Curated Insights 2017.12.17

Disney and Fox

With an increasingly high-profile brand, large user base, and ever deeper pockets, Netflix moved into original programming that was orthogonal to traditional programming buyers: creators had full control and a guarantee that they could create entire seasons at a time Each of these intermediary steps was a necessary prerequisite to everything that followed, culminating in yesterday’s announcement: Netflix can credibly offer a service worth paying for in any country on Earth, thanks to all of the IP it itself owns. This is how a company accomplishes what, at the beginning, may seem impossible: a series of steps from here to there that build on each other. Moreover, it is not only an impressive accomplishment, it is also a powerful moat; whoever wishes to compete has to follow the same time-consuming process.

Another way to characterize Netflix’s increasing power is Aggregation Theory: Netflix started out by delivering a superior user experience of an existing product (DVDs) to a dedicated set of customers, leveraged that customer base to gain new kinds of supply (streaming content), gaining more customers and more supply, and ultimately leveraged those customers to modularize supply such that the streaming service now makes an increasing amount of its content directly. What Disney is seeking to prove, though, is that it can compete with Netflix directly by following a very different path.

The implication of Netflix’s shift to original programming, though, isn’t simply the fact that the streaming company is a full-on competitor for cable TV: it is a competitor for differentiated content as well. That gives Netflix far more leverage over content suppliers like Disney than the cable companies ever had.

Netflix isn’t simply adding customers, it is raising prices at the same time, the surest sign of market power. Therefore, the only way for Disney to avoid commoditization is to itself go vertical and connect directly with customers: thus the upcoming streaming service, the removal of its content from Netflix, and, presuming it is announced, this deal.

Whereas Netflix laddered-up to its vertical model and used its power as an aggregator of demand to gain power over supply, Disney is seeking to leverage — and augment — its supply to gain demand. The end result, though, would look awfully similar: a vertically integrated streaming offering that attracts and keeps customers with exclusive content, augmented with licensing deals.

In addition, Disney and 21st Century Fox combined for 40% of U.S. box office revenue in 2016; that probably isn’t enough to stop the deal, and as silly as it sounds, don’t underestimate the clamoring of fans for the unification of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in swaying popular opinion!

GM’s latest weapon in pickup truck wars: Carbon fiber

Pickup sales represent about 16% of the U.S. market, but delivered the bulk of the $25 billion in operating profit Detroit’s Big Three auto makers earned in North America last year, according to analysts. J.D. Power estimates GM’s large pickups fetch $43,220 on average, up about 30% from five years ago, but below the $45,000 transactions on Ford’s F-Series.

Trucks represent a unique challenge for Detroit. Buyers expect ample power to haul boats and construction gear, but regulators are demanding more efficient designs over the next seven years to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and improve fuel economy. That thinking underpinned Ford’s use of aluminum for the market-leading F-Series, which Environmental Protection Agency officials have said they see as already nearly meeting 2025 fuel-economy standards.

Carbon fiber is at least 50-75% lighter than steel and 20-50% lighter than aluminum, depending on the type, according to Ducker Worldwide, a materials consultancy that works with auto makers. It would improve dent resistance and give GM a differentiating feature in the fierce realm of truck marketing, said Richard Schultz, a metals expert at Ducker.

Researchers train robots to see into the future

These robotic imaginations are still relatively simple for now – predictions made only several seconds into the future – but they are enough for the robot to figure out how to move objects around on a table without disturbing obstacles. Crucially, the robot can learn to perform these tasks without any help from humans or prior knowledge about physics, its environment or what the objects are. That’s because the visual imagination is learned entirely from scratch from unattended and unsupervised exploration, where the robot plays with objects on a table. After this play phase, the robot builds a predictive model of the world, and can use this model to manipulate new objects that it has not seen before.

The system uses convolutional recurrent video prediction to “predict how pixels in an image will move from one frame to the next based on the robot’s actions.” This means that it can play out scenarios before it begins touching or moving objects.

China has been building what it calls “the world’s biggest camera surveillance network”. Across the country, 170 million CCTV cameras are already in place and an estimated 400 million new ones will be installed in the next three years.

Many of the cameras are fitted with artificial intelligence, including facial recognition technology. The BBC’s John Sudworth has been given rare access to one of the new hi-tech police control rooms.

World’s largest water diversion plan won’t quench China’s thirst

It’s China’s age-old dilemma: a tug of war between the farms that help feed the nation, and the soaring demands of industry and city-dwellers in the parched northern plains.

Beijing, which gets about 70 percent of its water from the South-North diversion project, is expected to add another 2 million people before the government caps the city’s population at 23 million.

One way to stem the reduction in groundwater is taxes. Last month, the government expanded a water resource tax trial to cover nine municipalities and provinces, with duties ramping up if quotas are exceeded. Regular water tax rates were highest in Beijing and Tianjin, according to China’s finance ministry, and water from underground will be taxed at twice the rate or more than for surface water.

Another option is to import food that requires a lot of moisture to grow — nearly half of China’s farmland has no irrigation system. That’s not straightforward, as China also has a long-standing food-security policy that aims to be largely self-sufficient in staple grains.

Each ton of imported wheat saves China about 500 cubic meters of water and 0.4 acres of farmland, Fang said. The country is already the world’s largest importer of soybeans, but could buy more, as well as meat and dairy products, she said. But an increase in grain imports would put a further strain on global food markets. China’s soybean demand has prompted farmers in Brazil to turn over some 13 million hectares of farmland and forest to growing the crop in the past 10 years, an area about the size of Germany.

Still, in many cases there’s little incentive for farmers to save water. Agriculture uses 62 percent of China’s water, but crops have a relatively low marginal value. So the government bans the sale of agricultural water to industry, which pays 10 times the price, to ensure food supply.


A caution from the world’s biggest shipping line

Decade-old oversupply issues swamped demand for containerized sea trade in the third quarter, a senior official at Maersk Line Ltd. said in an interview last week. Over 90 percent of trade is routed through ships, making the industry a bellwether for the worldwide economy.

Drewry Shipping Consultants expects the container-shipping freight growth rate to drop to less than 10 percent in 2018 from around 15 percent in 2017 as a supply glut hits home. CMA CGM, the No. 3 container shipping company, recently signaled slightly lower rates for 2018 in early negotiations of Asia-Europe contracts, analysts at Credit Suisse Group AG wrote in a Nov. 29 note.

In contrast, the air-freight market is buoyant after years in the doldrums, International Air Transport Association said last week. The development of e-commerce should mean growth rates remain ahead of the pace of expansion in world trade.


The world produces more than 3.5 million tons of waste a day – and that figure is growing

The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. If nothing is done, that figure will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century, the researchers estimate. On average, Americans throw away their own body weight in trash every month. In Japan, meanwhile, the typical person produces only two-thirds as much. It’s difficult to find comparable figures for the trash produced by mega-cities. But clearly, New York generates by far the most waste of the cities I visited: People in the broader metropolitan area throw away 33 million tons per year, according to a report by a global group of academics published in 2015 in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 15 times the Lagos metropolitan area, their study found.


Salmon open flood gates for human consumption of GM animals

Engineered to grow at twice the rate of regular salmon, it is also believed to be the first example of a genetically engineered animal bred and sold for human consumption.


The main advantage of the salmon’s shorter lifespan is that the fish can be grown in tanks inland, vastly reducing the cost of transportation and the burden on the environment. “Demand for global protein is increasing,” he says. “We have to do a better job and we have to do it efficiently.”

One area Professor Muir regards as promising is the creation of genetically modified goats’ milk by scientists at the University of California, Davis, which carries a protein found in human breast milk that could, for example, help protect children in the developing world from bacterial infection.

More moats, more profits

Some businesses, however, have structural advantages that enable a stronger defense against competition, enabling high profits over an extended period. As competitive advantages have improved for the leading firms, we believe the ability to shield profits from normal competition has increased, enabling higher overall profits. The high concentration of wide and narrow moats among the largest 100 firms suggests that their elevated profit margins partly reflect the successful defense of competitive positions. In analysis looking at the past 10 years, wide-moat firms have generated more than triple the operating margins of no-moat firms, while narrow-moat firms have posted more than double the returns of no-moat companies. As the moat rating improves, the margins expand, supporting the importance of moats in protecting profits.

Beyond the global growth, the current phase of industrialization also supports more moats. As industrialization has moved from mechanical and mass production to information technology, we have seen an expansion in moats, especially in intangible assets and switching costs. Further, as we move into the next phase of industrialization focused on networking and the exchange of data between machines and humans,3 we expect more growth in profits supported by network effects. Several of the largest companies, including wide-moat firms with strong network effects Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon.com, Alibaba, and Tencent, didn’t exist 30 years ago and now represent more than 10% of the market capitalization of the top 100 firms.

The blockchain economy: A beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics

But a database still relies on trust; a digitised ledger is only as reliable as the organisation that maintains it (and the individuals they employ). It is this problem that the blockchain solves. The blockchain is a distributed ledgers that does not rely on a trusted central authority to maintain and validate the ledger.

A better metaphor for the blockchain is the invention of mechanical time. “The effect of the reduction in the variance of time measurement was felt everywhere”, Allen writes. Mechanical time opened up entirely new categories of economic organisation that had until then been not just impossible, but unimaginable. Mechanical time allowed trade and exchange to be synchronised across great distances. It allowed for production and transport to be coordinated. It allowed for the day to be structured, for work to be compensated according to the amount of time worked — and for workers to know that they were being compensated fairly. Both employers and employees could look at a standard, independent instrument to verify that a contract had been performed.

Complete contracts are impossible to execute, while incomplete contracts are expensive. The blockchain, though smart contracts, lowers the information costs and transactions costs associated with many incomplete contracts and so expands the scale and scope of economic activity that can be undertaken. It allows markets to operate where before only large firms could operate, and it allows business and markets to operate where before only government could operate.

The blockchain and associated technological changes will massively disrupt current economic conditions. The industrial revolution ushered in a world where business models were predicated on hierarchy and financial capitalism. The blockchain revolution will see an economy dominated by human capitalism and greater individual autonomy.

Curated Insights 2017.12.10

The impossibility of intelligence explosion

The first issue I see with the intelligence explosion theory is a failure to recognize that intelligence is necessarily part of a broader system — a vision of intelligence as a “brain in jar” that can be made arbitrarily intelligent independently of its situation. A brain is just a piece of biological tissue, there is nothing intrinsically intelligent about it.

In particular, there is no such thing as “general” intelligence. On an abstract level, we know this for a fact via the “no free lunch” theorem — stating that no problem-solving algorithm can outperform random chance across all possible problems. If intelligence is a problem-solving algorithm, then it can only be understood with respect to a specific problem. In a more concrete way, we can observe this empirically in that all intelligent systems we know are highly specialized.

If intelligence is fundamentally linked to specific sensorimotor modalities, a specific environment, a specific upbringing, and a specific problem to solve, then you cannot hope to arbitrarily increase the intelligence of an agent merely by tuning its brain — no more than you can increase the throughput of a factory line by speeding up the conveyor belt. Intelligence expansion can only come from a co-evolution of the mind, its sensorimotor modalities, and its environment.

In Terman’s landmark “Genetic Studies of Genius”, he notes that most of his exceptionally gifted subjects would pursue occupations “as humble as those of policeman, seaman, typist and filing clerk”. There are currently about seven million people with IQs higher than 150 — better cognitive ability than 99.9% of humanity — and mostly, these are not the people you read about in the news. Of the people who have actually attempted to take over the world, hardly any seem to have had an exceptional intelligence; anecdotally, Hitler was a high-school dropout, who failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Art — twice.

People who do end up making breakthroughs on hard problems do so through a combination of circumstances, character, education, intelligence, and they make their breakthroughs through incremental improvement over the work of their predecessors. Success — expressed intelligence — is sufficient ability meeting a great problem at the right time. Most of these remarkable problem-solvers are not even that clever — their skills seem to be specialized in a given field and they typically do not display greater-than-average abilities outside of their own domain.

So, a person with an IQ of 130 is statistically far more likely to succeed in navigating the problem of life than a person with an IQ of 70 — although this is never guaranteed at the individual level — but here’s the thing: this correlation breaks down after a certain point. There is no evidence that a person with an IQ of 170 is in any way more likely to achieve a greater impact in their field than a person with an IQ of 130.

Why would the real-world utility of raw cognitive ability stall past a certain threshold? This points to a very intuitive fact: that high attainment requires sufficient cognitive ability, but that the current bottleneck to problem-solving, to expressed intelligence, is not latent cognitive ability itself. The bottleneck is our circumstances. Our environment, which determines how our intelligence manifests itself, puts a hard limit on what we can do with our brains — on how intelligent we can grow up to be, on how effectively we can leverage the intelligence that we develop, on what problems we can solve. All evidence points to the fact that our current environment, much like past environments over the previous 200,000 years of human history and prehistory, does not allow high-intelligence individuals to fully develop and utilize their cognitive potential.

And they are only able to succeed because they are standing on the shoulder of giants — their own work is but one last subroutine in a problem-solving process that spans decades and thousands of individuals. Their own individual cognitive work may not be much more significant to the whole process than the work of a single transistor on a chip.

It is civilization as a whole that will create superhuman AI, not you, nor me, nor any individual. A process involving countless humans, over timescales we can barely comprehend. A process involving far more externalized intelligence — books, computers, mathematics, science, the internet — than biological intelligence.

We don’t have to speculate about whether an “explosion” would happen the moment an intelligent system starts optimizing its own intelligence. As it happens, most systems are recursively self-improving. We’re surrounded with them. So we know exactly how such systems behave — in a variety of contexts and over a variety of timescales. You are, yourself, a recursively self-improving system: educating yourself makes you smarter, in turn allowing you to educate yourself more efficiently. Likewise, human civilization is recursively self-improving, over a much longer timescale.

Google’s AlphaZero destroys Stockfish in 100-game match

This would be akin to a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari. That’s all in less time that it takes to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The program had four hours to play itself many, many times, thereby becoming its own teacher.

“We have always assumed that chess required too much empirical knowledge for a machine to play so well from scratch, with no human knowledge added at all,” Kasparov said. “Of course I’ll be fascinated to see what we can learn about chess from AlphaZero, since that is the great promise of machine learning in general—machines figuring out rules that humans cannot detect. But obviously the implications are wonderful far beyond chess and other games. The ability of a machine to replicate and surpass centuries of human knowledge in complex closed systems is a world-changing tool.”


CVS’s $68 billion bid to bring one-stop shopping to health care

The buyout would combine the largest U.S. drugstore chain with the third-biggest health insurer. CVS also manages drug benefits plans for thousands of employers and insurers, a business that could help steer some of Aetna’s 22 million customers to CVS pharmacy counters when they fill a prescription. Already, CVS has 1,100 MinuteClinics in its pharmacies, where nurse practitioners and physician assistants provide routine care such as flu shots or wrapping sprained ankles. It’s also trying out hearing and vision centers in a handful of locations. If the merger goes through, CVS plans to build mini-health centers in many more of its 9,700 stores, turning them into places where Aetna members—and customers of rival insurers—get convenient low-level care for ailments and chronic diseases. And having a closer tie to where customers are treated could help Aetna better manage their ailments earlier, more efficiently—and less expensively.

The integration is part of a wide-ranging effort by health insurance companies and the federal government to shift care away from paying for each service and toward paying doctors and hospitals for taking better care of patients and keeping them healthier. The approach, known as value-based care, challenges the industry’s traditional reimbursement models.

CVS and Aetna say they’ll be able to reduce costs by directing some patients to lower-cost sites of care in CVS stores, keeping them out of emergency rooms and hospitals. About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a CVS location, according to David Larsen, an analyst at Leerink Partners. “This is going to be appealing to a huge number of people,” says Ingrid Lindberg, president of Kobie Marketing Inc. and a former chief customer experience officer at health insurer Cigna Corp. “There’s a large majority of people who are truly driven by ease and convenience when it comes to their care.”


This company is about to flood the U.S. with cheap HIV drugs

Laurus is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of ingredients used in anti-retrovirals, thanks to novel chemistry that delivers cheaper production costs than anyone else. Now, its chief executive officer, Satyanarayana Chava, wants to use the same strategy selling his own finished drugs in the U.S. and Europe. He predicts some generics that Laurus produces will eventually sell for 90 percent less than branded HIV drugs in the U.S., slashing expenditures for a disease that’s among the costliest for many insurers.

The patent expiries are starting this month when Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Sustiva loses protection. Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Viread follows next month. Both companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Though Laurus doesn’t yet make the actual pills those patients take, it’s become a dominant supplier of the key ingredients that make them work. The best way to fight HIV is with a combination of different drugs, and because Viread and Sustiva form key parts of some of the most effective combinations, the inclusion of generic versions of these chemicals could bring down the cost of the whole treatment. One analysis cited by the Department of Health and Human Services found that replacing a three-medicine, branded combination with multiple pills, including a generic version of Sustiva, could save the U.S. $900 million its first year.

Laurus controls about 66 percent of the global market for efavirenz, the chemical name for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Sustiva, and 33 percent for tenofovir, the chemical name for Gilead’s Viread, according to a report earlier this year by investment bank Jefferies Group LLC.

The hidden player spurring a wave of cheap consumer devices: Amazon

That future? We’re going to get better products for ludicrously low prices, and big brands across a range of categories — the Nests and Netgears of the world — are going to find it harder than ever to get us to shell out big money for their wares.

To hit the $20 price, Wyze licensed the camera’s hardware from a Chinese company, then created its own software. It also cut out just about every middleman, including most retailers. And it’s banking on long-run success. While Wyze is just breaking even on its first camera, its founders believe internet-connected home devices will be a growth category. They plan to establish a trusted brand with the first camera, then release a succession of products that they hope to sell in large numbers, at low prices.

…what was unique about Amazon was that its store encouraged low prices while heavily penalizing companies that made shoddy products. “It’s not a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fung said. “Sellers are forced to create better products at lower pricing, and sellers who aren’t able to do that just get weeded out.”

The classic worry about Amazon is that it puts local retailers out of business. Now another worry is that by exposing global brands to the harsh reality of low-priced competitors, it may put them out of business, too. Mr. Wingo said global brands across a variety of categories — electronics, apparel, home improvement — regularly approached his company looking for a way to compete with low-priced rivals on Amazon.

“There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand,” Mr. Wingo said. “In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.”


Proof Work aims to decentralize medical data by using the blockchain

The system, if successful, would be a big disruption to how health care data is handled today – where it’s often accessible only by the doctors and hospitals themselves, and where patients have to make special requests to have a copy of their own medical records. In the future, the goal is to allow patients to walk into a doctor’s office with all their medical records already on their phone.

This isn’t the first attempt to use technology to fix the problem with medical records; others have tried to centralize records for easier access, including Microsoft HealthVault, for example. One of the challenges getting prior systems to work was that healthcare companies aren’t necessarily interested in making it easier for patients to have access to their own medical records, says Suter. After all, the patients could go to another provider.

Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index reveals 48 percent growth in parcel volume since 2014

China, a new addition to this year’s Index and by far the largest market examined, grew parcel volume by 52 percent in one year, increasing from 21 billion parcels in 2015 to 31 billion in 2016. But, even when excluding China’s prolific volumes, the Index forecasts a strong and accelerating pace of growth in parcels throughout the world. On average, the other 12 major markets studied have grown 4.3% annually since 2012 and are projected to grow 4.5% – 5.4% annually through 2021. The United States (at 13 billion) and Japan (at 9 billion) were also among the largest markets by parcel volume. In terms of investment, the United States ranked highest, spending $96 billion on parcel shipments, followed by China at $60 billion and Japan at $22 billion.

“The continued rise of ecommerce globally is keeping the parcel shipping market strong through 2021 as consumers are increasingly looking to online shopping for convenience, price and availability of products from around the world,” said Lila Snyder, executive vice president and president, Global Ecommerce, Pitney Bowes. “As consumer expectations continue to rise, shipping technology and service providers will need to help retailers and marketplaces meet those demands.”


China’s blow to recycling boosts U.S.’s $185 billion plastic bet

China is undoing decades of effort that built a massive scrap recycling industry — the cheapest way to produce plastic products for its growing economy. The country accounted for 51 percent of the world’s plastic scrap imports last year, with the biggest contribution coming from the U.S., according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an international trade group. The China ban could shift about 2 percent of global polyethylene plastics supply from recycled to new material.

That’s because the U.S. has become the cheapest place in the world to make plastic, thanks to a fracking boom that’s created a glut of natural gas, the main feedstock for manufacturing. Taking advantage of low gas prices, chemical producers have invested an unprecedented $185 billion to build new capacity in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

Exporting high-value resins to China instead of cheap scrap could help chip away at the U.S.’s $250 billion trade deficit with the nation. For producers, however, China’s ban on importing scrap will boost demand for new plastics by enough to nearly absorb all the new polyethylene output coming online next year in the U.S., Andrews said in the Morgan Stanley report. The effects can already be seen in China’s increased appetite for virgin polyethylene, with imports up 19 percent this year as scrap polyethylene imports dropped 11 percent, he said.

India ‘dream’ plan to cut freight times to 14 hours from 14 days

Japan, seeking to boost ties with India as a counterweight to China, is partly financing the DMIC project and holds a 26 percent stake. Indeed, Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka industrial corridor is an inspiration. NEC Corp. has invested in a joint-venture project with the Indian government that is already providing logistics support along the route.

The goal is to set up a “plug and play” environment for investors, says Jai Prakash Shivahare, managing director of the Dholera Industrial City Development. “We are looking to tie up with anchor investors so that they can also start their construction and in one-and-half-years, when our site is ready, their factories can also be ready.”

Work has now begun in four of the eight manufacturing destinations proposed in the first phase of the industrial corridor. But it has been far from smooth sailing to get to this point as red tape and budget constraints across six states and numerous sprawling ministries slowed progress, causing some to walk away altogether.


BlackRock and Vanguard are less than a decade away from managing $20 trillion

None other than Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, widely regarded as the father of the index fund, is raising the prospect that too much money is in too few hands, with BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street Corp. together owning significant stakes in the biggest U.S. companies. “That’s about 20 percent owned by this oligopoly of three,” Bogle said at a Nov. 28 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It is too bad that there aren’t more people in the index-fund business.”

The argument goes like this: The number of indexes now outstrips U.S. stocks, with the eruption of passive funds driving demand for securities within these benchmarks, rather than for the broader universe of stocks and bonds. That could inflate or depress the price of these securities versus similar un-indexed assets, which may create bubbles and volatile price movements.

We’re not near a tipping point yet. Roughly 37 percent of assets in U.S.-domiciled equity funds are managed passively, up from 19 percent in 2009, according to Savita Subramanian at Bank of America Corp. By contrast, in Japan, nearly 70 percent of domestically focused equity funds are passively managed, suggesting the U.S. can stomach more indexing before market efficiency suffers. There’s even further to go if you look globally: Only 15 percent of world equity markets — including funds, separately managed accounts and holdings of individual securities — are passively managed, said Joe Brennan, global head of Vanguard’s equity index group, in an interview.


A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

Young farmers are also creating their own “food hubs,” allowing them to store, process and market food collectively, and supply grocery and restaurant chains at a price competitive with national suppliers.

Midsize farms are critical to rural economies, generating jobs, spending and tax revenue. And while they’re large enough to supply mainstream markets, they’re also small enough to respond to environmental changes and consumer demand.

Singapore’s aging ‘time bomb’ will tick louder in 2018

At this rate, seniors in Singapore’s population will make up more than double the share of the youngest residents in 2030. Tan uses a compounded annual growth rate rather than adjusting for potential policy changes or alteration of trends such as fertility rates, meaning officials could still help redraw those lines, or at least make them appear less menacing, over the next decade. With already the oldest population in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Singapore of 2030 will probably look a lot like the demographics-embattled Japan of 2016.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi is getting the $450 million Da Vinci painting

The New York Times reported later Wednesday that Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud was the buyer, citing documents it reviewed. Christie’s declined to comment on the report.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi — a franchise of the Paris original — is a symbol of the oil-rich sheikhdom’s drive to boost its “soft power” credentials. To differentiate itself from neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi is targeting affluent tourists looking for culture and art and it has also built hotels, theme parks and malls. The organization behind the museum became one of the most aggressive buyers on the global art market over the last decade. It opened last month with more than 600 artworks for its permanent collection, including such Old Master paintings as Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child.” Da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière” is on loan there from the Louvre in Paris.

Curated Insights 2017.11.05

This company’s robots are making everything and reshaping the world

Earlier this year, during one of Fanuc’s rare open houses, Vice President Kenji Yamaguchi told investors that about 80 percent of the company’s assembly work is automated. “Only the wiring is done by engineers,” he said. And when you have lots of efficient robots making your other robots, you can sell those robots more cheaply—about $25,500 for a new Robodrill. (You can find a well-used older model on EBay for $8,500.) Volkswagen Group, for instance, pays about 10 percent less for Fanuc robots than it paid for ones it previously purchased from Kuka AG, a German company.

Fanuc manages to offer these savings while maintaining 40 percent operating profit margins, a success that Yamaguchi also traced to the company’s centralized production in Japan, which is made possible, even though most of its products are sold outside the country, by the 243 global service centers that keep its robots operational. The company even profits from its competitors’ sales, because more than half of all industrial robots are directed by its numerical-control software. Between the almost 4 million CNC systems and half-million or so industrial robots it has installed around the world, Fanuc has captured about one-quarter of the global market, making it the industry leader over competitors such as Yaskawa Motoman and ABB Robotics in Germany, each of which has about 300,000 industrial robots installed globally. Fanuc’s Robodrills now command an 80 percent share of the market for smartphone manufacturing robots.

Orders from the U.S., though, are dwarfed by those from China—some 90,000 units, almost a third of the world’s total industrial robot orders last year. Sales to China amounted to about 55 percent of the $5 billion Fanuc’s automation unit generated in the fiscal year ended March 2017. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that, by 2019, China’s annual industrial robot orders will rise to 160,000 units, suggesting Fanuc will be insulated from any slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Yoshiharu told investors at his most recent Q&A session in April that the company expects demand in China to outstrip supply even after Fanuc opens a factory next August in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture. The facility will be dedicated solely to keeping up with Chinese demand.

The result of Nishikawa’s insight was the Fanuc Intelligent Edge Link and Drive, or Field. The system, introduced in 2016, is an open, cloud-based platform that allows Fanuc to collect global manufacturing data in real time on a previously unimaginable scale and funnel it to self-teaching robots.


Apple should shrink its finance arm before it goes bananas

Apple does not organise its financial activities into one subsidiary, but Schumpeter has lumped them together. The result—call it “Apple Capital”—has $262bn of assets, $108bn of debt, and has traded $1.6trn of securities since 2011.

Since Jobs died, its assets have risen by 221%, twice as fast as the company’s sales, reflecting Apple’s huge build-up of profits. Its investments are worth 32% of Apple’s market value, and its profits (investment income, plus gains on derivatives, less interest costs) have been 7% of Apple’s pre-tax profits so far this year. It is also sizeable compared with other financial firms. Consider four measures: assets, debt, credit exposure and profits.

In 2011 a majority of its assets were “risk-free”: cash or government bonds. Today 68% are invested in other kinds of securities, mainly corporate bonds, which Apple says are generally investment grade. The shift may explain why Apple’s annual interest rate earned on its portfolio (2%) is now higher than that of the four other Silicon Valley firms with money mountains, Microsoft, Alphabet, Cisco and Oracle. In total, they still have 66% of their portfolios squirrelled away in risk-free assets.

Its foreign operation swims in cash while its domestic one drowns in debt. Profits made abroad are kept in foreign subsidiaries. That way Apple does not pay the 35% levy America charges when earnings are repatriated. Some 94% of Apple Capital’s assets are “offshore” and cannot be tapped for ordinary purposes. The domestic business must do the hard work of paying for dividends and buy-backs. Its profits are not big enough to cover these, so it borrows. Domestic net debts have risen to $92bn, or five times domestic gross operating profits. Each year Apple must issue $30bn of bonds (including refinancing), similar to the average of Wall Street’s five largest firms.


To understand the benefits of tax reform, start by understanding Apple’s taxes

Now we have the numbers that answer the basic question: What accounts for the difference between what Apple pays and the official 35% rate? Page 56 of its 10K shows the numbers. Once again, if Apple had faced the full 35% rate, it would have paid $21.46 billion in federal taxes (as well as another $990 million to the states). Instead, it paid $10.444 billion in cash, and accrued $5.241 billion in U.S. tax owed on foreign profits, but deferred to be paid later. That’s the total of $15.685 billion that it booked in tax expense on its income statement. The difference between that number and the approximately $21.5 billion it would have paid at the 35% rate is the almost $5.6 billion exclusion for “indefinitely invested foreign earnings.”

Surprisingly, companies such as Apple with an extremely large proportion of foreign sales, could actually pay more U.S. taxes in cash each year under the current proposals. That’s because elimination of deferrals and the exception for reinvested earnings would sent more money to the Treasury even at the far lower minimum rate.

 

Google’s profits are exploding because the web is massive

The bigger the web grows, the more valuable Google becomes. And, with more than one billion websites in the world and more than 4 billion people with regular access to the Internet, finding your needle in that haystack is the fundamental problem of Internet use. As the tech writer Ben Thompson wrote, “Google is the king of aggregators because, when information shifted from scarcity to abundance, discovery became the point of leverage, and Google was better at discovery than anyone.”

Second, the migration of attention from print and television to the internet—both desktop and mobile—has created a advertising duopoly for Google and Facebook. As these slides from the last Kleiner Perkins internet presentation show clearly, mobile is the future of media attention and Facebook and Google’s share of digital ad revenue is growing faster than the rest of the industry combined.


How Google’s quantum computer could change the world

Early next year, Google’s quantum computer will face its acid test in the form of an obscure computational problem that would take a classical computer billions of years to complete. Success would mark “quantum supremacy,” the tipping point where a quantum computer accomplishes something previously impossible. It’s a milestone computer scientists say will mark a new era of computing, and the end of what you might call the classical age.

That potential is a result of exponential growth. Adding one bit negligibly increases a classical chip’s computing power, but adding one qubit doubles the power of a quantum chip. A 300-bit classical chip could power (roughly) a basic calculator, but a 300-qubit chip has the computing power of two novemvigintillion bits—a two followed by 90 zeros—a number that exceeds the atoms in the universe.

Volkswagen AG is testing quantum computers made by Canadian firm D-Wave Systems Inc. In March, the companies said that, using GPS data from 10,000 taxis in Beijing, they created an algorithm to calculate the fastest routes to the airport while also minimizing traffic. A classical computer would have taken 45 minutes to complete that task, D-Wave said, but its quantum computer did it in a fraction of a second.

Such a complex and expensive setup means that Google and its peers will likely sell quantum computing via the cloud, possibly charging by the second.


Google has a new plan for China (and it’s not about search)

Rather than another splashy product launch, Google’s latest China strategy is a grassroots effort focused on getting developers in the country trained and hooked on its AI building blocks. It’s similar to the way business software startups get employees using their services before corporate IT departments notice. Once the tools become popular, companies often accept the technology and sign up for full service.

It’s hard to find a place as fertile for AI as China. The country has one of the fastest growing TensorFlow developer communities in Asia, despite the fact that Google’s cloud services are unavailable there. The Chinese government has made AI a national priority. Scores of Chinese companies are deploying machine-learning systems — AI software that automatically adjusts to data — to update banking services, identify faces in crowds and control drones.

Beijing-based Wang Xiaoyu said TensorFlow was a vital tool for her podcast startup CastBox.FM. Developing her own tools would’ve required a team of 20 expensive machine-learning specialists. Instead, she turned to TensorFlow and hired a single Chinese PhD graduate with TensorFlow experience capable of producing the same results. Her company is now worth about $60 million with more than 8 million users downloading her app.

Ricky Wong, an investor who often works in China, analyzed the location of the first 5,000 developers to access the tools and found more came from Beijing than all of Silicon Valley.


Tech goes to Washington

I still believe that, on balance, blaming tech companies for the last election is, more than anything, a convenient way to avoid larger questions about what drove the outcome. And, as I noted, the fact is that tech companies remain popular with the broader public.

What this hearing highlighted, though, is the degree to which the position of Facebook in particular has become more tenuous. The fact of the matter is that Facebook (and Google) is more powerful than any entity we have seen before. Magnifying the problem is that, over the last year, Facebook has decided to “take responsibility”, and what is that but a commitment to exercise their control over what people see?

More broadly, it is hard to escape the conclusion that tech companies have been unable to resist the ring of power: the end game of aggregation is unprecedented control over what people see; the only way to handle that power without risking the abuse of it is a commitment to true neutrality. That Facebook, Twitter, and Google — which, by the way, holds just as much if not more power than Facebook, but without the attendant media scrutiny — have committed to fixing the Russian problem is itself more problematic than those urging they do just that may realize.

Inside Fort Botox, where a deadly toxin yields $2.8 billion drug

Scientists differ over how much of the toxin would be required to inflict massive damage. Data on the topic is scarce, and that may be intentional. But a study published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that a single gram in crystallized form, “evenly dispersed and inhaled, would kill more than 1 million people.” Experts are divided over what it would take to effectively weaponize the toxin, but the mere possibility of a botulism bomb has the U.S. government on edge. That puts Allergan in a remarkable position. The government’s vigilance enhances the company’s own secrecy, and together they give Botox a near-monopoly that is almost unassailable. Allergan says Botox has more than 90 percent of the market for medical uses of neurotoxins and 75 percent of the market for cosmetic uses.


Gene therapy helped these children see. Can it transform medicine?

Spark’s product, named Luxturna, is designed to help a subset of LCA sufferers with a mutation in a gene known as RPE65 — who number about 6,000 in northern America, Europe and the other developed markets the company hopes to enter. But its approval would have much broader implications for the way we fight sickness and disease. 

Drugs are designed to fight illnesses by cajoling the body, opening up one biological pathway or closing down another. Gene therapy takes a different approach, replacing the faulty or missing DNA that is causing the disease in the first place and helping the body fix itself. Because it tackles the illness at its biological root, it could offer a one-time treatment for an array of genetically driven conditions that have either had poor options or none at all, from haemophilia and Parkinson’s to Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis and myriad rare diseases. It opens up the possibility of that thing still so elusive in modern medicine: a cure. 


Patient deaths show darker side of modernized Chinese medicine

Having struggled for decades to rein in the sector, regulators have recently begun pushing for an overhaul of Chinese medicine injections, seeking to weed out unsafe and ineffective products. But the process could take up to a decade, given the complexity of these intravenous pharmaceuticals.

Still, due to the history of lax regulation, many injectables based on Chinese medicine haven’t been evaluated in strict scientific clinical trials. That means the reactions they set off in the body aren’t fully known. Chinese medicine is based on centuries of practical experience. But it is traditionally taken orally, which gives the digestive system a chance to shield patients from harmful chemicals. Injecting the concoctions into the bloodstream can heighten side effects.


This budget airline is buying seaplanes to reach areas others can’t

SpiceJet Ltd. is in talks with Japan’s Setouchi Holdings Inc. to buy about 100 amphibious Kodiak planes that can land anywhere, including on water, gravel or in an open field. The deal, valued at about $400 million, would help SpiceJet capitalize on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan to connect the vast nation by air without waiting for billions of dollars in upgrades to colonial-era infrastructure.

India’s airlines handled 100 million domestic passengers last year, making it the No. 3 market behind China and the U.S. To handle growth, India will need at least 2,100 new planes worth $290 billion in the next 20 years, Boeing Co. estimates.

“The basic logic for this is that in India, we need last-mile connectivity,” Singh said. “The amphibian plane opens up a lot of areas, creates a lot of flexibility.”

“High-end tourists use amphibious aircraft at exotic locations all over the world,” said Amber Dubey, a New Delhi-based partner and India head of aerospace and defense at KPMG. “There’s no reason why it can’t be successful in India.”


This doctor turned $15,000 into a $1.6 billion beauty empire

“We focus on mid-end customers because they’re the biggest group of people,” said Suwin, who trained as a doctor before becoming an entrepreneur. “The high-end segment is small and very competitive.”

In mainland China, Beauty Community sells through online channels including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall platform. The country’s beauty market is forecast to grow at an average of 9 percent a year until 2020, outpacing the 5 percent expansion expected in Thailand, according to Euromonitor.

Beauty Community is the ninth biggest company in Thailand’s cosmetics industry, with a 3.1 percent share of a fragmented market, according to Euromonitor. L’Oreal leads, with 12 percent, followed by direct sales company Better Way (Thailand) Co. and Estee Lauder Cos. The firm aims to have 450 shops domestically in the next three years, under brands such as Beauty Cottage and Beauty Buffet.


Debating where tech is going to take finance

The point of most innovations in consumer finance has been precisely to reduce its presence in our lives: Instead of talking to a bank teller to get money, you use an ATM. Instead of physically walking into a broker’s office to talk about which stocks to buy, you buy index funds through a web page. Or, now, you click to enroll in an app and it does all of your asset-allocating and stock-picking and tax-harvesting and so forth for you. I think that a lot of financial technology is heading in the direction of perfecting that vanishing act, so that in 20 years you’ll just think about financial things less than you do now.

The EU’s definitive defeat: digital tax plans and a declaration of surrender to Silicon Valley

The EU has a huge competitiveness issue already, and due to the eurozone’s lack of innovation, especially in its Mediterranean member states, the sovereign-debt crisis is never going to be resolved. The European Central Bank is, in some ways unlawfully, keeping Europe’s south afloat and will do so for some more time, but at some point there will be a crisis of unprecedented proportions–either an acute and dramatic crisis or an extended depression from which the eurozone as an economic area won’t really recover.

By now the EU appears to have given up on its ambitions for the digital economy. Instead, its focus is on a new tax that could lead to a full-blown trade war with the U.S. and would definitely harm European companies and consumers in the end.

There are structural reasons for which the EU not only lacks major players like Apple and Google but why it’s highly unlikely that any of its startups will, as an independent company, ever reach that level.

Unfortunately, the Commission’s tax initiative has drawn support even from normally libertarian, free-market and fiscally conservative parties such as Germany’s FDP, whose secretary-general said last week that she wants to impose higher taxes on the likes of “Apple, Google, and Facebook.”


China’s critical role in technology and geopolitics

There are 214 private companies in the world valued at $1 billion or more, known as unicorns. Slightly more than half (108) are,as you would expect, based in the United States, but 55 are in China, with the remaining 51 located in other countries throughout the world. Of the top ten unicorns, China has four (including numbers two and three) and the U.S. has six. China’s innovation has been engineering-based rather than science-based and it is consumer-focused and efficiency-driven. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent together represent 16% of world net digital advertising revenue and 20% of world net mobile Internet ad revenue. Google and Facebook are the leaders with a combined 43% of net digital and 51% net mobile ad revenue.

China’s investment in research goes beyond information technology. Prior to 2010, the country committed almost $10 billion to research with biotechnology a focal point. The Chinese biotech industry has been growing at 30% and is valued at over $10 billion today. There are more than 580 biopharma companies. Chinese scientists have transformed normal adult cells into embryonic stem cells and produced live mice from these lab-produced cells. There are two major state funding sources – the State High-Tech Development Program and the Basic Research Program. China is the third largest filer of patents, after the United States and Japan.

An issue of concern for many investors is the level of Chinese debt, which has risen from 149% to 269% of GDP over the past decade. Increasing debt has accounted for two percentage points of China’s 7.25% growth from 2012 to 2016. There is also the worry that there are a number of non-performing loans on the books of the banks and “shadow” banks, but the adverse effects of these has been deferred by the country’s growth.


The conventional view of China’s problems may be all wrong: Q&A

If migrants are allowed to live and settle in cities and they spend as much as normal Chinese, the savings rate would fall. Consumption would increase by 2 or 3 percentage points of GDP, which is the entirety of the trade surplus.

What’s unique in China and doesn’t happen anywhere else is this migrant worker phenomenon. In any other country, you don’t have a hukou policy. Hukou is a link to savings, and then links to global trade surpluses. That’s a real strange link. This never would have been a logical way of thinking about it in any other country.

If you liberalize hukou, it reduces pressure to save. It increases your incentive or opportunity to consume. This increases demand for resources. It doesn’t require credit expansion or generation or stimulus. Therefore, you have GDP growth without debt buildup, which is exactly what you need. It’s a simple reform with tremendous impact. Allow people to live in Beijing and Shanghai where jobs pay more, and productivity will be higher.


Backlash against Chinese products ramps up in India

Two-way trade statistics tell the tale. India’s deficit with China has ballooned nine-fold over a decade to $49 billion in 2016 as China’s manufacturing edge stacks the odds against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-year-old ‘Make-in-India’ program. The result: India’s current account deficit is worsening again, threatening the outlook for an economy already straining under the fallout of a snap ban on high-value notes a year ago and a new sales tax.

“The imbalanced trade relationship reflects the fact that India’s manufacturing sector remains strongly underdeveloped. Unless it is able to develop its manufacturing sector so that it can produce a large share of the growing demand for goods in its economy, India’s economic growth will be constrained by rising current account deficits and/or inflation and their consequences.”

“No one is capable of competing with the Chinese.”


Abandoned land in Japan will be the size of Austria by 2040

A private research group headed by a former government minister today warned that the area (link in Japanese) of vacant land and homes could by 2040 be as big as Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido—about 83,000 sq km (32,000 sq miles), or the size of Austria. The area is currently about 41,000 sq km, slightly bigger than Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.

Hiroya Masuda, the former minister who chaired the group, warned in a 2014 book that about 900 cities, towns, and villages in Japan would be extinct by 2040.

Singapore is finding it harder to grow, literally

By filling the sea along its coasts with imported sand, the tiny island nation has expanded its physical size by about 24 percent since 1960, according to data from the Singapore Land Authority.

The government has plans to continue expanding its land size and said in a 2013 proposal that it expects to increase its land size to 296 square miles by 2030 to further support economic and population growth.

Supersized family farms are gobbling up American agriculture

Farms with $1 million or more in annual sales—only 4% of the total—now produce two-thirds of the country’s agricultural output, the largest portion since the U.S. Agriculture Department’s census began tracking the statistic in the ’80s.

Three-quarters of America’s farmed cropland is controlled by 12% of farms, USDA data show. The number of million-dollar-plus revenue farms more than doubled between 1992 and 2015, while the ranks of smaller farms, with revenue between $350,000 and $999,999, fell by 5%, as farmers get older and have a hard time making consistent profits. USDA researchers, in a December report, said consolidation is likely to continue.

An average farm household in the Colby area needs income of at least $50,000 annually to get by, said Mr. Wood, the agricultural economist, which has become harder to generate from a smaller farm. “The big guys can cover their costs and have money left over to grow,” Mr. Wood said. Smaller farms, he said, “are going to struggle.”

Curated Insights 2017.10.22

Tesla’s new car smell

As I watched Tesla’s messy, hiccuping line, with workers dashing in to fix faulty parts in place, my mind travelled back to the Honda plant I had visited years ago in Marysville, Ohio. Clean, calm, everything moved smoothly. I was so shocked by the contrast that I imprudently voiced my concern. That didn’t go over well with my fellow Tesla owners. I was a killjoy, I was calling their choice into question.

“Unknown to analysts, investors and the hundreds of thousands of customers who signed up to buy it, as recently as early September major portions of the Model 3 were still being banged out by hand, away from the automated production line, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Moving from fewer than 100K cars a year to 500K and up isn’t “more of the same”, it can’t be achieved through clever, conventional-wisdom-defying improvisation. That sort of growth is a bold jump in scale that requires a smooth, well-oiled and well-understood manufacturing process.


Millennials are helping Jack Ma’s financing firm become a debt giant

Securitized products that bundle such obligations are meant to spread the risks among different investors. The tech companies can’t take deposits like banks, so the ABS, which are generally sold in private placements to institutional investors, give them a way to raise funds. The latest ABS from Ant Financial that’s backed by loans through its Jiebei service pays a 5.5 percent coupon for the senior tranche, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“In the short term, default risks for consumer loan ABS are very low because the underlying assets are composed of a number of loans in small sizes,” said Zuo Fei, an executive director and head of the ABS group in the investment banking division of China Merchants Securities Co. in Shenzhen. “These ABS products will be safe, unless systemic risks emerge in the economy and cause widespread defaults in consumer loans.”

Shell buys NewMotion charging network in first electric vehicle deal

Demand for electric vehicles is expected to rise significantly in coming decades and Morgan Stanley estimates that 1-3 million public charging points could be needed in Western Europe by 2030. Currently, there are fewer than 100,000. Shell expects around a quarter of the world’s car fleet to be electric by 2040.

Oil companies are growing increasingly aware of the potential threat to parts of their downstream business from the electrification of transport.


Solar wants to help fix a power-grid problem it helped create

Solar panels have proliferated in the Golden State, flooding the grid with power supplies in the middle of the day when the sun’s out — and then quickly vanishing after sunset. This has created a sharp curve in California’s net-power demand that’s shaped like a duck. And the so-called duck curve is getting steeper every year, sending wholesale electricity prices plunging into negative territory, forcing generators offline and making it increasingly difficult to maintain the reliability of California’s transmission lines.

…change the way solar farms are paid. If the state’s utilities compensate them for shutting generation when the grid doesn’t need it and providing power later when it does, he said, farms could use increasingly sophisticated inverters and software controls to adjust.


How Amazon’s $13.7B purchase of Whole Foods is a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Instacart

“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, what they did was they sent the signal to the entire grocery/retail landscape that Amazon was coming,” Mehta said. “Now, for every single grocery retailer at this point in time, whether they believed it or not before, now they needed an e-commerce strategy. They needed to have same day delivery. The reality was, for the last five years, that’s what we have done. We have brought hundreds of grocery retailers online, and so we had the track record of being able to do this successfully.”

Instacart has been growing faster than expected this year, and it has expanded to 149, up from only 30 at the beginning of the year. Mehta said the company can now reach 63 million households as potential customers, up from about 11 million a year ago.


This little-known startup just hit a valuation of $30 billion

Travel is becoming the latest competitive ground. With the recent fundraising, Meituan plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three to five years to become a leading travel booking site. It’s also exploring opportunities to collaborate with Priceline as part of the investment. That may present a challenge to China’s biggest online travel site, Ctrip.com International Ltd., which is backed by Baidu. Ctrip shares fell 8.2 percent in U.S. trading.

China’s internet crackdown isn’t going anywhere

“Xi Jinping has definitely been a turning point in terms of the degree of censorship that is happening in China,” said Charlie Smith, who founded Greatfire.org, an organization that finds ways around government restrictions. “He is the first Chinese leader to truly understand the power of the internet and hence, we are seeing an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting information,” said Smith, who uses a pseudonym for fear of government reprisals

In June, Weibo Corp., the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, was one of three firms fined and banned by regulators from broadcasting certain types of content without a license. In an August earnings call, its chief financial officer said current rules made it legally impossible to acquire a license without becoming “wholly state-owned or state-controlled”.

The tightening presents unique challenges to foreign firms navigating the legal landscape. Services that rely on free-flowing information, such as Google and Facebook, would struggle to exist in such a regime, though they remain intent on finding a way in given the size of the potential market.


Who has the world’s No. 1 economy? Not the U.S.

Gross domestic product is supposed to measure the amount of real stuff — cars, phones, financial services, back massages, etc. — that a country produces. If the same phone costs $400 in the U.S. but only $200 in China, China’s GDP is getting undercounted by 50 percent when we measure at market exchange rates. In general, less developed countries have lower prices, which means their GDP gets systematically undercounted.

Economists try to correct for this with an adjustment called purchasing power parity (PPP), which controls for relative prices. It’s not perfect, since it has to account for things like product quality, which can be hard to measure. But it probably gives a more accurate picture of how much a country really produces. And here, China has already surpassed the U.S.

China’s modest per-person income simply means that the country has plenty of room to grow. Whereas developed countries can only get richer by inventing new things or making their economies more efficient, poor countries can cheaply copy foreign technology or imitate foreign organizational practices. That doesn’t always happen, of course — many poor countries find themselves trapped by dysfunctional institutions, lack of human capital or other barriers to development.

In other words, not only is China already the world’s largest economy, the gap between it and the U.S. can be expected to grow even wider. This continues to be borne out in the growth statistics — though China has slowed in recent years, its economy continues to expand at a rate of more than 6 percent, while the U.S. is at just over 2 percent. If that disparity persists, China’s economy will be double that of the U.S. in less than two decades.


China to build giant facial recognition database to identify any citizen within seconds

The system can be connected to surveillance camera networks and will use cloud facilities to connect with data storage and processing centres distributed across the country, according to people familiar with the project.

Commercial application using information sourced from the database will not be allowed under current regulations. [But] a policy can change due to the development of the economy and increasing demand from society.”

“To download the whole data set is as difficult as launching a missile with a nuclear warhead. It requires several high-ranking officials to insert and turn their keys at the same time,” the vendor said.

The 1.3 billion-person facial recognition system is being developed by Isvision, a security company based in Shanghai.

They found that the accuracy of the photo that most closely matched the face being searched for was below 60 per cent. With the top 20 matches the accuracy rate remained below 70 per cent, Fan and collaborators reported in a paper published in the domestic journal Electronic Science and Technology in May. “It cannot solve problems with real-life applications,” they added.

The researcher warned that the cost of the convenience facial recognition could bring to everyday life was “sacrificing security”.


Warning signs are mounting for Sweden’s once-hot housing market

SEB AB’s monthly housing-price indicator shows households are becoming less optimistic about the market. The gauge, which measures the difference between those who see rising housing prices and those who believe in a decline, has dropped to its lowest level since August 2016. While 66 percent of Swedes still expect prices to rise, and only 16 percent believe in a decline, the indicator has dropped for four consecutive months.

Regulators have been tightening regulations to cool debt growth. Swedes are now subject to a mortgage cap, limiting loans to 85 percent of a property’s value, and an amortization requirement, which forces borrowers pay off the part of their new loans that exceeds 50 percent of the property’s value. The regulator now wants to introduce an additional amortization requirement for the most indebted households, and has also floated the idea of a cap on loans in relation to incomes.

Developers are taking action to prepare for a slowdown. Wallenstam AB said this month it would convert 90 apartments in a development in the Stockholm neighborhood of Solberga to rentals rather than trying to sell them. The situation is “a bit uncertain,” with the market for ownership apartments having “cooled down,” Wallenstam said on Oct. 9.


Indonesia set for trillion-dollar economy in bittersweet triumph

Size isn’t everything. Even after eight rate cuts since the beginning of last year, the economy is struggling to fire up: loan growth remains muted, while the central bank expects low inflation to linger for some time. The picture is made more complex by a wide divergence in growth across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with rates ranging from negative to more than 7 percent.

Jokowi is ramping up spending on roads, rail and seaports as he targets economic growth of 5.4 percent in 2018, the fastest rate in five years. But a massive infrastructure deficit — estimated by the World Bank at $1.5 trillion — is frustrating his efforts. The global lender says another $500 billion in infrastructure spending is needed over the next five years.

Indonesia’s tax revenue as a portion of GDP remains one of the lowest in the region with the OECD estimating it at around 12 percent two years ago. It has since fallen to 10.3 percent, which Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati in July described as “low and unacceptable.” She’s aiming to boost that ratio to 16 percent by 2019.


Like Bali? Indonesia wants to create 10 of them to draw Chinese tourists

Jokowi’s plan, according to Yahya, will see the contribution of tourism to the economy climb to 7.5 percent by 2019 from 4.5 percent last year. Tourism receipts are forecast to grow more than 60 percent to $20.7 billion over the same period, with the number of jobs seen rising to 13 million from 11.8 million.

Even with that kind of growth, Indonesia is far behind neighboring countries in developing tourism and targeting Chinese visitors. Thailand’s industry makes up about 18 percent of gross domestic product, with the country’s famed beaches and nightlife attracting 26 million foreign visitors so far this year, 28 percent of them coming from China. Indonesia also trails Singapore and Malaysia in number of tourists.

Funding Jokowi’s 10 New Balis plan will be a big challenge. Yahya estimates the industry needs $20 billion of investment over five years, of which about $10 billion will come from the government. Given its vast infrastructure needs in everything from ports to roads, and a budget deficit cap of 3 percent of GDP, authorities are seeking more private-sector funds.


Silicon Valley Vs. Wall Street: Can the new Long-Term Stock Exchange disrupt capitalism?

If the LTSE succeeds, it could offer a new incentive for privately held tech giants such as Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. to go public, at a time when many market veterans and regulators fear the process of going public has lost its luster. But skeptics wonder whether the LTSE is just another way for tech founders and elite Silicon Valley investors to maintain control at the expense of other shareholders.

For instance, executives’ bonuses couldn’t be tied to financial-performance targets over periods of less than one year. If the executives are paid in company stock, the shares couldn’t fully vest for at least five years. LTSE-listed firms would still publish quarterly results—an SEC requirement—but they would be barred from releasing quarterly earnings guidance, a practice that some critics say fosters short-term thinking. Meanwhile, tenure voting would be available to any shareholder of an LTSE-listed company. If an investor opted into the system, the voting power of his or her shares would grow over time, capped at 10 times the power of ordinary common stock after a decade. If the shares were sold, the voting power would be reset for the new owner.

Mr. Ries disputes the idea that the LTSE is good for founders and bad for everyone else. In his view, tenure voting is better than the solution favored by some Silicon Valley firms: severely limiting the voting power of ordinary shareholders through two or more share classes.

Curated Insights 2017.10.15

86-year-old billionaire iPhone chipmaker retires just as his industry heats up

“Since we established ourselves, fabless companies began to mushroom worldwide. Most of the innovations in the semiconductor industry in the last 30 years came from those fabless companies. That’s probably my biggest pride, to have caused a lot of innovations in the industry.”

Liu and Wei inherit a company that is about 30 times larger than local rival United Microelectronics Corp. and commands 59 percent of the $50 billion global foundry market.

Growing chipset demand from China spells another opportunity for TSMC: the country spent $227 billion importing integrated circuits in 2016, according to data from Chinese customs authorities, the fourth consecutive year that chip imports have exceeded $200 billion.


Nvidia, Intel, Marvell: Look how they’ve slimmed down! Says Stifel

“The end markets of semiconductors have changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” he observes, given how much automotive and industrial, two industries with longer product cycles, and therefore more predictable revenue, have taken from more volatile industries.

Another reason for rising valuations is simply scarcity: “In 2007 there were roughly 118 publicly traded semiconductor companies. Today there are roughly 55.”


Shopify S-1 analysis – Smiling all the way to $10B

How are they able to sustain more efficient growth as they scale? The first reason is Shopify has been able to grow their contract value by 14% annually. The average subscription payment by merchant has remained flat over the past four years. Instead of growing subscription revenue on a per customer basis, Shopify is capturing more share of GMV. The chart above shows the merchant services revenue generated per billion dollars of gross merchandise value by Shopify. You can see that figure has quite nearly doubled in four years. In other words, as Shopify merchants sell more, Shopify benefits Proportionately from the growth in GMV, but also at an increasing slope because they capture almost twice as much in fees as they have been historically.

Consequently, merchant services now account for greater than 50% of revenue up from just above 20% four years ago. The gross margin on the software business has remained 78% over the past four years, while merchant services gross margin has fallen from 50% to 30%. Overall gross margin has fallen from 80% to 54%. But that is an advantageous trade considering the massive revenue growth.

Citron exposes the dark side of Shopify the FTC will take notice

Out of the claimed 500,000 websites, Shopify has about 2,500 “Plus” clients and maybe another 20,000 “Advanced”. So where are the other 450,000 + websites?

The majority of Shopify’s customers are not SMB merchants; rather, they are people who are buying a system and Shopify goes as far as to supply them a theme and inventory.


Ikea puts Latin America, Southeast Asian markets in its sights

Ikea has more than 400 stores in 49 markets across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

According to Ikea’s plans, it will have opened its first store in South America within the next five years, which is the same timeframe it has set for its expansion into Vietnam and the Philippines. As South America is a new region, it’s likely to enter two or three markets there around the same time in order to secure supply and production, Loof said.

Ikea plans to add 22 new stores this year, up from 14 new stores in 2017. In the future, Ikea will probably open some 25 new stores annually, Loof said. Ikea’s website attracted 2.3 billion visitors last year, while its stores got 936 million visits.


Singapore home-sharing quietly grows despite the rules

Airbnb said its travelers to Singapore typically stay 4.1 nights compared with 3.6 for the average tourist, and three-quarters of listings are outside of traditional hotel districts, allowing tourism spending to accrue in areas that don’t usually host outside visitors.

In a February debate in Parliament, Louis Ng Kok Kwang, a lawmaker for the ruling People’s Action Party, urged the government to regulate rather than ban home-sharing services, noting that the approach so far is inconsistent with how Singapore treated car-sharing businesses, such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Grab.


How we’re solving the LIDAR problem

Strobe’s new chip-scale LIDAR technology will significantly enhance the capabilities of our self-driving cars. But perhaps more importantly, by collapsing the entire sensor down to a single chip, we’ll reduce the cost of each LIDAR on our self-driving cars by 99%.

Strobe’s LIDAR sensors provide both accurate distance and velocity information, which can be checked against similar information from a RADAR sensor for redundancy. RADARs typically also provide distance and velocity information and operate under more challenging weather conditions, but they lack the angular resolution needed to make certain critical maneuvers at speed. When used together, cameras, LIDARs, and RADARs can complement each other to create a robust and fault-tolerant sensing suite that operates in a wide range of environmental and lighting conditions.

 


India stock market could triple in a decade

” … The sectors poised to benefit the most are consumer-oriented and financials. Total online shoppers in India are set to skyrocket from 60 million to 475 million in 2027, while online retail as a percentage of total retail will grow even faster, from 2.2% today to 12.1% in a decade. Unsurprisingly, Amazon.com, China’s Alibaba Group Holding and South Africa’s Naspers have been aggressively investing billions of dollars in India. Morgan Stanley figures Softbank alone has invested some $46 billion in local e-commerce and on-line payments, ride-hailing, and real estate platforms.

As for the financials, Morgan Stanley sees total loans increasing 11 percentage points to 78% of GDP by 2027; total mutual fund assets under management jumping more than ten-fold over the same period; and collected life and general insurance premiums spiking, as well. Fin-tech companies should see exponential growth …”


Bitcoin’s academic pedigree

Nakamoto’s genius, then, wasn’t any of the individual components of bitcoin, but rather the intricate way in which they fit together to breathe life into the system. The timestamping and Byzantine agreement researchers didn’t hit upon the idea of incentivizing nodes to be honest, nor, until 2005, of using proof of work to do away with identities. Conversely, the authors of hashcash, b-money, and bit gold didn’t incorporate the idea of a consensus algorithm to prevent double spending. In bitcoin, a secure ledger is necessary to prevent double spending and thus ensure that the currency has value. A valuable currency is necessary to reward miners. In turn, strength of mining power is necessary to secure the ledger. Without it, an adversary could amass more than 50 percent of the global mining power and thereby be able to generate blocks faster than the rest of the network, double-spend transactions, and effectively rewrite history, overrunning the system. Thus, bitcoin is bootstrapped, with a circular dependence among these three components. Nakamoto’s challenge was not just the design, but also convincing the initial community of users and miners to take a leap together into the unknown—back when a pizza cost 10,000 bitcoins and the network’s mining power was less than a trillionth of what it is today.

The history described here offers rich (and complementary) lessons for practitioners and academics. Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology. As shown here, most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.

Academia seems to have the opposite problem, at least in this instance: a resistance to radical, extrinsic ideas. The bitcoin white paper, despite the pedigree of many of its ideas, was more novel than most academic research. Moreover, Nakamoto didn’t care for academic peer review and didn’t fully connect it to its history. As a result, academics essentially ignored bitcoin for several years. Many academic communities informally argued that Bitcoin couldn’t work, based on theoretical models or experiences with past systems, despite the fact that it was working in practice.

The lessons of Leonardo: How to be a creative genius

Be curious about everything. Leonardo’s most distinctive trait was his passionate, playful and occasionally obsessive curiosity. He made lists in his notebooks of hundreds of subjects, both marvelous and mundane, that he wanted to explore…Some of his curiosity involved phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary, since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”

Observe attentively. His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused on things that the rest of us barely notice. One night he saw lightning flash behind some buildings and for that instant they looked smaller, so he launched a series of experiments to verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light.

The best reason to learn from Leonardo, however, is not to get a better job but to live a better life. Having immersed myself in his world for several years, I have resolved to be more observant of phenomena that I used to ignore.

Curated Insights 2017.10.01

Alibaba takes control of delivery business at center of U.S. probe

China’s largest web marketplace agreed to increase its stake in Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. to 51 percent. Under the deal, Alibaba plans to consolidate Cainiao’s financials into its own books, eroding Alibaba’s bottom line, and will get an additional seat on Cainiao’s board, taking its representation to four out of seven seats.

It oversees a coterie of more than a dozen shipping partners, orchestrating deliveries carried out by about 2 million people across more than 600 cities. Cainiao’s operation had enabled Alibaba to maintain what it called an asset-light model that eschewed expensive warehouse construction.

“They’re realizing that it’s much more capital-intensive than they expected to build this out. Right now they are essentially obligating themselves to report profit and loss on the income statement every quarter, which they probably should have been doing.”


A small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone

This comparison is apt: the Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

It’s fitting therefore to remember how the iPhone was launched; as a tentpole troika: A wide-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone. Today the new Watch is a small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone.

So not only is the Series 3 Watch more powerful than the original iPhone but it is also poetically capable of the same tentpole jobs. But it’s not just a miniature iPhone. It has a new, completely orthogonal attack on non-consumption and market creation: fitness and health. This is a key point. The iPhone was born a phone but grew up to be something completely unprecedented, unforeseen by its creators and, frankly, undescribable in the language of 2007.


Forget the Swiss, it’s Fossil that Apple is threatening

In the watch world, the Fossil Group is a giant. It has 17 brands: six of its own (Fossil, Skagen, etc.) and 11 licensed brands (Michael Kors, Emporio Armani, Tory Burch, etc.) In 2014, it was on a roll, achieving a fifth consecutive year of record revenues, at $3.51 billion. Watches accounted for 78% of that.

Then along came Apple. Suddenly, Fossil was competing with a monster 67 times bigger than it was (measured by revenues). “Prior to that, we were clearly positioned as the competitively advantaged leader in a growing category,” Fossil CEO Kosta Kartsotis told financial analysts in February. “However, with the introduction of technology into wrist devices, traditional watches came under pressure and we were disadvantaged. We didn’t have the technology capabilities to compete with smartwatches, leading to a decline in our market.”

“I haven’t met with anybody [in Switzerland] yet who sees this [downturn] as anything other than a slump,” he told me in March. “They don’t see the threat from the smartwatch.” Apple will continue to perfect the smartwatch, he says. “By version 3 or 4, everyone will be thinking this is a good thing to have. Forty to 80 million people will want this.”


Siemens to merge rail operations with French rival Alstom

Siemens will transfer its business making train and transit cars and signaling equipment to Alstom in exchange for a 50 percent stake in the enlarged company.

The combination will give the German company control of an icon of French industry that developed the high-speed TGV trains that zip across the countryside at upwards of 300 kilometers an hour (186 miles per hour)…Capping years of speculation in the industry about the need for consolidation, the tie up could mirror the emergence of European planemaker Airbus in the 1970s that went on to become the biggest competitor to Boeing Co.

Now, the companies’ tie up comes after Chinese dominance of the train market has solidified. CRRC controls about half of the rail car and locomotive market, while Siemens and Bombardier each have about 12 percent and Alstom around 11 percent, according to Desjardins Capital Markets. The Chinese company was formed in 2015 in a merger of the country’s two main regional train manufacturers and it has won rail orders in U.S. cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

China gives automakers more time in world’s biggest EV plan

Under the so-called cap-and-trade policy, automakers must obtain a new-energy vehicle score — which is linked to the production of various types of zero- and low-emission vehicles — of at least 10 percent starting in 2019, rising to 12 percent in 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on its website. The rule applies to carmakers that manufacture or import more than 30,000 traditional vehicles annually, and those who fail to comply must buy credits or face fines.

The targets look achievable for the industry as a whole, McKerracher said. Considering the credit structure, 12 percent in 2020 would translate to about 4 percent to 5 percent of actual vehicle sales.


Why India will tell us when self-driving cars will hit the US

When will self-driving cars arrive? Depends on who you ask. The VCs believe what they’re told by their portfolio companies. Automakers will say anything to inflate their stock price relative to Tesla. Self-driving evangelists and “keynote speakers” on LinkedIn? Broken clocks not yet right even once. The media? There are still less than ten people writing intelligently on a market expected to hit $7 trillion.

Population density is so high that no current Automatic Emergency Braking system could possibly work in traffic, because no car equipped with it would ever move. What about Blind Spot Monitoring systems? They’d be lighting up and chiming so much, you’d have to disable them.

That Indian roads are more dangerous than America’s is obvious, and beside the point. No government ever eases traffic safety laws. Indian traffic fatalities in 2013 approached 240,000, in a country of 1.3 billion. That’s 16.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year. For those numbers to go down, people have to have choices that lead to them to safety. In a country where the majority have never owned a car, where two wheelers dominate and road conditions are terrible, getting people into any car will improve overall safety.


Learning effects, network effects, and runaway leaders

Learning effects have the potential to generate enormous economic value, as network effects do, if companies are able to close this loop and make it self-reinforcing: that is, if their products learn more because they have become more valuable.

In order for learning effects to produce runaway leaders, a company must secure a definitive advantage over its competitors in one of the component areas of learning effects – data, intelligence, product innovation or user/customer growth – and leverage this into advantages in the others, such that the company can acquire data, learn, innovate and grow not only more rapidly than its competitors do, but more rapidly than they can.

Certain products – particularly those built on highly dynamic datasets – may have perpetual learning curves such that in a rapidly changing world, they can always be meaningfully improved. It’s around these kinds of products that the most valuable runaway leaders will likely develop. Potential examples include search, semantic engines, adaptive autonomous systems and applications requiring a comprehensive real-time understanding of the world.

How Europe’s changes to copyright law will affect America

The goal of these copyright changes is to adopt new protections for publishers and artists. But if they are put in place, the burdens they would place on internet platforms would curtail the kind of quick uploading, sharing, commenting and responding that makes the Web so useful. Additionally, we have no reason to believe that these new plans would actually benefit the journalists and artists in whose name the measures are being proposed.

Yet a lot more is at stake than the fate of Google or Facebook. Those companies at least can afford the cost of complying with (or avoiding) Europe’s copyright proposals. Smaller businesses can’t. For example, medium-sized internet platforms pay between $10,000 and $25,000 a month in licensing fees for a common tool that conducts a copyright scan of uploaded audio files, an impost that could wipe out a new startup.


India: A $6T GDP By 2027?

The government and the Central Bank are on a mission to rapidly formalize and financialize the Indian economy. India has introduced a universal biometric identification system (Aadhaar), initiated measures to boost financial inclusion, moved to a new fully online value-added goods and services tax system and implemented real-time payment systems. Coupled with rising smartphone penetration, likely doubling from 300 million to nearly 700 million by 2020, these changes are driving India’s digitization. We expect a step change in India’s per capita income, banking system and stock market performance over the coming years. The channels of change include more financial penetration, greater tax compliance and increased credit to micro enterprises and consumers.

The result could be a multi-trillion dollar investment opportunity. Aside from the near-term teething issues involved in execution of such big changes and other cyclical problems faced by the economy, there is scope for visible shifts in economic activity starting in 2018.


We’re going to need more lithium

By 2030, Tianqi Lithium, SQM, Albemarle, and FMC, the companies that dominate the business, will have to supply enough lithium to feed the equivalent of 35 plants the size of the Tesla Gigafactory now being built in Nevada, according to BNEF. The total investment in new mines, including some for other elements used in lithium ion batteries, will likely range from $350 billion to $750 billion, according to analysts at researcher Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.


 

Our hankering for meat is a boon for global antibiotic producers

Food animals will consume 200,235 tons of antimicrobial medicines by 2030, 53 percent more than they were getting in 2013, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science. China, already the world’s largest consumer of veterinary antimicrobials, is forecast to lead the charge, with a 59 percent jump.

Limiting daily meat intake worldwide to the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66 percent, the researchers said.

37 quotes from big corporate execs who laughed off disruption when it hit

“Amazon.com is a very interesting retail concept, but wait till you see what Wal-Mart is gearing up to do,” he said [IBM Chairman, Louis V. Gerstner Jr.]. Mr. Gerstner noted that last year IBM’s Internet sales were five times greater than Amazon’s. Mr. Gerstner boasted that IBM “is already generating more revenue, and certainly more profit, than all of the top Internet companies combined.”

The Apple watch is an interesting toy, but not a revolution,” said Swatch executive Nick Hayek Jr., speaking to a Swiss newspaper. “I personally don’t want my blood pressure and blood sugar values stored in the cloud, or on servers in Silicon Valley … I cannot accept the responsibility of whether my device warns a customer in time before a heart attack.”

“Apple is like a mutant virus, escaping from the traditional structure of the PC industry, but the industry will still eventually build up immunity, thus further blocking this trend, and we believe the size of the non-Apple camp will exceed Apple’s, because this is how the industry normally evolves.”

“Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”


So few market winners, so much dead weight

Only 4 percent of all publicly traded stocks account for all of the net wealth earned by investors in the stock market since 1926, he has found. A mere 30 stocks account for 30 percent of the net wealth generated by stocks in that long period, and 50 stocks account for 40 percent of the net wealth.

Once you actually find these rare companies, you have to hold on to them. This too is much more challenging than most realize. The stellar stocks tend to have regular, gut-wrenching price slumps; the big winners above have all suffered retreats of 50, 60 even 90 percent on the way to becoming the biggest winners. Most investors lack the fortitude and discipline to manage the pain of these severe price fluctuations.

Once you get through those two challenges, you have to decide when to jettison these winners since nothing continues forever. As Sommer points out, General Motors Co. was a star from 1926 on — that is, until it went bankrupt in June 2009 and basically wiped out equity investors. AT&T Inc., meanwhile, was broken into many smaller parts, some of which have done very well (Verizon Communications Inc.), while others not so much (Lucent).

As we have observed repeatedly, finding the very best companies to own is very difficult to do.


Some market myths hurt investors

Margin debt at all-time highs mean euphoria in the markets. Margin debt reflects the amount of borrowed money used to purchase securities in the markets. It sounds scary when people point to margin debt at an all-time high because that means investors are borrowing more money than ever to buy stocks. But this indicator doesn’t really tell us anything. As markets rise, margin debt will rise. As markets fall, margin debt will fall. All historical margin debt peaks tell you is that margin debt fell when stocks fell. The following chart is more useful, as it shows margin debt as a percentage of the overall market cap of the stock market. Margin debt is a backward-looking indicator that tells you nothing else beyond how the stock market has performed in the past.

Something’s gotta give between stocks and bonds. Investors often assume stocks or bonds are telling them something. So when both rise at the same time, the assumption is that either the equity or fixed-income market must be wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is that stocks and bonds both go up over time, and most of the time they go up at the same time.

Bonds always lose money when interest rates rise. Out of those 36 rising rate years, 27 had positive returns on five-year Treasuries. So three-quarters of the time when rates rose on a calendar-year basis, bonds still earned positive returns. Rising rates will lead to lower bond prices, but you have to think in terms of total returns to understand the relationship between bond performance and interest rates.

Curated Insights 2017.09.24

Ferrari bets racetrack wins will lead to showroom sales

Ferrari’s financial success over the past 15 years has “been achieved on the back of Formula One,” the CEO said in March, adding that the company couldn’t afford many more losing seasons without suffering financially.

But there is little empirical evidence that winning races translates into increased sales. AllianceBernstein, a wealth manager, argues Ferrari doesn’t need Formula One. “There can’t be a soul on earth who doesn’t know that Ferrari makes fast red cars, with excellent technology and that it has a motor sport heritage,” AllianceBernstein wrote in a report last month, adding that Lamborghini, Porsche and other high-end brands have no trouble selling cars despite being absent from Formula One for many years.

While Ferrari doesn’t reveal its estimates for the financial and promotional benefits it derives from Formula One, Mercedes said that in 2016 it got the equivalent of $3 billion in advertising value from the team.

For years, the company limited its sales to no more than 7,000 cars annually to stoke demand. Now, Mr. Marchionne plans to raise that limit to 10,000 in the coming years, while also moving Ferrari into new areas such as home furnishings and technology products.


Liu Qiangdong, the ‘Jeff Bezos of China’, on making billions with JD.com

It was just three years ago that China overtook the US as the largest e-commerce market — but last year China’s total online retail transactions hit an estimated $750bn, nearly double the figure in the US. Most analysts predict China’s online retail market will more than double again by 2020, by which time Chinese online purchases are expected to exceed those of the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan combined.

The contradiction between Alibaba’s much larger market share and profits but smaller revenues is explained by the rivals’ different business models. Like Amazon, JD.com controls most of the supply chain and delivers goods from its own warehouses directly to customers, so it counts online sales as revenues. Alibaba, by contrast, is essentially an internet platform and payment system for other companies and individuals selling to consumers online and earns the bulk of its revenue from advertising.

“I was the first and only stall in that market to put price labels on everything and give official receipts; from day one I never sold any counterfeits and I soon had the best reputation,” he says. “A lot of rich people in China cannot sleep well because they did too many wrong things but I never made any dirty money ever so I can sleep very well.”

What’s the true TAM of search?

To truly appreciate the nature of information distribution, we need to think in a broader context and challenge some assumptions: what if “online advertising”, or even “advertising” is not the right way to measure the TAM (total addressable market) for the search engine business?

If we correctly define the role of search engines, we can see that what they are really designed to address is actually something much broader – “search cost”. Search cost is the biggest component of what economists label as “friction cost” in an economy and it can exist and be addressed in many different forms.

All of that excess rent is a form of marketing that brands and retailers pay to address “search cost”. In a purely online environment, the physical location is disintermediated and what companies would otherwise pay in excess rent in an offline setting would presumably get re-allocated in the form of Amazon commissions or Google keyword ads.

Actually, most of the time, new technological developments have a tendency to shrink the TAM as technology is usually deflationary (the search engine being an exception), so be careful when you see IR slides of tech companies where management takes an estimate of the market size today and declares that number as their company’s financial destiny – it most likely overstates the actual TAM.


Google Travel is worth $100 billion — even more than Priceline

Our estimate of $11.2 billion in Google travel revenue in 2016 would mean that travel accounted for 13 percent of Google’s total Google Segment revenue and 12 percent of the company total (includes the so-called other bets part of the business). Google’s total Google segment operating margin is in the low 30s, but the core AdWords business is likely much higher (meta would likely be in the 25 percent range).

Given a margin profile that is likely above Priceline and digital ad spend growing more than 20 percent per year, the value of the travel business would warrant a similar price-to-sales multiple as Priceline; off of 2016 results, Priceline trades at over 8x revenue. As mentioned earlier, using a 7x multiple on our estimated 2017 numbers for Google, the Google travel business could be worth as much as $100 billion or 15 percent of Google’s $650 billion market cap.

Online travel companies would like to diversify away from Google, but no other digital marketing tool offers the same commercial intent of a Google search.


Gaming sector primer

The gaming sector is the most attractive industry I see today due to: relative low price point and inelasticity; highly addictive products; cyclical defensive; ability for some to capture consumer surplus; consistent high margins and ROE. The downsides are: difficulty in developing new IP; high rate of reinvestment.

Imagine being able to sell $5 worth of coca cola to someone and $5000 worth to someone else, suddenly the need to build a massive horizontal distribution platform is terribly wasteful and your efforts are better spent capturing a smaller share of premium clients, which is made possible by the internet and ubiquitous mobile phones.

Today the gaming sector in China is dominated by mobile due to the ubiquitous nature of phones compared to the lack of platform penetration of console and to a lesser extent PC games. As a result, the two Chinese companies which dominate the gaming space, Tencent and Netease, which together control arond 80% market share, were able to leapfrog the traditional console/pc game market and focus largely on mobile and are in my opinion global leaders at the art of capturing consumer surpluses.


The death of (many) brands

Companies with a trusted brand could earn excess economic returns so long as the cost of building the brand costs less than the premium consumers were willing to pay for a product due to the brand. Because brands have historically be very durable (notice the global brands that were built in the 1950 are still dominate today), they created an economic moat that caused these companies to generate outstanding returns for shareholders.

Costco leverages their scale to identify high quality, good value products and deliver them to consumers. This process reduces the value of brands and allows Costco customers to confidently buy non-brand products or products with limited brand recognition. In this way, Costco has managed to earn excess economic returns, even while selling the products in their stores at close to cost.

Now, however, the era of search cost brands is coming to an end. The moats are being breached. Over the long term, we do not believe that these types of brands will provide a significant competitive advantage to their owners and the companies will be forced to compete directly on quality and value instead of earning a return for selling reduced search costs.


China’s electric car push lures global auto giants, despite risks

From high-speed trains to wind turbines, China has long prodded American, European and Japanese companies to hand over their know-how in exchange for access to its exciting new market. Then Chinese companies have used that knowledge and lavish government support to take on foreign rivals. China wants the big players to share their electric car knowledge, too. The foreign automakers face new Chinese regulations that put heavy legal pressure on them to transfer electric-car technology to their local partners.

The joint ventures alone may not make China a leader in electric cars. G.M., Volkswagen and other major automakers have made regular cars with Chinese partners for decades, and China had hoped its automakers would learn how to make their own worldbeating brands. Instead, Chinese automakers grew comfortable making Chevrolets and Volkswagens for local drivers. Only recently have foreign automakers begun exporting Chinese-made cars to buyers back home.

More broadly, global automakers feel that they must grow in a country that has become the world’s largest car market, one almost as big as the American and European markets combined.


Materialize.X is using machine learning to disrupt the $300B engineered wood industry

A lot of engineered wood is created using an adhesive called urea-formaldehyde, which has recently been labeled by the FDA as a toxic carcinogen…The startup has created a patented non-toxic adhesive to serve as an alternative to urea-formaldehyde. Materialize.X plans to license to chemical companies, or engineered-wood manufacturers so they can make the adhesive on site, the method for making this adhesive.

…created software that uses machine learning to take in all those variables and make slight changes to the manufacturing process that can greatly improve the quality of the final product. Examples of these changes are adjusting the amount of adhesive used or increasing the pressure in the bonding process depending on the variables listed above.


The new Texas gold rush: Buying sand for fracking

Texas energy producers have typically bought the millions of pounds of sand that each well requires from mines located far from their drilling fields. After oil prices collapsed in late 2014, though, cost-conscious drillers reconsidered their well designs and recipes for the slurries they blast underground to unleash fuel from shale formations. Many West Texas drillers discovered that they could replace sand they had been shipping from mines 1,300 miles away in Wisconsin with finer grades found in dunes nearby. Doing so eliminates rail costs that sometimes are equal to or more than the sand itself.

The prospect of tens of millions of tons of Permian sand coming to market could drive down sand prices that have been rising nationally, Mr. Handler said. Analysts say that prices rose to as much as $45 a ton earlier in the year, from as little as $15 a ton last year.

Hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb is among those betting that sand stocks will fall further. In an April letter to his Third Point LLC investors, Mr. Loeb cited the “important shift” from special sand mined in the Midwest to abundant sand within drilling basins, including West Texas.

Superpower India to replace China as growth engine

The number of people aged 65 and over in Asia will climb from 365 million today to more than half a billion in 2027, accounting for 60 percent of that age group globally by 2030, Deloitte said in a report Monday. In contrast, India will drive the third great wave of Asia’s growth – following Japan and China — with a potential workforce set to climb from 885 million to 1.08 billion people in the next 20 years and hold above that for half a century.

“India will account for more than half of the increase in Asia’s workforce in the coming decade, but this isn’t just a story of more workers: these new workers will be much better trained and educated than the existing Indian workforce,” said Anis Chakravarty, economist at Deloitte India. “There will be rising economic potential coming alongside that, thanks to an increased share of women in the workforce, as well as an increased ability and interest in working for longer. The consequences for businesses are huge.”


Why machine learning funds fail

The complexities involved in developing a true investment strategy are overwhelming. Even if the firm provides you with shared services in those areas, you are like a worker at a BMW factory who has been asked to build the entire car alone, by using all the workshops around you. It takes almost as much effort to produce one true investment strategy as to produce a hundred. Every successful quantitative firm I am aware of applies the meta-strategy paradigm. Your firm must set up a research factory where tasks of the assembly line are clearly divided into subtasks, where quality is independently measured and monitored for each subtask, where the role of each quant is to specialize in a particular subtask, to become the best there is at it, while having a holistic view of the entire process.


The case for & against cryptocurrencies (for those tired of all the noise)

The strongest cases for the existence of cryptocurrencies in my mind include: (1) allowing for a decentralized Internet in which value is accrued to infrastructure, protocols and applications that serve market needs; (2) allowing electronic trade across actors who may not know or trust each other without middlemen who take a heavy toll / tax on the transaction; (3) allowing for (the potential of) a more stable currency than one’s own government for citizens who may live under despotic or irresponsible regimes.

The simple case against cryptocurrencies includes three completely related factors: (1) powerful governments who won’t tolerate the loss of monetary control or illegal activities; (2) societal pressure to regulate cryptocurrency will increase as more people are duped, as more fraud is discovered, as more hacks occur and as more market participants collaborate to manipulate the value of the currencies themselves; (3) erosion of trust as first-time cryptocurrency participants get duped, lose money and develop skepticism for the asset.

There is a fascinating story in “The Ascent of Money” by Niall Ferguson in which Ferguson describes how the modern corporation emerged. About 400 years ago merchants from the Netherlands were sending ships to Asia in search of spices widely desired in Europe. More than 50% of all ships that sailed wouldn’t return so groups of people banded together and formed the Dutch East India Company to share the risks and the rewards of their conquests.

This is amongst the first examples of the modern corporation. The company brought back spices and reaped profits that went back into building more ships and sailing back to Asia. The company didn’t distribute the profits to individual shareholders who instead were issued the modern form of a share certificate for their ownership. Because they couldn’t monetize this ownership they started selling shares of their ownership to others, thus perhaps the first stock market and transaction dating back to the early 1600s.

No sooner did people start selling shares in these companies than market speculators started spreading false stories about merchant ships being sunk or about large spice conquests to drive up or down the price of these stocks through false information and manipulation. So oversight became necessary to establish trust in the value of these assets.


What Jamie Dimon got wrong about bitcoin and tulips

Mackay confused two distinct eras. He reports stories from around 1610 about high prices paid for individual bulbs. What he failed to realize is that people were not paying for single flowers, but for the entire breeding stock — or a significant portion of it — of popular new tulip varieties. People have continued to pay higher inflation-adjusted prices for new tulip and lily bulbs to this day.

A quarter century later, a futures market grew up around fractional interests in low-priced, ordinary tulip bulbs. In premodern Europe investment returns were very high, 20 percent or 30 percent per year on low risk investments, but laws and customs prevented anyone not in the merchant class from taking advantage.

Holland accidentally created a loophole by allowing contracts for fractional interests in tulip bulbs for the convenience of the industry. These were needed because the price of popular new bulbs was higher than even rich individuals could afford. In the early 1630s ordinary people discovered that these contracts could serve as money to support business and investment. These contracts then became “monetized,” as happens to all assets used as bases for monetary activity. That means their value decoupled from the use value of the underlying asset and became determined by demand for money services.

By 1637, contracts for fractional interests of low-priced tulip bulbs had risen to 20 times the price of the actual bulbs, reflecting the explosion of economic activity they stimulated. In February 1637, the market collapsed; six weeks later it was outlawed.


What Jamie Dimon is missing about Bitcoin

It’s no secret that Bitcoin and other digital currencies may dramatically fall in value at any time. How can an asset whose value jumps by 20 percent some days, and which no one can accurately value, plausibly not also suffer huge declines? But that’s a long way from Bitcoin being a worthless fraud.

Of course, fiat currencies like the dollar have the backing of a sovereign nation. Digital currencies are obviously far more speculative, have been around for only a few years, and don’t have a government’s underlying support. But almost all currencies today are conjured up from nothing — the euro didn’t even exist 20 years ago — and their value is largely dependent on trust.

His firm conjured up its own currency: Chase Ultimate Reward points, its credit card loyalty program. Millions of customers have accumulated billions of points, trusting in Chase’s promise that this currency can be converted into cash or used for travel and other delights. And they hope that Chase won’t unilaterally choose to devalue them…

But new use cases for digital currencies are just starting to take shape. They are now being used to create value in the way that Silicon Valley has traditionally done so: regulatory arbitrage. Ride-hailing got its start avoiding onerous taxi medallion costs; Airbnb avoided hotel taxes and regulations; and YouTube played fast and loose with copyright rules.

Company Notes 2017.09.15

Bermaz Auto Q1 FY2018 Results

…partly caused by the Mazda CX-5 run-out programme as more sales incentives were given for this model since the preceding quarter in anticipation of the new CX-5 model to be launched in October this year.

…continue to remain disciplined and will focus on driving sales at its standard selling prices with value offerings as this augurs well for the Mazda brand image and popularity in the longer term. The Group is optimistic that the new CX-5 to be launched in October 2017 will help to improve the unit sales as well as the profit contribution from associated companies for the second half of the financial year.

…cautious on the potential impact of the new excise duty expected to be introduced in early 2018. This impact may be mitigated to a certain extend as brought forward purchases of CX-5 and CX-9 from Mazda Japan is expected to be made prior to 1 January 2018.


Berjaya Food Q1 FY2018 Results

The Group expects Starbucks to maintain its revenue growth momentum, and the price adjustment in the previous financial year is expected to mitigate the negative impact from the fluctuating Ringgit Malaysia. In addition, the operational and menu rationalisation of KRR will also have a potential to yield positive results for the brand moving forward.

IOI Corporation divests 70% equity stake and retains 30% stake in IOI Loders Croklaan in a new business partnership with Bunge

During the fourteen years since IOI acquired Loders, Loders has grown from having three processing plants to seven plants in Europe, North America and Asia, and earnings have nearly quadrupled during this period. IOI has positioned Loders as a leading palm-based specialty fats player which supplies its products to nearly all major MNC food companies. In order to sustain its significant growth and better serve its multinational customers, Loders will need to expand its processing plant footprints to regions such as South America and South Asia, and offer more varied product offerings including seed oil–based products. In IOI’s assessment, the faster and more effective way to do so is by leveraging on Bunge’s existing plant assets in these regions and Bunge’s established integrated supply chain in seed oils.

After the transaction, IOI will still play an important role in Loders given our expertise in palm oil sourcing and our business experience in the fast-growing Asia Pacific Region. IOI will have two representatives on Loders’ five-member Board of Directors and our representatives will also be involved in key management decisions taken by Loders. IOI will continue to be a major supplier of palm oil and palm products to Loders after the transaction.


NTPM expanding tissue paper plants

The expansion would increase the group’s production capacity to 170,000 tonnes per year by end-2018 from 110,000 tonnes currently. The bulk of the expenditure will be to increase the production capacity of our plant in Ho Chi Minh to 50,000 tonnes a year from 10,000 tonnes presently.

“Due to the increase in pulp prices, we have to raise the selling price for our tissue products by 3% to 5%.” Pulp prices have increased to around US$700 per tonne this year from US$500 year ago.


Censof growing quietly and steadily

Censof’s entire stake of 17% in DNex is worth more than its entire market capitalisation. Based on DNex closing price of 47.5 sen, Censof’s stake is worth about RM141.6mil. Censof has been cutting down its stake in DNex and could be divesting more in the near future. In August 2016, Censof disposed of a 7.3% stake in DNeX and its entire 19.6% holding of warrants for RM32.3mil to pare down the groups borrowings.

Rubber glove prices may increase by 9% to 12%, says MARGMA

The (Hurricane Irma) devastation has caused the prices of Butadiene, an important material in the production of Nitrile Latex, to soar as its production has been severely affected.

“Another cost component that has a runaway effect on the industry is the shortage of paper. This shortage has pushed packing material prices up by 15% already and it looks like [it’s] moving up again. The lack of readership of newspapers and magazine is causing the lack of feedstock to cupboard and cartons processing.”


PLUS receives takeover offer from Maju Holdings

Maju’s indicative offer implies a total enterprise value in excess of RM36 billion for PLUS. Other significant details divulged by sources familiar with the offer include Maju’s plan to freeze toll rates for 20 years until the end of the concession period.

The offer’s other strengths include the acquisition reducing the government’s contingent liabilities by RM30 billion, and Maju is said wanting to forfeit the government’s compensation of about RM900 million owed to the toll road operator, a result of toll hikes not implemented.

PLUS has five concessions…All PLUS Malaysia’s concessions end in December 2038.

PLUS paid an RM815 million dividend to its parent Khazanah in FY15. As at end-Dec 31, 2015, PLUS had non-current assets amounting to RM30.22 billion, and current assets of RM3.26 billion. It had long-term debts of RM31.27 billion and current liabilities of RM1.56 billion.


Port Klang business hit as key firms shift operations to Singapore

“Only Kuantan Port has Chinese equity so far because it also aids Beijing’s South China Sea claims. Other infrastructure plans have either not taken off or are only loans, or worse, just Chinese companies winning construction deals.”

The new alliance agreements’ biggest impact on Klang was the loss of transshipment volumes – goods stored before being shipped to their final destination – from giants United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) and France’s CMA CGM. This could total up to 2 million TEU annually. UASC has now merged with Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, making it part of THE Alliance, while CMA CGM is the biggest company in the rival Ocean Alliance.

Both groups, which handle nearly half the world’s shipping capacity, started realigning in April, resulting in more than half of Klang’s Asia-Europe calls being shifted to Singapore, said industry officials. CMA CGM and Cosco have naturally gravitated to Singapore as both have major investments there. PSA saw a 9.6 per cent jump in the second quarter to 8.5 million TEU.

Among the world’s top 20 ports, Klang was one of only two, the other being Tanjung Pelepas on the south coast of Johor, to see a drop in volume in the first half of this year.


China investments transforming Malaysia

With the entry of our corporations, Malaysia has become a new leader in certain sectors and there is significant improvement in some industries.

In the case of ECRL, PM has announced that at least 30% of the civil engineering work will be awarded to local contractors. The electrified double-tracking railway line linking Gemas with Johor Baru will see 50% of the civil construction works awarded to local players.

Curated Insights 2017.08.20

Apple has the best business model for generating cash

Apple’s $64B of operating cash flow was nearly as much as that of Alphabet ($36B), Facebook ($19B), and Amazon ($17B) combined. In essence, Amazon is doing as well financially as Facebook. Google is generating as much cash as Amazon and Facebook put together. Apple is generating nearly as much cash as Amazon, Facebook, and Google combined.

Apple’s $51B of TTM free cash flow is $3B more than the free cash flow produced by Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon combined. In what may come as a surprise, Apple is bringing in 70% more free cash flow than Microsoft, who is still considered to possess one for the more lucrative business models in existence.

Apple is a design company focused on selling tools capable of fostering superior experiences. Scale is considered a byproduct of a properly functioning business model. Facebook and Google are service companies focused on offering free, data-capturing services to as many people as possible. The business models are dependent on achieving scale in order to access as much data as possible. Amazon is a retail platform company focused on getting you to buy more stuff over time. Scale in terms of purchase volume is needed in order for the cash flow/reinvestment cycle to continue.

Instead, we have non-hardware companies pontificate how hardware won’t matter in the future. In reality, the opposite will likely occur. Hardware will matter more going forward. The wearables industry represents a good example of this in practice. Meanwhile, the way smartphone and tablet components are mattering more now than ever to AR and AI is another hole in the “hardware won’t matter” thesis.


No one knows how much money WeChat is making, and investors are too bullish to care

…the success of Honor of Kings as an example of WeChat’s indirect influence on Tencent’s revenue growth. “When you go into the game, it becomes all about playing with your WeChat friends, and looking at their scores and achievements,” he says. Honor of Kings is currently ranked the top-grossing game in China’s iOS App Store (registration required), and four other Tencent titles fill out the top 10.

…pointing to WeChat’s low take on payments (Stripe and PayPal each charge about 3%) and its aggressive discounts, speculates it’s a loss leader. Tencent executives, meanwhile, have downplayed its role in making money for the company. “We consider payment at this point in time as to [sic] infrastructure service rather than a service that generates profit for us. And I think that status will maintain for quite some time.”

“Payments are the gateway to lending. And because you’re tracking the same consumer across so many platforms, you know the credit score of the consumer and you have very few non-performing loans.”


How Baidu will win China’s AI race—and, maybe, the world’s

But to train the algorithms that will deliver the intelligence to transform our cities, it needs data. To wit: The company with the most data wins.

Clearly, he saw more opportunity across the Pacific: In China, 731 million people—nearly twice the entire population of the United States—are online. Says Lu: “China has the structural advantage.”

We’re the first major company to clearly separate the perceptual and the cognitive layer. Perceptive capability and the cognitive are related, but they are quite different. Most of the [other] AI platforms bundle them together.

But one thing I learned is that in this race to AI, it’s actually more about having the right application scenarios and the right ecosystems.

It’s just like the phone ecosystem today. The phone ecosystem is the largest silicon software ecosystem. I believe the same thing will happen for the autonomous system. The car is going to build a larger ecosystem. And the same set of capabilities—hardware, sensors, chip sets, software—will be used to build industry robots, home robots. We want to have hundreds of companies and universities all at work on this, building a very large ecosystem. Then we can build robots, build drones, and build all those autonomous systems. So, to me, autonomy is a key.

…because China is highly, highly fragmented. There’s more than 250 car OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], unlike the United States, which is a heavily concentrated industry. None of the OEMs will have the full capabilities to build out deep R&Ds. With our code base that we released on July 5, [we will make it possible for] one person to assemble a vehicle in three days that can do autonomous driving in limited forms and start on R&Ds.

We’re competing against nobody. We enable each OEM, whether it’s Bosch, Continental, or Nvidia, to be able to do more.


Amazon has largest A.I. platform in the world, its machine learning guru boasts

Despite the lack of notoriety, “inside Amazon we’ve been doing machine learning for over twenty years,” he notes, and anyway, “We have more machine learning running on the platform than anywhere else” he claims, meaning AWS is doing more A.I. than Google or any other facility in the world.

“Today, machine learning is very technical,” he says, but overtime, and with Amazon’s help, it is going to be simpler and simpler to apply machine learning to any number of different applications, “and to do it with high accuracy.”

Wood noted another important development, the shift from just the “training” phase of A.I., where a computer deduces patterns, to the “inference” stage, where it responds to user requests based on what it’s learned.

…what he thinks of machines making machines, meaning, machine learning being able to design new algorithms for machine learning, a kind of self-reflexive moment in A.I. “Absolutely,” says Wood, “It’s already happening. There are customers on AWS who are training bots to to make algorithms.” One example is something called Bandits, where machines face off against one another, with one machine trying to deduce learning models while the other is trying to trick it with falsehoods.

Amazon expands program that pays Alexa developers for top-performing voice apps

It’s notable that the Alexa platform has managed to attract a sizable group of developers ahead of any formal compensation program, or support for traditional app monetization business models, like freemium apps, paid apps, and advertising. Despite this, Alexa’s app store has grown to over 15,000 skills in a relatively short period of time – after all, the Echo speaker – Amazon’s first Alexa device – wasn’t even available to the public until July 2015.

That said, direct payouts for skills is a program that can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, developers will demand more control over their businesses, rather relying on some inscrutable algorithm. In the meantime, Amazon will face competition from rivals, including Google Home and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod – both from companies who have a better understanding of how an app store ecosystem works.


Amazon in talks to offer event ticketing in U.S.

…the U.S. ticketing market as ripe for attack. Consumers dislike ticket fees, and venue owners, sports leagues and teams want more distributors for their tickets as they seek to boost sales. Access to tickets could be another means to lure members to the Amazon Prime shopping club. For music acts and sports teams, selling tickets through Amazon could help sell their merchandise.

Amazon has had conversations to partner with Ticketmaster as a potential way to get into ticketing in the United States, but those conversations have stalled over who would control customer data, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.

Ticketing would likely make money for Amazon, which has a patchy record of profitability. Ticketmaster generated $1.6 billion in revenue from initial sales of tickets to events in 2016, according to estimates by research firm BTIG. That figure does not include revenue from the reselling of tickets, which BTIG estimates at $250 million.


Amazon looks to new food technology for home delivery

If the cutting-edge food technology comes to fruition, and Amazon implements it on a large scale, it would be a major step forward for the company as it looks to grab hold of more grocery customers shifting toward quick and easy meal options at home.

The pioneering food-prep tech, known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS… The method involves placing sealed packages of food in pressurized water and heating them with microwaves for several minutes, according to 915 Labs.

“They obviously see that this is a potential disruptor and an ability to get to a private brand uniqueness that they’re looking for. They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go.”

“They have to leapfrog to MATS because they don’t have the refrigerated supply chain like we have in the U.S.”

Facebook buys computer vision startup focused on adding objects to video

…could be useful as Facebook pursues additional video filter creation technology, both for its live streaming efforts, and for platforms like Instagram Stories.

…being able to add objects to live video and remove them or cover them over on the fly is also something that can be put to interesting use in the emerging field of augmented reality.

The world’s shipping companies are going super-sized

A massive consolidation is underway in the $500 billion global industry and the survivors now enjoy big economies of scale and increased demand, one year after excess capacity caused the sector’s worst-ever crisis — the bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co.

These super-sized shipping companies wield much more pricing power over manufacturers and retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. The five biggest container lines control about 60 percent of the global market, according to data provider Alphaliner. Shipping rates are climbing, and an index tracking cargo rates on major routes from Asia is about 22 percent higher than it was a year earlier.

“Since the demise of Hanjin Shipping, flight to quality has become more noticeable in the container shipping business,” said Um Kyung-a, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul. “That’s why the market is becoming more and more dominated by top players with big ships and those that don’t have could become more and more obsolete.”


The awesome but mostly unknown story of Carlsberg beer in China (Part 1, Part 2)

It was a daring strategy. Inland China was the one region that was not yet dominated by the large SOE brewers. It was still open territory. But you also need to have a picture in your mind of Western China circa 2003. It was the poorest part of China. It was a massive and undeveloped territory. There was little infrastructure and even less money.

A review of Sunny’s Carlsberg presentation in 2006 is fascinating. Western China had exceptionally low per-capita beer consumption. In Eastern China in 2005, it ranged from 30-80 liters per person, but in Tibet and Ningxia it was only 10-15 liters. And in Yunnan and Xinjiang it was closer to 3 liters. That could of course mean big growth one day. More likely, it meant small money in difficult geographies for the foreseeable future.

Across the board, it was a strategy of regional dominance. They were building a competitive advantage based on local economies of scale in marketing, distribution and production. And they were racing to become a giant in the West.


Deep learning could discover new plant species hidden in centuries of herbarium data

…but the valuable info in these slowly vanishing temples to the plant kingdom needs to be modernized in order to be of use to an increasingly digital-first scientific community.

They trained a plant-identification algorithm on a quarter million images of plant samples, and set it to work IDing new sheets. It matched the species picked by human experts exactly 4 out of 5 times, and 90 percent of the time the correct species was in the algorithm’s next few guesses.

“People feel this kind of technology could be something that will decrease the value of botanical expertise,” study co-author Pierre Bonnet told Nature. “But this approach is only possible because it is based on the human expertise. It will never remove the human expertise.”

CRISPR’d pigs offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage

The findings represent an important breakthrough in the potential for xenotransplantation, or the use of animal organs in humans. Currently there are more than 117,000 men, women and children on the donor waiting list in the U.S., 22 of whom die each day from lack of a matching donor. The ability to use a pig heart, lungs or other body parts could shore up the shortage and save numerous lives.

This is the first time researchers have been able to demonstrate they were able to inactivate PERV and open the way for xenotransplantation without cross-species contamination.

CRISPR holds enormous potential to wipe out diseases in both humans and animals, upend our food system and has many other applications we likely don’t see yet. Just last week, U.S. scientists were able to demonstrate they could successfully CRISPR out a faulty heart gene mutation in human embryos. However, there is still a lot to take into account before applying the technology to fully formed human beings.


The death of the internal combustion engine

And then there is oil. Roughly two-thirds of oil consumption in America is on the roads, and a fair amount of the rest uses up the by-products of refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel. The oil industry is divided about when to expect peak demand…

Meanwhile, a scramble for lithium is under way. The price of lithium carbonate has risen from $4,000 a tonne in 2011 to more than $14,000. Demand for cobalt and rare-earth elements for electric motors is also soaring. Lithium is used not just to power cars: utilities want giant batteries to store energy when demand is slack and release it as it peaks. Will all this make lithium-rich Chile the new Saudi Arabia? Not exactly, because electric cars do not consume it; old lithium-ion batteries from cars can be reused in power grids, and then recycled.

Housing for the long run?

Housing beat stocks mostly because the returns were less than half as volatile. Thanks to the magic of compounding, this created a performance gap of more than 2 percentage points each year, on average, since 1950, with an even bigger gap if you start the clock in 1870.

Housing has beaten stocks since 1950 because rental income has been better than dividend income, not because house prices have grown more than stock prices.

It’s possible to imagine a world where most housing is owned by large diversified investment trusts that anyone can invest in, but until then, “housing for the long run” is not a practical investment strategy.


Sustainability of hedge-fund reinsurers questioned

Such reinsurers generally engage in “low-margin and low-volatility (property/casualty) reinsurance business,” and try to generate returns for investors through hedge fund investment or other strategies.

The fund reinsurers’ strategy is a half success, as they outperform traditional reinsurers’ investment record. This is still not enough to offset underwriting losses, says S&P, leaving the fund reinsurers trailing their more established brethren in total return.

“We continue to believe that HFRs need to focus as much on the additional risks of their overall strategies as they do on the higher investment returns,” S&P said, adding that “HFRs will continue to evolve, learn from their earlier brethren’s mistakes, and nibble at the edges of the reinsurance market as they carve out a niche for themselves.


ASEAN at 50

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353). This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

Curated Insights 2017.07.30

Capital accumulation, private property, and inequality in China, 1978-2015

Between 1978 and 2015, China moved being from a poor, underdeveloped country to the world’s leading emerging economy. But relatively little is known about how the distribution of income and wealth within the country changed over this period. This column presents the first systematic estimates of the level and structure of China’s national wealth since the beginning of the market reform process. The national wealth-income ratio increased from 350% in 1978 to 700% in 2015, driven mainly by the increase of private wealth.

The top 10 stocks in the S&P 500 at year-end every five years going back to 1980

The biggest stocks

…it’s not that out of the ordinary for a handful of stocks to account for a large portion of the stock market’s gains. This is just the nature of the beast with the stock market. There are very few big winners and lots of big losers over the long haul.

The top 5 companies today are all technology companies (we can quibble on how to define some of these firms but they are mostly tech firms). This has some people worried. Maybe it should cause us some concern but look at the top 10 companies in 1980 — the list was dominated by energy companies, a much more cyclical industry.

Both Citigroup and AIG were on the top 10 list in 2000 and 2005. These were two of the companies that were responsible for nearly taking down the entire financial industry and have suffered enormous losses because of it. Since the end of 2005, Citigroup is down 86% while AIG has fallen more than 95% in market cap.

If it cracked down on password sharing, Netflix could probably make $400 million more a year

If 6% of that audience, or 4 million US households, stopped borrowing passwords and signed up for their own Netflix memberships, Netflix could stand to make as much as $391 million more a year. That’s if each of those new members signed up for Netflix’s cheapest plan, which is $7.99 a month in the US.

Tesla and Elon Musk’s moment of truth with first mass-market car

“No one can produce a car that size, and with that amount of battery, at a lower cost than General Motors.”

Maintaining premium pricing while fending off some of the big carmakers will not be easy. It has been tempting for investors to view Tesla as the latest in a line of disruptive Californian companies that will go on to dominate a new industry, says Bruce Greenwald, a professor at Columbia Business School. But he adds that, unlike Apple and Google, there are no “moats” to protect its business from competition and it does not dominate any single market.

Artificial intelligence is not as smart as you (or Elon Musk) think

…as strong as AlphaGo was at its given task, it actually couldn’t do anything else but play Go on a standard 19 x 19 board. He relayed a story that while speaking to the DeepMind team in London recently, he asked them what would have happened if they had changed the size of the board to 29 x 29, and the AlphaGo team admitted to him that had there been even a slight change to the size of the board, “we would have been dead.”

“In chess, machines dominate the game because of the brute force of calculation and they [could] crunch chess once the databases got big enough and hardware got fast enough and algorithms got smart enough, but there are still many things that humans understand. Machines don’t have understanding. They don’t recognize strategical patterns. Machines don’t have purpose,” Kasparov explained.

 

 

The myth of drug expiration dates

The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.

Tossing such drugs when they expire is doubly hard. One pharmacist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston says the 240-bed facility is able to return some expired drugs for credit, but had to destroy about $200,000 worth last year. A commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings cited similar losses at the nearby Tufts Medical Center. Play that out at hospitals across the country and the tab is significant: about $800 million per year. And that doesn’t include the costs of expired drugs at long-term care pharmacies, retail pharmacies and in consumer medicine cabinets.


Do probiotics really work?

The idea that consuming probiotics can boost the ability of already well-functioning native bacteria to promote general health is dubious for a couple of reasons. Manufacturers of probiotics often select specific bacterial strains for their products because they know how to grow them in large numbers, not because they are adapted to the human gut or known to improve health. The particular strains of Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus that are typically found in many yogurts and pills may not be the same kind that can survive the highly acidic environment of the human stomach and from there colonize the gut.

Many researchers think personalized probiotics are the most promising path forward for patients with compromised gut microbiomes.


Should you feed your kid probiotics?

A pill with “40 billion live organisms” is not going to help your child lose weight or “boost” their immune system. It won’t stop your baby from crying on an airplane, protect your toddler’s teeth from decay, lessen the duration of a cold or flu, or cure acid reflux. It’s a billion-dollar industry with virtually no medical oversight.

There’s no credible evidence that the regular consumption of a probiotic yogurt will make your child or you any healthier. But this doesn’t stop marketers from suggesting that it’s a delicious panacea…Food manufacturers may not like to admit it, but it is difficult to control the types of organisms that grow in these live cultures, despite industry standards set to determine what types of bacteria should be in yogurt.


Buy time, they’re not making any more of it

According to a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, people who buy time by paying someone to complete household tasks are more satisfied with life. And it’s not just wealthy people. Across a range of incomes, careers and countries, timesaving purchases were correlated with less time-related stress and more positive feelings. Yet the researchers’ surveys showed that very few individuals think to spend money in this way.

“People are notoriously bad at making decisions that will make them happier,” Whillans [Ashley] said. She suspects the abstract nature of time may be to blame. “We always think we’re going to have more time tomorrow than we do right now,” she said, so we’re hesitant to trade money, which is concrete and measurable, for time, which is much more uncertain.

Why does the other line always move faster?

At the supermarket checkout, should you pick the shorter line or the line where people have fewer items? I have gotten into heated arguments with people who insist on a particular way. And yet, the discussion is actually moot since there is a bigger issue: the entire question is flawed. Mathematically you are bound to wait in long lines because the game is rigged against you.


Why you should never eat food on planes, and other jet-set tips

…at superhigh altitude, your digestive system shuts down completely. Someone said to me it’s like being under anesthesia. So when you get off the plane, everything restarts and [your digestive system] has so much more work to do and so it makes you more tired.