Curated Insights 2017.12.10

The impossibility of intelligence explosion

The first issue I see with the intelligence explosion theory is a failure to recognize that intelligence is necessarily part of a broader system — a vision of intelligence as a “brain in jar” that can be made arbitrarily intelligent independently of its situation. A brain is just a piece of biological tissue, there is nothing intrinsically intelligent about it.

In particular, there is no such thing as “general” intelligence. On an abstract level, we know this for a fact via the “no free lunch” theorem — stating that no problem-solving algorithm can outperform random chance across all possible problems. If intelligence is a problem-solving algorithm, then it can only be understood with respect to a specific problem. In a more concrete way, we can observe this empirically in that all intelligent systems we know are highly specialized.

If intelligence is fundamentally linked to specific sensorimotor modalities, a specific environment, a specific upbringing, and a specific problem to solve, then you cannot hope to arbitrarily increase the intelligence of an agent merely by tuning its brain — no more than you can increase the throughput of a factory line by speeding up the conveyor belt. Intelligence expansion can only come from a co-evolution of the mind, its sensorimotor modalities, and its environment.

In Terman’s landmark “Genetic Studies of Genius”, he notes that most of his exceptionally gifted subjects would pursue occupations “as humble as those of policeman, seaman, typist and filing clerk”. There are currently about seven million people with IQs higher than 150 — better cognitive ability than 99.9% of humanity — and mostly, these are not the people you read about in the news. Of the people who have actually attempted to take over the world, hardly any seem to have had an exceptional intelligence; anecdotally, Hitler was a high-school dropout, who failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Art — twice.

People who do end up making breakthroughs on hard problems do so through a combination of circumstances, character, education, intelligence, and they make their breakthroughs through incremental improvement over the work of their predecessors. Success — expressed intelligence — is sufficient ability meeting a great problem at the right time. Most of these remarkable problem-solvers are not even that clever — their skills seem to be specialized in a given field and they typically do not display greater-than-average abilities outside of their own domain.

So, a person with an IQ of 130 is statistically far more likely to succeed in navigating the problem of life than a person with an IQ of 70 — although this is never guaranteed at the individual level — but here’s the thing: this correlation breaks down after a certain point. There is no evidence that a person with an IQ of 170 is in any way more likely to achieve a greater impact in their field than a person with an IQ of 130.

Why would the real-world utility of raw cognitive ability stall past a certain threshold? This points to a very intuitive fact: that high attainment requires sufficient cognitive ability, but that the current bottleneck to problem-solving, to expressed intelligence, is not latent cognitive ability itself. The bottleneck is our circumstances. Our environment, which determines how our intelligence manifests itself, puts a hard limit on what we can do with our brains — on how intelligent we can grow up to be, on how effectively we can leverage the intelligence that we develop, on what problems we can solve. All evidence points to the fact that our current environment, much like past environments over the previous 200,000 years of human history and prehistory, does not allow high-intelligence individuals to fully develop and utilize their cognitive potential.

And they are only able to succeed because they are standing on the shoulder of giants — their own work is but one last subroutine in a problem-solving process that spans decades and thousands of individuals. Their own individual cognitive work may not be much more significant to the whole process than the work of a single transistor on a chip.

It is civilization as a whole that will create superhuman AI, not you, nor me, nor any individual. A process involving countless humans, over timescales we can barely comprehend. A process involving far more externalized intelligence — books, computers, mathematics, science, the internet — than biological intelligence.

We don’t have to speculate about whether an “explosion” would happen the moment an intelligent system starts optimizing its own intelligence. As it happens, most systems are recursively self-improving. We’re surrounded with them. So we know exactly how such systems behave — in a variety of contexts and over a variety of timescales. You are, yourself, a recursively self-improving system: educating yourself makes you smarter, in turn allowing you to educate yourself more efficiently. Likewise, human civilization is recursively self-improving, over a much longer timescale.

Google’s AlphaZero destroys Stockfish in 100-game match

This would be akin to a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari. That’s all in less time that it takes to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The program had four hours to play itself many, many times, thereby becoming its own teacher.

“We have always assumed that chess required too much empirical knowledge for a machine to play so well from scratch, with no human knowledge added at all,” Kasparov said. “Of course I’ll be fascinated to see what we can learn about chess from AlphaZero, since that is the great promise of machine learning in general—machines figuring out rules that humans cannot detect. But obviously the implications are wonderful far beyond chess and other games. The ability of a machine to replicate and surpass centuries of human knowledge in complex closed systems is a world-changing tool.”


CVS’s $68 billion bid to bring one-stop shopping to health care

The buyout would combine the largest U.S. drugstore chain with the third-biggest health insurer. CVS also manages drug benefits plans for thousands of employers and insurers, a business that could help steer some of Aetna’s 22 million customers to CVS pharmacy counters when they fill a prescription. Already, CVS has 1,100 MinuteClinics in its pharmacies, where nurse practitioners and physician assistants provide routine care such as flu shots or wrapping sprained ankles. It’s also trying out hearing and vision centers in a handful of locations. If the merger goes through, CVS plans to build mini-health centers in many more of its 9,700 stores, turning them into places where Aetna members—and customers of rival insurers—get convenient low-level care for ailments and chronic diseases. And having a closer tie to where customers are treated could help Aetna better manage their ailments earlier, more efficiently—and less expensively.

The integration is part of a wide-ranging effort by health insurance companies and the federal government to shift care away from paying for each service and toward paying doctors and hospitals for taking better care of patients and keeping them healthier. The approach, known as value-based care, challenges the industry’s traditional reimbursement models.

CVS and Aetna say they’ll be able to reduce costs by directing some patients to lower-cost sites of care in CVS stores, keeping them out of emergency rooms and hospitals. About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a CVS location, according to David Larsen, an analyst at Leerink Partners. “This is going to be appealing to a huge number of people,” says Ingrid Lindberg, president of Kobie Marketing Inc. and a former chief customer experience officer at health insurer Cigna Corp. “There’s a large majority of people who are truly driven by ease and convenience when it comes to their care.”


This company is about to flood the U.S. with cheap HIV drugs

Laurus is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of ingredients used in anti-retrovirals, thanks to novel chemistry that delivers cheaper production costs than anyone else. Now, its chief executive officer, Satyanarayana Chava, wants to use the same strategy selling his own finished drugs in the U.S. and Europe. He predicts some generics that Laurus produces will eventually sell for 90 percent less than branded HIV drugs in the U.S., slashing expenditures for a disease that’s among the costliest for many insurers.

The patent expiries are starting this month when Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Sustiva loses protection. Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Viread follows next month. Both companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Though Laurus doesn’t yet make the actual pills those patients take, it’s become a dominant supplier of the key ingredients that make them work. The best way to fight HIV is with a combination of different drugs, and because Viread and Sustiva form key parts of some of the most effective combinations, the inclusion of generic versions of these chemicals could bring down the cost of the whole treatment. One analysis cited by the Department of Health and Human Services found that replacing a three-medicine, branded combination with multiple pills, including a generic version of Sustiva, could save the U.S. $900 million its first year.

Laurus controls about 66 percent of the global market for efavirenz, the chemical name for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Sustiva, and 33 percent for tenofovir, the chemical name for Gilead’s Viread, according to a report earlier this year by investment bank Jefferies Group LLC.

The hidden player spurring a wave of cheap consumer devices: Amazon

That future? We’re going to get better products for ludicrously low prices, and big brands across a range of categories — the Nests and Netgears of the world — are going to find it harder than ever to get us to shell out big money for their wares.

To hit the $20 price, Wyze licensed the camera’s hardware from a Chinese company, then created its own software. It also cut out just about every middleman, including most retailers. And it’s banking on long-run success. While Wyze is just breaking even on its first camera, its founders believe internet-connected home devices will be a growth category. They plan to establish a trusted brand with the first camera, then release a succession of products that they hope to sell in large numbers, at low prices.

…what was unique about Amazon was that its store encouraged low prices while heavily penalizing companies that made shoddy products. “It’s not a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fung said. “Sellers are forced to create better products at lower pricing, and sellers who aren’t able to do that just get weeded out.”

The classic worry about Amazon is that it puts local retailers out of business. Now another worry is that by exposing global brands to the harsh reality of low-priced competitors, it may put them out of business, too. Mr. Wingo said global brands across a variety of categories — electronics, apparel, home improvement — regularly approached his company looking for a way to compete with low-priced rivals on Amazon.

“There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand,” Mr. Wingo said. “In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.”


Proof Work aims to decentralize medical data by using the blockchain

The system, if successful, would be a big disruption to how health care data is handled today – where it’s often accessible only by the doctors and hospitals themselves, and where patients have to make special requests to have a copy of their own medical records. In the future, the goal is to allow patients to walk into a doctor’s office with all their medical records already on their phone.

This isn’t the first attempt to use technology to fix the problem with medical records; others have tried to centralize records for easier access, including Microsoft HealthVault, for example. One of the challenges getting prior systems to work was that healthcare companies aren’t necessarily interested in making it easier for patients to have access to their own medical records, says Suter. After all, the patients could go to another provider.

Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index reveals 48 percent growth in parcel volume since 2014

China, a new addition to this year’s Index and by far the largest market examined, grew parcel volume by 52 percent in one year, increasing from 21 billion parcels in 2015 to 31 billion in 2016. But, even when excluding China’s prolific volumes, the Index forecasts a strong and accelerating pace of growth in parcels throughout the world. On average, the other 12 major markets studied have grown 4.3% annually since 2012 and are projected to grow 4.5% – 5.4% annually through 2021. The United States (at 13 billion) and Japan (at 9 billion) were also among the largest markets by parcel volume. In terms of investment, the United States ranked highest, spending $96 billion on parcel shipments, followed by China at $60 billion and Japan at $22 billion.

“The continued rise of ecommerce globally is keeping the parcel shipping market strong through 2021 as consumers are increasingly looking to online shopping for convenience, price and availability of products from around the world,” said Lila Snyder, executive vice president and president, Global Ecommerce, Pitney Bowes. “As consumer expectations continue to rise, shipping technology and service providers will need to help retailers and marketplaces meet those demands.”


China’s blow to recycling boosts U.S.’s $185 billion plastic bet

China is undoing decades of effort that built a massive scrap recycling industry — the cheapest way to produce plastic products for its growing economy. The country accounted for 51 percent of the world’s plastic scrap imports last year, with the biggest contribution coming from the U.S., according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an international trade group. The China ban could shift about 2 percent of global polyethylene plastics supply from recycled to new material.

That’s because the U.S. has become the cheapest place in the world to make plastic, thanks to a fracking boom that’s created a glut of natural gas, the main feedstock for manufacturing. Taking advantage of low gas prices, chemical producers have invested an unprecedented $185 billion to build new capacity in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

Exporting high-value resins to China instead of cheap scrap could help chip away at the U.S.’s $250 billion trade deficit with the nation. For producers, however, China’s ban on importing scrap will boost demand for new plastics by enough to nearly absorb all the new polyethylene output coming online next year in the U.S., Andrews said in the Morgan Stanley report. The effects can already be seen in China’s increased appetite for virgin polyethylene, with imports up 19 percent this year as scrap polyethylene imports dropped 11 percent, he said.

India ‘dream’ plan to cut freight times to 14 hours from 14 days

Japan, seeking to boost ties with India as a counterweight to China, is partly financing the DMIC project and holds a 26 percent stake. Indeed, Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka industrial corridor is an inspiration. NEC Corp. has invested in a joint-venture project with the Indian government that is already providing logistics support along the route.

The goal is to set up a “plug and play” environment for investors, says Jai Prakash Shivahare, managing director of the Dholera Industrial City Development. “We are looking to tie up with anchor investors so that they can also start their construction and in one-and-half-years, when our site is ready, their factories can also be ready.”

Work has now begun in four of the eight manufacturing destinations proposed in the first phase of the industrial corridor. But it has been far from smooth sailing to get to this point as red tape and budget constraints across six states and numerous sprawling ministries slowed progress, causing some to walk away altogether.


BlackRock and Vanguard are less than a decade away from managing $20 trillion

None other than Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, widely regarded as the father of the index fund, is raising the prospect that too much money is in too few hands, with BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street Corp. together owning significant stakes in the biggest U.S. companies. “That’s about 20 percent owned by this oligopoly of three,” Bogle said at a Nov. 28 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It is too bad that there aren’t more people in the index-fund business.”

The argument goes like this: The number of indexes now outstrips U.S. stocks, with the eruption of passive funds driving demand for securities within these benchmarks, rather than for the broader universe of stocks and bonds. That could inflate or depress the price of these securities versus similar un-indexed assets, which may create bubbles and volatile price movements.

We’re not near a tipping point yet. Roughly 37 percent of assets in U.S.-domiciled equity funds are managed passively, up from 19 percent in 2009, according to Savita Subramanian at Bank of America Corp. By contrast, in Japan, nearly 70 percent of domestically focused equity funds are passively managed, suggesting the U.S. can stomach more indexing before market efficiency suffers. There’s even further to go if you look globally: Only 15 percent of world equity markets — including funds, separately managed accounts and holdings of individual securities — are passively managed, said Joe Brennan, global head of Vanguard’s equity index group, in an interview.


A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

Young farmers are also creating their own “food hubs,” allowing them to store, process and market food collectively, and supply grocery and restaurant chains at a price competitive with national suppliers.

Midsize farms are critical to rural economies, generating jobs, spending and tax revenue. And while they’re large enough to supply mainstream markets, they’re also small enough to respond to environmental changes and consumer demand.

Singapore’s aging ‘time bomb’ will tick louder in 2018

At this rate, seniors in Singapore’s population will make up more than double the share of the youngest residents in 2030. Tan uses a compounded annual growth rate rather than adjusting for potential policy changes or alteration of trends such as fertility rates, meaning officials could still help redraw those lines, or at least make them appear less menacing, over the next decade. With already the oldest population in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Singapore of 2030 will probably look a lot like the demographics-embattled Japan of 2016.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi is getting the $450 million Da Vinci painting

The New York Times reported later Wednesday that Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud was the buyer, citing documents it reviewed. Christie’s declined to comment on the report.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi — a franchise of the Paris original — is a symbol of the oil-rich sheikhdom’s drive to boost its “soft power” credentials. To differentiate itself from neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi is targeting affluent tourists looking for culture and art and it has also built hotels, theme parks and malls. The organization behind the museum became one of the most aggressive buyers on the global art market over the last decade. It opened last month with more than 600 artworks for its permanent collection, including such Old Master paintings as Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child.” Da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière” is on loan there from the Louvre in Paris.

Curated Insights 2017.11.26

What Tesla’s big rig must do to seduce truckers

In North America alone, the largest heavy duty freight trucks—Class 8 semis—account for about $30 billion in sales each year, or more than 250,000 new trucks, according to industry data tracked by Bloomberg. Class 8 trucks, which have a loaded weight rating of at least 33,000 pounds, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from trash trucks and cement mixers to city buses all the way up to tractor-trailers whose drivers spend days and nights living on the road. The most common day cab delivery trucks cost around $100,000, and big rigs with sleeper cabins are about $150,000.

Batteries are the single most expensive component of an electric truck, and the battery of a cross-country hauler could cost $100,000 even before they build the truck around it. But that upfront investment can be offset by cheaper operating costs. Running a truck on electricity saves tens of thousands in fuel costs as well as savings of roughly 7 cents a mile on lower maintenance costs. And if the autonomous driving system is good enough to run without a driver, it could also dramatically cut labor expenses, which add about 57 cents for every mile on the road.

Any range less than 400 miles is likely meant for local and regional deliveries, the sort of thing done by UPS and FedEx or the type of hub-and-spoke model used by giant retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to move goods from distribution centers to stores or warehouses. If Tesla wants to go after the longest routes to replace what are known as “over-the-road” trucks, which feature sleeping cabins for multi-day driving stretches, the company will need a range of at least 500 miles—or else a way to charge an electric truck that’s faster than anything in use now. The battery needs for each of these categories would be different, and so would the costs.

Perhaps Tesla’s biggest advantage over other truck makers is that its semi will share some core parts with the Model 3. Musk disclosed during an earnings call in May that the semi uses “a bunch” of Model 3 motors, which sit in line with the truck’s axles. These relatively cheap electric motors will give the semis unparalleled electric torque for getting quickly up to speed with a heavy load.


This man is leading an AI revolution in Silicon Valley—and he’s just getting started

Booming demand for its products has supercharged growth at Nvidia. Over the past three full fiscal years, it has increased sales by an average of 19% and profits by an astonishing 56% annually. Nvidia meanwhile has so far managed to retain its roughly 70% market share in GPUs despite competition from formidable rivals—among them Intel and AMD—who want their share of the billions in chip sales to come from this new tech revolution. “IBM dominated in the 1950s with the mainframe computer, Digital Equipment Corp. in the mid-1960s with the transition to mini-computers, Microsoft and Intel as PCs ramped, and finally Apple and Google as cellphones became ubiquitous,” wrote Jefferies equity analyst Mark Lipacis in a July note to clients. “We believe the next tectonic shift is happening now and Nvidia stands to benefit.”

“We believed this model of computing could solve problems that general-purpose computing fundamentally couldn’t. We also observed that video games were simultaneously one of the most computationally challenging problems and would have incredibly high sales volume. Those two conditions don’t happen very often. Video games was our killer app—a flywheel to reach large markets funding huge R&D to solve massive computational problems.”

“In the future, companies will have an A.I. that is watching every single transaction—every business process—that is happening, all day long. Certain transactions or patterns that are being repeated. The process could be very complicated. It could go through sales to engineering, supply chain, logistics, business operations, finance, customer service. And it could be observed that this pattern is happening all the time. As a result of this observation, the artificial intelligence software writes an artificial intelligence software to automate that business process. Because we won’t be able to do it. It’s too complicated.”

“We’re seeing early indications of it now. Generative adversarial networks, or GAN. I think over the next several years we’re going to see a lot of neural networks that develop neural networks. For the next couple of decades, the greatest contribution of A.I. is writing software that humans simply can’t write. Solving the unsolvable problems.”

Google advances their future smart clothing vision with focus on delivering an ‘interactive garment’

Notably the user is able to trigger various different types of functionalities through interactions with the interactive garment, such as by touching or swiping the user’s shirt sleeve. In addition, by enabling the triggering of functionality through interactions with a wearable garment, instead of a device, the user does not need to fiddle around with the user interface of a smartwatch or smartphone in order trigger a functionality. In fact, the user may be able to provide the gesture to the interactive garment without even looking at the garment. In addition, a simple gesture to a garment is discreet and thus enables the user to trigger functionalities in a crowded setting without the need to take out their smartphone or other electronic device.


Apple’s ginormous share of industry profit expands, says Canaccord

Apple is capturing more and more, at 72% of total industry profits, up from 68% in the July quarter, while Samsung’s share dipped slightly to 24%. Looking ahead, Walkley thinks Apple’s share of all smartphone units shipped in 2018 will expand to 14.5% from an expected 13.3% this year, while Samsung’s share he thinks will dip to 19.1% from 20.2%. He expects Huawei and Xiaomi, two big privately held Chinese vendors, to both see share rise in 2018, at 11% and 6.4%, respectively. They won’t do as well, however, as Oppo and Vivo, two other Chinese competitors, who may capture 7.8% and 7.5% of the market next year, he opines.


Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo

The Echo is a truly standalone product at the center of an ecosystem. The cloud-based operating system has made it easy for developers to create thousands of skills or voice-activated apps. By contrast, the HomePod is essentially an extension of the iPhone, like an accessory. When someone asks the HomePod to open a third-party app, the request won’t go directly to the cloud, as with the Echo, but to an iPhone. As a result, developers can’t write apps for the HomePod. They must create tweaked versions of existing iPhone apps. What’s more, Apple has limited the kinds of apps to messaging, to-do lists and notes. If Alexa is the beating heart of the Echo, Siri is almost an afterthought.


Asia’s consumers snubbing global brands for these products

In Indonesia’s $1.3 billion instant-coffee market, the disparity is more pronounced. During that period, Javaprima gained about 12 percentage points for a 33 percent share, while Nestle lost 1.4 percentage points to 16 percent. Nestle declined to comment on the Indonesian market. Javaprima is capitalizing on local trends, such as demand by women and new coffee drinkers for a smooth and creamy brew, director Agus Susanto said.

Nestle’s revenue from Asia, Oceania and Africa fell 23 percent between 2012 and 2016 to 14.5 billion francs ($14.7 billion). To capture more Asian consumers, the company introduced ready-to-drink cold coffees in the region, opened branded cafes at Chinese universities and formulated a Cafe Viet lineup.

Pechoin, owned by closely held Shanghai Pehchaolin Daily Chemical Co., saw its market share jump fivefold between 2012 and 2016, according to Euromonitor. The parent company had revenue of about $1 billion in 2016. The newfound popularity came partly at the expense of the L’Oreal Paris label, which lost more than a fifth of its market share in the same period. Pechoin, founded in 1931, focuses on herbal products and claims to be one of China’s first cosmetics brands.

L’Oreal remains the No. 1 beauty group in China, and the nation’s increasing demand for luxury cosmetics bodes well for its premium positioning, the company said. Paris-based L’Oreal also has boosted efforts to tailor products for Asia. In 2014, it bought Magic, a Chinese brand known for skincare masks, a popular local beauty ritual. The company also introduced a liquid foundation that uses a cushion applicator popularized in South Korea, and it’s competing with Amorepacific Corp. for the Muslim cosmetics business in Southeast Asia.

A new kind of self-sustaining fishery could offset the worst impacts of animal farming

The Ocean Farm 1 – created by leading salmon farming company SalMar – is the first offshore fish farm capable of complete automation in feeding and monitoring fish. According to SalMar, the farm can mature up to 1.5M fish in just 14 months. If the experimental facility proves viable (and environmentally sound) it may compel more companies and governments to use offshore fish farms to help grow our global food supply.

But American seas are newly open for business: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a rule in 2016 that allows for large-scale fish farming in federally controlled waters three or more miles offshore. In Europe, the regulatory environment has been more friendly. The EU embraced policy changes recommending the shift of aquaculture offshore back in 2002; by 2008, offshore farms were operational in Norway, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and several other countries. Norway is arguably the aquaculture capital of the world: Fish farming helped Norway produce around 1.18M metric tons of salmon in 2016, and fish contribute $8B annually to Norway’s economy – accounting for about 8% of its exports.

Developing only 1% of Indonesia’s suitable ocean area could produce more than 24 million tonnes of fish per year or over 3.9 × 1011 individual 4 cm bivalves. If consumed entirely within Indonesia, this volume of additional fish production would increase seafood consumption per capita sixfold. In fact, there is already considerable activity working to expand Indonesian aquaculture.


Asia’s richest banker spots a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

For India, it’s a $207 billion mess, a pile-up of bad loans years in the making that’s dragging on growth. For the nation’s wealthiest banker, it’s the kind of opportunity that very rarely presents itself. What has billionaire Uday Kotak salivating is the government’s attempt to finally draw a line under delinquent loans, with recent steps to overhaul India’s bankruptcy laws and recapitalize state-owned banks. The moves are intended to lift a burden from the country’s banks and encourage them to accelerate lending, supporting economic growth.

The sense among some Indian executives that they could walk away from their debts without facing consequences was a major factor limiting past efforts to bring delinquent loans in check. The government’s announcement last month that it will inject a record 2.1 trillion rupees into state-owned banks is another sea change, in that it should give the lenders sufficient capital to write off bad loans weighing down their balance sheets.


Billionaire Kotak says Indian banks need to cut costs: Q&A

Debt markets and other segments will put pressure on the bank loan markets because they are working at much narrower spreads between the investor and the issuer. This is going to be one of the biggest challenges at a time when non-bank sectors like mutual funds, insurance, debt capital market and so on are dis-intermediating on the one hand, and technology is commoditizing the lending business at the other.

First is the formalization of finance. For instance, you see a reduction in the cash economy as less money is going into land and real assets, especially in rural India. That money is going into the formal economy which is a mega change which we are seeing. The second trend which we are seeing is the broad-basing of financial services. As finance became broader, savers wanted to look at things in addition to or beyond bank deposits. So money is going into mutual funds, insurance and equities markets. The third is digital. It, combined with Aadhaar (India’s biometric identification program), is a very potent force. We are at about 1,360 branches now. In the past we would have thought we would need about 5,000 branches. But with the digital economy, Aadhaar and customer behavior changes, we believe we can do with less.


Traffic is piling up—and so are its costs

Last year, congestion cost each U.S. driver $1,400 on average, for a total of nearly $300 billion, according to Inrix’s latest annual scorecard. The cost reflects wasted fuel, decreased productivity and lost time, which might include longer delivery times or missed meetings. The biggest losers are the most congested cities.

“We find that 49% to 61% of ride-hailing trips would have not been made at all, or by walking, biking or transit,” the researchers reported.

First digital pill approved to worries about biomedical ‘big brother’

Experts estimate that so-called nonadherence or noncompliance to medication costs about $100 billion a year, much of it because patients get sicker and need additional treatment or hospitalization.

The technology could potentially be used to monitor whether post-surgical patients took too much opioid medication or clinical trial participants correctly took drugs being tested. Insurers might eventually give patients incentives to use them, like discounts on copayments, said Dr. Eric Topol, director of Scripps Translational Science Institute, adding that ethical issues could arise if the technology was “so much incentivized that it almost is like coercion.”

This ex-trucker has some questions about the Tesla Semi

This first version of the Semi will not replace the dozens of thousands of trucks on huge regional or coast-to-coast runs, clocking 2,000 to 5,000 miles per week.

I understand acceleration is a core Tesla brand value, but I’m far more interested in braking. An 80,000-pound tractor trailer needs about 550 feet to come to a complete stop from 55 miles per hour, and I spent a surprising portion of every driving shift trying not to obliterate car drivers who weren’t aware of that fact. Show me how much the Semi can lop off that braking distance.

Companies like Wal-Mart and JB Hunt that have placed orders for Tesla Semis have the routes, terminal control, and money for terminal infrastructure to make the most of the Semi, so we’ll see what the production unit looks like in 2019 (hopefully) and parse the feedback after 10,000 miles of road duty. Don’t be surprised to see more mirrors.


Can carbon-dioxide removal save the world?

Carbon-dioxide removal is, potentially, a trillion-dollar enterprise because it offers a way not just to slow the rise in CO2 but to reverse it. The process is sometimes referred to as “negative emissions”: instead of adding carbon to the air, it subtracts it. Carbon-removal plants could be built anywhere, or everywhere. Construct enough of them and, in theory at least, CO2 emissions could continue unabated and still we could avert calamity. Depending on how you look at things, the technology represents either the ultimate insurance policy or the ultimate moral hazard.

As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

Building arks, rather than trying to predict The rain

“One thing I’ve come to as an investor, is recognizing that there are a lot of ways to make money in the market. There are a lot of investment approaches and philosophies that can do very well, but all of them test the investor in one way or another. Therefore, it’s important for you to figure out how to align your investment philosophy with your own personality – so that when the investment philosophy inevitably tests you, you’re the sort of person who will pass the particular types of tests required to successful manage your investment strategy.”


What is blockchain technology?

The blockchain is still in its nascent stages. However, blockchain technology promises to entirely reshape money, middlemen, and trust. Ultimately, blockchain is as much a political and economic hypothesis as a technological one. Blockchain technology provides a new way to think about how we agree on things. For the first time, multiple untrusted parties can create and agree on a single source of truth, without the use of a middleman. The technology’s implications for traditional middlemen and corporate players are therefore potentially enormous. As the landscape evolves, the future of blockchain will likely take on forms yet to be imagined.

It’s fructan, not gluten, that’s causing stomach problems, says new research

The scientists found that the participants only developed bloating symptoms after eating fructan-containing bars. Other bars, including those with gluten, did not cause the distress. This led the researchers to conclude that fructan, not gluten, may be behind the bowel problems. One big reason it’s important to figure this out – people who are on a gluten-free diet were found to have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes by other recent research.


To solve problems caused by sitting, learn to squat

In the past half century, epidemiologists have been forced to shift how they study movement patterns. In modern times, the sheer amount of sitting we do is a separate problem from the amount of exercise we get. Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger.

“Every joint in our body has synovial fluid in it. This is the oil in our body that provides nutrition to the cartilage,” Jam says. “Two things are required to produce that fluid: movement and compression. So if a joint doesn’t go through its full range—if the hips and knees never go past 90 degrees—the body says ‘I’m not being used’ and starts to degenerate and stops the production of synovial fluid.”

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.”

Curated Insights 2017.10.15

86-year-old billionaire iPhone chipmaker retires just as his industry heats up

“Since we established ourselves, fabless companies began to mushroom worldwide. Most of the innovations in the semiconductor industry in the last 30 years came from those fabless companies. That’s probably my biggest pride, to have caused a lot of innovations in the industry.”

Liu and Wei inherit a company that is about 30 times larger than local rival United Microelectronics Corp. and commands 59 percent of the $50 billion global foundry market.

Growing chipset demand from China spells another opportunity for TSMC: the country spent $227 billion importing integrated circuits in 2016, according to data from Chinese customs authorities, the fourth consecutive year that chip imports have exceeded $200 billion.


Nvidia, Intel, Marvell: Look how they’ve slimmed down! Says Stifel

“The end markets of semiconductors have changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” he observes, given how much automotive and industrial, two industries with longer product cycles, and therefore more predictable revenue, have taken from more volatile industries.

Another reason for rising valuations is simply scarcity: “In 2007 there were roughly 118 publicly traded semiconductor companies. Today there are roughly 55.”


Shopify S-1 analysis – Smiling all the way to $10B

How are they able to sustain more efficient growth as they scale? The first reason is Shopify has been able to grow their contract value by 14% annually. The average subscription payment by merchant has remained flat over the past four years. Instead of growing subscription revenue on a per customer basis, Shopify is capturing more share of GMV. The chart above shows the merchant services revenue generated per billion dollars of gross merchandise value by Shopify. You can see that figure has quite nearly doubled in four years. In other words, as Shopify merchants sell more, Shopify benefits Proportionately from the growth in GMV, but also at an increasing slope because they capture almost twice as much in fees as they have been historically.

Consequently, merchant services now account for greater than 50% of revenue up from just above 20% four years ago. The gross margin on the software business has remained 78% over the past four years, while merchant services gross margin has fallen from 50% to 30%. Overall gross margin has fallen from 80% to 54%. But that is an advantageous trade considering the massive revenue growth.

Citron exposes the dark side of Shopify the FTC will take notice

Out of the claimed 500,000 websites, Shopify has about 2,500 “Plus” clients and maybe another 20,000 “Advanced”. So where are the other 450,000 + websites?

The majority of Shopify’s customers are not SMB merchants; rather, they are people who are buying a system and Shopify goes as far as to supply them a theme and inventory.


Ikea puts Latin America, Southeast Asian markets in its sights

Ikea has more than 400 stores in 49 markets across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

According to Ikea’s plans, it will have opened its first store in South America within the next five years, which is the same timeframe it has set for its expansion into Vietnam and the Philippines. As South America is a new region, it’s likely to enter two or three markets there around the same time in order to secure supply and production, Loof said.

Ikea plans to add 22 new stores this year, up from 14 new stores in 2017. In the future, Ikea will probably open some 25 new stores annually, Loof said. Ikea’s website attracted 2.3 billion visitors last year, while its stores got 936 million visits.


Singapore home-sharing quietly grows despite the rules

Airbnb said its travelers to Singapore typically stay 4.1 nights compared with 3.6 for the average tourist, and three-quarters of listings are outside of traditional hotel districts, allowing tourism spending to accrue in areas that don’t usually host outside visitors.

In a February debate in Parliament, Louis Ng Kok Kwang, a lawmaker for the ruling People’s Action Party, urged the government to regulate rather than ban home-sharing services, noting that the approach so far is inconsistent with how Singapore treated car-sharing businesses, such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Grab.


How we’re solving the LIDAR problem

Strobe’s new chip-scale LIDAR technology will significantly enhance the capabilities of our self-driving cars. But perhaps more importantly, by collapsing the entire sensor down to a single chip, we’ll reduce the cost of each LIDAR on our self-driving cars by 99%.

Strobe’s LIDAR sensors provide both accurate distance and velocity information, which can be checked against similar information from a RADAR sensor for redundancy. RADARs typically also provide distance and velocity information and operate under more challenging weather conditions, but they lack the angular resolution needed to make certain critical maneuvers at speed. When used together, cameras, LIDARs, and RADARs can complement each other to create a robust and fault-tolerant sensing suite that operates in a wide range of environmental and lighting conditions.

 


India stock market could triple in a decade

” … The sectors poised to benefit the most are consumer-oriented and financials. Total online shoppers in India are set to skyrocket from 60 million to 475 million in 2027, while online retail as a percentage of total retail will grow even faster, from 2.2% today to 12.1% in a decade. Unsurprisingly, Amazon.com, China’s Alibaba Group Holding and South Africa’s Naspers have been aggressively investing billions of dollars in India. Morgan Stanley figures Softbank alone has invested some $46 billion in local e-commerce and on-line payments, ride-hailing, and real estate platforms.

As for the financials, Morgan Stanley sees total loans increasing 11 percentage points to 78% of GDP by 2027; total mutual fund assets under management jumping more than ten-fold over the same period; and collected life and general insurance premiums spiking, as well. Fin-tech companies should see exponential growth …”


Bitcoin’s academic pedigree

Nakamoto’s genius, then, wasn’t any of the individual components of bitcoin, but rather the intricate way in which they fit together to breathe life into the system. The timestamping and Byzantine agreement researchers didn’t hit upon the idea of incentivizing nodes to be honest, nor, until 2005, of using proof of work to do away with identities. Conversely, the authors of hashcash, b-money, and bit gold didn’t incorporate the idea of a consensus algorithm to prevent double spending. In bitcoin, a secure ledger is necessary to prevent double spending and thus ensure that the currency has value. A valuable currency is necessary to reward miners. In turn, strength of mining power is necessary to secure the ledger. Without it, an adversary could amass more than 50 percent of the global mining power and thereby be able to generate blocks faster than the rest of the network, double-spend transactions, and effectively rewrite history, overrunning the system. Thus, bitcoin is bootstrapped, with a circular dependence among these three components. Nakamoto’s challenge was not just the design, but also convincing the initial community of users and miners to take a leap together into the unknown—back when a pizza cost 10,000 bitcoins and the network’s mining power was less than a trillionth of what it is today.

The history described here offers rich (and complementary) lessons for practitioners and academics. Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology. As shown here, most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.

Academia seems to have the opposite problem, at least in this instance: a resistance to radical, extrinsic ideas. The bitcoin white paper, despite the pedigree of many of its ideas, was more novel than most academic research. Moreover, Nakamoto didn’t care for academic peer review and didn’t fully connect it to its history. As a result, academics essentially ignored bitcoin for several years. Many academic communities informally argued that Bitcoin couldn’t work, based on theoretical models or experiences with past systems, despite the fact that it was working in practice.

The lessons of Leonardo: How to be a creative genius

Be curious about everything. Leonardo’s most distinctive trait was his passionate, playful and occasionally obsessive curiosity. He made lists in his notebooks of hundreds of subjects, both marvelous and mundane, that he wanted to explore…Some of his curiosity involved phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary, since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”

Observe attentively. His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused on things that the rest of us barely notice. One night he saw lightning flash behind some buildings and for that instant they looked smaller, so he launched a series of experiments to verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light.

The best reason to learn from Leonardo, however, is not to get a better job but to live a better life. Having immersed myself in his world for several years, I have resolved to be more observant of phenomena that I used to ignore.

Curated Insights 2017.10.01

Alibaba takes control of delivery business at center of U.S. probe

China’s largest web marketplace agreed to increase its stake in Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. to 51 percent. Under the deal, Alibaba plans to consolidate Cainiao’s financials into its own books, eroding Alibaba’s bottom line, and will get an additional seat on Cainiao’s board, taking its representation to four out of seven seats.

It oversees a coterie of more than a dozen shipping partners, orchestrating deliveries carried out by about 2 million people across more than 600 cities. Cainiao’s operation had enabled Alibaba to maintain what it called an asset-light model that eschewed expensive warehouse construction.

“They’re realizing that it’s much more capital-intensive than they expected to build this out. Right now they are essentially obligating themselves to report profit and loss on the income statement every quarter, which they probably should have been doing.”


A small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone

This comparison is apt: the Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

It’s fitting therefore to remember how the iPhone was launched; as a tentpole troika: A wide-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone. Today the new Watch is a small-screen iPod, an Internet Communicator and a Phone.

So not only is the Series 3 Watch more powerful than the original iPhone but it is also poetically capable of the same tentpole jobs. But it’s not just a miniature iPhone. It has a new, completely orthogonal attack on non-consumption and market creation: fitness and health. This is a key point. The iPhone was born a phone but grew up to be something completely unprecedented, unforeseen by its creators and, frankly, undescribable in the language of 2007.


Forget the Swiss, it’s Fossil that Apple is threatening

In the watch world, the Fossil Group is a giant. It has 17 brands: six of its own (Fossil, Skagen, etc.) and 11 licensed brands (Michael Kors, Emporio Armani, Tory Burch, etc.) In 2014, it was on a roll, achieving a fifth consecutive year of record revenues, at $3.51 billion. Watches accounted for 78% of that.

Then along came Apple. Suddenly, Fossil was competing with a monster 67 times bigger than it was (measured by revenues). “Prior to that, we were clearly positioned as the competitively advantaged leader in a growing category,” Fossil CEO Kosta Kartsotis told financial analysts in February. “However, with the introduction of technology into wrist devices, traditional watches came under pressure and we were disadvantaged. We didn’t have the technology capabilities to compete with smartwatches, leading to a decline in our market.”

“I haven’t met with anybody [in Switzerland] yet who sees this [downturn] as anything other than a slump,” he told me in March. “They don’t see the threat from the smartwatch.” Apple will continue to perfect the smartwatch, he says. “By version 3 or 4, everyone will be thinking this is a good thing to have. Forty to 80 million people will want this.”


Siemens to merge rail operations with French rival Alstom

Siemens will transfer its business making train and transit cars and signaling equipment to Alstom in exchange for a 50 percent stake in the enlarged company.

The combination will give the German company control of an icon of French industry that developed the high-speed TGV trains that zip across the countryside at upwards of 300 kilometers an hour (186 miles per hour)…Capping years of speculation in the industry about the need for consolidation, the tie up could mirror the emergence of European planemaker Airbus in the 1970s that went on to become the biggest competitor to Boeing Co.

Now, the companies’ tie up comes after Chinese dominance of the train market has solidified. CRRC controls about half of the rail car and locomotive market, while Siemens and Bombardier each have about 12 percent and Alstom around 11 percent, according to Desjardins Capital Markets. The Chinese company was formed in 2015 in a merger of the country’s two main regional train manufacturers and it has won rail orders in U.S. cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

China gives automakers more time in world’s biggest EV plan

Under the so-called cap-and-trade policy, automakers must obtain a new-energy vehicle score — which is linked to the production of various types of zero- and low-emission vehicles — of at least 10 percent starting in 2019, rising to 12 percent in 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said on its website. The rule applies to carmakers that manufacture or import more than 30,000 traditional vehicles annually, and those who fail to comply must buy credits or face fines.

The targets look achievable for the industry as a whole, McKerracher said. Considering the credit structure, 12 percent in 2020 would translate to about 4 percent to 5 percent of actual vehicle sales.


Why India will tell us when self-driving cars will hit the US

When will self-driving cars arrive? Depends on who you ask. The VCs believe what they’re told by their portfolio companies. Automakers will say anything to inflate their stock price relative to Tesla. Self-driving evangelists and “keynote speakers” on LinkedIn? Broken clocks not yet right even once. The media? There are still less than ten people writing intelligently on a market expected to hit $7 trillion.

Population density is so high that no current Automatic Emergency Braking system could possibly work in traffic, because no car equipped with it would ever move. What about Blind Spot Monitoring systems? They’d be lighting up and chiming so much, you’d have to disable them.

That Indian roads are more dangerous than America’s is obvious, and beside the point. No government ever eases traffic safety laws. Indian traffic fatalities in 2013 approached 240,000, in a country of 1.3 billion. That’s 16.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year. For those numbers to go down, people have to have choices that lead to them to safety. In a country where the majority have never owned a car, where two wheelers dominate and road conditions are terrible, getting people into any car will improve overall safety.


Learning effects, network effects, and runaway leaders

Learning effects have the potential to generate enormous economic value, as network effects do, if companies are able to close this loop and make it self-reinforcing: that is, if their products learn more because they have become more valuable.

In order for learning effects to produce runaway leaders, a company must secure a definitive advantage over its competitors in one of the component areas of learning effects – data, intelligence, product innovation or user/customer growth – and leverage this into advantages in the others, such that the company can acquire data, learn, innovate and grow not only more rapidly than its competitors do, but more rapidly than they can.

Certain products – particularly those built on highly dynamic datasets – may have perpetual learning curves such that in a rapidly changing world, they can always be meaningfully improved. It’s around these kinds of products that the most valuable runaway leaders will likely develop. Potential examples include search, semantic engines, adaptive autonomous systems and applications requiring a comprehensive real-time understanding of the world.

How Europe’s changes to copyright law will affect America

The goal of these copyright changes is to adopt new protections for publishers and artists. But if they are put in place, the burdens they would place on internet platforms would curtail the kind of quick uploading, sharing, commenting and responding that makes the Web so useful. Additionally, we have no reason to believe that these new plans would actually benefit the journalists and artists in whose name the measures are being proposed.

Yet a lot more is at stake than the fate of Google or Facebook. Those companies at least can afford the cost of complying with (or avoiding) Europe’s copyright proposals. Smaller businesses can’t. For example, medium-sized internet platforms pay between $10,000 and $25,000 a month in licensing fees for a common tool that conducts a copyright scan of uploaded audio files, an impost that could wipe out a new startup.


India: A $6T GDP By 2027?

The government and the Central Bank are on a mission to rapidly formalize and financialize the Indian economy. India has introduced a universal biometric identification system (Aadhaar), initiated measures to boost financial inclusion, moved to a new fully online value-added goods and services tax system and implemented real-time payment systems. Coupled with rising smartphone penetration, likely doubling from 300 million to nearly 700 million by 2020, these changes are driving India’s digitization. We expect a step change in India’s per capita income, banking system and stock market performance over the coming years. The channels of change include more financial penetration, greater tax compliance and increased credit to micro enterprises and consumers.

The result could be a multi-trillion dollar investment opportunity. Aside from the near-term teething issues involved in execution of such big changes and other cyclical problems faced by the economy, there is scope for visible shifts in economic activity starting in 2018.


We’re going to need more lithium

By 2030, Tianqi Lithium, SQM, Albemarle, and FMC, the companies that dominate the business, will have to supply enough lithium to feed the equivalent of 35 plants the size of the Tesla Gigafactory now being built in Nevada, according to BNEF. The total investment in new mines, including some for other elements used in lithium ion batteries, will likely range from $350 billion to $750 billion, according to analysts at researcher Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.


 

Our hankering for meat is a boon for global antibiotic producers

Food animals will consume 200,235 tons of antimicrobial medicines by 2030, 53 percent more than they were getting in 2013, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science. China, already the world’s largest consumer of veterinary antimicrobials, is forecast to lead the charge, with a 59 percent jump.

Limiting daily meat intake worldwide to the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66 percent, the researchers said.

37 quotes from big corporate execs who laughed off disruption when it hit

“Amazon.com is a very interesting retail concept, but wait till you see what Wal-Mart is gearing up to do,” he said [IBM Chairman, Louis V. Gerstner Jr.]. Mr. Gerstner noted that last year IBM’s Internet sales were five times greater than Amazon’s. Mr. Gerstner boasted that IBM “is already generating more revenue, and certainly more profit, than all of the top Internet companies combined.”

The Apple watch is an interesting toy, but not a revolution,” said Swatch executive Nick Hayek Jr., speaking to a Swiss newspaper. “I personally don’t want my blood pressure and blood sugar values stored in the cloud, or on servers in Silicon Valley … I cannot accept the responsibility of whether my device warns a customer in time before a heart attack.”

“Apple is like a mutant virus, escaping from the traditional structure of the PC industry, but the industry will still eventually build up immunity, thus further blocking this trend, and we believe the size of the non-Apple camp will exceed Apple’s, because this is how the industry normally evolves.”

“Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”


So few market winners, so much dead weight

Only 4 percent of all publicly traded stocks account for all of the net wealth earned by investors in the stock market since 1926, he has found. A mere 30 stocks account for 30 percent of the net wealth generated by stocks in that long period, and 50 stocks account for 40 percent of the net wealth.

Once you actually find these rare companies, you have to hold on to them. This too is much more challenging than most realize. The stellar stocks tend to have regular, gut-wrenching price slumps; the big winners above have all suffered retreats of 50, 60 even 90 percent on the way to becoming the biggest winners. Most investors lack the fortitude and discipline to manage the pain of these severe price fluctuations.

Once you get through those two challenges, you have to decide when to jettison these winners since nothing continues forever. As Sommer points out, General Motors Co. was a star from 1926 on — that is, until it went bankrupt in June 2009 and basically wiped out equity investors. AT&T Inc., meanwhile, was broken into many smaller parts, some of which have done very well (Verizon Communications Inc.), while others not so much (Lucent).

As we have observed repeatedly, finding the very best companies to own is very difficult to do.


Some market myths hurt investors

Margin debt at all-time highs mean euphoria in the markets. Margin debt reflects the amount of borrowed money used to purchase securities in the markets. It sounds scary when people point to margin debt at an all-time high because that means investors are borrowing more money than ever to buy stocks. But this indicator doesn’t really tell us anything. As markets rise, margin debt will rise. As markets fall, margin debt will fall. All historical margin debt peaks tell you is that margin debt fell when stocks fell. The following chart is more useful, as it shows margin debt as a percentage of the overall market cap of the stock market. Margin debt is a backward-looking indicator that tells you nothing else beyond how the stock market has performed in the past.

Something’s gotta give between stocks and bonds. Investors often assume stocks or bonds are telling them something. So when both rise at the same time, the assumption is that either the equity or fixed-income market must be wrong. The problem with this line of thinking is that stocks and bonds both go up over time, and most of the time they go up at the same time.

Bonds always lose money when interest rates rise. Out of those 36 rising rate years, 27 had positive returns on five-year Treasuries. So three-quarters of the time when rates rose on a calendar-year basis, bonds still earned positive returns. Rising rates will lead to lower bond prices, but you have to think in terms of total returns to understand the relationship between bond performance and interest rates.

Curated Insights 2017.09.24

Ferrari bets racetrack wins will lead to showroom sales

Ferrari’s financial success over the past 15 years has “been achieved on the back of Formula One,” the CEO said in March, adding that the company couldn’t afford many more losing seasons without suffering financially.

But there is little empirical evidence that winning races translates into increased sales. AllianceBernstein, a wealth manager, argues Ferrari doesn’t need Formula One. “There can’t be a soul on earth who doesn’t know that Ferrari makes fast red cars, with excellent technology and that it has a motor sport heritage,” AllianceBernstein wrote in a report last month, adding that Lamborghini, Porsche and other high-end brands have no trouble selling cars despite being absent from Formula One for many years.

While Ferrari doesn’t reveal its estimates for the financial and promotional benefits it derives from Formula One, Mercedes said that in 2016 it got the equivalent of $3 billion in advertising value from the team.

For years, the company limited its sales to no more than 7,000 cars annually to stoke demand. Now, Mr. Marchionne plans to raise that limit to 10,000 in the coming years, while also moving Ferrari into new areas such as home furnishings and technology products.


Liu Qiangdong, the ‘Jeff Bezos of China’, on making billions with JD.com

It was just three years ago that China overtook the US as the largest e-commerce market — but last year China’s total online retail transactions hit an estimated $750bn, nearly double the figure in the US. Most analysts predict China’s online retail market will more than double again by 2020, by which time Chinese online purchases are expected to exceed those of the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan combined.

The contradiction between Alibaba’s much larger market share and profits but smaller revenues is explained by the rivals’ different business models. Like Amazon, JD.com controls most of the supply chain and delivers goods from its own warehouses directly to customers, so it counts online sales as revenues. Alibaba, by contrast, is essentially an internet platform and payment system for other companies and individuals selling to consumers online and earns the bulk of its revenue from advertising.

“I was the first and only stall in that market to put price labels on everything and give official receipts; from day one I never sold any counterfeits and I soon had the best reputation,” he says. “A lot of rich people in China cannot sleep well because they did too many wrong things but I never made any dirty money ever so I can sleep very well.”

What’s the true TAM of search?

To truly appreciate the nature of information distribution, we need to think in a broader context and challenge some assumptions: what if “online advertising”, or even “advertising” is not the right way to measure the TAM (total addressable market) for the search engine business?

If we correctly define the role of search engines, we can see that what they are really designed to address is actually something much broader – “search cost”. Search cost is the biggest component of what economists label as “friction cost” in an economy and it can exist and be addressed in many different forms.

All of that excess rent is a form of marketing that brands and retailers pay to address “search cost”. In a purely online environment, the physical location is disintermediated and what companies would otherwise pay in excess rent in an offline setting would presumably get re-allocated in the form of Amazon commissions or Google keyword ads.

Actually, most of the time, new technological developments have a tendency to shrink the TAM as technology is usually deflationary (the search engine being an exception), so be careful when you see IR slides of tech companies where management takes an estimate of the market size today and declares that number as their company’s financial destiny – it most likely overstates the actual TAM.


Google Travel is worth $100 billion — even more than Priceline

Our estimate of $11.2 billion in Google travel revenue in 2016 would mean that travel accounted for 13 percent of Google’s total Google Segment revenue and 12 percent of the company total (includes the so-called other bets part of the business). Google’s total Google segment operating margin is in the low 30s, but the core AdWords business is likely much higher (meta would likely be in the 25 percent range).

Given a margin profile that is likely above Priceline and digital ad spend growing more than 20 percent per year, the value of the travel business would warrant a similar price-to-sales multiple as Priceline; off of 2016 results, Priceline trades at over 8x revenue. As mentioned earlier, using a 7x multiple on our estimated 2017 numbers for Google, the Google travel business could be worth as much as $100 billion or 15 percent of Google’s $650 billion market cap.

Online travel companies would like to diversify away from Google, but no other digital marketing tool offers the same commercial intent of a Google search.


Gaming sector primer

The gaming sector is the most attractive industry I see today due to: relative low price point and inelasticity; highly addictive products; cyclical defensive; ability for some to capture consumer surplus; consistent high margins and ROE. The downsides are: difficulty in developing new IP; high rate of reinvestment.

Imagine being able to sell $5 worth of coca cola to someone and $5000 worth to someone else, suddenly the need to build a massive horizontal distribution platform is terribly wasteful and your efforts are better spent capturing a smaller share of premium clients, which is made possible by the internet and ubiquitous mobile phones.

Today the gaming sector in China is dominated by mobile due to the ubiquitous nature of phones compared to the lack of platform penetration of console and to a lesser extent PC games. As a result, the two Chinese companies which dominate the gaming space, Tencent and Netease, which together control arond 80% market share, were able to leapfrog the traditional console/pc game market and focus largely on mobile and are in my opinion global leaders at the art of capturing consumer surpluses.


The death of (many) brands

Companies with a trusted brand could earn excess economic returns so long as the cost of building the brand costs less than the premium consumers were willing to pay for a product due to the brand. Because brands have historically be very durable (notice the global brands that were built in the 1950 are still dominate today), they created an economic moat that caused these companies to generate outstanding returns for shareholders.

Costco leverages their scale to identify high quality, good value products and deliver them to consumers. This process reduces the value of brands and allows Costco customers to confidently buy non-brand products or products with limited brand recognition. In this way, Costco has managed to earn excess economic returns, even while selling the products in their stores at close to cost.

Now, however, the era of search cost brands is coming to an end. The moats are being breached. Over the long term, we do not believe that these types of brands will provide a significant competitive advantage to their owners and the companies will be forced to compete directly on quality and value instead of earning a return for selling reduced search costs.


China’s electric car push lures global auto giants, despite risks

From high-speed trains to wind turbines, China has long prodded American, European and Japanese companies to hand over their know-how in exchange for access to its exciting new market. Then Chinese companies have used that knowledge and lavish government support to take on foreign rivals. China wants the big players to share their electric car knowledge, too. The foreign automakers face new Chinese regulations that put heavy legal pressure on them to transfer electric-car technology to their local partners.

The joint ventures alone may not make China a leader in electric cars. G.M., Volkswagen and other major automakers have made regular cars with Chinese partners for decades, and China had hoped its automakers would learn how to make their own worldbeating brands. Instead, Chinese automakers grew comfortable making Chevrolets and Volkswagens for local drivers. Only recently have foreign automakers begun exporting Chinese-made cars to buyers back home.

More broadly, global automakers feel that they must grow in a country that has become the world’s largest car market, one almost as big as the American and European markets combined.


Materialize.X is using machine learning to disrupt the $300B engineered wood industry

A lot of engineered wood is created using an adhesive called urea-formaldehyde, which has recently been labeled by the FDA as a toxic carcinogen…The startup has created a patented non-toxic adhesive to serve as an alternative to urea-formaldehyde. Materialize.X plans to license to chemical companies, or engineered-wood manufacturers so they can make the adhesive on site, the method for making this adhesive.

…created software that uses machine learning to take in all those variables and make slight changes to the manufacturing process that can greatly improve the quality of the final product. Examples of these changes are adjusting the amount of adhesive used or increasing the pressure in the bonding process depending on the variables listed above.


The new Texas gold rush: Buying sand for fracking

Texas energy producers have typically bought the millions of pounds of sand that each well requires from mines located far from their drilling fields. After oil prices collapsed in late 2014, though, cost-conscious drillers reconsidered their well designs and recipes for the slurries they blast underground to unleash fuel from shale formations. Many West Texas drillers discovered that they could replace sand they had been shipping from mines 1,300 miles away in Wisconsin with finer grades found in dunes nearby. Doing so eliminates rail costs that sometimes are equal to or more than the sand itself.

The prospect of tens of millions of tons of Permian sand coming to market could drive down sand prices that have been rising nationally, Mr. Handler said. Analysts say that prices rose to as much as $45 a ton earlier in the year, from as little as $15 a ton last year.

Hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb is among those betting that sand stocks will fall further. In an April letter to his Third Point LLC investors, Mr. Loeb cited the “important shift” from special sand mined in the Midwest to abundant sand within drilling basins, including West Texas.

Superpower India to replace China as growth engine

The number of people aged 65 and over in Asia will climb from 365 million today to more than half a billion in 2027, accounting for 60 percent of that age group globally by 2030, Deloitte said in a report Monday. In contrast, India will drive the third great wave of Asia’s growth – following Japan and China — with a potential workforce set to climb from 885 million to 1.08 billion people in the next 20 years and hold above that for half a century.

“India will account for more than half of the increase in Asia’s workforce in the coming decade, but this isn’t just a story of more workers: these new workers will be much better trained and educated than the existing Indian workforce,” said Anis Chakravarty, economist at Deloitte India. “There will be rising economic potential coming alongside that, thanks to an increased share of women in the workforce, as well as an increased ability and interest in working for longer. The consequences for businesses are huge.”


Why machine learning funds fail

The complexities involved in developing a true investment strategy are overwhelming. Even if the firm provides you with shared services in those areas, you are like a worker at a BMW factory who has been asked to build the entire car alone, by using all the workshops around you. It takes almost as much effort to produce one true investment strategy as to produce a hundred. Every successful quantitative firm I am aware of applies the meta-strategy paradigm. Your firm must set up a research factory where tasks of the assembly line are clearly divided into subtasks, where quality is independently measured and monitored for each subtask, where the role of each quant is to specialize in a particular subtask, to become the best there is at it, while having a holistic view of the entire process.


The case for & against cryptocurrencies (for those tired of all the noise)

The strongest cases for the existence of cryptocurrencies in my mind include: (1) allowing for a decentralized Internet in which value is accrued to infrastructure, protocols and applications that serve market needs; (2) allowing electronic trade across actors who may not know or trust each other without middlemen who take a heavy toll / tax on the transaction; (3) allowing for (the potential of) a more stable currency than one’s own government for citizens who may live under despotic or irresponsible regimes.

The simple case against cryptocurrencies includes three completely related factors: (1) powerful governments who won’t tolerate the loss of monetary control or illegal activities; (2) societal pressure to regulate cryptocurrency will increase as more people are duped, as more fraud is discovered, as more hacks occur and as more market participants collaborate to manipulate the value of the currencies themselves; (3) erosion of trust as first-time cryptocurrency participants get duped, lose money and develop skepticism for the asset.

There is a fascinating story in “The Ascent of Money” by Niall Ferguson in which Ferguson describes how the modern corporation emerged. About 400 years ago merchants from the Netherlands were sending ships to Asia in search of spices widely desired in Europe. More than 50% of all ships that sailed wouldn’t return so groups of people banded together and formed the Dutch East India Company to share the risks and the rewards of their conquests.

This is amongst the first examples of the modern corporation. The company brought back spices and reaped profits that went back into building more ships and sailing back to Asia. The company didn’t distribute the profits to individual shareholders who instead were issued the modern form of a share certificate for their ownership. Because they couldn’t monetize this ownership they started selling shares of their ownership to others, thus perhaps the first stock market and transaction dating back to the early 1600s.

No sooner did people start selling shares in these companies than market speculators started spreading false stories about merchant ships being sunk or about large spice conquests to drive up or down the price of these stocks through false information and manipulation. So oversight became necessary to establish trust in the value of these assets.


What Jamie Dimon got wrong about bitcoin and tulips

Mackay confused two distinct eras. He reports stories from around 1610 about high prices paid for individual bulbs. What he failed to realize is that people were not paying for single flowers, but for the entire breeding stock — or a significant portion of it — of popular new tulip varieties. People have continued to pay higher inflation-adjusted prices for new tulip and lily bulbs to this day.

A quarter century later, a futures market grew up around fractional interests in low-priced, ordinary tulip bulbs. In premodern Europe investment returns were very high, 20 percent or 30 percent per year on low risk investments, but laws and customs prevented anyone not in the merchant class from taking advantage.

Holland accidentally created a loophole by allowing contracts for fractional interests in tulip bulbs for the convenience of the industry. These were needed because the price of popular new bulbs was higher than even rich individuals could afford. In the early 1630s ordinary people discovered that these contracts could serve as money to support business and investment. These contracts then became “monetized,” as happens to all assets used as bases for monetary activity. That means their value decoupled from the use value of the underlying asset and became determined by demand for money services.

By 1637, contracts for fractional interests of low-priced tulip bulbs had risen to 20 times the price of the actual bulbs, reflecting the explosion of economic activity they stimulated. In February 1637, the market collapsed; six weeks later it was outlawed.


What Jamie Dimon is missing about Bitcoin

It’s no secret that Bitcoin and other digital currencies may dramatically fall in value at any time. How can an asset whose value jumps by 20 percent some days, and which no one can accurately value, plausibly not also suffer huge declines? But that’s a long way from Bitcoin being a worthless fraud.

Of course, fiat currencies like the dollar have the backing of a sovereign nation. Digital currencies are obviously far more speculative, have been around for only a few years, and don’t have a government’s underlying support. But almost all currencies today are conjured up from nothing — the euro didn’t even exist 20 years ago — and their value is largely dependent on trust.

His firm conjured up its own currency: Chase Ultimate Reward points, its credit card loyalty program. Millions of customers have accumulated billions of points, trusting in Chase’s promise that this currency can be converted into cash or used for travel and other delights. And they hope that Chase won’t unilaterally choose to devalue them…

But new use cases for digital currencies are just starting to take shape. They are now being used to create value in the way that Silicon Valley has traditionally done so: regulatory arbitrage. Ride-hailing got its start avoiding onerous taxi medallion costs; Airbnb avoided hotel taxes and regulations; and YouTube played fast and loose with copyright rules.

Curated Insights 2017.07.09

Massive Chinese Brainpower Is the Next Really Big Thing

The large scale and low cost of Chinese brainpower is another game changer. Suddenly thousands of engineers can be ramped up in a matter of days. And this phenomenon is starting to ripple through industry after industry. What is the impact on the pharmaceutical industry if companies can now access tens of thousands of scientists cheaply? If your competitor is opening a research and development center in China with 10,000 technical specialists, how big of a problem is that for you? Chinese brainpower is starting to impact many industries – often in unexpected ways.”


Could India become the best-performing stock market of the next ten years?

India’s estimated domestic consumption growth of 12 percent y-o-y through 2025 is forecast at more than double the global average of 5 percent — poised to triple to $4 trillion by 2025.

India will have the largest middle class globally by 2027. Currently, only 5% (27 million) of the 519 million strong workforce is classified as “urban middle,” earning more than $11,000 per year.

A structural shift of household savings into equities is helping propel Indian stock markets. A Morgan Stanley analysis concludes that domestic equity savings are on-track to rise by $525 billion over the next decade. The government is also taking steps to increase public-equity exposure.


We are still waiting for the robot revolution

Our chief economic problem right now isn’t that the robots are taking our jobs, it’s that the robots are slacking off. We suffer from slow productivity growth; the symptoms are not lay-offs but slow-growing economies and stagnant wages.

…Imagine an economy that was the exact opposite of one where the robots took over, and it would look very much like ours.

…productivity growth stalled before the financial crisis, not afterwards: the promised benefits of the IT revolution petered out by around 2006.


Could Amazon Spur a CapEx Boom Rather Than Disinflation?

Younger investors haven’t yet seen a Capital Expenditure bubble. What went in the mid-aught’s was a debt and real estate bubble and what’s going on now is a buyback bubble. (Yes, everything is a bubble).

But in the mid- to late 1990’s, we had the CapEx bubble to end all CapEx bubbles (involving computers and wireless telephony), and it was good for the economy (for awhile). The 1950’s featured an infrastructure CapEx bubble (the Interstate Highway System), the 1960’s had its “Space Age” CapEx bubble and the late 1800’s enjoyed a railroad CapEx bubble.

These spending sprees were unlike the debt bubble of the 2003-2007 period in that, when the dust settled, at the very least they had left something useful behind (roads, rails, fiber optics, jets and rocket technologies). The last bubble we had only left behind unpaid loans and financial losses.


Watch Out, Intel. New Types of Chips Are Gaining Ground

“If I look at the latest generation of microprocessors, this year, performance only went up by 3%.”

While Intel’s microprocessor is broadly useful, running everything from scientific computing to spreadsheets, the TPU focuses on a specific problem such as speech recognition so it has power where it counts. It has 3.5 times as much memory as a comparable Intel part in a chip half the size. “We threw out a lot of stuff that was not needed. Instead of the Honda for everyone, we are making these Formula One race cars for some things.”

…the TPU went from sketch to finished chip in just 15 months whereas the latest Intel processors take years to develop. “We are at a paradigm shift in computing architecture. This is a big revolution in terms of the technology approach. Intel is working for two years to squeeze out 10% improvements in performance, and this can get you 10 times the performance, while being less expensive than Intel’s most complex parts.”


Tencent Dominates in China. Next Challenge Is Rest of the World

…the company was also learning how to cut its losses and play to its strengths. In 2013, Tencent gave up on its floundering search business, turned it over to a competitor, Sogou Inc., and invested $448 million in Sogou instead. The following year it sold its equally unsuccessful e-commerce initiative to JD.com Inc. and invested $214 million in JD for a 15 percent stake. Before these deals, Tencent “was involved in everything.” After the deals, “it only focused on what it did best and entrusted other sectors to partners.” Zhang gives much of the credit for these moves to Lau. “Martin is first and foremost a great business analyst. He knows what wars to fight.”

“It’s a little bit like the Godfather Don Corleone saying, ‘I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.’ If you don’t take their money, and they invest in a competitor, it can be deadly.”

Beyond Bitcoin: How Blockchain Is Changing Banking

The government, for its part, hasn’t even settled on what Bitcoin is. The Internal Revenue Service considers it an asset; the Commodity Futures Trading Commission says it’s a commodity; and Treasury Department regulators have described it as a “virtual currency.” Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said the agency has no authority to oversee Bitcoin, but has encouraged central bankers to study it.

“…half of the people in the group are looking for a solution; the other half are there uniquely to obstruct progress.”

Moats & Knights, Part Deux

1. Has management been forthcoming about competitive challenges or do they downplay the threat of new entrants?

2. Does management have the right financial incentives in place or has the board set up low hurdles to make sure large bonuses are realized, regardless of performance?

3. Does management know what the company’s advantages are and have plans in place to extend and strengthen those advantages?

4. Does management have meaningful personal ownership in the business (and thus have skin in the game) or are they akin to mercenaries? 

5. Does management have a track record of sacrificing short-term results for long-term results or do they seem to play the quarterly earnings game?


What I Believe Most

Incentives are the strongest force in the world. They cause otherwise good people to do awful things, and vice versa. They’re also the most misunderstood and counterintuitive force in business. Brent Beshore: “I want to know what motivates people. The problem is not that they won’t tell me, because they will. The problem is that none of us know the truth, even about ourselves. The only thing to do is watch someone over a very long period of time and try to piece it together.”

There are five sources of edge: 1) Learn faster than your competition, 2) empathize with stakeholders more than your competition, 3) communicate more effectively than your competition, 4) be willing to fail more than your competition, and 5) wait longer than your competition.