Curated Insights 2018.06.24

Tails, you win

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Google’s half-billion bet on JD.com

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


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

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


Google is training machines to predict when a patient will die

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

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

Adobe could be the next $10 billion software company

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

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


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

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

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

What’s so special about 21st Century Fox?

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

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

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


Disney tests pricing power at theme parks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan robot makers outperform Europeans in profitability

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why Japan’s sharing economy is tiny

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

Indonesia ecommerce through the eyes of a veteran

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

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

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


Malaysia’s economy more diversified than thought

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

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

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


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

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

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


Study: Charts change hearts and minds better than words do

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

Curated Insights 2018.06.17

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

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

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

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

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


The forging of a skeptic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanuc in trouble? Talk to the (robot) hand

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

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

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

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


Internet lending is booming in China

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

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

The scooter economy

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

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

Why you should read those boring 10-K filings

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

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

Curated Insights 2018.01.21

JD.com’s Richard Liu decodes the Chinese consumer

No one wants to take a bag, and put it on a table when a lot of ladies have the same bag with the same style. They want to find something special. Something you cannot find in your circle…But if you look at China, there are more and more young people, and their income is relatively very small, but they want to spend time to find fashion, maybe not as expensive as luxury brands, but still very fashionable. Maybe not big brands, [but rather] small brands, or niche brands.

Commerce platforms for them are the best way to convert their customers to buying. And at the same time, for JD, we are not just a sales platform; we are a brand-building platform. We spend more and more resources to help build the brand — to strengthen the brand is as important as the sales side.

We will use two different ways to cover the entire globe. The first is our South [East] Asian channel. We will set up [a] subsidiary there and copy the Chinese business model. Build a local team, buyer team, logistics system and last mile delivery team, everything the same as in China. In Indonesia we have been operating for almost two years, and we will go to Thailand very soon.

But for Europe and [the] US we will use a cross-border business model. We have been thinking about this for many years. If you just copy another model or local players do exactly the same thing as them, you cannot find an advantage. So we will cooperate with Chinese local brands and bring them to the US and Europe. They need us, and we also need them, because the brand quality is very good and price is not as high. We will choose them, pick them up and bring [them] to the US and Europe. I think people will love these kinds of Chinese brands.


Alibaba’s AI outguns humans in reading test

“That means objective questions such as ‘what causes rain’ can now be answered with high accuracy by machines,” Luo Si, chief scientist for natural language processing at the Alibaba institute, said in a statement. “The technology underneath can be gradually applied to numerous applications such as customer service, museum tutorials and online responses to medical inquiries from patients, decreasing the need for human input in an unprecedented way.”


Keyence: Leading Japan’s new wave of tech giants

Keyence is a beneficiary of the AI, robotics, and industrial-automation boom. Sales of its factory automation sensors have been particularly strong in China, where labor costs are rising. As manufacturing grows more data intensive, factories require more sensors and vision systems to collect data and become “smarter.” Plus, a large proportion of Internet of Things spending is on sensors and connectivity. “Keyence has the highest exposure to upgrade-and-innovation demand,” says Jay Huang of Sanford C. Bernstein. Keyence, with its diversified customer base, is one of least exposed to cycles of single trends like the iPhone, he says, and has more than half the global market share for 3-D vision systems —a market growing 30% a year—and rising sales in China.


Facebook’s motivations

The key thing to remember about Facebook — and Google’s — dominance in digital ads is that their advantages are multi-faceted. First and foremost are the attractiveness of their products to users; that attractiveness is rooted not only in technology but also in both data and people-based network effects. Second is the depth of information both companies have on their users, allowing advertisers to spend more efficiently on their platforms — particularly on mobile — than elsewhere. The third advantage, though, is perhaps the least appreciated: buying ads on Google and Facebook is just so much easier. They are one-stop shops for reaching anyone, which means competitors need to not have similar targeting capabilities and user engagement, but in fact need to be significantly better to justify the effort.


Adapt or die is Marchionne’s stark farewell message to carmakers

Carmakers have less than a decade to reinvent themselves or risk being commoditized amid a seismic shift in how vehicles are powered, driven and purchased. Auto companies need to quickly separate the stuff that will be swallowed by commodity from the brand stuff.

While the car industry has always been tough — Chrysler and GM both went bankrupt during the financial crisis — in the past the mistakes were self-induced, Marchionne said. Now the tumult is being driven by outside forces, and it’s coming faster than people expect, he said — a surprising view, given that Fiat is perceived to be behind some competitors in adapting. He said the company is positioned well, and rather than pour money into competing with Silicon Valley, the industry should try to identify the best solutions coming from tech companies and reduce its exposure to products that aren’t going to be easily defended.


Ensemble Capital: Prestige Brands update

Owning these strong brands, in small niche markets, results in Prestige generating the highest profit margins in their industry. While Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson might be a lot more well known, Prestige Brands turns every dollar of revenue into 34 cents of profits while P&G and J&J manage to squeeze out just 26 cents of profits.

It is important to recognize that Prestige is a brand management company more than a product producer. They outsource most of the capital-intensive production aspects of the business. This capital light, outsourcing approach means the company only employs 520 people, generating an amazing $1.7 million per employee. In comparison, most health care and consumer staple companies do closer to $500k per employee and Apple, which has the highest revenue per employee in the technology industry does only slightly more at $1.9 million. Until their acquisition of Fleet a year ago, Prestige had only 259 employees and was doing an amazing $3.1 million per employee.


How Roku morphed from a quirky hardware startup to a TV streaming powerhouse

For about two years, Roku considered building its own TV set in-house. “Then we decided: No, that’s a way to lose a lot of money,” remembers Wood. Instead, the company teamed up with Chinese firms looking to enter the U.S. market and willing to undercut the competition with budget-priced TV models — a strategy Sappington calls “a very smart decision.” And with millions of active users and growing brand awareness, Roku was able to talk to TV makers eye-to-eye and demand that they not change a thing about its software. “We had a big enough brand that they were willing to do those kinds of deals,” Wood says.

But to really understand Roku, you have to look beyond the streaming boxes, sticks and even TVs. “People think of Roku as a hardware company,” says Martin. “It is not.” Rather, the firm is leveraging hardware to acquire users, which can then be monetized via advertising and licensing fees. “The goal was always to generate revenue by monetizing the platform,” says Wood. “As our scale started to approach 5 million active accounts, that’s when we said, ‘Now we can start focusing on monetization.’”

Still, his message to Hollywood is clear: Roku is already in the content business, and it wants to be top of mind as studios think about windowing their content. “We are a very viable outlet,” says Holmes. “We should be one of their first calls.”


China’s top movie ticketing app said to plan $1 billion IPO

China’s box-office receipts rose 15 percent last year to 52 billion yuan ($8 billion), making it the world’s second largest movie market after the U.S. Almost 80 percent of movie tickets in the country are sold through mobile apps, and Maoyan Weying is the largest ticketing provider with a 52.5 percent market share as of the third quarter 2017, according to researcher Analysys.


Didi has a brilliant plan to contain the threat of China’s bike-sharing services

Already, Ofo and arch rival Mobike have chipped away at Didi’s share of short journeys and struck deals with local governments with the aim of solving congestion problems. Now, they are looking to expand beyond that. Mobike, for example, has tested ride-sharing services. Mobike and Ofo both claim over 100 million registered users, so action is best taken sooner rather than later. The question is whether Didi’s move is too late.

This devilish strategy works because Ofo and Bluegogo have no choice but to be a part of the platform due to their ties with Didi. Ofo counts Didi as an investor and is already integrated into its app, while Didi swooped in to save Bluegogo after it went broke. It’s no surprise that Mobike, the other bike-sharing unicorn which no Didi connection, didn’t elect to be a part of the program.

Techmate: How AI rewrote the rules of chess

No top chess player would take such a big risk, he says. But this computer seems to have “such control over the board, it’s almost as though it has an intuition something good will happen”. His verdict on its overall game-playing ability: “It’s incredible. It’s hard for me to get my head around it.”

All computers before this, as he describes it, worked by brute force, using the intellectual equivalent of a steamroller to crack a nut. People don’t operate that way: “Humans are flexible because we know that sometimes we have to depart from the rules,” he says. In AlphaZero, he thinks he has seen the first computer in history to learn that very human trick.

Predictions about the imminent rise of the machines have always turned out to be wildly over-optimistic. Herbert Simon, one of the pioneers of AI, forecast in 1965 that computers would be able to do any work a human was capable of within 20 years. When today’s experts in the field were asked when that moment would come, only half picked a time within the next 30 years.


This army of AI robots will feed the world

If robots can prevent herbicides from having any contact with crops, it means that 18 classes of chemicals previously considered too damaging to be widely sprayed suddenly become viable. “We’re both ratcheting down the volume of chemicals that need to be used, but also expanding how many types can be used,” Heraud says. In other words, Blue River’s success might be the worst thing that could happen to the herbicide industry, or it could open up an avenue to sell new products.

His next step, with Deere’s backing, will be to move Blue River’s robots beyond herbicides to fertilizers, the culprits behind toxic algae blooms, which are killing fish and making lakes unswimmable. Farmers typically spend up to 10 times more annually on fertilizers than weed killers—about $150 billion a year. But the shift is a big leap for a robot. It must gather a range of visual signals—the colors, sizes, and textures of a plant’s leaves—and from this data extrapolate the plant’s health and how much nourishment it needs. “It’s a ton more processing power, but it’s doable,” Heraud says.

The next link in this technological chain could be a kind of agricultural Swiss Army knife: a robot that can apply not only herbicides and fertilizers but also insecticides, fungicides, and water all at once, delivering only as needed.

The implication of plant-by-plant—rather than field-by-field—farming is not just the prospect of vast reductions in chemical usage. It could also, in theory, end monocropping, which has become the new normal—cornfields and soybean fields as far as the eye can see—and has given rise to the kind of high-calorie, low-nutrient diets that are causing heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. Monocrops also leach soil nutrients and put food supplies at risk, because single-crop fields are more susceptible to blight and catastrophe. Modern farmers have been segregating crops in part because our equipment can’t handle more complexity. Robots that can tend plants individually could support intercropping—planting corn in with complementary crops such as soybeans and other legumes.

Bright outlook for the economy and stocks

But I worry that this tax cut is happening at a time when the U.S. economy doesn’t need fiscal stimulus. And longer term, what will tax cuts do to the federal deficit? The deficit was going to be rising as a percentage of GDP anyway, partly for structural reasons relating to the aging of the baby boomers. A $1.5 trillion tax cut will add an additional $300 billion to $400 billion interest-rate burden in the next few years.

In the past 10 years, American companies made an inordinate effort to think about how to move people or structures outside the U.S. for nonproductive purposes—basically, to increase earnings per share. By moving toward a territorial system of taxation and bringing our corporate tax rate in line with the rest of the world’s, we can get back to having managers focus on productive investments, greater efficiency, and value creation. This will unlock the strength of America and drive GDP growth. Simply, the absence of a major negative is a positive. This is a generational change. While inflation potentially is a fear for the stock market, you have to be positive on the S&P 500, even though we are 102 months into an expansion.

Having covered the auto-parts industry for 50 years, I am seeing more companies announce that they are going to relocate to the U.S. And the U.S. is a magnet not only for American, but also for foreign companies locating here because the U.S. is a big market.

But now the Fed is starting to allow $30 billion of Treasuries, more or less, to mature into the market each month. There is a chance—I’d call it a base case—that the rhetoric and actions of the ECB will have to become more hawkish, given economic growth in Europe. That means the ECB might start to pull back on quantitative easing. Central-bank balance sheets could start to decline, in the aggregate, sometime during 2018. If that happens, the stock market will go down. Quantitative easing, cumulatively, has been highly correlated to the gains in the S&P 500 and global stock markets. Central-bank footings, or assets, went from $6 trillion pre-financial-crisis to $22 trillion subsequently. Bankers are talking about bringing that down to $16 trillion or $17 trillion. Maybe it drops more quickly. It is undeniable that central-bank asset buying has been a prop for the markets.


Some great thoughts on network effects from Anu Hariharan on Twitter:

Often misunderstood – Network Effects is not the same as scale

One simple way to test for that is ask this question – what is the “barrier to exit” for the user?

If the barrier to exit for the user is low, then there is no network effect. This implies it is easy for users to switch from your service

Ride sharing services (Uber, Lyft) don’t have a network effect (in other words demand side economies of scale). Users often switch apps if it takes longer than 5 mins ETA or if there is surge pricing on one

However ride sharing does have supply side economies of scale and therefore opportunity for select players to have monopolistic share in a market

On the other hand apps like Facebook, LinkedIn have very strong network effect – because the barrier to exit for the user is really high!

A user has invested time and effort in building a social graph on these platforms with connections, history of exchanges and in some cases even maintain them. It is not easy for customers/ users to switch easily and therefore the “barrier to exit” for the user is really high

What if everyone got a monthly check from the government?

Kela’s researchers originally envisioned the experiment as the first in a series that would help them understand the implications of expanding basic income nationwide. “With basic income, there will be a lot of winners, but there will be a lot of losers also,” Kangas says. “We have to study the losers.” For one thing, he points out, to provide Finns with the level of financial security they enjoy under their current system, basic income payments would have to be at least twice those of the trial. And to pay everyone, the country would have to change its tax structure.

The wealthiest would be relatively unaffected by such a change because their taxes are already high, but a swath of middle- and upper-middle-class Finns would pay more in taxes than they’d get back in basic income. In national polls, when the possibility of a 55 percent flat tax was raised, the percentage of Finns who supported basic income dropped from 70 to about 30. “We would need to implement another study for the whole population to understand it,” says Miska Simanainen, a tax specialist who was part of Kangas’s team. No such studies are planned.

Trust is perhaps the most radical aspect of basic income. Handing out money requires a government to have faith that people know what’s best for themselves—that, on the whole, they have enough intelligence and foresight to put their financial resources to good use. In almost every basic income study conducted so far, this faith has been borne out. The little money wasted on vices is more than offset by what is spent on groceries or child care. But trusting that this will hold true universally requires an even bigger leap of faith. In 2016, Switzerland’s citizens overwhelmingly voted down a proposal that would’ve given them each the equivalent of $2,555 a month. Surveys showed they didn’t think it was right for people to be given something for free.


Savvy Investor Awards 2017: The Best White Papers

Savvy Investor is the world’s leading research network for institutional investors. Since the site launched in 2015, the Savvy Investor research team has curated over 20,000 investment and pensions papers, placing it in a unique position to judge the best white papers of 2017. The official announcement of winners was made on December 5.

The accolade of “Best Investment Paper 2017” is awarded to the CFA Institute Research Foundation for the paper, “Financial Market History: Reflections on the Past for Investors Today.”


Why dolphins are deep thinkers

One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

How to guard against moat erosion

A wet moat, called a douve or wet ditch, formed a very efficient obstacle against the assaulting army. However, wet moats could be something of a mixed blessing; they were inconvenient in peacetime, which meant that unofficial bridges were often erected – with subsequent argument and indecision about the right moment to chop them down in an emergency. Besides, water might dangerously erode the base of the wall, and stagnant water might be a year ‘round health hazard for the inhabitants of the castle.

Curated Insights 2018.01.14

As of this year the App Store alone will overtake Global Box Office revenues.

The iOS economy, updated

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Tencent, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, Google, Baidu, Instagram, Amazon, eBay, JD.com, Alibaba, Expedia, Tripadvisor, Salesforce, Uber, AirBnB and hundreds of others are all “free” apps enabling hundreds of billions of dollars of interaction none of which are captured in the App Store revenue data. The vast majority of activity for the top commerce, communications and media properties are now coming through mobile devices.

By weight of users and their propensity to engage, iOS enables about 50% to 60% of mobile economic activity. Based on assumptions of revenue rates for mobile services and iOS share of engagement, my estimate of the economic activity on iOS for 2017 is about $180 billion. Including hardware sales, the iOS economy cleared about $380 billion in revenues 2017.


Wal-Mart already has a thriving online grocery business—in China

Wal-Mart has already developed a big online grocery delivery business in China, capable of transporting fresh produce from its shelves to homes within an hour. To accomplish that feat, it’s created a network of chilled mini-warehouses, used artificial intelligence to tailor inventories, and employed an army of crowdsourced deliverymen to rush meat, fruits, and vegetables to customers’ doorsteps. That could provide the megaretailer with plenty of insight and experience to keep tech upstarts from disrupting it out of one of its core U.S. businesses.

Only 2 percent of fresh food was bought online in China last year, according to data from Euromonitor International.


Ensemble Capital: Nike Update

Nike’s sales are 50% larger than its closest competitor Adidas and it is more than twice as profitable. The next few competitors, like Under Armor and Puma both at $5 billion, are markedly smaller in scale. When Nike was founded in 1964 by Phil Knight, Adidas was a much larger incumbent in the sneaker business and Nike was the scrappy startup.

The bigger growth opportunity going forward comes from the international markets, where Nike expects 75% of its future growth to come from and now accounts for about 60% of sales. In addition, this growth is likely to be more profitable over time as its direct to consumer business via its own stores, website, and app will account for a greater percentage of its total sales while creating a more direct relationship with the customer.

New lift technology is reshaping cities

The lift is to the vertical what the car is to the horizontal: the defining means of transport. Like cars, modern lifts are creatures of the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century. Like cars, they have transformed the way that cities look, changing how and where people live and work. And today, like the cars that are lidar-sensing their way towards an autonomous future, lifts stand ready to change the city again.

The Chinese appetite for more, higher and faster lifts is like nothing seen since 1920s New York. In 2000 some 40,000 new lifts were installed in the country. By 2016 the number was 600,000—almost three quarters of the 825,000 sold worldwide. China not only wanted more skyscrapers; it wanted taller ones. More than 100 buildings round the world are over 300 metres; almost all of them were built this century, and nearly half of them in China. The country is home to two-thirds of the 128 buildings over 200 metres completed in 2016.

Liftmakers say that “Destination control”, in which the lift system tells the user which lift to use, rather than the user telling the lift where to go, reduces door-to-desk time by 30%. Pair it with double-decker lifts, which in very tall buildings usefully serve odd and even floors simultaneously, and you increase capacity even further.

Why experts believe cheaper, better lidar is right around the corner

“Our lidar chips are produced on 300-millimeter wafers, making their potential production cost on the order of $10 each at production volumes of millions of units per year,” MIT researchers Chris Poulton and Michael Watts wrote last year. Their chip uses optical phased arrays for beam steering, avoiding the need for mechanical parts.

Experimental, low-volume hardware for cutting-edge technology is almost always expensive. It’s through the process of mass manufacturing and iterative improvement that companies learn to make it cheaper. Right now, lidar technology is at the very beginning of that curve—where antilock brakes were in the early 1980s.

The world’s biggest miner is building a battery supply hub it doesn’t want

BHP began work to build a nickel sulphate plant at Nickel West in recent weeks and is considering a slate of further expansions to make it the largest source of the material and a hub for other battery ingredients. It’s aiming to sell 90 percent of output into the battery supply chain by about 2021, from less than a third at the end of last year. Global nickel demand could more than double by 2050, fueled in part by rising electric vehicle sales, Bloomberg Intelligence said in a June report.

The world’s biggest mining companies are ratcheting up their response to the booming demand for battery raw materials. Rio Tinto Group is developing a lithium project in Serbia, while Glencore Plc plans to double production of cobalt and is effectively “a one-stop-shop” for investors seeking exposure to EV gains, Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. said in a note this month.

The good luck for BHP is that only about 40 to 45 percent of existing nickel mine supply is suitable for processing into a battery-grade chemical product, Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw said by phone. “BHP’s Nickel West fits into that category.”


The most powerful research tool is a great network

The two changes he noted are global environmental standards sponsored by the International Maritime Organization. The first is the “Ballast Water Management Convention” that went into force late last year. It requires that newly built ships have waste-water treatment equipment that purifies ballast water to certain minimum levels. After September 2019, ships that were built before these standards came into force will need a costly upgrade to their equipment to meet this standard for the vessels to pass their periodic inspections.

The second standard will be implemented in 2020. I was amazed to learn that the world’s biggest 25 ships emit more sulfur than the entire world’s fleet of cars! Accordingly, the regulation’s goal is to limit this pollution. Ship-owners must achieve this goal and have several ways to do so, such as retooling to switch to a less polluting fuel like gas or methanol or by installing scrubbers to lower concentrations of pollutants.

If freight rates do not rise with the investment required to build new ships, then there is little economic incentive for many ship-owners to spend the additional capital required to meet the new regulations. This short term squeeze on shipping economics could prompt an increase in vessel scrapping as older ships are retired from service and less new supply is forthcoming from shipbuilders, who are already under pressure from the collapse in freight rates. Any force that constrains supply relative to demand should be positive for freight rates and, in time, the economics of shipping. One unintended consequence of these regulatory changes could be a surprisingly strong bull market in shipping costs!

Why it is time to change the way we measure the wealth of nations

Invented in the 1930s by Simon Kuznets, initially as a way of calculating the damage wrought by the Great Depression, GDP is a child of the manufacturing age. Good at keeping track of “things you can drop on your foot”, it struggles to make sense of the services — from life insurance and landscape gardening to stand-up comedy — that comprise some 80 per cent of modern economies. The internet is more perplexing still. In GDP terms, Wikipedia, which puts the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips, is worth precisely nothing.

Among GDP’s shortcomings, the distinction between flow of income and stock of wealth, highlighted by the story of Bill and Ben, is one of the most serious.

Among the report’s findings, the full details of which are embargoed, is a huge shift of wealth over 20 years to middle-income countries, largely driven by the rise of China and other Asian countries. A third of low-income countries, however, especially in Africa, have suffered an outright fall in per capita wealth over that period, in what could be a dangerous omen about their capacity for future growth. In the world as a whole, the report finds, human capital represents a whopping 65 per cent of total wealth. In 2014, this was $1,143tn, or about 15 times that year’s GDP.

The report is particularly illuminating in tracing the path to development as countries, in the manner described by Dasgupta, trade in one form of capital for another. Crudely put, they use income derived from natural resources to build up other forms of capital, principally in infrastructure, technology, health and education. So, while natural capital accounts for 47 per cent of the wealth of low-income countries, it represents only 3 per cent of the wealth of the most advanced.

The Ripple effect

XRP, the Ripple token, is unlike any other crypto token in the market. It is entirely centrally controlled, operating more like an ETF unit than anything else since the issuer has the capacity to release or absorb (pre-mined) tokens in accordance with their valuation agenda. More egregiously though, the token plays little part in Ripple’s central business case. For the most part it’s just a cute add-on.

Ripple “the settlement tech” is thus arbitrage tech, highly dependent on the whims, activities and behaviours of its liquidity provider community. This means it’s partial to the same exact problems HFT suffers from: namely, the fact there’s no guarantee liquidity providers will always be around when you really need them. In FX this sort of solution doesn’t really cut the mustard. People want a dependable FX service, not one that’s subject to the whims of unknown third-party participants. A bit of historical context is useful at this point, since what XRP really aims to do (we think) is copycat the role played by the offshore dollar in the days before the euro.

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.