Curated Insights 2018.05.27

Borrow…If you dare

Your problem is the margin. With $10,000 to start, if you borrowed millions, you would lose all of your equity. In fact, having a leverage ratio more than 4:1 ($30,000 borrowed) would have wiped you out in most years. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I had forgotten one of the simplest ideas in finance: the path matters. The problem is that while we know that you will get an a high return by the end of the year, if you hit a bad patch of too many negative return days in a row (which is normal), the leverage will wipe you out completely. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination.

The point of all of this is that even when we know the future with certainty, borrowing money isn’t a surefire solution to win big. Given we will never know the future with any degree of certainty, leverage is one of the most dangerous things you can do as a retail investor, so I do not recommend it. If Warren Buffett only levered 1.6:1 on average throughout his career, and he is arguably the greatest investor of all time, what chance do you stand of using leverage properly?

Your investment journey will effect you far more than your investment destination. Just because you know the market should get 7% on average each year doesn’t mean you won’t live through sharp declines and decades of no real returns. These kinds of events are rare, but they happen and they can affect how you perceive markets.

The Bill Gates Line

This is ultimately the most important distinction between platforms and aggregators: platforms are powerful because they facilitate a relationship between 3rd-party suppliers and end users; aggregators, on the other hand, intermediate and control it.

Of course that is the bigger problem: I noted above that Google’s library of ratings and reviews has grown substantially over the past few years; users generating content is the ultimate low-cost supplier, and losing that supply to Google is arguably a bigger problem for Yelp than whatever advertising revenue it can wring out from people that would click through on a hypothetical Google Answer Box that used 3rd-party sources. And, it should be noted, that Yelp’s entire business is user-generated reviews: they and similar vertical sites are likely to do a far better job of generating, organizing, and curating such data.

Presuming that the answer is the image on the right — driving users to Yelp is both better for the bottom line and better for content generation, which mostly happens on the desktop — and it becomes clear that Yelp’s biggest problem is that the more useful Google is — even if it only ever uses Yelp’s data! — the less viable Yelp’s business becomes. This is exactly what you would expect in an aggregator-dominated value chain: aggregators completely disintermediate suppliers and reduce them to commodities.


If we end up sitting around in self-driving cars watching ads, Google is going to make billions

New research from UBS predicts that US autonomous-vehicle revenue will reach $2.3 trillion by 2030—and 70% of the estimated is expected to come from selling experiences to the former drivers. The biggest opportunity—$1.2 trillion—will be in robo-taxi services, moving people and things around in autonomous vehicles.

The second-biggest opportunity, or $472 billion, will be in in-car monetization: selling ads or services against the time spent in the car not driving. Not surprisingly, UBS thinks Waymo—or more broadly, Google’s parent company Alphabet—will be the dominant player in this category, perhaps capturing 60% of the revenue. UBS thinks Waymo’s combined opportunities in services and software make Waymo worth $75 billion today, or roughly 11% of Alphabet’s current valuation.


Netflix misunderstandings, pt. 1: Netflix’s content budget is bigger than it seems

While it might seem pedantic to criticize statements such as “Netflix will spend between $7 billion and $8 billion on content in 2018,” the distinction is critical. To point, Netflix’s 2018 spend is likely to be closer to $12B. Not only is this nearly 50% more than publicized, it means that Netflix will spend more on non-sports content than any of its traditional TV peers (e.g. Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal) – even when their many individual networks are consolidated on a corporate basis. What’s more, the disconnect between Netflix’s cash spend on content and amortization expense has grown substantially over time. In 2012, this ratio was 1.1x (cash spend 10% higher than amortization). In both 2016 and 2017, it was 44%. As a result of this growth, the impact of conflating or confusing the two has also grown.

Netflix’s content costs are high in part because it now buys out all the rights (e.g. home video, syndication, EST) for its Originals on a global basis, while traditional networks (e.g. FX or ABC) will typically buy only select content rights and on a single market basis. Furthermore, buying out all rights means that the talent involved in a hit series (e.g. cast, writers, producers) don’t have access to any of the economic upside from participating in a hit series. As such, Netflix must also pay extra (and upfront) to compensate the talent responsible for their Originals for this lost income opportunity (albeit on a risk-adjusted basis). As a result, Netflix’s costs for a given volume of original content is substantially higher than that of linear and/or domestic networks with the same output. That said, this same dynamic means that while most of its traditional networks hedge their content investments, Netflix quadruples down.

Netflix’s critics and competitors typically focus on the fact that, while profitable on an accounting basis, Netflix keeps spending more cash than it generates from operating its business. The company burned $2B in cash in 2017 (up from $1.7B a year earlier), and expects that figure to grow to $3–4B in 2018. What’s more, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has promised that negative free cash flow will continue for “many years” and the company continues to accumulate debt (raising annual interest expenses) and content liabilities (increasing the amount it’ll need to pay suppliers over time). However, this cash loss only exists because Netflix is funding next year’s content against this year’s revenue. Netflix could have chosen to stabilize its 2018 content offering at 2017 levels (i.e. not ramp up spending), and its actual cash spent would have been just $6.2B (roughly equivalent to its content amortization) – a “savings” on the books of $2.7B. And had the company done this, it would would have generated $700MM in cash, not lost $2B.

Making sense of mortgages: The problem, and the opportunity

The single most important chart for any portfolio manager or investor – The power of diversification (low correlation)

Of course, the picture represents ideal conditions. There is some bad news with this free lunch. It is hard to find. You will not find many low correlated asset classes and those return to risk values can be volatile. The incremental improvement is strong with the first few diversifiers but there are diminishing returns after that initial boost.

In a practical sense, the first asset class you add to an equity portfolio will be bonds. It has been the great diversify for the last decade or two, but once you get beyond bonds and commodities, the ability to find those low correlation assets becomes much harder. This is the true value of alternative strategies

What does this chart mean in reverse? If there is an increase in correlation across asset classes, the return to risk will fall even if the return to risk of any given strategy stays constant. This is will be the incredible shrinking free lunch and is why it is so important to find strategies or investments that have stable correlation relative to traditional asset classes.

Return is critical but hard to forecast. Volatility is important and leads to downside risks. Unfortunately, many forget the power of covariance and its impact on diversification, yet this is component to portfolio construction that can have a strong impact.

Next climate challenge: A/C demand expected to triple

The amount of energy needed for cooling will triple, reaching a level equal to China’s total power demand, the new report finds. As the world warms in response to human-caused climate change, the need for air conditioning will become more acute, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. IEA estimates that left unchecked, air conditioning will account for 18 percent of the total worldwide increase in CO2 emissions by 2050. And rising demand for cooling is “already putting enormous strain on electricity systems in many countries,” IEA said.