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 2018.09.28

The problem with compounders

What is most important is you find a business with the correct business model that can grow sales. The sales engine of the company is the most important aspect, and also the one most overlooked by investors and analysts. Sure, cost structure matters, and business model matters as does “capital allocation”, which is what they do with the tiny bit of leftover money, but what matters most is sales.
Herein lies a problem. How do you determine that a small company with the correct business model will grow sales at a high rate? The only way to do that is to visit the company and talk to management. But talking to management isn’t enough. You need to sit down and discuss their sales strategy, understand who their employees are and evaluate the ability to execute on their plan.

This is clearly a dark spot for most analysts and investors. How do you determine if the sales manager is selling you, or knows what they’re talking about? Especially if there isn’t much in the way of results to look at? I believe it’s possible, but instead of having a solid background in financial analysis you need to have sales experience and understand the sales process. Instead of reading the newest book on investing strategies your bookshelf should be full of books on pricing, call strategies, how to approach demos, and prospecting. It’s also worth remembering that enterprise sales is a different beast from consumer sales, or small business sales.

When you start to put all the pieces of this puzzle together it starts to become more apparent why everyone didn’t invest in Starbucks, or Microsoft, or Oracle when they were tiny companies. To truly catch a compounder when they’re in infancy you need a set of skills that few investors possess. It’s not impossible to build out that skill set. Understanding this paradox also helps to expose the myth that buying high growth companies is a surefire way to success. Buying high growth companies IS a surefire way to success if you can buy them when they’re small enough and their market is large enough.


Different kinds of smart

Everyone knows the famous marshmallow test, where kids who could delay eating one marshmallow in exchange for two later on ended up better off in life. But the most important part of the test is often overlooked. The kids exercising patience often didn’t do it through sheer will. Most kids will take the first marshmallow if If they sit there and stare at it. The patient ones delayed gratification by distracting themselves. They hid under a desk. Or sang a song. Or played with their shoes. Walter Mischel, the psychologist behind the famous test, later wrote:

The single most important correlate of delay time with youngsters was attention deployment, where the children focused their attention during the delay period: Those who attended to the rewards, thus activating the hot system more, tended to delay for a shorter time than those who focused their attention elsewhere, thus activating the cool system by distracting themselves from the hot spots.

Delayed gratification isn’t about surrounding yourself with temptations and hoping to say no to them. No one is good at that. The smart way to handle long-term thinking is enjoying what you’re doing day to day enough that the terminal rewards don’t constantly cross your mind.


Investors want managers’ stories — Not track records — Data show

Seventy-seven percent of asset managers thought their messages were differentiated from peers, but only 21 percent of consultants believed that managers’ messages varied, according to Chestnut’s research. In addition, 75 percent of consultants who participated in the study, said their number one search criteria was investment process and portfolio construction. Manager narratives in the eVestment database, for example, get 3,000 views each month. Chestnut had 122 institutional investors and consultants participate in the study.

Amazon’s clever machines are moving from the warehouse to headquarters

Going forward, Amazon will need fewer people to manage its retail operations, a decided advantage over rivals like Walmart Inc. and Target Corp., which are both spending heavily just to catch up. “This is why Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla,” says Joel Sutherland, a supply-chain management professor at the University of San Diego. “Nobody else has the resources and expertise to pull all of these emerging technologies together to remove humans from the process as much as possible while making things more reliable and accurate.”

Faith in the technology grew as it improved. Workers were happy to see tedious tasks like managing inventory spreadsheets delegated to machines that did the work more quickly and accurately. “The numbers don’t lie,” Kwon says. “It’s a better model.”

A key turning point came in 2015 when the value of goods sold through the marketplace exceeded those sold by the retail team, the people say. The retail team, which had far more employees, watched its importance fade and money funneled into projects like Amazon Web Services and Alexa. It didn’t help that the marketplace generated twice the operating profit margin of the retail business—10 percent versus 5 percent, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances. In many international markets, the retail team has never turned a profit, the person says.

In annual sales meetings, a team of 15 people overseeing a retail category would see their growth outperformed by one person from the marketplace team, the people say. The lines between the teams began blurring. Amazon retail vendors had once enjoyed such advantages as video and banner advertising and access to daily deals that get millions of hits a day; now marketplace merchants got the same perks. Many brands became more interested in selling on the marketplace, where they—not the Amazon retail team—controlled prices, images and product descriptions.

“Computers know what to buy and when to buy, when to offer a deal and when not to,” says Neil Ackerman, a former Amazon executive who manages the supply chain at Johnson & Johnson. “These algorithms that take in thousands of inputs and are always running smarter than any human.”


Instagram’s CEO

This dynamic, by the way, was very much apparent when Snap IPO’d a year-and-a-half ago; indeed, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, often cast as the anti-Systrom — the CEO that said “No” to Facebook — arguably had the same flaw. Systrom offloaded the building of a business to Zuckerberg; Spiegel didn’t bother until it was much too late.

Controlling one’s own destiny, though, takes more than product or popularity. It takes money, which is to say it takes building a company, working business model and all. That is why I mark April 9, 2012, as the day yesterday became inevitable. Letting Facebook build the business may have made Systrom and Krieger rich and freed them to focus on product, but it made Zuckerberg the true CEO, and always, inevitably, CEOs call the shots.


Now Facebook needs to worry about the Instagram founders’ next move

Tech companies with non-compete agreements for employees of up to one year rarely enforce them in full—especially in California, where courts have routinely thrown them out or severely restricted the scope of such agreements, Ted Moskovitz, a former SEC lawyer-turned-tech-entrepreneur, tells Barron’s. “California courts are extremely hostile to non-competes, and typically only enforce them where there is some other concern, like theft of trade secrets involved,” Moskovitz says. “California’s economy is highly reliant on innovation and the bringing to market of new ideas.”

The greater issue, he says, is whether Systrom and Krieger are taking proprietary and/or patented intellectual property with them.


Exclusive manager interview on Facebook

Imagine 100 years from today. My great great grandkids will have the ability to see who I was, what I was like, who I spent time with (if I give permission to Facebook to share my account prior to my death…?). This is a wonderful service for future generations. How could a company replicate such a wonderful service? All the photos, memories, comments, stories, and effort that we’ve put into the platform for the last 14 years has created a network and a legacy that I don’t believe will be easy to move or replace. We believe the moat around Facebook is getting wider everyday.

That being said, short-term data shows declines in user numbers for the youngest cohorts. This should be expected. Facebook becomes more interesting for people as they get older. As you age a mature you are posting pictures of your wedding day, your first child, your parents holding grandchildren, etc. You spend time staying in touch and looking at the lives of people that use to be very important in your life, like your brothers or friends from college, old work colleuges, etc. When you’re in high school you live with your family, you don’t have many friends that are scattered across the world, and you’re too cool to stay in touch with Mom and Dad. SnapChat makes way more sense for this young cohort. You can send inappropriate and temporary images as you discover who you are. I wouldn’t expect Facebook to ever really dominate the youngest cohorts, but I do expect that as this cohort matures many of them will spend less time and SnapChat and more time on Facebook. Priorities change overtime and Facebook definitely plays a critical and positive role in the world today.

Sirius XM’s deal to buy Pandora is a win for legacy media

It turns out that costly physical infrastructure and traditional linear programming don’t always doom media companies in their battle against digital upstarts. That’s a particularly relevant point today as Comcast bulks up to continue its battle against Netflix.

Sirius has a sticky business model, in which car buyers predictably turn on the Sirius XM radios that come pre-installed in new cars. We’re at the point where a growing number of used cars are being re-purchased with those same Sirius radios still installed, making used-car buyers a growing market for Sirius. But a satellite radio subscription still can’t match the ease of use or cost of Pandora’s smartphone app, which ranges from free to $10 a month for unlimited music.

In an investor presentation on Monday, Sirius noted that Pandora expands the company’s presence “beyond the vehicle,” while diversifying Sirius’ revenue stream by adding the country’s “largest ad-supported digital audio offering.” Sirius sees opportunity for cross-promotion between its 36 million paying subscribers and Pandora’s 70 million active listeners. The bulk of Pandora’s users are non-paying customers, but the company does have about six million paying subscribers. Sirius can now try to sell its subscription package into Pandora’s large user base.


Blackstone executives have eyes on new prizes

Blackstone has grown five-fold since its initial public offering in 2007, reaching nearly $440 billion in assets, largely on the back of private equity, real estate, hedge funds, and credit. Over the last 12 months, Blackstone has brought in a record $120 billion in investor capital.

Speaking at Blackstone’s Investor Day on September 21, president and COO Jon Gray stressed that Blackstone’s business requires very little capital. Of the $439 billion it manages, only $2 billion represents balance-sheet investments. Instead, it invests the assets of its clients, largely pension funds, endowments, and other institutions. Some of the firm’s future and early-stage initiatives, such as private wealth, involve tapping more mainstream investors.

Insurers are facing increasing regulatory capital requirements and continue to be squeezed by low interest rates. “They have no choice but to move into alternatives and private credit,” said James. Insurance companies, which hold a majority of their assets in fixed income are a natural fit with Blackstone, which is one of the largest originators of credit assets. Blackstone will both manage the assets for insurers like it does for any institution, and buy mature books of business where it takes on the entire balance sheet and manages both liabilities and assets. “This is a larger and more profitable business than simply having accounts to manage. There are hundreds of billions of insurance assets being sold as we speak,” he said.

Ronaldo: Why Juventus gambled €100m on a future payday

There are early signs the bet is paying off. While in secret talks to sign Ronaldo, Juventus increased average season ticket prices by 30 per cent. All 29,300 have been sold. On match day the Juventus stadium superstore is doing a brisk trade in Ronaldo replica shirts, costing up to €154.95 — among the highest prices in Europe. For his home debut, fans travelled from all over the world while television networks spent days trailing his arrival in Turin.

To sign the striker Juventus agreed to pay Real Madrid a €100m fee over two years, a further €5m in payments that will ultimately be paid to clubs that trained him as a young player, and about €12m in fees to his agent, Jorge Mendes. Ronaldo’s four-year contract provides a salary worth more than €50m a year after tax, according to reports. The remuneration package will also allow Juventus to use his “image rights”, so that the player — who earns an estimated $47m a year in personal endorsements — can also be used in Juventus promotional campaigns. Financial services firm KPMG estimates that, including the transfer fee, amortised over the duration of his contract, Juventus will pay around €340m, or €85m a year for Ronaldo’s services.


This 24-Year-Old built a $5 billion hotel startup in five years

Oyo employs hundreds of staffers in the field who evaluate properties on 200 factors, from the quality of mattresses and linens to water temperature. To get a listing, along with a bright red Oyo sign to hang street-side like a seal of good-housekeeping approval, most hoteliers must agree to a makeover that typically takes about a month. Oyo then gets 25 percent of every booking. Rooms usually run between $25 and $85.

Agarwal wouldn’t give sales numbers, but he said the number of transactions has tripled in the last year, with 90 percent coming from repeat travelers — and no money spent on advertising. There are now 10,000 hotels in 160 Indian cities, with more than 125,000 rooms, listed on the site, he said. That’s about 5 percent of India’s total room inventory, according to RedSeer estimates.

China claims more patents than any country—most are worthless

As of last year, more than 91 percent of design patents granted in 2013 had been discarded because people stopped paying to maintain them, according to JZMC Patent and Trademark data compiled for a Bloomberg query. Things aren’t much better for utility models with 61 percent lapsing during the same five-year period, while invention patents had a disposal rate of 37 percent. In comparison, maintenance fees were paid on 85.6 percent of U.S. patents issued in 2013, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.


The future of fish farming may be indoors

Bio-security routines that require sanitizing hands and dipping shoes in disinfectant bins minimize the risk of disease and the need for antibiotics that other forms of aquaculture heavily rely on, says Peterson, who has advised Nordic Aquafarms regarding best practices. However, just one employee who fails to complete the process correctly or neglects other basic protocol could contaminate the operation—with pathogens potentially looping through the recirculating system and killing an entire tank of fish. Large-scale companies could guard against this with monitoring equipment that lets them respond quickly to any issues, Peterson says, adding that strict government permits require routine monitoring that would also detect unusual levels of discharge in wastewater.

The real environmental toll of big indoor systems will depend on the capacity of local infrastructure, including the water supply, Timmons says. Recirculating systems can recycle more than 90 percent of tank water but some of it does get lost to evaporation or absorbed in solid waste each day. He calculates that a farm the size of the Belfast facility would (after the initial tank fill) consume about 1.65 billion liters of freshwater per year—roughly equivalent to the water use of about 12,000 people. But he notes even in a town of fewer than 7,000 people, like Belfast, this is within the capacity of the local aquifer—and is dwarfed by the volume of water the farm would recycle each year. In more drought-prone regions indoor aquaculture facilities could release wastewater for irrigating agricultural fields, reducing the water burden, Timmons adds.


Scientists finally crack wheat’s absurdly complex genome

This is already happening. Using the completed genome, the team identified a long-elusive gene (with the super-catchy name of TraesCS3B01G608800) that affects the inner structure of wheat stems. If plants have more copies of the gene, their stems are solid instead of hollow, which makes them resistant to drought and insect pests. By using a diagnostic test that counts the gene, breeders can now efficiently select for solid stems.


Nearly half of cellphone calls will be scams by 2019, report says

Nearly half of all cellphone calls next year will come from scammers, according to First Orion, a company that provides phone carriers and their customers caller ID and call blocking technology.

The Arkansas-based firm projects an explosion of incoming spam calls, marking a leap from 3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to more than 29 percent this year, to a projected 45 percent by early 2019.

Everything you know about obesity is wrong

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.


35 years ago today, one man saved us from world-ending nuclear war

Petrov did not report the incoming strike. He and others on his staff concluded that what they were seeing was a false alarm. And it was; the system mistook the sun’s reflection off clouds for a missile. Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305.

A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population — or between 82 million and 180 million people in 1983. The inevitable US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, or between 54 million and 108 million people.


Market research tricks

If you ask a question as close as possible to the claim you want to make, and ensure you survey a representative national sample of category users, any national chain in any category will beat competitors that are superior but only regionally available.

As a result of this research and ad campaign, one of Jimmy Dean’s regional competitors actually did its own research, but only in its regional area. The company found that it could beat Jimmy Dean in its region, and made its own ads that said in effect, “Did you really want to eat a breakfast sausage that people in both New York and San Francisco ate? No, you want (our) brand that tastes better to people like you and me here in (their local region).”

And because Taco Bell is pretty much ubiquitous, and enough people everywhere will vote for it because they haven’t found good, authentic Mexican food in their areas, it wins this title. There is no way that local restaurants, or even good regional chains, could compete with the sheer numbers of a national chain.