Curated Insights 2018.08.03

Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky

Apple did it the old fashioned and the new fashioned way – great products, great marketing, incredible innovation, brilliant people, global supply chain, incessant improvements and updates, buybacks and dividends, R&D and M&A, domestic hiring and international outsourcing, wild creativity and diligent bean-counting. They had it all and used it all. It’s an amazing story. Many of us were able to be along for the ride.


Business lessons from Rob Hayes (First Round Capital)

It is a red flag for me if the founders have 20 slides in their deck on their product and are not getting into issues like distribution, team or other parts of the business. There have been very few products that cause people to beat a path to the door of the business on their own [like Google or Facebook]. Successful companies almost always have operators running them who know how to market, sell, manage an income statement and hire.


Why do the biggest companies keep getting bigger? It’s how they spend on tech

The result is our modern economy, and the problem with such an economy is that income inequality between firms is similar to income inequality between individuals: A select few monopolize the gains, while many fall increasingly behind.

The measure of how firms spend, which Mr. Bessen calls “IT intensity,” is relevant not just in the U.S. but across 25 other countries as well, says Sara Calligaris, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. When you compare the top-performing firms in any sector to their lesser competition, there’s a gap in productivity growth that continues to widen, she says. The result is, if not quite a “winner take all” economy, then at least a “winner take most” one.

What we see now is “a slowdown in what we call the ‘diffusion machine,’” says Dr. Calligaris. One explanation for how this came to be is that things have just gotten too complicated. The technologies we rely on now are massive and inextricably linked to the engineers, workers, systems and business models built around them, says Mr. Bessen. While in the past it might have been possible to license, steal or copy someone else’s technology, these days that technology can’t be separated from the systems of which it’s a part.

This seemingly insurmountable competitive advantage that comes with big companies’ IT intensity may explain the present-day mania for mergers and acquisitions, says Mr. Bessen. It may be difficult or impossible to obtain critical technologies any other way.

Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason

Facebook didn’t intend for any of this to happen. It just wanted to connect people. But there is a thread running from Perkins’ death to religious violence in Myanmar and the company’s half-assed attempts at combating fake news. Facebook really is evil. Not on purpose. In the banal kind of way.

Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans. The company’s singular focus on “connecting people” has allowed it to conquer the world, making possible the creation of a vast network of human relationships, a source of insights and eyeballs that makes advertisers and investors drool.

But the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them.

The solution is not for Facebook to become the morality police of the internet, deciding whether each and every individual post, video, and photo should be allowed. Yet it cannot fall back on its line of being a neutral platform, equally suited to both love and hate. Arendt said that reality is always demanding the attention of our thoughts. We are always becoming aware of new facts about the world; these need to be considered and incorporated into our worldview. But she acknowledged that constantly giving into this demand would be exhausting. The difference with Eichmann was that he never gave in, because his thinking was entirely separated from reality.

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps—like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Thinking about Facebook

If you accept that assumption, 35% EBIT margins on $97 billion in sales would equal $34 billion in operating income. Inversely, that implies more than $60 billion in expenses (COGS + OpEx). This suggests that Facebook’s run rate expenses will more than triple from 2017 to 2022. Over that same period, these assumptions would result in cumulative revenue growth of around 140%.

Let me give you one example to show just how much money we’re talking about here (over $40 billion in annual expenses). It’s assumed that Facebook will need to hire many people for its safety and security efforts. If it adds an additional 20,000 employees and pays them $200,000 each (not a bad salary!), that would cost them $4 billion a year. For some context, Facebook announced back in October that it planned on hiring an additional 10,000 safety and security personnel by the end of 2018. I’ve tried to give them plenty of room, and this still only covers roughly 10% of the incremental costs we need to account for to push operating margins to the mid-30s.

Here’s my point: I have a tough time understanding how Facebook can possibly need to spend this much money. It seems to me that this is largely a choice, not a necessity.


Apple’s stock buybacks continue to break records

No company has bought back more shares since 2012 than Apple. It has repurchased almost $220 billion of its own stock since it announced in March 2012 that it would start to buy back shares. That is roughly equivalent to the market value of Verizon Communications. Over that period, the number of Apple’s shares outstanding has dropped by just over a quarter.

Waymo’s self-driving cars are near: Meet the teen who rides one every day

Tasha Keeney, an analyst at ARK Invest, says that Waymo could choose to offer an autonomous ride-hailing service today at around 70 cents a mile—a quarter of the cost for Uber passengers in San Francisco. Over time, she says, robotaxis should get even cheaper—down to 35 cents a mile by 2020, especially if Waymo’s technology proves sturdy enough to need few human safety monitors overseeing the autonomous vehicles remotely. “You could see software-like margins,” Keeney says.

Bill Nygren market commentary | 2Q18

A closer look reveals that Gartner stock fell when management opted to substantially increase selling and marketing expenses to pursue accelerated organic growth, which in turn decreased the company’s reported earnings. The way GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) works, because the future benefit of a marketing expense is uncertain, the cost is immediately expensed. But at a company like Gartner, these marketing expenses could easily be seen as long-term investments in company growth. That’s because a Gartner customer tends to remain with the company for a long time—a little more than six years, on average. So we adjusted the sales and marketing expenses to reflect a six-year life, just like GAAP would treat the purchase of a machine that was expected to last six years. With that one adjustment, Gartner’s expected EPS increased by almost $3. Using our adjusted earnings, which we believe reflect a more realistic view of those intangible assets, Gartner appears to be priced as just an ordinary company.

Ferrari slumps after CEO says Marchionne target is ‘aspirational’

Ferrari is banking on Camilleri getting up to speed quickly to press ahead with Marchionne’s plan. While Marchionne was planning to retire from Fiat Chrysler in 2019, he was meant to stay on at Ferrari for another five years. His succession plan was not as advanced at the Maranello-based company as it was at FCA.


WeWork is just one facet of SoftBank’s bet on real estate

If the market opportunity is big, SoftBank will typically make investments in regionally dominant companies operating in that sector. After all, if worldwide dominance is difficult to obtain for any one company, SoftBank is so big that it can take positions in the regional leaders, creating an index of companies that collectively hold a majority of market share in an emerging industry.

Heineken inks $3.1 billion deal to grow in hot China market

The deal will help Heineken gain a tighter foothold in a crowded field by leveraging China Resources Beer’s extensive distribution network, while also sharing in the returns of China’s beer market leader. China is now the second-largest premium beer market globally, and is forecast to be the biggest contributor to premium volume growth in the next five years.

Under the deal, Heineken’s operations in the country will be combined with those of China Resources Beer, and the Dutch brewer will license its brand to the Chinese partner on a long-term basis, according to company statements Friday. China Resources Beer’s parent company will acquire Heineken shares worth about 464 million euros ($538 million). Heineken will also make its global distribution channels available to China Resources’ brands including Snow, according to the statement.

Branded Worlds: how technology recentralized entertainment

There are two answers to the first question: cost and time. Maybe it’s a lot easier to shoot and edit movies/TV than it used to be, but sets, locations, actors, scripts — those are all expensive and difficult. Better amateur work is still far from professional. And while it’s true we’re seeing interesting new visual modes of storytelling, e.g. on Twitch and YouTube, it’s very rarely narrative fiction, and it’s still distributed and monetized via Twitch and YouTube, gatekeepers who implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) shape what’s popular.

More importantly, though, democratizing the means of production does not increase demand. A 10x increase in the number of TV shows, however accessible they may be, does not 10x the time any person spends watching television. For a time the “long tail” theory, that you could make a lot of money from niche audiences as long as your total accessible market grew large enough, was in vogue. This was essentially a mathematical claim, that audience demand was “fat-tailed” rather than “thin-tailed.”

China is building a very 21st century empire—one where trade and debt lead the way, not armadas and boots on the ground. If President Xi Jinping’s ambitions become a reality, Beijing will cement its position at the center of a new world economic order spanning more than half the globe. Already, China has extended its influence far beyond that of the Tang Dynasty’s golden age more than a millennium ago.
It used to be the case that active portfolio management was the default investment style. Over time, and with the help of academic finance, we have come to realize that there are other factors at work. The most obvious of which is the market factor or beta. It is this insight that underlies the rise in index investing. A trend which by all accounts is still in place.

Curated Insights 2017.09.03

Google, IBM primed for a quantum computing leap, says Morgan Stanley

The immediate advantage is speed: “To sort a billion numbers, a quantum computer would require 3.5 million fewer computing steps than a traditional computer and would find the solution in only 31,623 steps.” Other problems, many having to do with computing physics, become possible on quantum machines, the authors write, whereas they might never be possible on traditional binary computing devices.

We think the high-end compute platforms could see a transition post 2025, similar to how steam engines coexisted with combustion engines and electric motors for decades before being decommissioned. In the medium term, we see incremental demand for FPGAs and GPUs (possibly benefiting Xilinx, nVidia, and maybe Intel) as more supercomputers from Atos and Fujitsu are developed to simulate the behaviour of quantum computers. If quantum computers eventually do become ubiquitous, then the growth of high-end computing systems that emulate them could be affected, hence limiting the valuations of those stocks, but this is more a post 2020 event, in our view.

The size of the market will also depend on the business model used (one-off hardware sales vs. cloud-based, the latter being the most likely, in our view, as the hardware needs to run at a very low temperature (below 1 degree Kelvin) in a very stable radio frequency environment, and as such is more likely used as a shared asset).


Vuitton knows fashion is a money pit—and keeps throwing money in it

High-end clothes are famously unprofitable. The expense of producing collections, staging shows, and displaying apparel in boutiques wipes out the clothing’s potential profit, says luxury analyst Luca Solca of Exane BNP Paribas. He estimates Vuitton loses more than €100 million ($118.1 million) a year on ready-to-wear, which generates less than €450 million of the brand’s $8 billion to $9 billion in annual sales.

Runway shows can create an aura around the brand that helps sell more-profitable items, Som says. With Vuitton, that’s handbags; with Chanel International DB, it’s perfume, which Som estimates accounts for 70 percent of revenue at the privately held luxury house.

Vuitton is the world’s most valuable luxury label, according to consultancy Interbrand, which pegs its brand value at $24 billion, almost twice that of runner-up Hermès International.

Harvey has made the world’s most important chemical a rare commodity

Texas alone produces nearly three-quarters of the country’s supply of one of the most basic chemical building blocks. Ethylene is the foundation for making plastics essential to U.S. consumer and industrial goods, feeding into car parts used by Detroit and diapers sold by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

With Harvey’s floods shutting down almost all the state’s plants, 61 percent of U.S. ethylene capacity has been closed, according to PetroChemWire. Production may not return to pre-storm levels until November, according to Jefferies.

Ethylene and its derivatives account for about 40 percent of global chemical sales, said Hassan Ahmed, an analyst at Alembic Global Advisors. The U.S. accounts for one of every five tons on the market, and ethylene plants globally were running nearly full out to meet rising demand before Harvey, he said.

Prices for ethylene-derived products, meanwhile, have begun to show signs of the looming shortage. Polyethylene prices globally have begun to climb on the expectation that U.S. exports will be slashed, IHS said.


How the three-tiered beer distribution system works

As of April 2008, 35 states now permit some form of direct wine sales to the consumer. It only accounts for about 2% of the wine sales in the United States, but there is huge opportunity in this market. The distributors see this as a direct challenge to their place in alcohol commerce. Craft brewers would love this access to the consumer, and some states are starting to permit it in small quantities. If everyone can sell directly to the consumer, there is no need for distributors.

Budweiser dominates in world sales, and was the number one selling beer in the world until recently. Part of the reason for their success is it is much easier for Budweiser to penetrate foreign markets than it is for foreign beers to penetrate the American market. The most likely reason InBev pursued the purchase of Budweiser was to gain better access to the distributors, not for the “great taste” of Budweiser.

Corruption now exists at the distributor level. Powerful distributors determine which beers make it to the shelves. For example, Bell’s Brewery in Michigan gave up trying to penetrate the Chicago market and pulled out of Illinois completely.

Markets are becoming more open for wine, so it is a matter of time before the beer producers demand the same treatment. The distributors will fight for their existence, but the US government may have already signed their death warrant with world trade treaties. No matter what happens, eventually the path beer takes to your glass may change.


Switch to renewables won’t end the geopolitics of energy

In the world of fossil fuels, this curse has generally applied to big producers of oil and gas. In a world heavier on renewables, the curse will probably not be so relevant for producers of power. Rather, we may see this curse surface in countries rich in the materials required to produce the components that make renewable energy possible.

China provides approximately half of the indium consumed globally today, whereas the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the source of more than half the world’s cobalt. The big producers of lithium, another material essential for the production of batteries, are Argentina, Australia, Chile and China. Yet Bolivia’s large untapped reserves of lithium could catapult it into this league in the future. Tellurium is not a rare-earth mineral, but it is another key component of solar panels. The U.S. has imported most of this material from Canada, but relies to some extent on Belgium, China and the Philippines.

The U.S., too, is rich in many of these resources; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the United States possesses 13 percent of global rare-earth reserves, 14 percent of global tellurium deposits, and 3 percent of the world’s indium reserves.

The majority of the world’s cobalt reserves are believed to be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus it would benefit U.S. policymakers to look at the African country as not only a humanitarian crisis and failed state, but as a more pressing a strategic priority.

More than a third of those ages 18 to 34 say they can’t go without Amazon, according to comScore’s 2017 US Mobile App Report. Gmail and Facebook ranked second and third. That bodes well for Amazon, especially as millennials age and grow their earnings power.


The case for a breakfast feast

A recent review of the dietary patterns of 50,000 adults who are Seventh Day Adventists over seven years provides the latest evidence suggesting that we should front-load our calories early in the day to jump-start our metabolisms and prevent obesity, starting with a robust breakfast and tapering off to a smaller lunch and light supper, or no supper at all.

The group issued a scientific statement emphasizing that skipping breakfast — which 20 to 30 percent of American adults do regularly — is linked to a higher risk of obesity and impaired glucose metabolism or diabetes, even though there is no proof of a causal relationship.


The complete guide to not going to college

Adopt a different attitude right now: Understand that the most important kinds of education have nothing to do with degrees. If you think you’ll benefit from hours of scholarly debate about niche topics, by all means go to college; but if you already know that you won’t, there are hundreds of high-paying jobs that don’t require you to waste your time.

Companies, particularly those in Silicon Valley, are progressively looking away from transcripts and extracurriculars. Google, in particular, truly couldn’t care less about what school you attended; it only wants to know if you can a) solve problems, b) lead, and c) offer the company something different. IBM says that about 10-15% of its new hires don’t have a college degree. And in Google’s view, the experience of going to college can sometimes even detract from a candidate’s qualifications—serving as only an “extended adolescence.”

If you have an idea, and believe in it, take a risk, and work hard at it.