Curated Insights 2018.08.10

Climbing the wall of worry: Disruptive innovation could add fuel to this bull market

This explanation of the flattening yield curve seemingly suggests that “this time is different,” but this time is not different in the context of disruptive innovation. During the 50 years ended 1929, the last time that three or more general purpose technology platforms were evolving simultaneously, the yield curve was inverted more than half of the time.1 The disruptive innovations of that time – the internal combustion engine, telephone, and electricity – stimulated rapid real growth at low rates of inflation. Through booms and busts in an era without the Federal Reserve and with minimal government intervention, US real GDP growth averaged 3.7% and inflation 1.1%, while short rates averaged roughly 4.8% and long rates roughly 3.8%.2 The yield curve was inverted. So, this time is not different, but investors do have to extend their time horizons to understand the impact of profound technological breakthroughs on the economy.

They all fall down

$1 invested in Disney in 1970 is now worth $197. $1 invested in the S&P 500 is worth $125, for comparison. The 19,500% return in Disney had plenty of bumps in the road. The stock lost 10% on a single day 11 times, including a 29% loss on October 19, 1987. Disney gained 11.5% for 48 years. But of course, there is a huge difference between 11.5% for 48 years and 11.5% every year for 48 years.

These returns were earned only by those able to withstand a massive amount of pain. Disney experienced 13 separate bear markets over the last 48 years, including an 86% crash during the 1973-74 bear market. The S&P 500 experienced just four over the same time.

Nobody could have known in real-time what the future held for this company, or whether its best days were behind it, but these would have been very real questions during every decline along the way. Disney hit an all-time high in January 1973, and wouldn’t see those levels again until 1986. It made a high in April 2000 and then didn’t get back there until February 2011.

Spotify’s playlist for global domination

This has been Ek’s plan all along: to get the music industry so dependent on Spotify that even the doubters can’t live without it. “We need this company to be robust,” Borchetta says of Spotify. “It’s important to the ecosystem of the whole business that they are successful.”

The Spotify team realized that they needed a mobile product that could be accessed by everyone, not just paying subscribers. And they needed it quickly. They had already been negotiating with labels about licensing rights for a free mobile version, but the deals weren’t done. Nor were engineers ready with a product. The sudden crisis sparked company-wide urgency. When the licensing deals were finally signed, in December 2013, “we literally just pushed the button on the same day to get it out there,” says Soderstrom of the new app. There was no time for rigorous testing. “If it had taken another six months, it might have been too late to recover.” The strategy worked: At the end of 2013, Spotify had 36 million users and 8 million paying subscribers; by January 2015, it announced 60 million and 15 million, respectively. Forty-two percent of time spent on Spotify was now via phones and 10% on tablets, the first time mobile listening surpassed desktop.

The new free tier has been a top priority for more than a year. It reflects how important it is for the company to keep acquiring new customers (and turn them into paying ones), but it also has its own commercial element. “Billions of people listen to radio, and most of that today isn’t monetized very efficiently,” Ek says as we chat on the couch in his Stockholm office. “Commercial radio, that’s conservatively a $50 billion industry globally. The U.S. radio industry is $17 billion, close to the size of the whole global recorded music industry, which is $23 billion. And what do people listen to? Primarily music.” Ninety percent of Spotify’s current revenues come from subscriptions, but if the free product expands, so can Spotify’s radiolike advertising business. As Ek notes, with typical understatement, “We still have a lot of room to grow.”

Ek didn’t see the value at first—”Oh, this is going to be a disaster,” he recalls thinking about one playlist innovation—but playlisting did more than increase Spotify’s consumer appeal. It turned Spotify into a user’s personal DJ. The company told investors in its prospectus, filed last February, that “we now program approximately 31% of all listening on Spotify” via playlists, which has created powerful new brands within Spotify such as Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino!. There are now Rap Caviar and ¡Viva Latino! concert series, pointing the way toward an even broader role for the company within the music business, where it’s generating live event and merchandising revenue without having to pay record labels.

He’s succeeded in the [music] business because he’s extremely patient and not high on his own supply, meaning he has not been susceptible to the vices that ruin people in entertainment. Ek’s personality has opened the door to a different kind of relationship with musical artists from what prevailed in the era of cocaine-snorting, thieving record execs. So far, Ek has been focused on changing how creators get paid; in streaming, an artist is compensated every time a song is played, creating lifetime revenue (albeit a fraction of a penny at a time), whereas in the old model they got paid (sometimes) after selling a CD or download. But that’s only the beginning. “Spotify’s first eight to 10 years were focused on consumers,” says R&D chief Soderstrom. “The next eight to 10 will be focused on artists.”

Spotify for Artists is the most visible example of this new directive. The service, which launched in its current form in 2016, allows musicians to access data on who is listening to their work on the platform and to personalize their presence to enhance engagement. Iconic rock band Metallica, which once helped sue Napster out of existence, used this data on tour to customize its setlists based on what local fans listen to most. Smaller artists have used it to identify where to tour, and to activate their superfans. “Whatever your genre is, you can find an audience,” says Spotify chief marketing officer Seth Farbman.

Ek has been talking a lot this year about Spotify’s mission to get 1 million artists to make a living off the platform, but he doesn’t mean there will be 1 million Lady Gagas or Bruno Marses. Financial analysts often compare Spotify to Netflix—a comparison Ek pushes back against—but Ek’s vision of the future looks more like YouTube: a meeting spot for creators and fans, in groups both large and small, and Spotify benefits when transactions happen in this “marketplace.” Ek says: “In that model, it’s almost like you’re managing an economy.”

“The major-label system was built out for the 5,000 biggest artists in the world,” Carter notes. “If we’re going to [enable] a million artists to make a living, that’s going to require an entirely different ecosystem.” In this world, “an artist might be happy making $50,000 a year, supplementing income from other work to help pay their mortgage, raise their kids, by doing what they love. I’m just as committed to that kind of artist. How do we make it so there are a lot more winners,” Carter says, “to redefine what it means to be a winner?”

The definitive timeline of Spotify’s critic-defying journey to rule music

May 2013: Spotify makes its first acquisition: Tunigo, which already helped users find, create and share new music and playlists on Spotify. Turned out to be a good one! It still underpins the company’s editorial playlist strategy to this day.

March 2014: Spotify acquires The Echo Nest, a startup that specializes in using machine learning to make recommendations and predict the type of music users will want to listen to, generating playlists from that data as well as helping advertisers reach those music fans. This also was a great acquisition! It underpins the algorithmically generated playlists such as Discover Weekly.

Is a change goin’ to come?

Last year, according to the IFPI, global revenues for recorded music (as opposed to live performance) grew 8.1 per cent to $17.3bn, driven by digital revenue’s 19.1-per-cent increase to $9.4bn. Of this digital revenue, streaming did the heavy lifting, as the $6.6bn from subscriptions and advertising constituted a 41-per-cent increase from the previous year. In what perhaps will be seen as a watershed moment, digital revenues accounted for the highest proportion of total recorded revenues for the first time ever, at 54 per cent. In nominal terms, music-industry revenues are still 32 per cent below its 1999 peak. Convert the dollars from Prince’s favourite year to today’s, and you’ll find artists, labels, publishers and the like are earning 54 per cent less than they used to.

Despite the launch of advertising channel Vevo, which Mr Morris led, musicians are still getting nickel-and-dimed by Alphabet’s platform and its competitors. Last year, video streaming accounted for a mammoth 55 per cent of all music listened to online, according to the IFPI. In turn, it only contributed 15 per cent of the revenues that Spotify and friends did.

FAANGs are more solo acts than a tech supergroup

The five biggest stocks in the S&P 500 have accounted for an average of 12.3 percent of the index since 1990, the earliest year for which numbers available. By comparison, the index’s allocation to the five FAANGs is 12.8 percent.

There are lots of surprises. First, not all FAANGs are growth stocks, as measured by historical earnings and revenue growth and predicted earnings growth. Apple, for example, scores a negative 0.1 for growth. Google’s growth score is a modest 0.4.

Second, they’re not all wildly expensive, based on stock price relative to book value, earnings, cash flow and other measures. Apple is slightly more expensive than average, with a value score of 0.05. Google and Facebook score a negative 0.45 and 0.39 for value, respectively — not cheap but far from the richest.

Third, some are higher quality than others, as measured by profitability, leverage and stability of operating results, and not in the order investors might think. Apple has a reputation for sky-high profits and reliable revenue, and yet it scores 0.15 for quality. Meanwhile, Netflix spends lavishly on programming and has negative cash flow, and its quality score is 0.63 — second only to Google’s score of 0.68.

Nor is it likely that the FAANGs will ever have much in common because their attributes are constantly changing. Apple, for example, was a much different bet five years ago, scoring high for growth and low for quality and momentum. The probability that all five stocks will be similarly situated at any given time is exceedingly low.

Elon Musk has some fun with Tesla

Now Tesla does have debt: It has three different convertible bonds, but it also has $1.8 billion of straight bonds that it issued last August to quite receptive investors. Those bonds have sold off since issuance and are rated Caa1 at Moody’s, which, again, are not auspicious signs for adding like 20 times as much debt. And my general assumption about Tesla bonds is that they operate on sort of a Netflix theory, in which bondholders get their security not from the company’s cash flows but from the knowledge that there’s a whole lot of equity value beneath them. If you issue billions more dollars of bonds to get rid of that equity, then why would anyone buy the bonds? FT Alphaville notes that the pressure of public markets, for Tesla, “surely pales in comparison to the pressure to maintain bank/ bond covenants and make interest payments.” “Even if say $40 billion could be financed in the high yield market,” note analysts at Barclays, “the annual interest bill would consume $2.7 billion in cash.”

The eight best predictors of the stock market

• The Philosophical Economics blog’s indicator is based on the percentage of household financial assets—stocks, bonds and cash—that is allocated to stocks. This proportion tends to be highest at market tops and lowest at market bottoms. According to data collected by Ned Davis Research from the Federal Reserve, this percentage currently looks to be at 56.3%, more than 10 percentage points higher than its historical average of 45.3%. At the top of the bull market in 2007, it stood at 56.8%. This metric has an R-square of 0.61.

• The Q ratio, with an R-squared of 46%. This ratio—which is calculated by dividing market value by the replacement cost of assets—was the outgrowth of research conducted by the late James Tobin, the 1981 Nobel laureate in economics.

• The price/sales ratio, with an R-squared of 44%, is calculated by dividing the S&P 500’s price by total per-share sales of its 500 component companies.

• The Buffett indicator was the next-highest, with an R-squared of 39%. This indicator, which is the ratio of the total value of equities in the U.S. to gross domestic product, is so named because Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett suggested in 2001 that is it “probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.”

• CAPE, the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, came next in the ranking, with an R-squared of 35%. This is also known as the Shiller P/E, after Robert Shiller, the Yale finance professor and 2012 Nobel laureate in economics, who made it famous in his 1990s book “Irrational Exuberance.” The CAPE is similar to the traditional P/E except the denominator is based on 10-year average inflation-adjusted earnings instead of focusing on trailing one-year earnings.

• Dividend yield, the percentage that dividends represent of the S&P 500 index, sports an R-squared of 26%.

• Traditional price/earnings ratio has an R-squared of 24%.

• Price/book ratio—calculated by dividing the S&P 500’s price by total per-share book value of its 500 component companies—has an R-squared of 21%.

It’s not terribly hard to find a measure that shows an overvalued market. Then, use a long time period to show the market has performed below average during your defined overvalued period. That’s easy. The difficulty is timing the market. For example, during the housing bubble, what I found interesting was how many people were right, that housing was indeed in a bubble. Lots of people realized it. Also, lots of people thought it would burst in 2004. Then in 2005. Then in 2006. They were right, but their timing was way off. Even if you know the market is overpriced, that doesn’t tell you much about how to invest today.

Hot chart: The A-D Line is roaring higher

You have two options as an investor: you could listen to the media or you could listen to the market. They’ve been pushing the notion lately that only a handful of Tech stocks are leading the way for the market, suggesting a weakening breadth environment. In the real world, however, we are participating in a united rally among Tech stocks as a group.

In fact, the Equally-Weighted Technology Index went out just 0.4% away from another all-time weekly closing high, just shy of it’s record high set last month. This is the Equally-Weighted Index, not the Cap-weighted index that the bears are suggesting is pointing to weakening breadth because the big names are such a large portion. If it was true that only a handful of names are going up and market breadth is deteriorating, the Equally-weighted index, which takes the extra-large market capitalization stocks completely out of the equation, would not be behaving this way.

So when someone tells you that breadth is weakening and only a handful of names are driving the market’s gains, you know they haven’t done the work themselves. They’re just regurgitating what they read or overhead somewhere, which happens a lot.

Natural maniacs

A problem happens when you think someone is brilliantly different but not well-behaved, when in fact they’re not well-behaved because they’re brilliantly different. That’s not an excuse to be a jerk, or worse, because you’re smart. But no one should be shocked when people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you don’t like.

There is a thin line between bold and reckless, and you only know which is which with hindsight. And the reason there’s a difference between getting rich and staying rich is because the same traits needed to become rich, like swinging for the fences and optimism, are different from the traits needed to stay rich, like room for error and paranoia. Same thing with personalities and management styles.

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after,” John Boyd once said.

These maxims are always true

In 1962, Warren Buffett began buying stock in Berkshire Hathaway after noticing a pattern in the price direction of its stock whenever the company closed a mill. Eventually, Buffett acknowledged that the textile business was waning and the company’s financial situation was not going to improve. In 1964, Stanton made an oral tender offer of $11​1⁄2 per share for the company to buy back Buffett’s shares. Buffett agreed to the deal. A few weeks later, Warren Buffett received the tender offer in writing, but the tender offer was for only $11​3⁄8. Buffett later admitted that this lower, undercutting offer made him angry.[12] Instead of selling at the slightly lower price, Buffett decided to buy more of the stock to take control of the company and fire Stanton (which he did). However, this put Buffett in a situation where he was now majority owner of a textile business that was failing.

Being stubborn can cost you money. Buffett has talked about that at length over the years. But what is interesting is Buffett operated Berkshire from 1962 to 1985 and made millions of dollars without doing any publicity. No mass media. No hype. Can you imagine that today?

You know what gets you more customers? Execution. Delighting them. Focusing on them.

Scorched earth: the world battles extreme weather

Lloyds, the London-based insurance market, estimates that as much as $123bn in global gross domestic product in cities could be at risk from the impact of a warming planet, including windstorms and floods.

Meanwhile a 2015 study by the journal Nature found that due to climate change, global incomes were likely to be one-fifth lower in 2100 than they would be with a stable climate. And later this year the UN will issue a landmark report that quantifies the impact of 1.5C of warming, compared with 2C. Leaked copies suggest that the world will pass the 1.5-degree warming target by about 2040.

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.