Curated Insights 2020.03.20

Spotify: The ambient media company

We believe the market that we’re going after is going to be at least a billion, probably two or three billion people around the world. And if we are going to win that market, I think we’d have to be at least a third of that market. So we’re talking about somewhere between 10x – 15x of opportunity left.

The battle for sustained success in the ambient media landscape will come down, in many ways, to balance. Balancing long term vision with the ability to react nimbly to near term developments. Balancing the need to address users at scale with the importance of the human element in creation and curation. And, for many companies, balancing commitment and investment to audio with broader business initiatives. On all three counts, Spotify comes out ahead.

If it takes a number of months or potentially years to make your money back, that gives investors time to take advantage of higher expected returns. For those who are net savers, this means plenty of time to deploy capital at lower prices than we were being offered in recent months. For those with diversified portfolios who won’t be making new contributions, this means opportunities to slowly rebalance into the pain.

Curated Insights 2020.02.07

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

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


Underutilized fixed assets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why market timing can be so appealing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Creating a competitive shaving market

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

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

Ditch your car: Ridesharing is more cost effective

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

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

Curated Insights 2020.01.10

The art of (not) selling

You are given the choice between two sums of money: one million dollars or a penny that will double every day for 30 days. Which should you choose?

Here are a couple hints. The penny that doubles daily would be worth $1.28 after the first week. After the second week, it would be worth $163.84.

You will probably reason that the penny would be worth more than the one million dollars. (Why, otherwise, all the theatrics?) By just how much, though, might surprise you.

It turns out that after doubling 30 times, the penny would be worth $10,737,418.24!

This is a terrific exercise because it highlights the not-so-obvious power of compound returns (in this case, the penny compounds at 100% for 30 periods).

I say not-so-obvious because you would have been better off taking the one million dollars until the 27th day. But in those final four days, the value of the penny increases from less than $700,000 to more than $10.7 million. Patience and a long-term perspective are required to give the power of compounding an opportunity to do its magic.

Most do not naturally grasp the concept of compound interest. It has been called the eighth wonder of the world (first by Albert Einstein, supposedly) for good reason. Most of us have to learn to appreciate it. And even once learned, we have to remind ourselves periodically of its wonder.

From this riddle, we learn the importance of holding on so that we allow our investments to compound uninterrupted for long enough that the compounding effects we saw in days 27 to 30 have an opportunity to play out in our portfolios.

What is a mutual fund worth?

In the early 1950s, 4.2% of the U.S. population participated in the stock market, almost entirely through directly held stocks. These investors held undiversified portfolios—a median of two stocks. Half held one stock. Only 538,000 investors—0.35% of the population—held more than ten stocks.

Curated Insights 2019.12.27

How Gen X, millennials and Gen Z became the low-inflation generations

Overall, 6 in 10 working-age Americans haven’t even seen inflation above 4 percent. A quarter of them haven’t even seen a sustained stretch above 3 percent.

This is how much money Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is raking in

This time of year, it’s hard to go a day without hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” whether it’s playing in a store, in an Uber or on your holiday playlist. … The singer has earned more than $60 million in royalties from the song.

Curated Insights 2019.11.22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alibaba aims to deliver with $16bn courier venture

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

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

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

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

The beauty of Singles Day

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


Why Nike quit Amazon, but doubles down on Tmall

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

Balsa shortage threatens wind power rollout

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

BlueMountain: the hedge fund that lost its way

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

Curated Insights 2019.10.04

There are no secrets

The biggest sign that an industry’s experts are not truly experts is when the industry has a large variance in its popular opinions. For example, if some people believe that you should do X and another group believe that you should not do X, then that field is likely not well understood. I am not saying that there are no experts in investing or diet/nutrition, just that a large variance suggests that the experts know less than what we might initially perceive.

Besides variance of opinion, the other thing to look out for are “simple” or “easy” solutions to these complex problems. Humans have been trying to solve certain kinds of problems (i.e. investing, health, etc.) for thousands of years, so you should be skeptical of anyone who claims to have a simple solution. Yes, some people will have useful tips, but no one person will have all the answers. And remember, what worked for them may not work for you.

BlackRock, Tencent tie-up is a match made in Wall Street

Tencent’s LiCaiTong wealth management platform already has 800 billion yuan ($112 billion) in aggregated assets, making the social media company a major financial institution in its own right. And let’s not forget the trillions of yuan that sloshes through the Weixin Pay system every year.

Southeast Asia’s internet economy to top $100 billion this year

Southeast Asia’s internet economy is on track to exceed $100 billion this year before tripling by 2025, becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing arenas for online commerce thanks to a youthful population increasingly comfortable with smartphones.

The value of online transactions in areas from internet retail to car-hailing should reach $300 billion by 2025, fueled by an existing population of 360 million online users, according to a research report by Google, Temasek Holdings Pte and Bain & Co. The region, home to ride-hailing Grab and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s e-commerce site Lazada, includes four countries — Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — in the top 10 globally in terms of time spent by users online, the study showed.

If you aren’t rich by 45, you might as well give up

For the rich and poor alike, the economists found that “the bulk of earnings growth” happens in the first 10 years of work, typically between the ages of 25 and 35. During the next decade of their career, men can expect smaller raises overall.

After 45, those in the bottom 90 percent of lifetime earners see their earnings decline as a group, in part because people often start cutting back their hours around that time, especially if they do manual labor for a living. Meanwhile, even 1 percenters only see relatively minor pay bumps after middle age.