Curated Insights 2019.08.09

Good for Google, bad for America

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Netflix is not a tech company

Hence, Netflix isn’t using TV to leverage some other business – TV is the business. It’s a TV company. Amazon is using content as a way to leverage its subscription service, Prime, in much the same way to telcos buying cable companies or doing IPTV – it’s a way to stop churn. Amazon is using Lord of the Rings as leverage to get you to buy toilet paper through Prime. But Facebook and Google are not device businesses or subscription businesses. Facebook or Google won’t say ‘don’t cancel your subscription because you’ll lose this TV show’ – there is no subscription. That means the strategic value of TV or music is marginal – it’s marketing, not a lock-in.

Apple’s position in TV today is ambivalent. You can argue that the iPhone is a subscription business (spend $30 a month and get a phone every two years), and it certainly thinks about retention and renewals. The service subscriptions that it’s created recently (news, music, games) are all both incremental revenue leveraging a base of 1bn users and ways to lock those users in. But the only important question for the upcoming ‘TV Plus’ is whether Apple plans to spend $1bn a year buying content from people in LA, and produce another nice incremental service with some marketing and retention value, or spend $15bn buying content from people in LA, to take on Netflix. But of course, that’s a TV question, not a tech question.

Why we sold Trupanion

Why is Trupanion not outpacing the industry when it is the first name many pet owners hear? It could be that pet owners hear about pet insurance from their vet, go home, compare prices, and choose a more affordable option. It’s not an impossible problem for Trupanion to solve, but again, consumers don’t typically understand insurance value until they file a claim.

But at an investor event we attended a few months ago, Darryl said that he was making plans to switch to an executive chairman role in 2025. While we understood Darryl’s choice on a personal level, it also sharply increased our uncertainty around whether company management will be able to successfully build a moat and transform pet insurance as we had hoped. In our opinion, Trupanion will continue to need a visionary leader in the CEO role and finding another visionary to replace Rawlings will be a massive challenge.

Given the industry’s rapid growth, we think it’s perfectly normal for both regulators and pet insurance companies to have some growing pains. While Trupanion has been fined, faces more state investigations, and admits it should have paid more attention to regulators as a stakeholder, we considered these matters minor to our thesis. Regulators may require Trupanion’s Territory Partners to be licensed in all states, but this is more like a speed bump rather than a roadblock.


TGV Intrinsic on MercadoLibre

Network effects are among the highest entry barriers for competitors to build and leverage business. As market leader, MercadoLibre has been able to permanently focus on strengthening the network effects of the marketplace and eliminate points of conflict in transaction processing between buyer and seller. The most important point of conflict between seller and buyer in the past were the payment arrangements. To simplify this process, MercadoLibre launched its own payment service “MercadoPago” in 2004 (comparable to PayPal). MercadoPago provides a secure way to pay for goods and simplified the coordination between buyers and sellers in terms of payment. Today, over 90% of the value god goods sold on MercadoLibre is paid with MercadoPago, which equates to a payment volume of 11 billion US dollars.

Apart from that, logistics costs in many Latin American countries pose a major hurdle for buyers and sellers. The investments required to setup one’s own logistics system are high, delivery times in Latin America are relatively long, and service is rather mediocre. With the founding of MercadoEnvios in 2013, MercadoLibre took over an ever more extensive control over the logistics of goods in several steps. Today, MercadoEnvios operates its own logistics centres, takes over the first mile from the seller or organises the last mile to the end customer with selected partners. In 2018, at least part of the logistics was taken over by MercadoEnvious for 66% of the goods sold through the marketplace. Thanks to the sizeable investments in a proprietary payment system and the continuous expansion of its own logistics, MercadoLibre has massively expanded its marketplace and the network effect that has been set in motion over the past two decades. The value of these investments is reflected in the growth in the number of transactions amounting to 28% per annum over the past decade.

The value of this ecosystem lies in the ever-growing economy of scale. MercadoLibre has more touch points with its customers than its competitors, be it specialised online retailers, payment service providers, or logistics companies. At each of these points of contact, MercadoLibre can distribute its costs in customer acquisition to more services than its competitors. As a result, the costs for new customers per product are lower than for competitors. Second, MercadoLibre can freely decide which areas of a customer relationship to monetise and which not. For example, MercadoLibre may offer MercadoPago payment service to new brick-and-mortar retailers for free but would require a marketplace transaction fee for this merchant’s online product sales. A specialised payment provider does not have this flexibility. As a result, MercadoLibre has created a flexible and cost-effective customer acquisition engine that only very few companies have.


Zebras can change their stripes

Since 2012, JUVE has gone on to secure many other high profile “free” transfers with established winners such as Dani Alves and Sami Khediera, but then also find those that have significant upside potential like Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, and Emre Can. By far, the most impactful and value-accretive “free” transfer was Paul Pogba. In 2012, Juventus signed 19 year-old Pogba from Manchester United, and only four seasons later (and after winning four league titles) sold him back to Manchester United for a world-record fee of $116 million. In total, since 2011, the top 10 free transfer signings by Juventus have created $204m of value (i.e. market value of the players at time of signing) and over $135 million of cash from transfer sales proceeds. Yes, Pogba was an outlier, but JUVE has utilized the free transfer market better than any other club over the past decade.

Let us not forget this is a business, and Ronaldo prints money. Before the ink dried on the contract, the Ronaldo effect took Juventus, and Italy, by storm. His name generated over $60 million in jersey sales in one day – that is the best global branding a club can ask for. JUVE’s Twitter account showed a 10% increase in followers on the day he was signed. Then ESPN acquired the U.S. Serie A TV rights at a massive step-change in the fee ($55 million per year, versus $28 million previously) only one month later. And to no one’s surprise, the first game aired on August 18th showcasing Ronaldo in his new black and white jersey. Your author duly signed up for ESPN+ exclusively to live stream I Bianconeri. The acquisition led to a nice bump in GreenWood’s performance, and most importantly, Ronaldo helped his team win another Serie A title.

The periodic table of investments

Winner-take-all phenomenon rules the stock market, too

Just 1.3% of the world’s public companies account for all the market gains during the past three decades. Outside the U.S., the gains are even more concentrated, with less than 1% of all equities driving all of the net appreciation in share prices.

Just five companies — Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.Com Inc., Alphabet Inc. (Google) and Exxon Mobil Corp. — accounted for 8.3% of global net wealth creation. It is hard to imagine a greater example of the winner-take-all distribution — these five companies account for just 0.008% of the total sample set of 62,000 publicly traded companies. Expand that to the top 0.5%, or 306 companies, and they account for 73% of global net wealth creation. The best performing 811 companies (1.33% of the total) accounted for all net global wealth creation.


Negative rates could happen in America, too

What’s behind negative interest rates? Many observers blame central banks like the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan (BOJ) that are taxing banks’ excess reserves with negative deposit rates and have made bonds scarcer by removing them from the market through their purchase programs. The BOJ now owns about half and the ECB about 30% of the bonds issued by their respective governments, according to Bloomberg.

However, we believe central banks are not the villains but rather the victims of deeper fundamental drivers behind low and negative interest rates. The two most important secular drivers are demographics and technology. Rising life expectancy increases desired saving while new technologies are capital-saving and are becoming cheaper – and thus reduce ex ante demand for investment. The resulting savings glut tends to push the “natural” rate of interest lower and lower.

LBOs make (more) companies go bankrupt, research shows

According to researchers at California Polytechnic State University, roughly 20 percent of large companies acquired through leveraged buyouts go bankrupt within ten years, as compared to a control group’s bankruptcy rate of 2 percent during the same time period.


Is great information good enough? Evidence from physicians as patients

We compare the care received by a group of patients that should have the best possible information on health care service efficacy—i.e., physicians as patients—with a comparable group of non-physician patients, taking various steps to account for unobservable differences between the two groups. Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly better in adhering to both low- and high-value care guidelines than non-physicians – but not by much and not always.


Health facts aren’t enough. Should persuasion become a priority?

Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge. In other words, those with the least understanding of science had the most science-opposed views, but thought they knew the most.

Curated Insights 2018.01.07

The $100 billion venture capital bomb

Son must deploy $20 billion, or a fifth of the fund, every year for the next five years to meet investors’ terms and their expectations in a market that many already consider overvalued.

Son explained to Hauser that there was a big new wave of computing coming — the sixth, in Hauser’s estimation, following on from the mainframe, the minicomputer, the workstation, the PC, and mobile. This next wave would automate processes in industrial manufacturing and on consumer devices. Son said Arm could uniquely capitalize on this new order as the leading processor manufacturer behind the Internet of things.

“This is the company,” Son said in a televised interview. “No one can live on the earth without chips — it’s in cars, refrigerators, everywhere. So if chips are the things everyone needs, and one company has a 99 percent market share, there must be a barrier. They’re not monetizing well enough. But if I own it, we can monetize it much better. I think the company is going to be more valuable than Google.”

Aside from its 95 percent domination of smartphones, Arm has 34 percent of the global processors market. There are currently 110 billion Arm processors in the world. The company has forecast a total of one trillion by 2035. As the applications get more advanced — be that a car, a washing machine, or a drone — they demand smarter processors, which are more expensive to produce in-house. “We price our fee at a tenth of the cost of what it would cost to develop it yourself,” Thornton notes. “So when you’re staring down the barrel of $100 billion and ten years to develop that processor yourself, we can say it will cost $10 billion from us and you can have it instantly. This is why we have expanded so rapidly over 20 years. One by one, design team by design team, we will become the processor of choice in those markets.”

“Arm Holdings has an insight into the future. When Arm makes a contract with a new business venture, providing the Internet of things for automobiles or farming, Arm will know what is in the pipeline for the Internet of things two years ahead.” SoftBank, in turn, gets a head start on funding companies for a market that doesn’t yet exist.

Analysts say SoftBank, which declined to comment for this article, is at work on vertical integration: Foxconn builds devices, Arm supplies the chips, and SoftBank-owned Sprint and OneWeb, an Internet satellite company, operate the networks on which the devices run. Vision Fund portfolio companies will reap the benefits of these partnerships. SoftBank sits in the middle, introducing high-growth prospects from the fund to one another and to the infrastructure on which their success rides.

Units of time are the new currency

Buffett’s not wrong, but technology has changed the nature of competition. While businesses were once considered only as valuable as the dividends they paid out, the “impenetrable” moats that let companies spit off excess cash are dwindling. A moat today is simply a temporary buffer that helps a company get ahead of the next innovation cycle. When you compound time, you’re creating and recreating value faster than the current innovation cycle.

This is the formula for compounding time into a utility and beyond: 1) Reduce friction for your customers and yourself. Use the time you save to build your utility. 2) Compound time by investing in the ecosystem and getting other companies to integrate with your product. Other companies will integrate with you to save themselves time, building on top of your platform and giving you time to invest in the next great business. 3) Buy other people’s time to defend your utility and stay relevant. Smartly acquiring new products helps you maintain your utility.

Jeff Bezos: “All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.” While this created more work in the short-term, it broke Amazon down into hundreds of micro-services that communicated via APIs. By making all services accessible via API, Amazon drastically reduced the time it took to deploy new features and functionality.

Google’s machine-learning algorithms are reportedly five to seven years ahead of the competition. By keeping TensorFlow to itself, Google would have maintained its lead time — similar to how moats are created by stockpiling assets. But by taking the opposite approach and giving TensorFlow away for free, Google created a utility.

Building a traditional moat will be antithetical to building a great business. The only way to survive is to extract the core of your business and spread it out to compound returns on time. First, you have to save time for your customers and even yourself. Then, you have to invest it forward by co-operating with other products in your ecosystem. Finally, you have to acquire new innovation to maintain your lead.


Why has Waymo taken so long to commercialize autonomous taxis?

To estimate the rate at which passengers will tolerate autonomous taxi errors, we analyzed the manually driven car statistics to set the hurdle. On average human driven cars break down roughly once every 50,000 miles and crash once every 240,000 miles,2 thus offering perspective on acceptable tolerance rates for autonomous vehicle SIFs and UFs.

Supporting this hypothesis, its cars seem to have had difficulty making left turns. One possible explanation is that it has chosen not to vertically-integrate, outsourcing vehicle production to partners like Fiat Chrysler and then taking engineering shortcuts by integrating its sensor suite into a product manufactured away from its controls. In contrast, Tesla’s and Cruise Automation’s (GM) manufacturing operations are vertically-integrated, which could become an important source of competitive advantage.

We are skeptical of that negative conclusion for a number of reasons. Today, Waymo probably is trying to maximize its failure rate to identify faults and root them out. Some stretches of road are trickier and some intersections more difficult to navigate than others.

Getting my fix of Starbucks

SBUX has been successful engendering loyalty from its customers as well- Starbucks Rewards has 13.3mm members in the US and an incredible 36% of all dollars tendered in the stores is transacted through the loyalty program (US Company operated stores).

In the US- the average new SBUX location generates revenue of $1.5mm (average unit volume or AUV) and generates a year 1 store profit margin of 34% or $510k. Based on an average store investment of $700k in the US, this results in an ROI of ~75%. Compare this to a McDonalds with an ROI of ~30%, an average fast casual operator at ~40% or even Chipotle (at its peak before the food illness issues) at ~70%. This means that the average SBUX store earns back its investment a third of the way into its second year – very compelling unit economics. The math likely changes with higher investments in Reserve stores and premium Roasteries in the coming years but if these seek to elevate the overall SBUX experience and thus drive pricing power through the entire system, it’s the right move for the long term.

Starbucks is a well-positioned company led by a smart management team playing “the long game”. While store growth in more mature markets and continuing competition in premium coffee may be a drag to future growth, Starbucks benefits from a moat in the form of a strong brand and a loyal, repeat customer that can be extended into more markets and into more than just coffee. And I believe that this moat is sustainable under the right leadership team that understands that Starbucks delivers an experience that extends far beyond just selling coffee. The sustainability of the moat is predicated on continued investment to elevate the store experience and thus drive pricing power. Management has demonstrated a willingness and enthusiasm to invest and has ample runway to do so while also rewarding shareholders with share repurchases.

How big tech is going after your health care

Now, as consumers, medical centers and insurers increasingly embrace health-tracking apps, tech companies want a bigger share of the more than $3 trillion spent annually on health care in the United States, too. The Apple Heart Study reflects that intensified effort.

Each tech company is taking its own approach, betting that its core business strengths could ultimately improve people’s health — or at least make health care more efficient. Apple, for example, has focused on its consumer products, Microsoft on online storage and analytics services, and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, on data.

Last year, Facebook made it more appealing for pharmaceutical companies to advertise their medicines on the platform by introducing a rolling scroll feature where drug makers can list their drug’s side effects in an ad. Such risk disclosures are required by federal drug marketing rules.


Western Digital, Nvidia on board with ‘RISC-V,’ so pay attention, says Benchmark

Any investor interested in learning how adoption of RISC-V stands to disrupt the CISC and RISC processor domains, including discrete processors and/or processor IP (cores and architectures) embedded within simple MCUs as well as advanced ASICs. Additionally, RISC-V stands to disrupt R&D development roadmaps for merchant and captive SoC companies. For example, if Western Digital truly intends to adopt RISC-V in storage products, Marvell will need to reconsider usage of Arm cores. This could lower the upfront licensing and royalty costs for Marvell; however, it may require a revamping of Marvell’s storage controller design flow. Processor IP companies such as Arm Holdings, Synopsys, Cadence Design, Imagination Tech and even CEVA, Inc. could see an impact.

China removes 1,400 baby formula products from shelves

The regulations, effective Jan. 1, require factories making formula to register those products with China’s Food and Drug Administration and pass safety inspections. Plants are limited to working with three brands, and those brands can make only three different products each. China’s FDA has approved 940 infant-formula products from 129 factories so far, the agency said. That compares with more than 2,300 formulations available to parents before Jan. 1.

That vaulted Nestle, Danone and Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc into the top spots in the $20 billion market, according to Euromonitor International.

Capturing those families will be crucial. With the relaxation of China’s one-child policy, Reckitt Benckiser anticipates about 20 million babies being born annually, which could trigger an annual growth rate of at least 7 percent in the infant-formula category during the next five years, said Patty O’Hayer, a spokeswoman. The company bought Mead Johnson for $16.6 billion last year, and its Enfa and Enfinitas brands were approved for sale. Asia generated half of the Enfa lineup’s $3.7 billion in sales for 2016.

The Paris-based company wants to deploy technology such as laser printing to make tampering more difficult and QR codes to ensure traceability of a product back to the factory — moves intended to assure Chinese parents concerned about food safety.

Cancer deaths fall to lowest rate in decades

While a number of breakthrough, high-cost drugs have improved the outlook for people with some deadly cancers, the biggest cause of the decrease in deaths is that Americans are smoking less. The report found decreased smoking rates, and improved detection and treatment, have led to sharp declines in the rate of lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancer deaths.

How blockchain technology is redefining trust

‘Regulators will like that blockchain-based transactions can achieve greater transparency and traceability– an “immutable audit trail”,’ Masters says. In other words, it could help eliminate the kinds of fraud that come from cooking the books.

How do typical loans work? A bank assesses the credit score of an individual or business and decides whether to lend money. The blockchain could become the source to check the creditworthiness of any potential borrower, thereby facilitating more and more peer‑​to‑​peer financing.

Consider traditional accounting, a multi-billion industry largely dominated by the ‘big four’ audit firms, Deloitte, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and PwC. The digital distributed ledger could transparently report the financial transactions of an organization in real time, reducing the need for traditional accounting practices. And that is why most major players in the financial industry are busy investing significant resources into blockchain solutions. They have to embrace this new paradigm to ensure it works for, not against, them.

In the patent, Goldman describes SETLcoin as having the potential to guarantee ”nearly instantaneous execution and settlement“ for trades. It would mean all the capital the bank is required to keep in reserve, to hedge against the risk of transactions if they don’t settle, would be freed up.

The blockchain raises a key human question: How much should we pay to trust one another? In the past year, I’ve paid my bank interest and fees, some hidden, to verify accounts and balances so that I could make payments to strangers. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on lawyers to draw up contracts because I am not quite sure how another person will behave (and to sort out a few incidents where trust broke down). I’ve paid my insurance company to oversee the risk around my health, car, home, and even life. I’ve paid an accountant to reconcile an auditing issue. I’ve paid an estate agent tens of thousands of dollars essentially to stand between me, the prospective buyer, and the current owner to buy a house. It would seem we pay a lot for people to lord over our lives and double-check what’s happening. All these ‘trusted intermediaries’ are part of the world of institutional trust that is now being deeply questioned.

Today, it is circa 1993 for blockchain technologies. Even though most people barely know what the blockchain is, a decade or so from now it will be like the internet: We’ll wonder how society ever functioned without it. The internet transformed how we share information and connect; the blockchain will transform how we exchange value and whom we trust.


Bitcoin-is-Worse-is-Better

It’s not the decentralized aspect of Bitcoin, it’s how Bitcoin is decentralized: a cryptographer would have difficulty coming up with Bitcoin because the mechanism is so ugly and there are so many elegant features he wants in it. A cryptographer’s taste is for cryptosystems optimized for efficiency and theorems; it is not for systems optimized for virulence, for their sociological appeal. Centralized systems are natural solutions because they are easy, like the integers are easy; but like the integers are but a vanishingly small subset of the reals, so too are centralized systems a tiny subset of decentralized ones. It may be that Bitcoin’s greatest virtue is not its deflation, nor its microtransactions, but its viral distributed nature; it can wait for its opportunity. If you sit by the bank of the river long enough, you can watch the bodies of your enemies float by.

Gyms ditch machines to make space for free weights

In recent years the 420-location chain has scaled back cardio and weight machines to 50% of floor space from about 66%. The gym devotes the other half of floor space to free weights and functional training, which includes things like kettlebell swings and body-weight exercises with TRX suspension straps. It has also expanded its studio group-exercise classes.

“I prefer to do classes, because the teacher pushes me farther than I would push myself,” she says. “I get bored on cardio machines or on the weight machines.”

The shift away from machines is even more pronounced overseas. In 54 gyms of varying price levels in the U.K., members’ time spent on cardio machines dropped 7% between 2013 and this year, even as the total number of gym visits increased, according to an analysis from Edinburgh-based tracking firm GYMetrix.

The Remarkable Early Years of Warren Buffett (Part 1)

The risks of buying a home that’s too big

“The biggest house isn’t necessarily the best house or even the best investment. An older, smaller home with a shorter commute, bigger lot or greater remodel potential may appreciate more. In fact, many fancy new homes can lose value quickly if a developer builds newer homes nearby, while older areas may have more enduring land value.”

“You want enough space to live comfortably, but you don’t want to heat, clean and pay taxes on space you aren’t utilizing.”

Long-term returns. The money saved in buying a right-size home could pay dividends in the future—literally. A $20,000 savings each year over the life of a 30-year mortgage could result in a nearly $1.2 million nest egg if invested in a stock market portfolio earning 4% a year, Ms. Adam says. The annual savings, when compounded over time, is likely to exceed the appreciation in your home’s value over the term of the mortgage.