Curated Insights 2018.02.11

Why Expedia or Priceline might just be the next great hotel brand

“I think we [in online travel] have all innovated on the service layer, and most of the people in the room are working on the service layers, but the true innovation is going to be actually owning and operating the assets — the airplanes, the hotels, not so much the cars actually. But that aspect is hugely capital intensive, and it’s ripe for some new ideas, and someone will get there. I have a $100 billion, so it won’t be me. If you own and operate the hardware, you can do a lot more on the innovation side than from the service and software layer.”

“Online travel agencies are seeing their revenues go down and it costs them more to advertise on Google because the search criteria are going up. The search price is going up, and the online travel agencies had a tough third quarter. I think they see the writing on the wall. We’ve had overtures with online travel agencies reaching out to us and trying to find ways to partner more [with us].”

“They have to evolve because there are fundamental threats to their existence. They have to have a good relationship with hotels or they won’t have anything to sell.”

“The key point that we want to reinforce is that hotel commission rates are in the 10 to 15 percent range for the large chains and 15 to 25 percent for smaller brands that make up the bulk of Booking.com’s inventory. This compares to airline commission rates that are anywhere from zero to one or two percent in most developed markets. The rationale for the airline inventory is having a complete product to drive traffic, but the margins on those bookings themselves are much lower than for hotels. Booking.com has recently added airlines, but this is simply pushing traffic into its Kayak platform …”

“They were aggregating similar independent hotels with their own brands and it was a scale play. But they didn’t have access to every single hotel in a market. To compete with the online travel agencies who are spending several billion dollars a year in marketing is an expensive undertaking. Just because you have the capability of having content doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in bringing customers to your site, or doing it in a way that’s economically viable to run a business. I’m not surprised it didn’t work; AccorHotels at heart is a hotel brand company and hotel operator.”

What really matters most to consumers today, he said, isn’t the brand itself but the rankings and reviews associated with an individual hotel property. “The first thing a customer checks are the rankings and the commentary. That’s a much better quality assurance than a brand can provide. People choose to stay at an Airbnb based on social ratings and comments from users. They don’t need assurance that there’s a brand on it. That’s part of the dynamics and in essence, the brands are disappearing and what prevails is distribution. If I get the best distribution from an online travel agency, why would I sign up with another company?”

Tackling the internet’s central villain: The advertising business

And for all its power, the digital ad business has long been under-regulated and under-policed, both by the companies that run it and by the world’s governments. In the United States, the industry has been almost untouched by oversight, even though it forms the primary revenue stream of two of the planet’s most valuable companies, Google and Facebook.

The report chronicles just how efficient the online ad business has become at profiling, targeting, and persuading people. That’s good news for the companies that want to market to you — as the online ad machine gets better, marketing gets more efficient and effective, letting companies understand and influence consumer sentiment at a huge scale for little money.

But the same cheap and effective persuasion machine is also available to anyone with nefarious ends. The Internet Research Agency, the troll group at the center of Russian efforts to influence American politics, spent $46,000 on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That’s not very much — Hillary Clinton’s and Donald J. Trump’s campaigns spent tens of millions online. And yet the Russian campaign seems to have had enormous reach; Facebook has said the I.R.A.’s messages — both its ads and its unpaid posts — were seen by nearly 150 million Americans.


Why JP Morgan, Daimler are testing quantum computers that aren’t useful yet

Chip experts say the phenomenon known as Moore’s Law that drove exponential gains in computing power for decades is now ending. Quantum computing could be a way to revive the rate of progress, at least in some areas. “If you can successfully apply it to problems it could give you an exponential increase in computing power that you can’t get” through traditional chip designs, says Bob Stolte, CTO for the equities division inside JPMorgan’s investment bank.

If and when they arrive, quantum computers won’t be good at everything. But physicists and computer scientists have proven, using theory, that even a relatively small quantum processor could do more than a phalanx of conventional supercomputers on some problems. Conventional computers work on data using bits that can be either 1 or 0. Quantum computers encode data into devices called qubits that can enter a “superposition” state in which they might be considered both 1 and 0 at the same time, allowing computational shortcuts.

The path to tackling other problems on the wish lists of Daimler and JPMorgan is less clear. Brecht says the automaker also hopes quantum computers could optimize routes for delivery vehicles, or the movement of parts through factories. Some problems in finance, such as adjusting portfolio risk, can boil down to similar math.


Why we didn’t invest in Ecolab

Integral to Ecolab’s moat in the Institutional segment is its direct sales force that provides customers with “high touch” relationships. Not only are these relationships hard to replicate, but no competitor is remotely close to matching Ecolab’s 26,000-plus salesforce. Ecolab estimates this figure is two-to-five times larger than any competitor’s.

Ecolab benefitted mightily over the last 10-20 years from inept competition. Its main competitor for North America institutional cleaning business is Diversey, which was most recently sold to Bain Capital in 2017 by Sealed Air. This was the fifth time Diversey had been sold in the previous 21 years. As a consequence of being passed around like a hot potato for two decades, Diversey’s strategy was inconsistent. Ecolab capitalized on many of Diversey’s mistakes.

We also had concerns about S.C. Johnson re-entering the institutional cleaning business, Bain Capital’s push into the European hygiene market, and potential impacts from food service automation.

We further concluded that the acquisitions of Nalco and Champion diluted Ecolab’s overall moat by diminishing the impact of the wide-moat Institutional operations. Indeed, we think the two deals were motivated by growth rather than by ROIC. If that’s the case, it would support our thesis that the Institutional business is a legacy moat with slower growth potential. Otherwise, we would have expected management to reinvest capital that was used in M&A back into the cleaning business.

An inventor of the VIX: ‘I don’t know why these products exist’

In my wildest imagination I don’t know why these products exist. Who do they benefit? No one, except if someone wants to gamble -– then, OK, just go gamble… And who exactly made money? The VXX from its inception in 2009 is down, what, 99%, even after this move… It’s kind of sad that these products exist in the first place, but it’s hard to stop it. If you stop this, something else will come up. Bitcoin will come up.


This physics breakthrough could help save the world

…the turbulence created when we pump air, water, oil, gas and other substances through countless miles of ducts and pipes. Thanks to its confounding effects, fully 10 percent of all the electrical energy produced on Earth gets wasted.

They investigated, for example, the effect of extra stirring from rotors placed inside a pipe, or by the injection of jets of fluid along the pipe walls. Intuition suggests that these would increase turbulence, and they do, but in both cases the flow downstream quickly returns to the smooth state. More important, the interventions can reduce the overall friction associated with turbulence by as much as 90 percent, something few researchers would have expected.


The magnetic field is shifting. The poles may flip. This could get bad.

The dangers: devastating streams of particles from the sun, galactic cosmic rays, and enhanced ultraviolet B rays from a radiation-damaged ozone layer, to name just a few of the invisible forces that could harm or kill living creatures.

Solar energetic particles can rip through the sensitive miniature electronics of the growing number of satellites circling the Earth, badly damaging them. The satellite timing systems that govern electric grids would be likely to fail. The grid’s transformers could be torched en masse. Because grids are so tightly coupled with each other, failure would race across the globe, causing a domino run of blackouts that could last for decades.