Curated Insights 2018.08.24

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

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

Dear Elon: An open letter against taking Tesla private

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

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

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

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

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

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


Does Tencent Music deserve a Spotify-like valuation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Litigation finance offers investors attractive yields

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

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

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

Network-based businesses will disrupt all sectors of the economy

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

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

Dragon quest

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

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


China reaches 800 million internet users

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

Jakarta, the fastest-sinking city in the world

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

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

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

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

We all have it now

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

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


Buyback derangement syndrome

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

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

Indexers will cause the next stock market crash?

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

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

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

Curated Insights 2018.05.06

WeWork’s $20 billion dream: The lavishly funded startup that could disrupt commercial real estate

The company makes money primarily through rent arbitrage: charging its members more than it has to pay its landlords. The principal means of accomplishing this is by packing a lot of people into its locations. In WeWork’s buildings, the average square footage per person hovers around 50 square feet. This compares to 250 sq ft for commercial offices industry-wide. Despite this small footprint, members pay an average of $8,000 per year, with WeWork capturing a healthy 30 – 40% operating margin, according to the company.

WeWork is shifting from leases to co-management deals. In this scenario, landlords might pay for the renovation and buildout of offices and/or split membership profits 50/50, similar to the management agreement popularized by the hotel industry. Neumann says WeWork has followed this strategy nearly 100% of the time in markets like India and Israel.

In cities where there are numerous WeWork locations, each additional location serves to drive down membership churn. Artie Minson, WeWork’s former COO and current President, has noted, “in cities where WeWork opened more locations, membership cancellations declined.” While the vast majority of WeWork’s membership plans assign its members to a location, it does let members switch between locations.

First, it can quickly expand at scale, opening between 500K – 1M sqare feet per month. And second, it can design spatially efficient offices in non-identical locations. Both of these accomplishments rely on defensible strategic advantages, namely, a control of the complete building lifecycle and a mastery of data-informed design.

Why Amazon and Google haven’t attacked banks

Cloud spending by banks is expected to skyrocket. By 2021, banks globally are forecast to spend more than $12 billion on public cloud infrastructure and data services, up from $4 billion last year. By many metrics, the cloud business offers better opportunities to tech firms than, say, retail banking. Overall cloud-industry revenues are growing at about 60% year-over-year, Jefferies estimates. Meanwhile, retail-banking revenue, comprising products such as checking accounts and cards, at most big banks is growing at a fraction of that rate. And any real foray into banking or financial products could also entail substantial regulatory issues and expense.

Experts say Tesla has repeated car industry mistakes from the 1980s

Robots are supposed to allow production of more cars with fewer workers, but one ironic consequence of over-automation is that it can actually require more workers. Ingrassia and White report that GM’s Hamtramck plant had around 5,000 workers on its payroll in the mid-1980s, compared to 3,700 workers at a nearby Ford plant with many fewer robots. Yet the Ford plant was “outproducing Hamtramck by a wide margin.”

This kind of rapid iteration works well in the software industry because a programmer can change one line of code and then re-build the entire project with the click of a button. But physical manufacturing isn’t like that. Car design decisions have to be translated into physical tooling that takes months to build and fine-tune. And rapid iteration is a nightmare for suppliers, Shook added. “I talked to a supplier and asked ‘who’s your worst customer'” Shook said. “The answer was Tesla. How can you be a good supplier when you don’t know when you’re supposed to deliver?”

Free cash flow to whom?

Alphabet has 1,000 shares trading at $50. They buy back 100 shares for $500. They should now have 900 shares. However in their financial statements, it says they now have 1100 shares, due to 200 shares being issued to employees. Those 100 net new shares are worth $500, which we then subtract from the financial year’s free cash flow, to arrive at a new Free Cash Flow with Hypothetical Cash Compensation™ metric.

When a company’s share price is rising, prospective employees are more than happy to be paid in stock units that incrementally mature over four years. Companies with the best-performing stocks will be able to attract the best talent, which (all else being equal) should improve the performance of the business, and therefore increase the share price in a virtuous cycle.

But that cycle can effectively function as a type of confidence game as well. While it makes good times look especially good, it can make the bad times far worse. In a severe share-price decline, engineers will likely be reticent to receive stock-based compensation instead of cold hard cash, which would put pressure on operating margins and cash flow. And as share prices fall, companies would have to pony up more stock to provide the same compensation, and further dilute the shareholder base.

Air pollution kills 7 million people a year, WHO reports

Nine of 10 people around the world are exposed to dangerously high levels of pollutants that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Air pollution levels were the highest in the eastern Mediterranean and southeast Asia, where in some areas airborne toxins were five times WHO limits and disproportionately affected the poor and most vulnerable. About 3 billion people are breathing deadly fumes from domestic cooking stoves and fires. Household air pollution caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in 2016.

The Grumpy Economist: Basecoin

The Fed was founded in 1907 in part to provide an “elastic currency,” exactly the lesson missing from bitcoin and at the center of basecoin. Alas, the Fed trades money for treasury bonds, backed by taxes, not for Fed bonds backed by future seignorage. And laws against using foreign currency or issuing private currency help a lot. Basecoin buyers will soon learn the lesson that bonds cannot pay more interest than money in a liquid market, and that claims to future seignorage cannot back money in the face of competitive currencies.


Ray Dalio: An unconventional take on success

Everything I’ve done with a singular focus on economics has fallen short. Everything I’ve pursued because I believed in the intrinsic value has exceeded expectations. Assessing a business based on unit economics is especially popular today. But a durable competitive advantage comes from the value it creates for its stakeholders. If you get that right, the unit economics will follow. Economics is not always an accurate reflection of intrinsic value. The same can be said of a career.

Curated Insights 2017.11.12

(Guardian: Apple secretly moved parts of empire to Jersey after row over tax affairs)
(BBC: Paradise Papers: Apple’s secret tax bolthole revealed)
(Apple: The facts about Apple’s tax payments)

“US multinational firms are the global grandmasters of tax avoidance schemes that deplete not just US tax collection, but the tax collection of almost every large economy in the world.”

“Apple claims to be the largest US corporate taxpayer, but by sheer size and scale it is also among America’s largest tax avoiders … [It] should not be shifting its profits overseas to avoid the payment of US tax, purposefully depriving the American people of revenue.”

One theory is that AOE “bought” the rights owned by ASI taking advantage of an incentive called capital allowance. This means that if a multinational buys its own intellectual property through an Irish subsidiary, the cost of that purchase will generate many years of tax write-offs in Ireland.


This is how Amazon could invade the pharmacy business

Drug delivery would also add to the value of Amazon Prime membership. Customers who pay the $99-per-year price for Prime membership are its most loyal customers, and Amazon is constantly looking for ways to increase the value of membership to keep shoppers from using competitors.

In generics especially, there are numerous markups along the way that Amazon could eliminate or pare back to capture market share.

Amazon already owns wholesale distribution licenses in at least 13 states and could build its own pharmacy business from scratch, restructuring the drug supply chain in the process. For now, these wholesale licenses may be part of Amazon’s business-to-business sales effort, which would focus on hospitals, doctors’ offices and dentists. In the longer term, however, the drug-distribution licenses could be the first step in building a hub-and-spoke model for drugs that could eventually serve consumers.

There are thousands of different drugs and dosages with prices that vary widely among drugstores and insurance plans. This makes it hard for patients to know when they are getting the best deal.


Tesla hits bumps in pursuit of mass market

Potential problems uncovered include workers in its Fremont plant manually operating robots that should be automated, several cost overruns and delays from suppliers because of late changes to design specifications, and difficulties sequencing parts once they arrive at the plant leading to a large number of unfinished vehicles coming off the line.

 

In multiple instances, the company shipped cars from the factory that lacked key parts such as computer modules, digital displays, or even seats. These parts were flown to Tesla-owned dealers, who then assembled them into the vehicle before completing the shipments to customers, according to several people familiar with the practice.


 

Apple acquired InVisage with well over 100 patents on quantum dot technology for advanced cameras and beyond

Apple’s acquisition of InVisage is very exciting as iPhone cameras are becoming a key feature to keep their smartphones ahead of the pack. Advancing video will be very exciting to see come to the iPhone and beyond. Between the advances in Quantum Dot technology and depth cameras, they have expertise in many markets that Apple could tap into over time.

Why AI is the ‘new electricity’

The U.S. and China lead the world in investments in AI, according to James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Last year, AI investment in North America ranged from $15 billion to $23 billion, Asia (mainly China) was $8 billion to $12 billion, and Europe lagged at $3 billion to $4 billion. Tech giants are the primary investors in AI, pouring in between $20 billion and $30 billion, with another $6 billion to $9 billion from others, such as venture capitalists and private equity firms.

Where did they put their money? Machine learning took 56% of the investments with computer vision second at 28%. Natural language garnered 7%, autonomous vehicles was at 6% and virtual assistants made up the rest. But despite the level of investment, actual business adoption of AI remains limited, even among firms that know its capabilities, Manyika said. Around 40% of firms are thinking about it, 40% experiment with it and only 20% actually adopt AI in a few areas.

The reason for such reticence is that 41% of companies surveyed are not convinced they can see a return on their investment, 30% said the business case isn’t quite there and the rest said they don’t have the skills to handle AI. However, McKinsey believes that AI can more than double the impact of other analytics and has the potential to materially raise corporate performance.


Why multi-cloud is the next big thing in technology

Why has cloud become so indispensable to so many companies? Because pretty much every company has become a software company, and they all need to deliver their software faster and to more people than ever before.

Avoiding lock-in and saving cost; Differentiation; responding to cloud vendor pressure; resiliency, redundancy, performance and data sovereignty; M&A and consolidation; access to resources.

A recent survey by RightScale found that 85% of enterprises now have a multi-cloud strategy, up from 82% in 2016. This creates immense opportunities for startups that can help companies work seamlessly across various different cloud providers. Startups that promise cloud neutrality – not being locked into one particular vendor – will have significant advantage in this new battlefield.


A decade after DARPA: Our view on the state of the art in self-driving cars

Developing a system that can be manufactured and deployed at scale with cost-effective, maintainable hardware is even more challenging. We are innovating across the sensing hardware and software stack to lower costs, reduce sensor count, and improve range and resolution. There remains significant work to be done to accomplish these conflicting objectives and get the technology to reliably scale.

Testing stochastic systems requires a significant number of repetitions generated by real-world data for it to be representative. That means we must gather millions of miles of road experience to teach the software to drive with confidence. (Imagine needing to drive millions of miles to get your driver’s license!) But not all miles are created equal, so “accumulated miles” is not an expressive enough metric to track progress. Think of it this way: The skills you acquired learning to drive in a quiet Midwestern town will not translate should you find yourself driving in the heart of Manhattan.

We’re still very much in the early days of making self-driving cars a reality. Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology. For those of us who have been working on the technology for a long time, we’re going to tell you the issue is still really hard, as the systems are as complex as ever.


How many robots does it take to fill a grocery order?

The U.K.’s biggest online grocer hit a milestone this year: Ocado Group Plc put together an order of 50 items, including produce, meat and dairy, in five minutes. Fulfilling a similar order at one of the company’s older facilities takes an average of about two hours. The secret: a fleet of 1,000 robots that scurry about a warehouse snatching up products and delivering them to human packers.


Thanks to Wall St., there may be too many restaurants

There are now more than 620,000 eating and drinking places in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of restaurants is growing at about twice the rate of the population.

“Everybody thinks their brand has what it takes to succeed in the marketplace. You look at a location that looks good, but everybody is looking at the same place and they all come in, and the result is you get oversaturation.”

Sales at individual chain restaurants, compared with a year earlier, began dropping in early 2016, analysts reported. A majority of restaurants reported sales growth in just four of the last 22 monthly surveys from the National Restaurant Association. Before that, most restaurants had reported growth for 20 consecutive months, from March 2014 through October 2015, the survey found. As Americans work longer hours and confront an ever-growing array of food options, they are spending a growing share of their food budget — about 44 cents per dollar — on restaurants.

The shuttering of restaurants could have a major impact on the labor market. Since 2010, restaurants have accounted for one out of every seven new jobs, and many restaurateurs complain that it has become increasingly difficult to hire and retain workers.


Menu prices will tell the future of inflation

Take a company like the Cheesecake Factory. In its third-quarter earnings report back in 2013, when the labor market was looser, labor costs represented 32.1 percent of revenue. Operating margins were 8.2 percent. Fast forward to the third-quarter earnings report this year. Labor costs had risen to 34.9 percent of revenue, and operating margins had shrunk to 6.2 percent. In its conference call, the company guided wage growth in 2018 to 5 percent, in line with many of its peers. As labor pressures have eaten into margins and profits, perhaps not surprisingly, the company’s stock is flat over the past four years.

Lucky for the restaurant industry, even while labor costs have been rising, food costs have been falling. Cheesecake Factory’s cost of sales as a percentage of revenue has fallen to 22.9 percent, from 24.0 percent in the third quarter of 2013. Without this, margins would be even lower.

The cost of eating out has been going up at a rate of only 2.4 percent per year, less than wage growth in the industry.

Jeff Bezos’s guide to life

On raising kids: Jeff and his wife let their kids use sharp knives since they were four and soon had them wielding power tools, because if they hurt themselves, they’d learn. Jeff says his wife’s perspective is “I’d much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid.”

…decided “the best way to think about it was to project my life forward to age 80” and make the decision that “minimized my regrets. You don’t want to be cataloguing your regrets.” And while you might feel remorse for things you did wrong, he said more often regrets stem from the “path not taken” like loving someone but never telling them. “Then it was immediately obvious” that he should leave to start Amazon. “If it failed, I would be very proud when I was 80 that I tried.”

On space entrepreneurship: The key to opening the opportunities of space is reducing the price of getting objects out of Earth’s gravity. “We have to lower the cost of admission so thousands of entrepreneurs can have startups in space, like we saw with the Internet”, noting how web companies exploded in popularity as infrastructure costs came down.


Peak farmland, peak timber, peak car travel, peak child

About 1970 a great reversal began in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature, first in relative and more recently in absolute amounts. A series of decouplings is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production. Changes in behavior and technology liberate the environment. – Nature Rebounds, Jesse Ausubel

Curated Insights 2017.07.02

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

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

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

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

Home Capital, WTF just Happened?

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

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

Rigetti Computing

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

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

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

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

The real threat of artificial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Ends, Means, and Antitrust

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

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

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

Lessons From the Collapse of Banco Popular

Don’t trust bank stress-test results.

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

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

Roadmap for MSCI Emerging Markets Index inclusion

China A: MSCI inclusion decision

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