Curated Insights 2019.11.01

GrubHub shareholder letter (October 2019)

A common fallacy in this business is that an avalanche of volume, food or otherwise, will drive logistics costs down materially. Bottom line is that you need to pay someone enough money to drive to the restaurant, pick up food and drive it to a diner. That takes time and drivers need to be appropriately paid for their time or they will find another opportunity. At some point, delivery drones and robots may reduce the cost of fulfillment, but it will be a long time before the capital costs and ongoing operating expenses are less than the cost of paying someone for 30-45 minutes of their time. Delivery/logistics is valuable to us because it increases potential restaurant inventory and order volume, not because it improves per order economics.

Earlier, we talked about the great progress we are making with enterprise brands. We love working with large enterprise brands because they help drive new diners to our platform and keep diners from going to other platforms. That said, the biggest enterprise brands don’t need Grubhub to bring them new diners in the same way independents and small chains do because they spend billions a year on developing their own brands. What they need most is a driver to take the food to their diners. And, as we just noted, that isn’t cheap, or particularly scalable, so the unit economics and long term profit outlook for our business would look very different if a majority of our business was coming from large enterprise brands.

Life of pie: A closer look at the Domino’s Pizza system

The key to operating a successful Domino’s master franchise is to have the Domino’s brand stand out against all the other pizza options that are available in the marketplace. In other words, the brand has to be put to work to generate demand, which can only be achieved with significant marketing spend. Tv is still quite important for Domino’s and generally requires a significant advertising budget. That budget has to be levered on a good number of restaurants in order to make sure the marketing expenses stay at a reasonable level per store.

Every new market that’s entered starts more or less from scratch, with limited consumer awareness and entrenched behavior that benefits the incumbents. This is why it is so difficult for a new Domino’s market to get to a scale that makes economic sense. Once you manage to reach that scale that the flywheel can start spinning, because at that point the business can self-generate its growth through reinvestment in marketing.

It appears that the entire Domino’s franchise has come under a bit of pressure from aggregators like Takeaway, Uber Eats, Grubhub and Doordash, which are oftentimes operating at a loss. Since the aggregators are providing access to technology platforms that many small operators would not be able to afford or operate on their own, they’ve essentially levelled the playing field for pizza restaurants again. In my opinion this has decreased Domino’s Pizza’s advantage in the mobile ordering space. Domino’s Pizza Inc.’s CEO conceded recently that the aggregators are indeed having an effect on their same store sales growth (item below). For now I have no strong conviction on Domino’s but it is a business with some fascinating developments.

Schwab kills commissions to feed its flywheel of scale

“ we did not expect such a swift reaction in the sense that we thought that we come out with IBKR Lite as an additional offering and that we go on for a while, and will attract some customers and then eventually, other people will start reducing and maybe all go to zero. So this — this very swift reaction was a surprise to us.” – Thomas Peterffy, Founder and Chairman, Interactive Brokers Group (IBKR), 3Q 2019 Earnings Call

We believe Schwab’s business stands to benefit the most because of the relatively small impact to its revenue and income and the broad, efficient set of high quality service it offers to clients. While the commission cuts mean Schwab offers an even more compelling value to its customers for its existing suite of high quality services, a disadvantaged competitor like TD Ameritrade is trying to figure out how to charge for its “premium” services for customers, effectively raising prices for service in other ways and depressing its value proposition.

Decades of experience indicates the companies offering higher value propositions win more customers. By continuing to pursue aggressive reinvestment in both client service and technological efficiency, Schwab can continue to leverage its growing scale to further improve upon the value proposition it provides clients while continuing to drive down its expense (efficiency) ratio. We believe the gap in differentiation will only get wider now that the smaller competitors are much weakened financially, which is why it made sense for Schwab to be so aggressive in cutting commissions both in 2017 and again October 2019.

An Elastic technical review

Elastic isn’t building a cloud side and a on-prem side to their platform like MDB is. It’s all Elastic Stack in the Elastic Cloud, just hosted at whatever cloud provider the customer desires, and managed by the finest experts one could find — thems that wrote it! There isn’t tooling appearing in Elastic Cloud that isn’t in core platform, unlike MDB with their Stitch serverless platform. However, the downside is that their Elastic Stack releases must bundle the proprietary modules side-by-side with the open-source products.

One striking difference as I walked through the product line, is the number of use cases it solves that DO NOT INVOLVE CODE. MDB is for developers only, to embed into their application stack. Elastic is for that, but also for non-developers to use without needing any custom development. IT can hook up Beats for monitoring infrastructure or network traffic. Enterprise users can feed in datasets with Logstash, for staff to query, visualize, or apply ML in Kibana. I expect this trend to continue, as it really opens up the applicability as to who can use the product line.

Best of all, Elastic is making exciting moves that are moving their company beyond being a do-it-yourself tool provider.


Third Point’s Q3 letter: EssilorLuxottica thesis

Our analysis of potential merger synergies points to over €1 billion in additional profit through efficiencies and revenue growth, almost double the Company’s current targets. In the near‐term, this will be driven by cross‐selling to wholesale customers, insourcing lens procurement, and supply chain efficiencies. The longer‐term opportunity to disrupt the industry value chain is even more appealing: combining lens and frame to shrink raw material need and waste, reducing shipping costs by merging prescription labs with global distribution hubs, and providing a true omni‐channel sales offering. These initiatives will transform the way glasses are sold, significantly improving the customer experience.


Ensemble Capital client call transcript: Mastercard update

While you might hear about how merchants pay 2% or more in credit card fees, Visa and Mastercard are only collecting about 1/20th of that fee, with the banks, the ones taking the credit risk, earning the bulk of the fee.


Ensemble Capital client call transcript: Tiffany & Co update

Tiffany is one of just a few global American luxury brands and the casual observer cannot tell a Tiffany diamond engagement ring from one purchased elsewhere. There’s no room on a diamond for logo placement, after all.

As a company, Tiffany is older than Cartier (founded in 1847), Louis Vuitton (founded in 1854), and Burberry (founded in 1856). This durability matters in luxury because it communicates a brand’s ability to endure all kinds of major socioeconomic changes and remain relevant over successive generations. It also communicates a certain timelessness of core products that remain in fashion despite intermittent fads and trends.

The advertising industry has a problem: People hate ads

“It’s harder to reach audiences, the cost of marketing is going up, the number of channels has exponentially proliferated and the cost to cover all of those channels has proliferated,” Jay Pattisall, the lead author of the report, said in an interview. “It’s a continual pressure for marketers — we’re no longer just creating advertising campaigns three or four times a year and running them across a few networks and print.”

That includes automation and machine learning technologies, which Forrester expects will transform 80 percent of agency jobs by 2030. In July, JPMorgan Chase announced a deal with the ad tech company Persado that would use artificial intelligence to write marketing copy.

Steven Moy, the chief executive of the Barbarian agency, said that multiyear contracts had shortened, with budgets tightening and performance metrics becoming more stringent.

For the first time ever next year, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other online platforms are expected to soak up the majority of advertising dollars, according to WARC.

Last year, 78 percent of members of the Association of National Advertisers had an in-house agency, up from 58 percent in 2013 and 42 percent in 2008.

Curated Insights 2019.02.22

“Hollywood is now irrelevant,” says IAC Chairman Barry Diller

“Netflix has won this game. I mean, short of some existential event, it is Netflix’s. No one can get, I believe, to their level of subscribers, which gives them real dominance.”

And that includes its closest rival Amazon Prime, which isn’t designed to bid as aggressively on tomorrow’s media stars as Netflix is. “Amazon’s model is saying, ‘If you join Prime, we’re giving you things,’” Diller said. “‘So our job is to get you to join Prime. If we can get you to do that by giving you Black Panther, or whatever, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, then great.’ But that model, to people in the entertainment business, is like, ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’”


Tollymore Investment Partners’ investment thesis on Trupanion

TRUP is vertically integrated; it owns its insurance subsidiary and is responsible for acquiring and servicing existing customers as well as underwriting their insurance. TRUP estimates this vertical integration has eliminated frictional costs of c. 20% of revenues. These economic savings have been donated to consumers in the form of higher claims payout ratios. TRUP’s strategy has therefore been to sacrifice the near-term margin upside of this cost advantage in the pursuit of a larger and stickier customer base and subscription revenue pool. This cost advantage does not manifest itself in lower prices, but rather the highest sustainable expenditure on vet invoices per dollar of premiums.

TRUP has built a database over 15 years using 7.5mn pet months of information and > 1mn claims; it has segmented the market into 1.2mn price categories in order to more accurately underwrite insurance costs for a given pet. Of course, determining the point at which the marginal returns on incremental data diminish is difficult, but according to the CEO it would take a competitor 13 years to replicate this data asset. Although Nationwide is larger by number of pets enrolled, its data are likely to be less comprehensive for two reasons: (1) a lack of data for conditions not covered by policies, such as hereditary and congenital diseases, and (2) pricing categories by state rather than zip code, even though the cost of vet care can vary widely within states. TRUP considers its ability to accurately estimate the costs of pet healthcare costs by granular sub- categories crucial to its leading value proposition. This allows for the provision of more relevant products for the customer.

The addressable market is large and underpenetrated relative to other developed markets. The differences in these other markets are not demographic, social or economic, but rather (1) the length of time comprehensive pet insurance has been available, (2) the value proposition in the form of higher claims payments as a ratio to premiums (higher loss ratios) and (3) vet vs. direct to consumer distribution models. Pet insurance companies in the US typically do not cover hereditary and congenital conditions, which are the forms of illness most likely to be suffered by cats and dogs, they increase rates when claims are made, they impose payout limits, and pay claims according to an estimated cost schedule rather than actual vet invoices. TRUP is different in all these respects and as such expects to grow the addressable market in North America to greater than 1% penetration. In any case, it appears to be the case that TRUP’s value proposition is driving adoption in North America.

The unit economics associated with the pursuit of this opportunity to grow the company’s assets are attractive. The cost to acquire a pet is c. $150, around 3x the average monthly ARPU. Assuming the current 10% discretionary margin and a six-year average pet life, the IRR on new pets is 30-40%. At a 15% discretionary margin the IRR would be double this. I estimate that both ARPUs and discretionary margins would need to decline by 20-25% to render reinvestment in pet acquisition a capital destructive pursuit. This would contradict the economic reality of a market in which pet healthcare costs are increasing mid-single digits as new technologies and treatments are ported over from human healthcare, and the scalability of the business model.

Purchases with plastic get costlier for merchants—and consumers

Merchants paid an estimated $64 billion in Visa and Mastercard credit and debit interchange fees last year, according to new data from an industry publication, the Nilson Report. That is up 12% from a year earlier and up 77% from 2012.

Other fees are on the rise, as well. Visa, the largest U.S. card network, is increasing several fees in April, according to people familiar with the matter. Unlike interchange fees that are paid to card issuers, these fees are collected by Visa.

Visa raised its “credit-card assessment fee” this year by 0.01% for most credit-card purchases made in the U.S. While seemingly small on a percentage or flat-fee basis, the increased fees that Visa will put in place during the first four months of the year are expected to cost U.S. merchants at least an additional $570 million through April 2020, according to estimates by merchants-payments consulting firm CMSPI.

But network fees aren’t the only additional charges merchants face. There are also other fees charged by firms that process merchants’ card transactions. Those, which include the network fees, totaled $14.8 billion on Visa and Mastercard debit and credit transactions in 2018, up 10% from a year earlier and 70% from 2012, according to the Nilson Report.


MSG says the Knicks aren’t for sale. It’s a good time to invest in sports either way.

That $5 billion is a big number, 25% higher than the recent $4 billion valuation by Forbes. And $5 billion amounts to more than $200 per share, or about 71% of MSG’s current stock price. Just because the number is large doesn’t mean it isn’t realistic. Don’t forget the Clippers were sold to former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion in 2014. That year, before the sale was announced, Forbes valued the Knicks at $1.4 billion and the Clippers didn’t crack Forbes top-10 most valuable NBA franchises.

Live TV content is part of the reason the value of sports franchises have swelled. Live content is becoming increasingly more valuable to media outlets like traditional networks and streaming companies. But other factors are also at play. Sports betting is another important avenue for franchise owners to generate brand-new streams of cash. “I think everyone who owns a top four professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in 2018, after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports betting in states other than Nevada.

If the Knicks are sold, MSG would be left with the New York Rangers, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, and the Westchester Knicks of the NBA’s developmental league. In addition to Madison Square Garden itself, MSG also owns the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, the Forum, the Chicago Theatre, and the Wang Theatre.

Curated Insights 2019.01.18

10 years since BNSF

“It’s a crazy deal. It’s an insane deal. We looked at Burlington Northern at $75 and I’ll give you the exact calculation we did. You don’t have a high earnings return. They are paying 18 times earnings, but it’s really much worse than that. They report maintenance cap-ex very carefully. They report depreciation and amortization, and they report only about 70% of the maintenance cap-ex.”

One very important fact of this transaction, was his level of conviction. In November 2009, there were a ton of cheap opportunities. Buffett picked BNSF, and paid a 30% premium to gain full ownership. Also, 40% of the total consideration was paid with arguably deeply undervalued BRK shares. So, safe to say he really wanted BNSF. The $34bn paid for BNSF, represented almost 25% of Berkshire’s equity! It was a huge bet, with significant repercussions.

Applying similar numbers, we get to an Enterprise Value of $125bn and an equity value of $105bn for Berkshire´s railroad. Once again, Buffett paid $34bn, took out $31bn in dividends and is left with +$100bn in value…Good job Warren.

So we know returns for this massive investment have been impressive, but let´s get to a number. And the number is…~18%. That is massive for an investment many thought at the time would produce mediocre returns. Remember many experts thought he was overpaying for a capital-intensive, regulated and cyclical business.

18% is 1.5x the return of the S&P 500 during a bull market. But it gets better…At the time of the acquisition, Berkshire already owned ~20% of BNSF stock…so he didn´t have to pay the takeout premium on 100% of the shares outstanding. In reality, he had to pay ~$26bn for the shares he didn´t own. Also, Berkshire employed a bit of leverage to fund the acquisition. The company issued $8bn in bonds, so we get, leveraged returns. If we take into account the leverage and the shares of BNSF Berkshire already owned, then the return on the equity would go…way up. But I think we get the point.

Fund manager: Why Amazon could double

The market is not correctly conceptualizing normalized profitability. It seems that the market views AMZN’s profitability primarily through a legacy e-commerce lens, viewing AMZN as a single-digit-margin business. Piecing apart the business, I think this is wrong. First, AMZN has not known the meaning of the word “operating leverage” for the past 10 years, but it is showing through recently with beautiful impact. In Q3 18, fulfillment as a percentage of sales actually declined for the first time time in five years (having gone from 8.5% in 2010 to 15% of sales in 2018). This is a nascent signal, but suggests that the fulfillment infrastructure expansion is nearing its final stages. There are supplementary data points to support this notion, including the slowing in new DCs and headcount. As a result of this operating leverage, operating margins went from 0.8% in Q3 17 to 6.6% in Q3 18, with incremental margins of 26%. Second, there is a real mix shift going on at AMZN that benefits GMs and fundamentally changes the OM outlook for the combined business. Core e-commerce (lower margin) grew revenue only 10% in Q3, but third party seller services grew 31% and AWS grew 46%. As a result of this positive mix shift, gross margins went from 37% Q3 17 to 41.7% in Q3 18, with incremental gross margins coming in at 57.5%. Amazon effectively has a powerful combination of mix-driven GM expansion and operating leverage driven OM expansion in play here, and my view is that this dynamic will hold for at least a number of years to come.

PayPal quietly took over the checkout button

In 2013, PayPal bought Braintree Payment Solutions LLC, which processes the credit card transactions on the mobile apps of Uber, Airbnb, StubHub, and thousands of smaller businesses. The acquisition brought in an influx of programmers and designers, as well as Venmo, which Braintree had acquired the year before. Venmo is a way to quickly settle small debts between friends: a dinner check, a get-well present for a colleague. With Venmo, informal financial interactions formerly governed by social norms about reciprocity, forgiveness, and passive-aggressive hinting could be easily recorded and quickly paid. (“I only have a twenty” is no longer a viable excuse.) You could even “bill” your friends. The app—complete with a feed of the payments your friends have made to each other—has proved enormously popular with millennials.

Over the next six months, Schulman negotiated similar partnerships with Mastercard and Citibank, committing to make it as effortless as possible for customers to use Citibank-issued credit cards and Mastercard’s network. “When PayPal first spun out of EBay, there was a lot of competition and a lot of negative sentiment,” says Heath Terry, an analyst who covers the industry for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “Basically, in 18 months on the job, Dan was able to completely change that narrative.” As with the Visa deal, PayPal was forgoing some profit but placating powerful and formerly antagonistic payments incumbents. Citi and Mastercard—along with Google, Apple, Amazon, and Samsung, each of which has an eponymous “pay” product—began steering customers to link their accounts with PayPal, seeing it not as a competitor but as a driver of transactions and the fees they generate. In short, as a pal.

The result has been a surge in growth. “It took us 14 years to go from 50 million subscribers to 250 million,” Schulman says. “I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s a long time. We went from 200 million to 250 million in about 18 months,” tripling the rate at which the company added users, or what it calls “net new actives.” PayPal’s stock is up more than 100 percent since the start of 2017. However, PayPal’s most impressive statistic may be its conversion rate. People who design online and mobile shopping apps are obsessed with smoothing and shortening the path from idle browsing to purchase—humans are acquisitive and impulsive creatures, but they’re also easily distracted and bad at remembering their credit card numbers. Too many options hurts conversion, and so does having to type out stuff or wait for a page to load. PayPal’s conversion rate is lights-out: Eighty-nine percent of the time a customer gets to its checkout page, he makes the purchase. For other online credit and debit card transactions, that number sits at about 50 percent.

This differential was cited by the hedge fund Third Point in an investor letter last July: “We see parallels between PayPal and other best-in-class internet platforms like Netflix and Amazon,” it read. It applauded PayPal’s $2.2 billion purchase in May of IZettle, a Swedish payments processor known as the “Square of Europe.” The praise was particularly striking coming from Third Point, whose billionaire founder Dan Loeb, like Icahn, is better known for publicly excoriating the leadership of the companies in which he invests. Built into PayPal’s high share price is the expectation that the company will figure out a way to turn Venmo’s popularity into profit. Third Point’s letter predicted that the app will be contributing $1 billion in additional annual revenue within three years. Disagreements over how to do that, or how much to even try, have led to the departures of two Venmo heads in two years. Employees who have left in recent months describe mounting mutual frustration. According to multiple people familiar with the company’s finances, the app is still losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In an interview after the announcement of Venmo’s latest leadership change in late September, Schulman’s deputy, PayPal Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready, downplayed any suggestion of turmoil. “Any startup that goes through rapid growth is going to experience this,” he says. “You evolve, and you have to bring in different skill sets for each stage of the journey.”

Cancer deaths decline 27% over 25 years

Deaths from cancer dropped 27% over a quarter century, meaning an estimated 2.6 million fewer people died of the disease during that period, according to a new report from researchers at the American Cancer Society.

For most of the 20th century, overall cancer deaths rose, driven mainly by men dying from lung cancer, researchers noted. But since the peak in 1991, the death rate has steadily dropped 1.5% a year through 2016, primarily because of long-running efforts to reduce smoking, as well as advances in detection and treatment of cancer at earlier stages, when prognosis for recovery is generally better.