Curated Insights 2018.06.24

Tails, you win

Correlation Ventures crunched the numbers. Out of 21,000 venture financings from 2004 to 2014, 65% lost money. Two and a half percent of investments made 10x-20x. One percent made more than 20x return. Half a percent – about 100 companies – earned 50x or more. That’s where the majority of the industry’s returns come from. It skews even more as you drill down. There’s been $482 billion of VC funding in the last ten years. The combined value of the ten largest venture-backed companies is $213 billion. So ten venture-backed companies are valued at half the industry’s deployed capital.

The S&P 500 rose 22% in 2017. But a quarter of that return came from 5 companies – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Boeing, and Microsoft. Ten companies made up 35% of the return. Twenty-three accounted for half the return. Apple alone was responsible for more of the index’s total returns than the bottom 321 companies combined. The S&P 500 gained 108% over the last five years. Twenty-two companies are responsible for half that gain. Ninety-two companies made up three-quarters of the returns. The Nasdaq 100 skews even more. The index gained 32% last year. Five companies made up 51% of that return. Twenty-five companies were responsible for 75% of the overall return.


16 years late, $13B short, but optimistic: Where growth will take the music biz

The primary problem, however, is how the major labels monopolize royalty payments. Spotify and Apple Music take roughly 30% of total revenues (which goes to operating costs, as well as customer sales tax and platform fees), with the remaining 70% paid out in royalties. Out of this remainder, the major labels keep roughly 70%, with 15% going to performers and 15% to composers. And remember, a hot song often boasts a handful of writers and several performers, each of whom will share in the net royalty (Spotify’s most streamed track in 2017, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” counts six writers; Kanye West’s 2015 hit “All Day” had four performers and 19 credited writers).

A common rejoinder to this argument is that growth in subscriptions will solve the problem – if everyone had Spotify or Apple Music, per-stream rates would remain low, but gross payments would increase substantially. There are three limits to this argument. First, prices would likely need to drop in order to drive additional penetration. In fact, they already are as the major services embrace student pricing and family plans (which cost 50% more but allow four to six unique accounts): Over the past three years, premium user ARPU has fallen from $7.06 per month to $5.25. To this end, family plans exert significant downward pressure on per-stream rates, as the number of streams grows substantially more than revenue. For related reasons, the industry is also unlikely to return to the days where the average American over 13 spent $80-105 a year (1992-2002). Even if every single American household subscribed to Spotify or Apple Music, per capita spend would be around $65-70. This is still more than twice today’s average of $31, but such penetration is unlikely (in 2017, only 80% of American mobiles were smartphones). Put another way, much of the remaining growth in on-demand streaming will come from adding additional users to existing subscriptions. While this increases total revenue per subscription (from $120 to $180), it drops ARPU to at most $90 and its lowest, $20.

Second, growth in on-demand music subscriptions is likely to cannibalize the terrestrial and satellite radio businesses. In 2017, SiriusXM (which has the highest content costs per listener hour in the music industry) paid out $1.2B in US royalties, roughly 33% of that of the major streaming services. US terrestrial broadcast revenue generates another $3B+ in annual royalties. These formats are rarely considered when discussing the health of the music industry, even though one reflects direct consumer spend. But they provide significant income for the creative community (though notably, terrestrial radio royalties compensate only composers, not performers). As on-demand streaming proliferates and cannibalizes more terrestrial/satellite radio listening (still more than half of total audio time in the United States), streaming royalties will continue to grow – but much of this will come at the expense of radio royalties.

Streaming services have an opportunity to cut out labels by forming direct-to-artist deals or establishing their own pseudo-label services. Not only has this long been predicted, it’s been incubated for years. Since 2015, the major services have cultivated exclusive windows and radio shows with major stars, including Beyoncé, Kanye West and Drake. While this construct still went through the label system, it generates clear business cases for further disintermediation.


How Netflix sent the biggest media companies into a frenzy, and why Netflix thinks some are getting it wrong

Hastings has never really feared legacy media, said Neil Rothstein, who worked at Netflix from 2001 to 2012 and eventually ran digital global advertising for the company. That’s because Hastings bought into the fundamental principle of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” the 1997 business strategy book by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. “Reed brought 25 or 30 of us together, and we discussed the book,” Rothstein said of an executive retreat he remembered nearly a decade ago. “We studied AOL and Blockbuster as cautionary tales. We knew we had to disrupt, including disrupting ourselves, or someone else would do it.”

BTIG’s Greenfield predicts Netflix will increase its global subscribers from 125 million to 200 million by 2020. Bank of America analyst Nat Schindler estimates Netflix will have 360 million subscribers by 2030. Netflix estimates the total addressable market of subscribers, not including China, could be about 800 million.

Netflix has another edge in the content wars. While networks make decisions on TV ratings, Netflix plays a different game. Its barometer for success is based on how much it spent on a show rather than hoping every show is a blowout hit, said Barry Enderwick, who worked in Netflix’s marketing department from 2001 to 2012 and who was director of global marketing and subscriber acquisition. Since Netflix is not beholden to advertisers, niche shows can be successful, as long as Netflix controls spending. That also gives Netflix the luxury of being able to order full seasons of shows, which appeals to talent.

“Reality is, the biggest distributor of content out there is totally vertically integrated,” said Stephenson. “This happens to be somebody called Netflix. But they create original content; they aggregate original content; and they distribute original content. This thing is moving at lightning speed.”

Hastings derived many of his strategy lessons from a Stanford instructor named Hamilton Helmer. Hastings even invited him to Netflix in 2010 to teach other executives. One of Helmer’s key concepts is called counter-positioning, which Helmer defines as: “A newcomer adopts a new, superior business model which the incumbent does not mimic due to anticipated damage to their existing business.”

Google’s half-billion bet on JD.com

With the second-largest share of China’s B2C e-commerce market after Alibaba’s Tmall, JD.com already sells most major multinational consumer brands within China. Among CPG brands, 100% of home care and 95% of personal care brands are present on the platform. Gartner L2’s recent Digital IQ Index: Beauty China finds that 97% of mass beauty brands are sold on JD.com, either through brand flagships or JD.com-operated stores. Premium beauty brand presence is slightly lower at 77%. International luxury brands have generally been more wary of mass-market e-tailers, but JD.com has scored major names like Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen since the launch of its luxury app Toplife and white-glove delivery service.


Google places a $550 million bet on China’s second-largest e-commerce player

For its part, JD.com said it planned to make a selection of items available for sale in places like the U.S. and Europe through Google Shopping — a service that lets users search for products on e-commerce websites and compare prices between different sellers. When retailers partner with Google, it gives their products visibility and makes it convenient for consumers to purchase them online. For the tech giant, its shopping service is important in helping to win back product searches from Amazon and to stay relevant in the voice-powered future of e-commerce.


Google is training machines to predict when a patient will die

Google has long sought access to digital medical records, also with mixed results. For its recent research, the internet giant cut deals with the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Chicago for 46 billion pieces of anonymous patient data. Google’s AI system created predictive models for each hospital, not one that parses data across the two, a harder problem. A solution for all hospitals would be even more challenging. Google is working to secure new partners for access to more records.

A deeper dive into health would only add to the vast amounts of information Google already has on us. “Companies like Google and other tech giants are going to have a unique, almost monopolistic, ability to capitalize on all the data we generate,” said Andrew Burt, chief privacy officer for data company Immuta. He and pediatric oncologist Samuel Volchenboum wrote a recent column arguing governments should prevent this data from becoming “the province of only a few companies,” like in online advertising where Google reigns.

Adobe could be the next $10 billion software company

“The acquisition of Magento will make Adobe the only company with leadership in content creation, marketing, advertising, analytics and now commerce, enabling real-time personalized experiences across the entire customer journey, whether on the web, mobile, social, in-product or in-store. We believe the addition of Magento expands our available market opportunity, builds out our product portfolio, and addresses a key underserved customer need.”

Both have a similar approach to the marketing side, while Salesforce concentrates on the customer including CRM and service components. Adobe differentiates itself with content, which shows up on the balance sheet as the majority of its revenue .


After 20 years of Salesforce, what Marc Benioff got right and wrong about the cloud

Cloud computing can now be “private”: Virtual private clouds (VPCs) in the IaaS world allow enterprises to maintain root control of the OS, while outsourcing the physical management of machines to providers like Google, DigitalOcean, Microsoft, Packet or AWS. This allows enterprises (like Capital One) to relinquish hardware management and the headache it often entails, but retain control over networks, software and data. It is also far easier for enterprises to get the necessary assurance for the security posture of Amazon, Microsoft and Google than it is to get the same level of assurance for each of the tens of thousands of possible SaaS vendors in the world.

The problem for many of today’s largest SaaS vendors is that they were founded and scaled out during the pre-cloud-native era, meaning they’re burdened by some serious technical and cultural debt. If they fail to make the necessary transition, they’ll be disrupted by a new generation of SaaS companies (and possibly traditional software vendors) that are agnostic toward where their applications are deployed and who applies the pre-built automation that simplifies management. This next generation of vendors will put more control in the hands of end customers (who crave control), while maintaining what vendors have come to love about cloud-native development and cloud-based resources.

What’s so special about 21st Century Fox?

The attraction of Fox’s movie studio is clear. 20th Century Fox owns blockbuster franchises like “X-Men” and “Avatar,” as well as a highly regarded arthouse-movie shop in Fox Searchlight. All told, Fox’s studios collected more than $1.4 billion at the box office last year, according to Box Office Mojo.

One is the company’s 39 percent stake in Sky, the European satellite and broadband internet provider, which is already the subject of a bidding war between Comcast and Fox. Here’s what DealBook wrote about the attraction of Sky last week: Based in London, the broadcaster and internet service provider has 23 million customers in five countries, and it owns valuable broadcasting rights to English Premier League games, Formula One races and other sporting events. It also produces its own entertainment programs and has a streaming service, Now TV.

The other is Star, one of India’s biggest broadcasters, which operates 60 channels and the mobile streaming service Hotstar. Neither Comcast nor Disney has a meaningful presence in the fast-growing India market. Owning one of the country’s top content creators and distributors would give either company both a wealth of locally produced content and platforms on which to provide its other movies and TV shows.


Disney tests pricing power at theme parks

Raising prices—currently around $100 on average days and more than $120 during “peak” times around holidays—could mitigate tourist appetite and increase Disney’s profits. Internal projections at Disney show that even after raising prices at roughly double the rate of inflation over the past five years, it could charge much more than it currently does without driving away too many customers, a person familiar with the company’s parks operations said. Disney parks executives are working on adopting a dynamic pricing model similar to airlines, in which prices fluctuate depending on when a ticket is purchased, this person said.

Disney doesn’t release annual attendance figures for its parks, but more than 38.8 million people visited its domestic locations in 2017, an annual increase of about 1.3%, according to the Themed Entertainment Association trade group. Rising prices and attendance at the parks have contributed to strong growth in the company’s parks and resorts division in recent years. Annual income for the segment has grown more than 70% since 2013, hitting $3.8 billion in 2017.

These are the world’s biggest disruptors (and how the disrupteds are fighting back)

According to Barclays, historically the competitive advantage of legacy consumer focused businesses depended on either: 1) creating a monopoly⁄oligopoly in supply (creating a “scarce resource” in the process), or 2) controlling distribution by integrating with suppliers. Here, the fundamental disruption of the internet has been to turn this dynamic on its head by dominating the user experience. Barclays explains further:

First, while the mega-tech internet companies have high upfront capital costs, their user base is so large that the capital costs per user are insignificant, specially relative to revenue generated per user. This means that the marginal costs of serving another customer is effectively zero, thus neutralizing the advantage of exclusive supplier relationships that were leveraged by legacy distributors. Secondly, the internet has led to the creation of infinitely scalable networks that commoditize⁄modularize supply of “scarce resources” (thus disrupting the legacy suppliers of those resources), making it viable for the disrupting internet company to position itself as the key beneficiary of the industry‘s disruption by integrating forward with end users⁄consumers at scale.

As a result of the disruption, the user experience has become the most important factor determining success in the current environment: the disruptors win by providing the best experience, which earns them the most consumers⁄users, which attracts the most suppliers, which enhances the user experience in a virtuous cycle. This is also why so many legacy businesses find themselves unable to compete with runaway disruptors, whose modest advantage quickly becomes an insurmountable lead due to the economics of scale made possible by the internet. This has resulted in a shift of value from the disrupted to the disruptors who modularize⁄commoditize suppliers, integrate the modularized suppliers on their platform, and distribute to consumers⁄users with which they have an exclusive relationship at scale.

This further means that the internet enforces strong winner-take-all effects: since the value of a disruptor to end users is continually increasing it is exceedingly difficult for competitors to take away users or win new ones. This, according to Barclays, makes it difficult to make antitrust arguments based on consumer welfare (the standard for U.S. jurisprudence), but ripe for EU antitrust regulation (which considers monopolistic behavior illegal if it restricts competition).

Japan robot makers outperform Europeans in profitability

Fanuc, Yaskawa Electric and the other two top players worldwide, ABB of Switzerland and Germany’s Kuka, together hold more than 50% of the global market for industrial robots, Nikkei estimates. Fanuc is strong in numerical control devices for machine tools, while Yaskawa boasts expertise in motor technologies. On the European side, ABB is known for dual-arm robots and supplies a wide array of manufacturing equipment, while Kuka’s strength lies in automotive production equipment such as welding robots.

Fanuc is far ahead of the other three in margin, but Yaskawa has boosted its number in recent years. Its margin rose to 9% last fiscal year, surpassing ABB’s 7% and marking the first time in 14 years that the Japanese duo each logged better margins than their two European rivals. In-house production of core component motors helps the Japanese players secure wider margins, said Yoshinao Ibara of Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities. Fanuc’s thoroughly automated production processes also contribute to high profitability.


Why aren’t we all buying houses on the internet?

“The old idea that real estate is never going to change, that we’re going to pay 6 percent, is completely untrue,” argues Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Seattle-based Redfin, a publicly traded brokerage whose calling card is lower commissions. For Kelman, the rush of cash into real estate startups feels like vindication for a corporate model that investors have regarded with skepticism. Redfin’s low-fee model relies on an army of in-house agents who trade typical commissions for the volume that’s possible with internet-generated leads. A Redfin world isn’t a world without real estate agents, but it is one where fewer agents do more. The nation’s 1.4 million working real estate agents do not particularly like Redfin.

Zillow has a different approach. The company hasn’t disrupted the traditional agent model; on the contrary, it’s dependent on it. In the first quarter of 2018, Zillow raked in $300 million in revenue (Redfin’s revenue for all of 2017 was $370 million); more than 70 percent of that came from the company’s “Premier Agents,” who pay for prime placement on the site to generate leads. In becoming an iBuyer (the industry’s term of art, short for “instant buyer”), the company won’t bite the real estate–brokering hand that feeds it. If anything, the pivot provides a lucrative opportunity for local agents to cement their relationships with a company that is trying to become an industrial-scale homebuyer.

Zillow also isn’t the first company to try acting as a middleman. San Francisco–based Opendoor has made tens of thousands of offers on homes, mostly in Sun Belt cities like Phoenix and Dallas. These places are an easier market than New York or San Francisco: The housing stock is newer, cheaper, and more suburban—which is to say, self-similar. Transactions taxes tend to be lower. The company sees itself as competing against seller uncertainty. “[Zillow] keep[s] the agents at the center of the transaction, which is in line with their business model,” says Cristin Culver, head of communications for Opendoor. “And we keep the customer at the center, which is really our North Star, and that’s the difference.” The company’s rapid appraisals make it possible for sellers to skip agents on the first transaction, and after doing some small renovations (paint, HVAC, basic repairs), Opendoor’s “All Day Open House” allows buyers to find and unlock the house themselves with a smartphone. Easy, right? And yet most of them come with an agent, and the company says it’s one of the biggest payers of commissioners in its markets today.*

Why Japan’s sharing economy is tiny

A generous estimate of the sharing’s economy value in Japan is just ¥1.2trn yen ($11bn), compared with $229bn for China. “It’s a very difficult situation,” says Yuji Ueda of Japan’s Sharing Economy Association. Almost 29m tourists visited Japan last year; the goal is to attract 40m by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. But the number of hotel rooms is not keeping up with demand.

Indonesia ecommerce through the eyes of a veteran

50% of all ecommerce orders are still limited to JABODETABEK (The Greater Jakarta Area) while the next 30% are in the rest of Java. This leaves 20% spread unevenly throughout Indonesia. Lots of marketing dollars (and education) will have to be spent outside JABODETABEK to push more traffic and conversion online.

Social commerce is massive in Indonesia and it is believed that transactions happening via Facebook and Instagram may be equally as big as the ‘traditional’ ecommerce. As of now, there is no official way to track how big this market is but looking at the data from various last mile operators based on non-corporate customers, this market share is between 25% and 35% of their volumes and has been constantly growing.

Domestic ecommerce supply chain design is becoming more critical in ensuring lower OPEX. Decentralisation of distribution centres are happening with various major marketplaces and 3PL investing in distribution centers (DC) outside JABODETABEK with the objective of bringing products closer to market and also reducing the last mile cost. With a long term view, some too have started investing in having a presence in 3rd Tier Cities outside Java, in line with the government’s infrastructure development.


Malaysia’s economy more diversified than thought

While commodities make up about 20% of total exports, electronics constitute an even larger portion: 37% in 2017. Even when oil prices were at their peak in 2012, commodities comprised 30% of total exports versus electronics at 33%.

Higher oil prices add to the government’s fiscal revenue. We estimate that for every 10% rise in global oil prices, Malaysia’s current account increases by about 0.3 percentage points of GDP after four quarters.

Government estimates suggest that every US$1 per barrel increase in oil prices adds about RM300mil to revenue. That said, oil revenue is only budgeted at 14.8% of revenue for 2018 compared with the peak in 2009 when it constituted some 43% of total fiscal revenue.


SEC says Ether isn’t a security, but tokens based on Ether can be

For the SEC, while cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether are not securities, token offerings for stakes in companies that are built off of those blockchains can be, depending on the extent to which third parties are involved in the creation or exchange of value around the assets. The key for the SEC is whether the token in question is being used simply for the exchange of a good or service through a distributed ledger platform, or whether the value of the cryptocurrency is dependent on the actions of a third party for it to rise in value.

“Promoters, in order to raise money to develop networks on which digital assets will operate, often sell the tokens or coins rather than sell shares, issue notes or obtain bank financing. But, in many cases, the economic substance is the same as a conventional securities offering. Funds are raised with the expectation that the promoters will build their system and investors can earn a return on the instrument — usually by selling their tokens in the secondary market once the promoters create something of value with the proceeds and the value of the digital enterprise increases. Just as in the Howey case, tokens and coins are often touted as assets that have a use in their own right, coupled with a promise that the assets will be cultivated in a way that will cause them to grow in value, to be sold later at a profit. And, as in Howey — where interests in the groves were sold to hotel guests, not farmers — tokens and coins typically are sold to a wide audience rather than to persons who are likely to use them on the network.”


Study: Charts change hearts and minds better than words do

Through survey experiments, Nyhan and Reifler arrived at a surprising answer: charts. “We find that providing participants with graphical information significantly decreases false and unsupported factual beliefs.” Crucially, they show that data presented in graphs and illustrations does a better job of fighting misperceptions than the same information presented in text form.

Curated Insights 2018.06.17

What helps or hurts investment returns? Here’s a ranking

An unexpected challenge in performing this exercise is a tendency for some elements to offset others. For example, changes in profits could be offset by widening or contracting price-earnings ratios; sentiment might offset valuation; returns tend to vary inversely with risk. Why does this matter? Because in the real world, one hand giveth while the other taketh away. This concept of cancellation matters a great deal to total portfolio returns.

The overall cost of a portfolio, compounded over 20 or 30 years, can add up to (or subtract) a substantial amount of the returns. One Vanguard Group study noted that a 110 basis-point expense ratio can cost as much as 25 percent of total returns after 30 years. That does not take into consideration other costs such as trading expenses, capital-gains taxes or account location (i.e., using qualified or tax-deferred accounts). The rise of indexing during the past decade is a tacit acknowledgment that on average, cost matters more than stock-picking prowess.

Those people born in 1948 not only managed to have their peak earning and investing years (35-65) coincide with multiple bull markets and interest rates dropping from more than 15 percent to less than 1 percent. They also lucked into a market that tripled in the decade before retirement.

Behavior and discipline > Humility and learning > Longevity and starting early > Valuation and year of birth > Asset allocation > Costs and expenses > Security selection


The forging of a skeptic

I think another thing people have gotten confused about is the sustainable competitive advantage and the moat. Durable competitive advantage and moats are not the same thing as brands. People sometimes use these terms interchangeably. I have also seen people ascribe competitive advantages to brands that don’t have them. For example, retailers — retailers have brands. We all know what Macy’s is, but retailing is fundamentally a bad business.

In essence, the merits of a brand are not the brand itself; they are the qualities of the product that create the consumer loyalty. What attracted him, ultimately, to Coca-Cola is that Coca-Cola’s formula make you more, not less, thirsty, and supposedly has been tested to prove that it doesn’t wear out the palate, no matter how much is consumed. This implies infinite sales potential. The cute commercials and cheery red logo create an association in people’s minds with those qualities. They aren’t what makes it Coca-Cola.

While there are moats that include brands, a brand is not a moat. The moat is whatever qualities are innate to the business that make it difficult to compete with

Worried about big tech? Chinese giants make America’s look tame

They have both funded ventures that offer online education, make electric cars and rent out bicycles. For the giants, such initiatives represent new opportunities for people to use their digital wallets — Ant Financial’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay — and new ways to collect data on consumer behavior. Analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein counted 247 investment deals by Tencent in recent years and 156 by Alibaba, though given the pace of the companies’ deal-making, they said their database was “likely to be perennially incomplete.”

In a report this week, Morgan Stanley predicted that by 2027, the total market in China in which Alibaba could be making money will be worth $19 trillion — more than Amazon’s potential market worldwide.

‘As long as they’re unfriendly, it’s a sign they have confidence’

Keyence keeps up compound sales growth of 14 per cent a year (1986-2016) even with sales in the billions of dollars. It takes seemingly simple products such as barcode readers and sells them for five times the cost of manufacture.

Keyence’s first secret is its production outsourcing. It buys raw materials in bulk and sends them to component suppliers; it collects the components and sends them to assemblers and performs the final inspection of goods itself.

The second secret is what Keyence really sells: not a product, but a way to make a factory more efficient. Graeme McDonald, machinery analyst at Citigroup in Tokyo, says the group’s sales engineers “can often provide an idea of how to improve your manufacturing set-up literally on the site with an idea of the payback time and return on investment”. It offers quick victories — such as a sensor to replace manual inspection, for example — not risky projects. “The products they sell are not capital expenditure, they’re cost to the factory manager,” says Mr Noguchi. If the manager can save a $40,000 salary with a $20,000 gadget, they will sign off quickly, without worrying how much Keyence earns.

The products are high quality, if not necessarily unique. Keyence has a modest research budget and less than a tenth of the US patents held by rival automation companies such as Fanuc.

Fanuc in trouble? Talk to the (robot) hand

Fair enough, it’s a tough world for all iPhone dependents. Here’s a wrinkle in the bear-case thesis, though: Overseas shipments of robots and Robodrills from Yokohama, while down elsewhere, are up sharply to Asia. The volume of robots shipped by the port – mostly Fanuc’s – remains close to its highest in decades, at about 5,000 units in April. The company’s backlog of orders is near to its highest in more than two years, according to Bernstein analysts.

How e-commerce with drone delivery is taking flight in China

It is still waiting to earn back its investment in drone-delivery infrastructure, although it says that making a delivery by drone costs a fifth of the price than by man-and-van, once the driver’s labour is taken into account. Liu Qiangdong, JD’s chief executive, says drone delivery will cut costs by 70% once it is scaled up across the country. Villagers tend to buy washing powder, accessories for their phones, maternity goods and fresh food. The firm has made 20,000 such deliveries to date.

JD may have added drones to daily Chinese village life, but whether they will make financial sense for the company over time remains to be seen. Current models of drone are pricey, although JD says the cost will gradually come down as it scales up the network and builds more drones (it plans to sell those it makes to other firms, as well as use them for its operations). The government approves of its operations in rural areas, and is planning to build a new train station in Suqian next to JD’s drone base. If JD can use drone delivery to cut its costs and attract rural shoppers, that will help the firm compete with its arch-rival in e-commerce, Alibaba, which has not, as yet, seen the value of drone delivery. JD hopes that will prove to be a mistake.


Internet lending is booming in China

The balance of online consumer loans in China has grown about fivefold between 2015 and 2017, reaching 350 billion yuan ($54.6 billion), according to Chinese research company Analysys. According to a survey conducted by research specialist Analysys in December 2017, people between the ages of 24 and 35 accounted for more than 70% of consumer borrowers in China.

Chinese consumers, especially people born in 1980 and later, are less squeamish than their older peers about buying on credit. But the total balance of consumer loans in China is still about 60% lower than that in the U.S. and is expected to continue growing. Analysys estimates that the balance of internet loans in China will more than double to 720 billion yuan in 2019, compared with 350 billion yuan in 2017. That flow of credit will likely give a lift to the Chinese consumer market.

The scooter economy

The mistake in Kalanick’s thinking is two-fold: First, up-and-until the point that self-driving cars are widely available — that is, not simply invented, but built-and-deployed at scale — Uber’s drivers are its biggest competitive advantage. Kalanick’s public statements on the matter hardly evinced understanding on this point. Second, bringing self-driving cars to market would entail huge amounts of capital investment. For one, this means it would be unlikely that Google, a company that rushes to reassure investors when it loses tens of basis points in margin, would do so by itself, and for another, whatever companies did make such an investment would be highly incentivized to maximize utilization of said investment as soon as possible. That means plugging into the dominant transportation-as-a-service network, which means partnering with Uber.

My contention is that Uber would have been best-served concentrating all of its resources on its driver-centric model, even as it built relationships with everyone in the self-driving space, positioning itself to be the best route to customers for whoever wins the self-driving technology battle.

Why you should read those boring 10-K filings

The vast majority of the text changes are concentrated in the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) of the 10-K. These disclosures also tend to be more negative than positive, perhaps because the reports are typically drafted by lawyers who tilt toward disclosing negative trends more than positive ones. When the authors applied natural language text processing to evaluate the changes, they found that 86 percent reflected negative sentiment shifts and only 14 percent positive shifts. Furthermore, the text differences contain useful information for predicting future earnings: Changes in the 10-K written text today predict earnings surprises in the future.

Given this negative bias to the textual changes and their ability to predict future earnings, the study shows that companies with 10-K text modifications experience noticeably lower future stock returns than other firms. For example, the authors construct a portfolio that goes long on companies with no material textual changes and shorts firms that contain such changes. That portfolio earns an abnormal positive return of up to 7 percent per year above the market.

Curated Insights 2017.11.05

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

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

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

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

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


Apple should shrink its finance arm before it goes bananas

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

Google’s profits are exploding because the web is massive

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

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


How Google’s quantum computer could change the world

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tech goes to Washington

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Patient deaths show darker side of modernized Chinese medicine

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Debating where tech is going to take finance

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

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

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

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

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

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


China’s critical role in technology and geopolitics

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Backlash against Chinese products ramps up in India

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

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

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


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

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

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

Singapore is finding it harder to grow, literally

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

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

Supersized family farms are gobbling up American agriculture

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

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

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