Curated Insights 2018.10.12

“[The whole tech bubble] is very interesting, because the stock is not the company and the company is not the stock. So as I watched the stock fall from $113 to $6 I was also watching all of our internal business metrics: number of customers, profit per unit, defects, everything you can imagine. Every single thing about the business was getting better, and fast. So as the stock price was going the wrong way, everything inside the company was going the right way. We didn’t need to go back to the capital markets because we didn’t need more money. The only reason a financial bust makes it really hard is to raise money. So we just needed to progress.”

“Everything I have ever done has started small. Amazon started with a couple of people. Blue Origin started with five people and the budget was very small. Now the budget approaches a billion dollars. Amazon was literally ten people, today it’s half a million. For me it’s like yesterday I was driving packages to the post office myself and hoping one day we could afford a forklift. For me, I’ve seen small things get big and it’s part of this ‘day one’ mentality. I like treating things as if they’re small; Amazon is a large company but I want it to have the heart and spirit of a small one.”

“I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition and guts. Not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis you should do so. But it turns out in life your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste and heart.”

“AWS completely reinvented the way companies buy computation. Then a business miracle happened. This never happens. This is the greatest piece of business luck in the history of business as far as I know. We faced no like-minded competition for seven years. It’s unbelievable. When you pioneer if you’re lucky you get a two year head start. Nobody gets a seven year head start. We had this incredible runway.”

“We are so inventive that whatever regulations are promulgated or however it works, that will not stop us from serving customers. Under all regulatory frameworks I can imagine, customers are still going to want low prices, they are still going to want fast delivery, they are still going to want big selection. It is really important that politicians and others need to understand the value big companies bring and not demonise or vilify big companies. The reason is simple. There are certain things only big companies can do. Nobody in their garage is going to build an all carbon-fiber fuel efficient Boeing 787. It’s not going to happen. You need Boeing to do that. This world would be really bad without Boeing, Apple, Samsung and so on.”

How big can Amazon get?

What business is Amazon most similar to? Definitely not Wal-Mart. Amazon’s model is much, much closer to Costco’s model. How does Costco’s model differ from Wal-Mart’s model?

Costco does not try to be a leading general retailer in specific towns, counties, states, the nation as a whole, etc. What Costco does is focus on getting a very big share of each customer’s wallet. Costco also focuses on achieving low costs for the items it does sell by concentrating its buying power on specific products and therefore being one of the biggest volume purchasers of say “Original” flavor Eggo waffles. It sells these waffles in bulk, offers them in one flavor (Wal-Mart might offer five different flavors of that same product) and thereby gets its customer the lowest price.

There’s two functions that Costco performs where it might be creating value, gaining a competitive advantage, etc. One is supply side. Costco may get lower costs for the limited selection it offers. In some things it does. In others, it doesn’t. The toughest category for Costco to compete in is in fresh food. I shop at Costco and at other supermarkets in the area. The very large format supermarkets built by companies like HEB (here in Texas) can certainly match or beat Costco, Wal-Mart, and Amazon (online and via Whole Foods stores) when it comes to quality, selection, and price for certain fresh items. But, what can Costco do that HEB can’t? It can have greater product breadth (offering lots of non-food items) and it can make far, far, far more profit per customer.

Now, an interesting question to ask is what SHOULD determine the market value per customer. Not what does. But, what should? In other words, if we had to do a really, really long-term discounted cash flow calculation – what variables would matter most? If two companies both have 10 million customers which company should be valued higher and why? Two variables matter. One: Annual profit per customer. Two: Retention rate. Basically, we’re talking about a DCF here. If Company A and Company B both have 10 million customers and both make $150 per customer the company that should have a higher earnings multiple (P/E or P/FCF) should be the one with the higher retention rate.

What Spotify can learn from Tencent Music

Tencent Music is no small player: As the music arm of Chinese digital media giant Tencent, its four apps have several hundred million monthly active users, $1.3 billion in revenue for the first half of 2018, and roughly 75 percent market share in China’s rapidly growing music streaming market. Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, however, almost none of its users pay for the service, and those who do are mostly not paying in the form of a streaming subscription.

Its SEC filing shows that 70 percent of revenue is from the 4.2 percent of its overall users who pay to give virtual gifts to other users (and music stars) who sing karaoke or live stream a concert and/or who paid for access to premium tools for karaoke; the other 30 percent is the combination of streaming subscriptions, music downloads, and ad revenue.

Tencent Music has an advantage in creating social music experiences because it is part of the same company that owns the country’s leading social apps and is integrated into them. It has been able to build off the social graph of WeChat and QQ rather than building a siloed social network for music. Even Spotify’s main corporate rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, aren’t attached to leading social platforms.


Traffic acquisition costs

In other words the two companies have an agreement that Apple is paid in proportion to the actual query volume generated. This would extend the relationship from one of granting access for a number of users or devices to revenue sharing based on usage or consumption. Effectively Apple would have “equity” in Google search sharing in the growth as well as decline in search volume.

The idea that Apple receives $1B/month of pure profit from Google may come as a shock. It would amount to 20% of Apple’s net income and be an even bigger transfer of value out of Google. The shock comes from considering the previously antagonistic relationship between the companies.

The remarkable story here is how Apple has come to be such a good partner. Both Microsoft and Google now distribute a significant portion of their products through Apple. Apple is also a partner for enterprises such as Salesforce, IBM, and Cisco. In many ways Apple is the quintessential platform company: providing a collaborative environment for competitors as much as for agnostic third parties.

Shares of pet insurer Trupanion are overvalued

Much of the Trupanion excitement is based on the low 1% penetration rate and the fact that it’s the only pet-insurance pure play. Bradley Safalow, who runs PAA Research, an independent investment research firm, disputes the lofty expectations. Bulls extrapolate from industry data that say about two million pets out of 184 million in North America are insured now. Safalow says that ignores a key factor—the income levels of pet owners. Because Trupanion’s policies cost about $600 to $1,500 annually and don’t cover wellness visits, he estimates that, in the case of dogs, which represent 85% of the pet market, a more realistic target customer would be owners who earn $85,000 or more a year. Based on that benchmark, Safalow estimates insurance penetration—of those most likely to buy it—at about 6% already for dogs.

The requests for rate increases would indicate that premiums aren’t keeping up with claims; that the policy risks are worse than the company expected; and that the profitability of its book of business is relatively weak. APIC’s ratio of losses and loss-adjustment expense to premiums earned have risen steadily over the past four years to 75.6% in the first quarter of this year from 68.9% for all of 2014, according to state filings. The loss ratio is total losses incurred in claims plus costs to administer the claims (loss adjustment expense) divided by premiums earned.

Bob Iger’s bets are paying off big time for Disney

Iger thinks he knows how to coax consumers who already pay for one streaming service to either add another or switch to Disney’s. “We’re going to do something different,” he says. “We’re going to give audiences choice.” There are thousands of barely watched movies on Netflix, and Iger figures that people don’t like to pay for what they don’t use. So families can buy only a Disney stream, which will offer Pixar, Marvel, Lucas, Disney-branded programming. Sports lovers can opt just for an ESPN stream. Hulu, of which Disney will own a 60% stake after it buys Fox (and perhaps more if it can persuade Comcast to sell its share), will beef up ABC’s content with Fox Searchlight and FX and other Fox assets. “To fight [Amazon and Netflix], you’ve got to put a lot of product on the table,” says Murdoch. “You take what Disney’s got in sports, in family, in general entertainment—they can put together a pretty great offer.”

Having a leader who is willing to insulate key creative people from the vicissitudes of business has helped Disney successfully incorporate its prominent acquisitions. They have not been Disneyfied. Marvel movies are not all of a sudden family friendly (at least not by Disney standards). Pixar movies have not been required to add princesses. Most of the people who ran the companies before Disney bought them still run them (with the exception of John Lasseter, who was ousted in June in the wake of #MeToo). “I’ve been watching him with his people and with Fox people; he’s clearly got great leadership qualities,” says Murdoch.”He listens very carefully and he decides something and it’s done. People respect that.”


Can anyone bury BlackRock?

Today the Aladdin platform supports more than $18 trillion, making it one of the largest portfolio operating systems in the industry. BlackRock says Aladdin technology has been adopted in some form by 210 institutional clients globally, including asset owners such as CalSTRS and even direct competitors like Vanguard.

“Not only does it provide risk transparency, but it also provides an ability to model trades, to capture trades, to structure portfolios, to manage portfolio compliance — all of the operating components of the workflow,” Goldstein says. “It’s a comprehensive, singular enterprise platform versus a model where you’re piecing together a lot of things and trying to figure out how to interface them.”

In a market that’s traditionally been very fragmented, BlackRock’s ability to offer an integrated, multipurpose platform has proven a strong selling point for prospective clients — even when it’s up against competitors that perform specific functions better.

How to break up a credit ratings oligopoly

This is not to say Kroll’s firm, Kroll Bond Rating Agency, hasn’t been successful. It grew gross fees by 49 percent annualized between 2012 and the end of 2017 on the back of growing institutional demand for alternative investments. Since 2011 it has rated 11,920 transactions, representing $785 billion and 1,500 issuers. Still, KBRA and other competitors, including Lisbon-based ARC Ratings and Morningstar Credit Ratings, that have entered the sector in the last decade have barely made a dent in the market share of the big three.

The upstarts are facing more than just deeply entrenched competition, although that is striking: S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch control more than 90 percent of the market combined. A host of other complex factors have combined to make it nearly impossible to dislodge the big three — and to address the central conflict of interest baked into the ratings agency business model.


Elon Musk, Google and the battle for the future of transportation

We think a similar analogy is likely with AV/EV — the most economically well-off people will still care about comfort, features, and identity that the AV/EV they ride and arrive in imparts on them. If Waymo can deliver a premium experience at a better price and higher utility than their current solution (i.e. driving themselves in their own cars or Ubers/taxis) with cost economics that yield a strong profit margin/ROIC at scale (1/2-1/3 the pricing of Uber at 1/10 the cost), it will have built an offering that will be set to be the leading AV service and create tremendous value for shareholders despite the early capital intensity. Estimates of the value of this Transportation as a Service (TaaS) or Mobility as a Service (MaaS) go from hundreds of billions on up based on Morgan Stanley’s estimate of 11 billion miles (3B in the US) driven globally and forecasted to double over the next decade.

Eventually, if Waymo is successful at taking the strong lead via network effects in AV and converting enough consumers to use its premium service (achieving a cultural and regulatory tipping point), it could decide to open up its service’s usage across other auto “hardware” partners as they demonstrate their ability to deliver a certain level of quality experience and scale globally, enabling a broader application of its service to lower tiers of the market with lower capital intensity (akin to Apple’s 2nd hand iPhone market, which broadens its user base for services offerings).


Network effect: How Shopify is the platform powering the DTC brand revolution

“The 21st-century brand is the direct-to-consumer brand,” said Jeff Weiser, chief marketing officer at Shopify. “A couple of things have enabled the rise of the DTC, which is the ability to outsource the supply chain.” For Weiser, who described himself as “loving” anything to do with DTC, what Shopify does is power all of that ability — from selling to payments to marketing. “We run the gamut of a retail operating system.” The company has admittedly benefited from a DTC boom: Starting with small businesses run from people’s kitchens, then going upmarket to giant Fortune 500 companies, Weiser said that DTC’s “graduation” into giant juggernauts themselves has made a huge difference. Shopify powers hundreds of those companies, from Allbirds to mattress brand Leesa to Chubbies.

Just as Google and Facebook are core to anyone marketing online, Shopify is becoming the same to those who sell directly online. Like any platform, Shopify is building an ecosystem of developers, startups and ad agencies. The company has 2,500 apps through its own app store. The company can, like the Apple App Store, add apps into its ecosystem that merchants can then purchase.


Why the Elastic IPO is so important

Elastic’s open source products are downloaded voluminously, with over 350M downloads of its open source software to date. As a result, sales engages with customers who are already users and highly familiar with the products. This leads to shorter sales cycles and higher sales conversions. Additionally, awareness and engaged prospects are generated by popular open source projects, such as Elasticsearch and others from Elastic, obviating the need for top-of-funnel and mid-funnel marketing spend. Elastic still spent a healthy 49% of revenue on Sales & Marketing in FY ’18 (year ending Jan ’18) but this was down from 60% the prior year, and the implied efficiency on Elastic’s Sales & Marketing spend is extremely high, enabling the 79% top-line growth the company has enjoyed. Finally, Elastic shows how disruptive an open source model can be to competition. There are already large incumbents in the search, analytics, IT Ops and security markets, but, while the incumbents start with sales people trying to get into accounts, Elastic is rapidly gaining share through adoption of its open source by practitioners.

Elastic controls the code to it open source projects. The committers are all employed by the company. Contributions may come from the community but committers are the last line of defense. This is in contrast to open source projects such as Linux and Hadoop, where non profit foundations made up of many commercial actors with different agendas tend to govern updates to the software. The biggest risk to any open source project is getting forked and losing control of the roadmap, and its difficult for a company to build a sustainable high margin business supporting a community-governed open source project as a result. Elastic, and other companies who more tightly control the open source projects they’ve popularized, have full visibility to roadmaps and are therefore able to build commercial software that complements and extends the open source. This isn’t a guarantee of success. The viability of any open source company rests with the engagement of its open source community, but if Elastic continues to manage this well, their franchise should continue to grow in value for for foreseeable future.


Elastic closed 94% up in first day of trading on NYSE, raised $252M at a $2.5B valuation in its IPO

“When you hail a ride home from work with Uber, Elastic helps power the systems that locate nearby riders and drivers. When you shop online at Walgreens, Elastic helps power finding the right products to add to your cart. When you look for a partner on Tinder, Elastic helps power the algorithms that guide you to a match. When you search across Adobe’s millions of assets, Elastic helps power finding the right photo, font, or color palette to complete your project,” the company noted in its IPO prospectus.

“As Sprint operates its nationwide network of mobile subscribers, Elastic helps power the logging of billions of events per day to track and manage website performance issues and network outages. As SoftBank monitors the usage of thousands of servers across its entire IT environment, Elastic helps power the processing of terabytes of daily data in real time. When Indiana University welcomes a new student class, Elastic helps power the cybersecurity operations protecting thousands of devices and critical data across collaborating universities in the BigTen Security Operations Center. All of this is search.”

The Big Hack: How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies

One government official says China’s goal was long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks. No consumer data is known to have been stolen.

With more than 900 customers in 100 countries by 2015, Supermicro offered inroads to a bountiful collection of sensitive targets. “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who’s studied Supermicro and its business model. “Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”

Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code. The illicit chips could do all this because they were connected to the baseboard management controller, a kind of superchip that administrators use to remotely log in to problematic servers, giving them access to the most sensitive code even on machines that have crashed or are turned off.

Can anyone catch America in plastics?

Ethane, once converted to ethylene through “cracking” is the principal input into production of polyethylene. Simply put, ethane is turned into plastic. Polyethylene is manufactured in greater quantities than any other compound. U.S. ethane production has more than doubled in the past decade, to 1.5 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D).

The result is that ethane trade flows are shifting, and the U.S. is becoming a more important supplier of plastics. The Shale Revolution draws attention for the growth in fossil fuels — crude oil and natural gas, where the U.S. leads the world. But we’re even more dominant in NGLs, contributing one-third of global production. The impact of NGLs and consequent growth in America’s petrochemical industry receives far less attention, although it’s another huge success story.


Amazon’s wage will change how U.S. thinks about work

If $15 an hour becomes the new standard for entry-level wages in corporate America, its impact may be felt most broadly among middle-class workers. Average hourly earnings for non-managerial workers in the U.S. were $22.73 an hour in August. The historically low level of jobless claims and unemployment, combined with $15 an hour becoming an anchor in people’s minds, could make someone people earning around that $22 mark feel more secure in their jobs. Instead of worrying about losing their job and being on the unemployment rolls for a while, or only being able to find last-ditch work that pays $9 or $10 an hour, the “floor” may be seen as a $15 an hour job.

That creates a whole new set of options for middle-class households. In 2017, the real median household income in the U.S. was $61,372, which is roughly what two earners with full-time jobs making $15 an hour would make. A $15-an-hour floor might embolden some workers to quit their jobs to move to another city even without a job offer there. It might let some workers switch to part-time to focus more time on education, gaining new skills or child care.

Circle of competence

It’s not the size of your circle of competence that matters, but rather how accurate your assessment of it is. There are some investors who are capable of figuring out incredibly complex investments. Others are really good at a wide variety of investments types, allowing them to take advantage of a broad set of opportunities. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Figure out what feels comfortable, and do that. If you are not quite sure whether something is within your circle of competence or not – that in and of itself is an indicator that it’s better to pass. After all, to quote Seth Klarman’s letter to his investors shortly after the Financial Crisis of 2008, “Nowhere does it say that investors should strive to make every last dollar of potential profit; consideration of risk must never take a backseat to return.”


Lessons from Howard Marks’ new nook: “Mastering the Market Cycle – Getting the Odds on Your Side”

… you can prepare; you can’t predict. The thing that caused the bubble to burst was the insubstantiality of mortgage-backed securities, especially subprime. If you read the memos, you won’t find a word about it. We didn’t predict that. We didn’t even know about it. It was occurring in an odd corner of the securities market. Most of us didn’t know about it, but it is what brought the house down and we had no idea. But we were prepared because we simply knew that we were on dangerous ground, and that required cautious preparation.


Market timing is hard

People use data to justify market timing. But it’s hindsight bias, right? If you know ahead of time when the biggest peaks and troughs were through history, you can make any strategy look good. So Antti and his co-authors made a more realistic and testable market timing strategy. And here’s the key difference — instead of having all hundred years of history, Antti’s strategy used only the information that was available at the time. So, say for example it’s 1996, early tech bubble. We know after the fact that the U.S. stock market would get even more expensive for a few years before it crashed. But in 1996 you wouldn’t actually know that. So by doing their study this way, Antti could get a more realistic test of value-based market timing.

The interesting and troubling result was when we did this market timing analysis the bottom line was very disappointing. It was not just underwhelming, it basically showed in the last 50-60 years, in our lifetimes, you didn’t make any money using this information.

The Decision Matrix: How to prioritize what matters

I invested some of that time meeting with the people making these decisions once a week. I wanted to know what types of decisions they made, how they thought about them, and how the results were going. We tracked old decisions as well, so they could see their judgment improving (or not).

Consequential decisions are a different beast. Reversible and consequential decisions are my favorite. These decisions trick you into thinking they are one big important decision. In reality, reversible and consequential decisions are the perfect decisions to run experiments and gather information. The team or individual would decide experiments we were going to run, the results that would indicate we were on the right path, and who would be responsible for execution. They’d present these findings.

Consequential and irreversible decisions are the ones that you really need to focus on. All of the time I saved from using this matrix didn’t allow me to sip drinks on the beach. Rather, I invested it in the most important decisions, the ones I couldn’t justify delegating. I also had another rule that proved helpful: unless the decision needed to be made on the spot, as some operational decisions do, I would take a 30-minute walk first.

Risk management

Once you frame risk as avoiding regret, the questions becomes, “Who cares what’s hard but I can recover from? Because that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about, ‘What will I regret?’”

So risk management comes down to serially avoiding decisions that can’t easily be reversed, whose downsides will demolish you and prevent recovery.

Actual risk management is understanding that even if you do everything you can to avoid regrets, you are at best dealing with odds, and all reasonable odds are less than 100. So there is a measurable chance you’ll be disappointed, no matter how hard you’ll try or how smart you are. The biggest risk – the biggest regret – happens when you ignore that reality.

Carl Richards got this right, and it’s a humbling but accurate view of the world: “Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything.”


The most important survival skill for the next 50 years isn’t what you think

Even if there is a new job, and even if you get support from the government to kind of retrain yourself, you need a lot of mental flexibility to manage these transitions. Teenagers or 20-somethings, they are quite good with change. But beyond a certain age—when you get to 40, 50—change is stressful. And a weapon you will have [is] the psychological flexibility to go through this transition at age 30, and 40, and 50, and 60. The most important investment that people can make is not to learn a particular skill—”I’ll learn how to code computers,” or “I will learn Chinese,” or something like that. No, the most important investment is really in building this more flexible mind or personality.

The better you know yourself, the more protected you are from all these algorithms trying to manipulate you. If we go back to the example of the YouTube videos. If you know “I have this weakness, I tend to hate this group of people,” or “I have a bit obsession to the way my hair looks,” then you can be a little more protected from these kinds of manipulations. Like with alcoholics or smokers, the first step is to just recognize, “Yes, I have this bad habit and I need to be more careful about it.”

And this is very dangerous because instead of trying to find real solutions to the new problems we face, people are engaged in this nostalgic exercise. If it fails—and it’s bound to fail—they’ll never acknowledge it. They’ll just blame somebody: “We couldn’t realize this dream because of either external enemies or internal traitors.” And then this is a very dangerous mess.

The other danger, the opposite one, is, “Well, the future will basically take care of itself. We just need to develop better technology and it will create a kind of paradise on earth.” Which doesn’t take into account all of the dystopian and problematic ways in which technology can influence our lives.