpers demonstrates, they are still far below the market-clearing price.

How aggressively cute toys for adults became a $686 million business

Funko Pops are now available from 25,000 retail brands worldwide, from Walmart to Amazon to Hot Topic and even, somewhat bizarrely, Foot Locker. In 2018, the company’s net sales increased 33 percent to $686.1 million, with figurines accounting for 82 percent of all sales. After the company released its Q2 earnings report in early August, declaring that sales up are 38 percent compared to this time last year, CEO Brian Mariotti called his company “recession proof.”

Collectors like Jack make up 36 percent of Funko’s customers, while 31 percent are “occasional buyers.” Wilkinson says Funko Pops appeal to both markets because of the “science of cute” behind the figurines’ design.

Funko now has more than 1,000 licensed properties, from the Avengers to the Golden Girls, Fortnite to Flash Gordon, Stranger Things to The Office. “Evergreen and classic” properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Disney make up nearly half of all Funko Pop sales, but the company is seemingly constantly procuring new, unexpected licenses, from drag queens to food mascots to NASCAR drivers.

A May 2019 investor presentation from the company boasts that a Pop can be designed and submitted to a licensor in 24 hours, molded into a prototype in 45 days, and “sourced from Asian facilities while maintaining quality control” in just 15 days. Funko also prides itself on its low production costs — each new figure costs between $5,000 and $7,500 to develop.

Is it possible, then, that Funko will run out of things to Pop? At present, the company’s profits continue to climb, from $98 million gross profit in 2015 (when Funko had just 205 active properties) to $258 million in 2018. History has shown us that collectibles tend to decline in popularity, and it is possible that Funko Pops could go the way of the Beanie Baby. Yet at present, there are more than enough fans keeping the company in business.

To encourage collectors, Funko uses many tried-and-tested market tricks, like releasing toys exclusive to certain locations (Mr. Rogers is exclusive to Barnes & Noble) and producing limited-edition runs (only 480 holographic Darth Mauls were released at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012). Yet the company doesn’t just rely on people like Jack and Tristan. A third of all customers are only occasional buyers, and the customer base appears to be a diverse set of people with a diverse range of fandoms. In 2018, no single property made up more than 6 percent of purchases; Pops related to new theatrical releases encompassed 20 percent of sales, TV show-related Pops accounted for 16 percent, and gaming Pops made up 17 percent. There is a roughly equal gender split in customers (51 percent women to 49 percent men), and last year, international sales grew 57 percent.

Interestingly, Funko’s average customer is 35 years old — two years younger than Jack, who says his date recovered from seeing his spare room. “The rest of the night went very well and we went on several more dates,” he said. Although it ultimately didn’t work out with her, Jack says his “crazy room of Funko Pops” didn’t have “too much influence on it either way.”


Move over Lego: The next big collectable toy powerhouse is here

Collectibles are a $200 billion market on their own, and video games are on pace to be a $300 billion industry by 2025. And Funko sits right in the middle of it all.

Funko is very good at what it does; its revenue and fanbase is proof of that. But when Microsoft reached out about a video game collaboration, there were all sorts of new questions on Funko and Microsoft’s part because Funko wasn’t just an aesthetic anymore; it had to be interactive for the first time. And interactive is tricky. It forces designers to decide, how does a Funko walk? How does a Funko fight? Can a Funko bleed? (No, by the way, they can’t).


The real story of Supreme

Twenty-five years later, as fads (like televised street luge) have fallen by the wayside, Supreme remains a skate brand—a purveyor of all the hard and soft goods one needs for the sport. But it is something much more than that, too. Since its beginning, in 1994, Supreme has slowly worked its way to the very center of culture and fashion. Or more accurately, culture and fashion have reconfigured themselves around Supreme. Supreme’s clothing and accessories sell out instantly, and the brand has become a fashion-world collaborator of the highest caliber with projects now under way with designers high (Comme des Garçons, Undercover) and low (Hanes, Champion). Though the particulars of the privately held company’s business are undisclosed, a $500 million investment in 2017 from the multinational private equity firm the Carlyle Group, for a 50 percent stake, put Supreme’s valuation at $1 billion.

The formula for success—for building a brand that lasts for 25 years—sounds simple enough: Create a high-quality product that will last a long time, sell it for an accessible price, and make people desperately want to buy it. But executing such a plan is far trickier. And in figuring out how to thrive according to strict adherence to its own highly specific principles and logic, Supreme has, deliberately or not, re-arranged the alignment of the entire fashion industry.

Powerful as Supreme has become as a trendsetter, the company is still fiercely committed to its own novel approach. Supreme didn’t launch a website until 2006. It was purposefully late to Instagram, too. Outside of Japanese fashion magazines and downtown NYC wheat-paste poster campaigns, Supreme’s only real marketing efforts are made in the skate world. Conveniently, marketing to skaters is likely the best way for Supreme to market to the fashion world. In other words, the fact that Supreme doesn’t pander to the fashion industry only makes its allure more powerful.

ETF fear mongering myths

Even if every ETF investor wanted to sell (which would never happen), remember that ETFs only own approximately 6% of the stock market and 1% of the bond market.

Curated Insights 2019.01.18

10 years since BNSF

“It’s a crazy deal. It’s an insane deal. We looked at Burlington Northern at $75 and I’ll give you the exact calculation we did. You don’t have a high earnings return. They are paying 18 times earnings, but it’s really much worse than that. They report maintenance cap-ex very carefully. They report depreciation and amortization, and they report only about 70% of the maintenance cap-ex.”

One very important fact of this transaction, was his level of conviction. In November 2009, there were a ton of cheap opportunities. Buffett picked BNSF, and paid a 30% premium to gain full ownership. Also, 40% of the total consideration was paid with arguably deeply undervalued BRK shares. So, safe to say he really wanted BNSF. The $34bn paid for BNSF, represented almost 25% of Berkshire’s equity! It was a huge bet, with significant repercussions.

Applying similar numbers, we get to an Enterprise Value of $125bn and an equity value of $105bn for Berkshire´s railroad. Once again, Buffett paid $34bn, took out $31bn in dividends and is left with +$100bn in value…Good job Warren.

So we know returns for this massive investment have been impressive, but let´s get to a number. And the number is…~18%. That is massive for an investment many thought at the time would produce mediocre returns. Remember many experts thought he was overpaying for a capital-intensive, regulated and cyclical business.

18% is 1.5x the return of the S&P 500 during a bull market. But it gets better…At the time of the acquisition, Berkshire already owned ~20% of BNSF stock…so he didn´t have to pay the takeout premium on 100% of the shares outstanding. In reality, he had to pay ~$26bn for the shares he didn´t own. Also, Berkshire employed a bit of leverage to fund the acquisition. The company issued $8bn in bonds, so we get, leveraged returns. If we take into account the leverage and the shares of BNSF Berkshire already owned, then the return on the equity would go…way up. But I think we get the point.

Fund manager: Why Amazon could double

The market is not correctly conceptualizing normalized profitability. It seems that the market views AMZN’s profitability primarily through a legacy e-commerce lens, viewing AMZN as a single-digit-margin business. Piecing apart the business, I think this is wrong. First, AMZN has not known the meaning of the word “operating leverage” for the past 10 years, but it is showing through recently with beautiful impact. In Q3 18, fulfillment as a percentage of sales actually declined for the first time time in five years (having gone from 8.5% in 2010 to 15% of sales in 2018). This is a nascent signal, but suggests that the fulfillment infrastructure expansion is nearing its final stages. There are supplementary data points to support this notion, including the slowing in new DCs and headcount. As a result of this operating leverage, operating margins went from 0.8% in Q3 17 to 6.6% in Q3 18, with incremental margins of 26%. Second, there is a real mix shift going on at AMZN that benefits GMs and fundamentally changes the OM outlook for the combined business. Core e-commerce (lower margin) grew revenue only 10% in Q3, but third party seller services grew 31% and AWS grew 46%. As a result of this positive mix shift, gross margins went from 37% Q3 17 to 41.7% in Q3 18, with incremental gross margins coming in at 57.5%. Amazon effectively has a powerful combination of mix-driven GM expansion and operating leverage driven OM expansion in play here, and my view is that this dynamic will hold for at least a number of years to come.

PayPal quietly took over the checkout button

In 2013, PayPal bought Braintree Payment Solutions LLC, which processes the credit card transactions on the mobile apps of Uber, Airbnb, StubHub, and thousands of smaller businesses. The acquisition brought in an influx of programmers and designers, as well as Venmo, which Braintree had acquired the year before. Venmo is a way to quickly settle small debts between friends: a dinner check, a get-well present for a colleague. With Venmo, informal financial interactions formerly governed by social norms about reciprocity, forgiveness, and passive-aggressive hinting could be easily recorded and quickly paid. (“I only have a twenty” is no longer a viable excuse.) You could even “bill” your friends. The app—complete with a feed of the payments your friends have made to each other—has proved enormously popular with millennials.

Over the next six months, Schulman negotiated similar partnerships with Mastercard and Citibank, committing to make it as effortless as possible for customers to use Citibank-issued credit cards and Mastercard’s network. “When PayPal first spun out of EBay, there was a lot of competition and a lot of negative sentiment,” says Heath Terry, an analyst who covers the industry for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “Basically, in 18 months on the job, Dan was able to completely change that narrative.” As with the Visa deal, PayPal was forgoing some profit but placating powerful and formerly antagonistic payments incumbents. Citi and Mastercard—along with Google, Apple, Amazon, and Samsung, each of which has an eponymous “pay” product—began steering customers to link their accounts with PayPal, seeing it not as a competitor but as a driver of transactions and the fees they generate. In short, as a pal.

The result has been a surge in growth. “It took us 14 years to go from 50 million subscribers to 250 million,” Schulman says. “I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s a long time. We went from 200 million to 250 million in about 18 months,” tripling the rate at which the company added users, or what it calls “net new actives.” PayPal’s stock is up more than 100 percent since the start of 2017. However, PayPal’s most impressive statistic may be its conversion rate. People who design online and mobile shopping apps are obsessed with smoothing and shortening the path from idle browsing to purchase—humans are acquisitive and impulsive creatures, but they’re also easily distracted and bad at remembering their credit card numbers. Too many options hurts conversion, and so does having to type out stuff or wait for a page to load. PayPal’s conversion rate is lights-out: Eighty-nine percent of the time a customer gets to its checkout page, he makes the purchase. For other online credit and debit card transactions, that number sits at about 50 percent.

This differential was cited by the hedge fund Third Point in an investor letter last July: “We see parallels between PayPal and other best-in-class internet platforms like Netflix and Amazon,” it read. It applauded PayPal’s $2.2 billion purchase in May of IZettle, a Swedish payments processor known as the “Square of Europe.” The praise was particularly striking coming from Third Point, whose billionaire founder Dan Loeb, like Icahn, is better known for publicly excoriating the leadership of the companies in which he invests. Built into PayPal’s high share price is the expectation that the company will figure out a way to turn Venmo’s popularity into profit. Third Point’s letter predicted that the app will be contributing $1 billion in additional annual revenue within three years. Disagreements over how to do that, or how much to even try, have led to the departures of two Venmo heads in two years. Employees who have left in recent months describe mounting mutual frustration. According to multiple people familiar with the company’s finances, the app is still losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In an interview after the announcement of Venmo’s latest leadership change in late September, Schulman’s deputy, PayPal Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready, downplayed any suggestion of turmoil. “Any startup that goes through rapid growth is going to experience this,” he says. “You evolve, and you have to bring in different skill sets for each stage of the journey.”

Cancer deaths decline 27% over 25 years

Deaths from cancer dropped 27% over a quarter century, meaning an estimated 2.6 million fewer people died of the disease during that period, according to a new report from researchers at the American Cancer Society.

For most of the 20th century, overall cancer deaths rose, driven mainly by men dying from lung cancer, researchers noted. But since the peak in 1991, the death rate has steadily dropped 1.5% a year through 2016, primarily because of long-running efforts to reduce smoking, as well as advances in detection and treatment of cancer at earlier stages, when prognosis for recovery is generally better.

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 2018.08.24

Tech firms account for 60% of profit margin growth in the past 20 years

The information technology sector – which contains the bulk of superstar firms – accounts for 60% of the increase in S&P 500 profit margins over the past 20 years, while the “adjacent tech” sector, comprising the health care (including biotech firms) and consumer discretionary sectors (incl. firms such as Booking Holdings and Expedia) accounts for 40% of the rise. It also means the bulk of the market – i.e., all firms ex. tech, healthcare and consumer discretionary – have seen no margin growth at all since 1998.

Dear Elon: An open letter against taking Tesla private

First, as a private company, Tesla will be unable to capitalize on its competitive advantages as rapidly and dramatically as it would as a public company, an important consideration given the network effects and natural geographic monopolies to which autonomous taxi and truck networks will submit. Second, in the private market, Tesla would lose the free publicity associated with your role as the CEO of the public company not only with the bestselling mid-sized premium sedan in the US, but also arguably in the best position to launch a completely autonomous taxi network nationwide in the next few years. Just ask Michael Dell: he wants to lead a public company once again for a reason. Third, you will deprive most of your individual investors of a security to bet on you and your strategy, ceding that opportunity to high net worth and institutional investors. Finally, if you do not take Tesla private, you will be surprised and gratified at investor reaction once they realize and understand the scope and ramifications of your long-term vision and strategies.

Thoughts on Xiaomi’s eighth anniversary and inaugural month as a public company

As of March 2018, Xiaomi already had 38 apps with more than 10 million monthly active users, and 18 apps with more than 50 million monthly active users, including the Mi App Store, Mi Browser, Mi Music, and Mi Video apps. Rather than paying search engines to acquire users, Xiaomi is essentially getting paid for acquiring users through selling its smartphones. This allows Xiaomi to have a negative CAC (customer acquisition cost) for its Internet services.

Another under-appreciated pillar of Xiaomi’s growth is its “ecosystem strategy.” Xiaomi strategically invests in many startups as well as the many Internet services providers they work with, both in China and outside of China. Companies in the Xiaomi ecosystem include SmartMi (air purifiers), Zimi (power banks), Huami (Mi bands), Chun Mi (rice cookers), and 80-plus more. Thanks to these prolific investments, you can find a wide variety of products in any Xiaomi store, from scooters to ukeleles (see below). As a result, every time consumers visit a Xiaomi store, they can find something new, and the frequency of store visits is a lot higher than typical smartphone brands, even Apple.

Ensure the price of the hardware is as low as possible so the company can grow market share and users. Sell the phones online, direct-to-consumer, bypass the middlemen, and past the enormous cost savings to consumers. Overtime, the company will monetize on Internet services.

When Yahoo! Invested in Alibaba (another GGV portfolio company) in 2005, the world had 1 billion Internet users. Now, the world has 3.5 billion Internet users. Over the last 13 years, Alibaba’s valuation increased 100 times from $5 billion to $500 billion. The fact that China was the fastest growing market for Internet users during this period, coupled with Alibaba’s amazing ability to execute, turned the company into a growth miracle. In the next 12-13 years, the world will most likely grow to 5 billion Internet users. The world’s next 1 billion Internet users that will come online in the next decade – via affordable but high-quality smartphones – are outside of the US. They are in the 74 countries that Xiaomi is already in today. Going forward, Xiaomi is very well-positioned to take advantage of the next phase of growth through selling hardware, software, and bundled Internet services, as well as by investing in partner companies in those countries.


Does Tencent Music deserve a Spotify-like valuation?

Tencent Music this year could generate revenue less than half of Spotify’s projected $6 billion. Tencent Music is profitable, which is rare in music-streaming. The firm pulled in roughly two billion yuan ($290 million) in net income last year. Spotify, in contrast, reported a net loss of about $1.4 billion last year, although nearly $1 billion of that was due to a one-time financing charge.

In terms of users, Tencent Music is way bigger than Spotify. Tencent Music operates streaming service QQ Music as well as karaoke and live-streaming music apps Kugou and Kuwo. The three services had a combined 700 million monthly users in China as of September 2017, according to Tencent Music. Tencent Music operates a fourth service, the karaoke app WeSing, which at the end of last year had more than 460 million registered users. By comparison, Spotify had 180 million monthly users and 83 million paid subscribers as of June, the company has said. But Spotify’s ratio of paid versus free users is higher than at Tencent Music, where only a fraction of its Chinese users pay for music.

The secret of Tencent Music’s profitability is virtual goods and cheap music rights. Most of its revenue comes from non-subscription services including karaoke and live-streaming services, where users can pay to send virtual gifts to performers.

Swelling clout of US corporate giants is depressing pay, analysts say

As the economic weight of a small number of highly profitable and innovative “superstar” companies has increased, workers’ slice of the pie has fallen in their industries. This may have contributed to a broader fall in labour’s share of income that has been particularly noticeable in the US since the beginning of the 2000s. At the same time, corporate profitability has surged to record highs. 

Goldman Sachs analysts say rising product and labour market concentration has imposed a drag of 0.25 percentage points on annual wage growth since the early 2000s. They also stress, however, that America’s dreary productivity growth is a bigger problem.

ARK Disrupt Issue 138: GPUs, crypto, fintech, mobility, and disease

Turing will be able to perform graphics, deep learning, and ray tracing operations simultaneously, a first for any processor. The Turing GPU can perform 10 billion operations per second, enabling ray tracing in real time. In addition, it is capable of 125 trillion deep learning operations and 16 trillion graphics operations per second. Nvidia and other chip companies rarely dedicate hardware to a specific algorithm in the absence of a large market opportunity. Nvidia posits that the $2,000 Turing ray tracing GPU will target 50 million artists and designers globally. A 10% hit rate would create a $10 billion market, nearly matching Nvidia’s annual revenue today.

Because 98% of all genetic diseases are polygenic, that is involving more than one gene, the clinical utility of whole genome sequencing (WGS) is taking on new importance. To date, roughly two million whole human genomes have been sequenced. If DNA sequencing costs continue to drop by 40% per year, the number of whole human genomes sequenced should increase at 150% rate per year. As a result, genome-wide association studies should power poly-epigenetic models of disease and result in molecular diagnostic tests which introduce more science into health care decision-making.

Why battling bugs is a booming business, and may be getting bigger

Preventing pest infestations—or mitigating them after the fact—is particularly important for restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. Not only can regulators impose heavy fines or shut down businesses that violate health ordinances, customers who encounter a bug-infested business may shame them on social media. “In the age of customer review apps such as Yelp, businesses are well-aware that a customer report or, worse, photo of a pest infestation can be shared around the internet within minutes and potentially damage their brand,” says Zhu. With reputations at stake, businesses in the food and beverage, hospitality, and health care sectors are especially inclined to hire a pest control company promptly when faced with an infestation. In fact, many commercial customers schedule routine treatments to prevent potential infestations, providing pest control companies with a recurring revenue stream.

The companies best positioned to thrive in this environment are those with access to sufficient capital to acquire or open new locations. Operating an extensive branch network confers a number of competitive advantages, including the opportunity to generate greater brand recognition through cost-effective advertising and the ability to operate with lower average costs due to economies of scale. In recent years, consolidation has been intense in North America, which is still home to about half the world’s pest control companies. In fact, four of the 100 largest pest control companies in the US were acquired in May 2018 alone, two of them by US-based Terminix, and one each by European firms Rentokil and Anticimex.

Despite modern pesticides and the efforts of tens of thousands of companies, pest control remains a Sisyphean task. “It’s easy to kill bugs, but it’s much harder to keep them from coming back,” Zhu says. For the foreseeable future, the bedbugs will continue to bite—and demand for professional pest control services should continue to grow.

Litigation finance offers investors attractive yields

Funds that invest in litigation are on the rise. In the past 18 months some 30 have launched; over $2bn has been raised. Last year Burford Capital, an industry heavyweight, put $1.3bn into cases—more than triple the amount it deployed in 2016. Lee Drucker of Lake Whillans, a firm that funds lawsuits, says he gets calls weekly from institutional investors seeking an asset uncorrelated with the rest of the market—payouts from lawsuits bear no relation to interest-rate rises or stockmarket swings.

Returns are usually a multiple of the investment or a percentage of the settlement, or some combination of the two. Funders of a winning suit can expect to double, triple or quadruple their money. Cases that are up for appeal, where the timespan is short—usually 18-24 months—and the chance of a loss slimmer, offer lower returns. New cases that are expected to take years offer higher potential payouts.

As funders compete for high-quality investments, opportunities in new markets arise. Bentham IMF, a litigation funder based in New York, has joined Kobre & Kim, a law firm, to set up a $30m fund for Israeli startups to pursue claims against multinationals—for example, over trade-secret violations. A burgeoning secondary market is likely to develop further, allowing investors to cash out before long-running suits are closed. Burford recently sold its stake in an arbitration case concerning two Argentine airlines for a return of 736%. Such mouth-watering profits should keep luring capital into the courtroom.

Network-based businesses will disrupt all sectors of the economy

Networks are even more powerful because their foundations are even stronger. Large corporations leveraged mass production, mass distribution, and economies of scale. Networks leverage mass computation, mass connectivity, and network effects. Because computation and connectivity improve at exponential rates, the owner of a network has insurmountable advantages over the owner of a traditional corporation.

Corporations believe that bits enhance atoms. Networks recognize that bits are the new capital and atoms are the new labor.

Dragon quest

China now has over 100 cities with populations topping one million, compared to the entire continent of Europe which has a paltry 34. Ever heard of Zhengzhou? Don’t worry if not, it’s a tier two city in Henan province that only just makes it into China’s top 20, yet it has a bigger population than the whole of Denmark. Expressed another way, China already has more millennials than the US has people.

China is of course the world’s second biggest economy and poised one day to reach the top, but consider this: if its per capita wealth were to catch up with that of Hong Kong’s, then its resulting GDP would not just surpass the United States’ today, but triple it. This is more simply reflected in the fact that each year approximately 35 million Chinese enter the middle and affluent classes. No wonder multinationals around the world are flinging everything they have at the country.


China reaches 800 million internet users

The U.S is estimated to have around 300 million internet users. The number of internet users in China is now more than the combined populations of Japan, Russia, Mexico and the U.S., as Bloomberg noted. The new statistic takes internet adoption in the country to 57.7 percent, with 788 million people reportedly mobile internet users. That’s a staggering 98 percent and it underlines just how crucial mobile is in the country.

Jakarta, the fastest-sinking city in the world

It sits on swampy land, the Java Sea lapping against it, and 13 rivers running through it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that flooding is frequent in Jakarta and, according to experts, it is getting worse. But it’s not just about freak floods, this massive city is literally disappearing into the ground.

“If we look at our models, by 2050 about 95% of North Jakarta will be submerged.”

It’s already happening – North Jakarta has sunk 2.5m in 10 years and is continuing to sink by as much as 25cm a year in some parts, which is more than double the global average for coastal megacities. Jakarta is sinking by an average of 1-15cm a year and almost half the city now sits below sea level. The impact is immediately apparent in North Jakarta.

There is technology to replace groundwater deep at its source but it’s extremely expensive. Tokyo used this method, known as artificial recharge, when it faced severe land subsidence 50 years ago. The government also restricted groundwater extraction and businesses were required to use reclaimed water. Land subsidence subsequently halted. But Jakarta needs alternative water sources for that to work. Heri Andreas, from Bandung Institute of Technology, says it could take up to 10 years to clean up the rivers, dams and lakes to allow water to be piped anywhere or used as a replacement for the aquifers deep underground.

We all have it now

Think about that. It took 7 months for the biggest volcanic explosion in the last 10,000 years, one that affected the global climate and killed twice as many people as any other volcanic explosion in recorded history, to become news. If the same event were to happen today, we could have someone tweeting it within minutes and we would probably have video footage online within the hour. This is possible because of the democratization of information. We all have it now. Historically, having an informational edge was worth something. Being faster or having better access meant making more money. Not anymore.

This is where we are. Only those using advanced quantitative techniques have any chance of exploiting anomalies in the data. The rest of us will need to do something else. We went from a world of privileged access to information to a world where a single tweet can change everything. A world where anyone can break the story, anyone can get the data, and anyone can be a media company. If, as Brendan Mullooly points out, today’s edges are tomorrow’s table stakes, what does that leave the typical investor to do? The answer lies in a maxim from Jim O’Shaughnessy: you must arbitrage human nature.


Buyback derangement syndrome

Investors generally do not spend the money paid out in buybacks on champagne bubble baths or other forms of consumption. Rather, they reinvest it in other stocks and bonds. Buybacks thus facilitate a movement of capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

Yet another claim is that much of the market rise over the last few years has been from buybacks. The numbers don’t bear this out. The direction is plausible, as researchers have found that share prices do tend to increase—by around 1%—when buybacks are announced. Several explanations have been offered for this positive reaction including that investors see repurchases as a signal that management thinks shares are undervalued, and that investors cheer when management returns cash to shareholders rather than, perhaps, wasting it on “empire building.” These explanations are behavioral effects at the margin.

Indexers will cause the next stock market crash?

My Bloomberg colleague Eric Balchunas points out that during the 2008 credit crunch, the money flows were into index funds and exchange-traded funds; more than $205 billion was put into these funds while active funds experienced $259 billion in outflows. In other words, the 57 percent sell-off of U.S. equity markets during the financial crisis gives us a good idea how passive indexers will behave when markets crash: they become net buyers while active funds become net sellers.

Beyond the 2008 crash, we have seen several market corrections since 2009. As my colleague, Michael Batnick observed, from May to October 2011, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell about 20 percent. Again, between May 2015 and mid-February 2016 the S&P 500 fell about 14 percent. Other indexes, such as the Russell 2000 fell even more. And what happened? Passive index funds continued to gain market share at the expense of actively managed funds.

Which raises the question: Just who was “cruelly exposed” in those corrections? By all lights, it looks like it was the actively managed funds.

Curated Insights 2017.07.16

Tom Russo on shareholder value creation and global brands

Competition is both global and local. The fight is typically fair, but not always. In India, for instance, Nestlé suffered a below-the-belt punch with its famous Maggi instant soup business. It suffered a massive goodwill assault by local forces that alleged the product would kill young children because of ingredients that were toxic. There is absolutely no hard science to support the claim. Yet, it ran across all 250 newspapers in India, and Nestlé’s brand preference score for the Maggi product dropped from 98% to 8%.

The century of biology

When engineering, biology, and computer science come together it elevates bio to a “read/write” paradigm. That is, you don’t just read the code of biology but you can also write, or design, with it.

…when you looked at a cell type that was normal, and you looked at its related diseased counterpart, you could see changes in the differential set of genes that were being expressed in one cell type vs. another (the cell program). Sometimes there’s not a mutated gene that’s causing the disease — it’s not just a bug or “bad gene” in the code (genomics) — it’s the cell running the wrong program, which is where epigenomics comes in again. The gene doesn’t just turn on and off like a light switch to cause disease, it can be more like a dimmer, going higher or lower (too much or too little of a gene). What causes a healthy cell to shift in to a diseased state, whether it’s cells multiplying uncontrollably in cancer or dormant immune cells suddenly getting activated in autoimmune disease? The ability to understand how the genome is being deployed or regulated within a cell — is it the wrong dosage or level for a particular set of genes? — becomes a very interesting new avenue to help us get to the right drug, for the right patient, at the right dose, and at the right time.

This leads us to the second derivatives of read/write, which is to enable insight/design. We’re not just generating data on the read side, we’re also fundamentally understanding it deeply in ways that we couldn’t before, especially with multiple data streams and machine learning to help make sense of it all. And on the write side, we’re not just editing, we’re also designing with biology. In the future, biology can become its own creative medium of sorts.

…our ability to read/write biology will disrupt a wide range of industries. In addition to its obvious impact across health, we’re increasingly using biology for manufacturing. Eventually it’s going to impact areas people don’t typically think about as “biological” — like textiles, architecture, and many more areas — in ways we can’t even conceive of yet.


Scientists can use CRISPR to store images and movies in bacteria

CRISPR was invented billions of years ago, as a way for bacteria to defend themselves against viruses. The bacteria grab the DNA of invading viruses, incorporating it into their own genomes. That viral DNA always gets inserted in the same place, and new sequences get added after old ones, as if the bacteria were stacking books on a shelf. They use these archives to guide an enzyme called Cas9, which cuts and disables any viral DNA that matches the stored sequences.

So, first and foremost, CRISPR is a kind of genetic memory—a system for storing information. And that information doesn’t have to be the DNA of viruses. Scientists can now encode any digital file in the form of DNA, by converting the ones and zeroes of binary code into As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of the double helix.

Recording information in DNA isn’t new: That’s effectively what living things have been doing since the dawn of life itself. More recently, scientists have realized that DNA makes the perfect storage medium. It takes up so little space that you could fit all the world’s data in the back of a truck. It’s durable, provided it’s kept cold, dry, and dark. And it is immune to obsolescence: DVDs and Blu-Rays will eventually go the way of cassettes and laser discs, but humans will always have the desire and means to read DNA.​


In China, shoppers buy bad loans online with their groceries

For 4.15 million yuan ($610,000), customers on the site can bid for the debt of a steelmaker from Zhejiang. The company has failed to pay back a 9.95 million-yuan loan, including interest, so a distressed asset manager is auctioning it off to the highest online bidder.

“Financial technology and e-commerce in China has reached a high level of sophistication. Online platforms are leveling the playing field in the distressed debt market as it means everybody gets access to the same information.”

“Conducting NPL auctions online has increasingly become a trend. More investors are using Taobao as a platform because of the simplicity, transparency and confidentiality of the bidders’ identity.”

But bad-loan investing isn’t like trading equities or even ordinary debt, which raises questions over the opening up of the market to rank-and-file investors.

The most important moat

“A Bezos Moat is premised on the idea that the customer is willingly and is frequently entering into a commercial transaction with the company because the customer is deriving more value from the transaction than he or she is paying for.

“A Buffett Moat attempts to identify companies that will be the only one (or one of a few) available in a commercial landscape, so that the customer is, in effect, forced to transact with these companies (i.e. only bridge, only newspaper, only soft drink option).”