Curated Insights 2019.04.19

Making uncommon knowledge common

Part of the reason was that companies benefited from this credibility through obscurity. Real estate brokers have access to significantly more data about the specific houses and the general market via a set of data sources called the MLS. Historically, only brokers had access to MLS data, which gave them leverage over their customers and entrenched their importance as market makers. Similarly, lack of visibility into companies allowed bad ones to put on a good face until prospective employees had already joined. And only large companies could pay for data from compensation research providers, giving them advantage over the potential hires they negotiated with. Many incumbents are able to intermediate their markets and unfairly gain an edge from people’s lack of knowledge. And it’s scary to be the first to buck this trend on your own.

Before Zillow and Glassdoor, if you wanted to look up information about a specific home or company, there wasn’t a webpage for it. Barton’s companies created the definitive page for each house and company. Using a combination of data from authoritative sources (like all the various MLS systems) and user-generated data, they created high quality content unique to each company or listing. Being among the first to do this let them do a huge SEO land grab, which has been hard to displace since.

Barton’s companies take industries that are low frequency and use their Data Content Loops and SEO to acquire users for free and engage them more frequently. While most companies in real estate have super high customer acquisition costs, Zillow is able to get potential sellers even before they are ready to sell, so Zillow is already there when the sellers are ready.

Owning demand ultimately becomes its own compounding loop since becoming a trusted brand builds its own network effects. Consistently building this reputation increases people’s trust in them and makes them a go to destination.

Nobody had yet indexed all the homes in the US and brought them online. While sites like had started to do so for rentals, it wasn’t until Zillow (and Trulia) that this was done for homes. There was fertile search real estate to grab and Zillow rushed out to claim it all using the Zestimate as its spearhead.

Zooplus vs Amazon in battle for the European pet supply market

Many e-commerce companies go through this cycle where their customer acquisition costs look fantastic because early adopters are cheaper to acquire, but then marketing expenses later go through the roof. Ironically, many direct-to-consumer companies in the US have started opening physical stores because that is cheaper marketing than online ads.

Zooplus discussed this on their Q3 2018 call. They said online ad pricing has increased because their competitors are shifting more ad budget to online. Facebook and Google ads are auctions, so more competition means more demand and thus higher prices. Today, 80% of Zooplus’s marketing spend is online ads and Google Shopping. That makes them very susceptible to competitor pressure.

My concern isn’t so much that Zooplus loses share to Amazon, but that Amazon has the scale to price pet food at a lower margin (or loss) if they want to. This could cap Zooplus’s ability to ever earn a profit. Amazon doesn’t need to overtake Zooplus in market share to negatively affect them because Amazon already has enough market share that lowering prices would harm Zooplus. In this scenario, it’s possible that Zooplus keeps their market share, continues to grow along with the online pet supply market, and still never reaches their profitability goal.

Why I don’t think Amazon needs more market share to harm Zooplus is because of the lack of switching costs in Zooplus’s business. Even though Zooplus has a 95% retention rate with its customers, if Amazon lowered their prices 10%, there’s not much that keeps most of Zooplus’s customers using their website. Zooplus seems well aware of this issue and it has tied their hands when it comes to price increases. On the Q2 2018 call, management said they “don’t want to be the first [pet retailer] sticking their head out passing on manufacturer prices increases.”

Amazon 2018 letter to shareholders

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Uber Global Ridesharing Footprint
Percentages are based on our internal estimates of Gross Bookings and miles traveled using our currently available information.

Ensemble Capital: Landstar Systems update

The U.S. truck driver supply is structurally constrained. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a U.S. truck driver is 55 years old. The core “trucking generation” aged 45 to 54 accounts for 29.3 percent of the labor force, while 25 to 34-year-olds are just 15.6 percent of truck drivers. We’ve seen trucking companies offering huge cash signing bonuses to licensed commercial drivers, without a noticeable jump in the driver pool. In short, there aren’t enough young drivers coming up to replace the older ones.

The average Landstar BCO driver earned a record $197,000 in gross revenue. Now, that’s before expenses like gas, maintenance, and tires, but still a great income. In fact, it was so good last year that some BCOs decided to take the last few weeks of December off – they’d already made more money than they needed for the year. The agent node of the Landstar network also had a record-setting 2018, with 608 agents generating more than $1 million of revenue – up from 542 in 2017.

Given this success, we think Landstar’s network is strengthening. It’s attracting more truckers and agents – indeed, Landstar recently said both the BCO and agent pipelines are full, despite a tight labor market. This creates a virtuous cycle. When Landstar adds truckers and agents, more shippers make Landstar their first and only call to move their freight. In turn, more shippers attract more truckers and agents to Landstar. And so on. An important point to make about Landstar is that it generates 70% incremental operating profit margins on net revenue and their market share is under 10%. We think they have plenty of room to drive profit growth in the decade to come.

As for recession risk, Landstar is a capital-light business with a mostly variable cost structure. Remember, BCO-derived gross margins remain steady throughout the cycle. Landstar’s gross margins fall in periods of strong demand, as lower-margin brokerage operations account for a greater percentage of revenue. Without the BCO structure, Landstar would be far more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the industrial economy. So, while far from recession proof, Landstar is recession resistant.

The second technological threat is autonomous-driving trucks. While the technology is perhaps already there, we think regulations will require a human driver or engineer to be in the truck cab for some time to come. Airplanes, trains, and other heavy transportation vehicles, for example, use various amounts of “autopilot” but still have captains, conductors, and engineers at the ready. As we’ve seen with autonomous driving automobiles, there’s massive headline risk for any accident related to driverless vehicles, even if, on the whole they are safer than human-driven vehicles. Also, we expect that any initial shipments by autonomous trucks will carry commodity, low-cost items like boxes of diapers and food. Landstar carries a lot of special loads like automotive, machinery, and hazmat, where we think human drivers will remain the standard due to the costly freight and related liabilities.

Disney already has a booming streaming service. It’s called Hotstar

Disney is taking on Netflix with a new streaming service in the United States. But there’s an even bigger and hotter market where it’s already winning by miles — India. Hotstar, which Disney bought from 21st Century Fox last year, already has nearly as many users as the entire US population. And it’s growing incredibly fast.

The Indian platform now has 300 million monthly active users, Disney (DIS) revealed during its investor day on Thursday. That means its user base has quadrupled in a little over a year — Hotstar had around 75 million monthly active users in India at the end of 2017. Disney is already way out in front thanks to Hotstar. At the end of 2017, the Indian platform dwarfed Amazon and Netflix, which had 11 million and 5 million Indian users respectively, according to Counterpoint Research.

A breast milk ingredient is the hot new health supplement for adults

Global chemical giants DowDuPont Inc. and BASF SE are investing millions to ramp up production of an indigestible sugar found naturally in breast milk. Infant formula makers like Nestle SA can’t get enough of the synthetic ingredient. Now the companies are eyeing a potentially bigger customer: adults. DuPont estimates the annual market could reach $1 billion.

Human milk oligosaccharide is the third most common solid in breast milk, after lactose and fat. HMO escapes digestion, allowing it to reach the colon where it feeds beneficial bacteria. HMOs may explain why breast-fed babies tend to fare better than formula-fed, said Rachael Buck, who leads HMO research at Similac formula-maker Abbott Laboratories.

DuPont plans to spend $40 million building out its HMO production capacity this year, its second biggest capital investment after expanding a factory that makes Tyvek. Meanwhile, it’s partnering with Lonza Group AG to make enough product to meet current demand. DuPont will become a stand-alone company when it splits from DowDuPont on June 1.

After two decades of research, Abbott was first to bring HMOs to the U.S. baby nutrition market in 2016. It’s now expanded to 15 countries. Nestle last year rolled out HMO formula in Gerber and other brands across 40 countries. HMOs nourish bacteria that “train’’ immune system cells, 80 percent of which reside in the gut, said Jose Saavedra, Nestle chief medical officer. The health claims propelled about $600 million in sales of HMO formula last year for each of Abbott and Nestle SA.

Danish biotechnology company Glycom S/A is targeting the adult digestive health market with HMO supplements it began selling in the U.S. and Europe late last year. The company touts its Holigos IBS product as managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including abdominal pain, constipation diarrhea and bloating. It sells 28 doses on for $50.

Recycling isn’t about the planet. It’s about profit.

Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

The hunger of Chinese manufacturers for wood pulp, plastic, and aluminum can’t be met by Chinese suppliers or even big commodity exporters like Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese importers solved this problem by buying enormous amounts of recyclables to substitute for raw materials. China went from bringing in 7 million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013—a 15-fold increase.

Did capitalism kill inflation?

In other words, the capitalists killed inflation. In the decades after World War II, Polish economist Michal Kalecki depicted inflation as a product of the struggle between business and labor. If workers manage to extract big wage increases, their employers recoup the costs by putting through price increases, forcing workers to seek even more, and so on in a wage-price spiral. In contrast, if workers have little or no leverage, as is now the case in many industries, the wage-price spiral never gets started.

The importance of working with “A” players

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team. The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Curated Insights 2019.03.15

Buying into the timeshares Hilton Grand Vacations, Wyndham Destinations, and Marriott Vacations Worldwide

All of the timeshare companies offer some form of financing; in general, they offer consumer loans at low double digit interest rates. These are rather attractive loans, and they can generally be packaged up and sold into the ABS market at mid-single digit rates of returns. As of Q3’18, most of the timeshare companies had ~10% of their enterprise values invested into financing receivables that they hadn’t sold into the ABS market yet. I don’t think it’s appropriate to pull those receivable investments from the timeshare companies’ enterprise valuation calculations since they’re generally valued on an EBITDA calculation that includes earnings from those loans, but I could see an argument for why they should be deducted from their EV calculation (i.e. treated as a cash equivalent). Doing so would make the timeshare companies even cheaper.

The twenty craziest investing facts ever

Why am I using the Dow instead of the S&P 500? They’re effectively the same thing. The rolling one-year correlation since 1970 is .95.

If you had invested from 1960-1980 and beaten the market by 5% each year, you would have made less money than if you had invested from 1980-2000 and underperformed the market by 5% a year.
When you were born > almost everything else.

Dow earnings were cut in half in 1908. The index gained 46%.

Curated Insights 2019.03.08

The difference between the natural world and the investment world

You have to understand that there are no physical laws at work in investing. And the future is uncertain, and vague, and random. And psychology dominates.

Richard Feynman said, “Physics would be much harder if electrons had feelings.” You come in the room, you flip up the switch, and the lights go on. Every time! Why is that? Because the electrons flow from the switch to the lights. They never flow the other way. They never go on strike. They never fall asleep. They never say, ‘Ah today I don’t feel like flowing from the switch to the light.’ That’s physical science.

You have to understand the distinction between your field [architecture] and the field of investing, where there are no laws. There are only tendencies.

Facebook’s privacy cake

Why can Facebook deliver most of the value? Because they are still Facebook! They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.

Why can Facebook deliver most of the value? Because they are still Facebook! They still have the core Facebook app, Instagram, ‘Like’-buttons scattered across the web — none of that is going away with this announcement. They can very much afford a privacy-centric messaging offering in a way that any would-be challenger could not. Privacy, it turns out, is a competitive advantage for Facebook, not the cudgel the company’s critics hoped it might be.

Zillow’s billion dollar seller lead opportunity

Here’s the kicker: Zillow claims about 45 percent of consumers that go through the Zillow Offers funnel end up listing their home. That’s a high conversion rate reflective of a high intent to sell; about 10 times higher than Opcity’s conversion rate. Assuming a 1 percent referral fee, a $250,000 home, and a conversion rate of 45 percent, those 19,800 leads are worth $22 million in revenue to Zillow, almost all profit. Compare that to the estimated profit of its iBuyer business (1.5 percent net profit), which, on 200 houses, is $750,000. The value of the seller leads is worth almost 30 times the profit from flipping houses!

Will Zillow Homes build a durable competitive advantage in the iBuyer market?

Let’s parse through these claims. The argument for Zillow to do their own mortgage lending sounds logical. A traditional home sale results in a 6% fee paid to the realtor. On the other hand, the typical iBuyer charges a seller fee of around 7-9%. However, if Zillow earns an additional 3% by attaching the mortgage, they can decrease their seller fee to be right in line with, or even cheaper than, the traditional realtor model. Home buyers have to get a mortgage anyway, so they shouldn’t care too much if it’s through Zillow—as long as the rates are competitive.

The combination of lower customer acquisition costs and increased monetization per customer could potentially be deadly. If both come to fruition, Zillow can underprice other iBuyers on their seller fee and/or pay more per house than their competitors can afford. It’s even possible that Zillow pays full market price for homes and earns enough just from selling the high-quality leads to agents. In this scenario, I’m not sure how others could compete. No one else owns almost 50% of all real estate web traffic that includes home buyers, home sellers, and real estate agents.

However, if Zillow is forced to pay for customers, or their competitors get enough local traffic organically, Zillow may not be able to earn high returns on capital in this new segment. If seller leads don’t pan out, or if those leads simply cannibalize Zillow’s traditional premier agent business, they may monetize customers at the same rate as other iBuyers. In this scenario, Zillow would simply be one of many in a commoditized industry.

How badly are we being ripped off on eyewear? Former industry execs tell all

When he was in the business, in the 1980s and ’90s, Dahan said it cost him between $10 and $16 to manufacture a pair of quality plastic or metal frames. Lenses, he said, might cost about $5 a pair to produce. With fancy coatings, that could boost the price all the way to $15. He said LensCrafters would turn around and charge $99 for completed glasses that cost $20 or $30 to make — and this was well below what many independent opticians charged. Nowadays, he said, those same glasses at LensCrafters might cost hundreds of dollars.

Butler said he recently visited factories in China where many glasses for the U.S. market are manufactured. Improved technology has made prices even lower than what Dahan recalled. “You can get amazingly good frames, with a Warby Parker level of quality, for $4 to $8,” Butler said. “For $15, you can get designer-quality frames, like what you’d get from Prada.” And lenses? “You can buy absolutely first-quality lenses for $1.25 apiece,” Butler said. Yet those same frames and lenses might sell in the United States for $800.

The Netflix of China might just be wishful thinking

Competition to attract new users means that subscription prices aren’t likely to go up any time soon. Pay television service in China isn’t much more expensive than an online video account, making it harder to encourage people to switch, Dai says. Netflix, charging about $10 a month, doesn’t face that challenge because pay TV in the U.S. costs about $90, he says. Over the past two years, revenue per user at iQIYI, the only one of the three publicly traded in the U.S., has fallen about 12.5% due to promotions to drive up subscriptions.

Although Chinese TV series are still much cheaper to make than U.S. shows—production costs for a top series are about $600,000 per hour, compared with $6-10 million for U.S. prime-time content, Daid wrote in his research note—content costs reached 84% of iQIYI’s revenue in 2018. The figure for Netflix is 48%.

Advertising revenue is destined to drop. That’s a function of the way the Chinese platforms work. Unlike Netflix, which has never had advertisements on its site, ad income makes up almost half of the revenue of Chinese online video platforms. Subscribers can skip ads shown to nonsubscribers before a show starts. If 85% of Chinese households signs up for online-video services—Dai’s assumption—only 15% will be left to watch the ads. At iQIYI, subscriptions have already surpassed ads as a source of revenue, accounting for 43% of the total in 2018, compared with 37% for advertising.

Tariff-Man Trump to preside over $100 billion jump in trade gap

The main long-term driver of persistent trade deficits since 1975 has been the gap between the U.S.’s low savings rate and its attractiveness as an investment destination, fueled partly by the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. That in turn leads to a stronger dollar, which in itself helps increase the trade deficit by lowering the real cost of imports and increasing the local-currency cost of American goods in overseas markets.

Investors are losing millions on overpriced Chinese art

The art-purchase-and-lease offer is particularly appealing for people looking for a high-return alternative investment, but find the world of galleries, art fairs and auction houses intimidating. That’s where the model works, it preys on people by speaking to them in a vocabulary they understand and offering to be a trusted guide through this very opaque market, so buyers probably let their guard down,” says Edie Hu, art advisory specialist at Citi Private Bank in Hong Kong. “There is a mystique to the art market and all of a sudden you have someone who brings it down to your level. Nobody from galleries or auction houses talks about return on investment.”

AFG has set up a booth each year at the Asia Contemporary Art Show in Hong Kong alongside other galleries, and has held lucky draws to win a painting, according to d’Angelique, who said she was contacted by phone “in minutes” after filling out an online survey in 2012 to enter the contest.

She said she doesn’t believe her painting was ever rented out and AFG simply overcharged her and paid the lease premium from the sale proceeds. The leasing contract was drawn up between her and AFG, not a corporate renter. She said AFG wouldn’t tell her who would be leasing her painting.

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 2019.01.25

Netflix flexes

Netflix has shows it owns completely, shows it own first-run rights to, hybrid shows like Hastings described, second-run shows — it runs the gamut. Critically, while some models are more profitable than others, all make the service more attractive to Netflix’s customers. This will be a particular challenge for a company like Disney: the company is staking a good portion of its future on its own streaming service driven by its own IP, but has not suggested a willingness to scale supply like Netflix has. That, by definition, will limit the company’s upside when it comes to consumer reach and also long-term pricing power.

T. Rowe Price’s Henry Ellenbogen on Gartner

Every company is trying to figure out how to use technology, internally and externally. One play on this is Gartner. Ninety percent of Gartner’s earnings before interest and taxes comes from its research business. It has two parts. Because of the demands that all companies have to use technology better and understand how their competitors are using it, the research product has transitioned from one that was nice to have to one you need to have. You can see it in Gartner’s numbers. Last year, it had over $2 billion of revenue and grew more than 13% organically. It’s a global business. We believe that it is going to continue to be a strong double-digit growth business.

The average customer spends $180,000 for Gartner research. They want to know what technology providers they should look at to answer their key questions. How are other people using technology and on-boarding it? How can they drive technology into a business line to get efficiency?

The other 20% of the research business is where the controversy has been. We have owned the stock since 2010. It has compounded at well over 20% since we’ve owned it. In the past two years, Gartner’s performance has been weaker, because it bought Corporate Executive Board, or CEB, a business best-practices consultant outside of technology that helps functional groups in a business understand issues in their areas.

Gartner instituted a turnaround at CEB. The product was fine, but it had to change the go-to market. They were selling by individual site license, as opposed to role-based pricing, and had to re-energize the sales force. A lot of costs have come into this division, with only modest improvement in growth; that’s where the controversy is. But Gartner now has an excellent franchise in an area that is becoming increasingly important globally.

In addition, Gartner has deleveraged. The leverage was about four times. It is now 2½ times, and the company is deleveraging at more than one time per year. They are back to buying back stock. We see low-$4 earnings per share in 2019. Free cash flow historically has been 130% or greater, because customers pay upfront. Next year, we see low-$5 EPS and close to $7 of free cash flow, and expect the company will return to trading at 20 to 25 times free cash flow, versus 18 times now.

T. Rowe Price’s Henry Ellenbogen on SS&C Technologies

When we think about compounders, the two key factors are ownership’s mentality and the durability of growth. My next pick, SS&C Technologies Holdings, came public for the second time in 2010, and we have been owners since the second IPO. Despite a mediocre 2018, the stock has compounded wealth at 24% since the IPO.

SS&C does fund accounting. It provides the pipes on the technology side and the service side for hedge funds. It’s the leading provider in the country; a lot of people in this room probably use them. And they are also the leader for private equity, and early last year, they bought DST Systems, which provides these services for mutual funds.

Bill Stone started the company in a classic American way, by getting a second mortgage on his house in 1986. He still owns 13% of it. Even in an industry where growth is neutral or negative, when you get into the plumbing, people can’t really take you out. You have a revenue stream, and you have pricing power. People worry about the health of their customers. But even under modest volume, Stone is going to have pricing power. If you change your back office and your accountants, you get all sorts of questions from your customers.

People are very concerned about the capital markets. But 10% of the company’s revenue is tied to market sensitivity; 90% isn’t. That’s about $50 million of Ebitda, if you assume a 30% correction, about 40% incremental margins. On the flip side, we believe that DST could yield an additional $50 million to $100 million of synergies beyond market expectations.

Another concern is that SS&C is 4.7 times leveraged, and the market doesn’t like leverage. This is the only highly levered name I am going to mention, and there are three reasons. First, Stone is investing his own money alongside other people’s, and he is very focused on paying down the debt. Second, the business is a very low capital-intensive one that is very sticky, and we think under normal operating situations, the leverage will be below four times by the end of this year. Third, when Stone bought DST, he got DST Health, which does $100 million of Ebitda and is a noncyclical business. If he wanted to, he could sell it at 12 to 15 times Ebitda, and that would instantly deleverage the company below three times. So he has another road out. We believe that SS&C Technologies will earn about $3.70 a share this year and $4 to $4.10 next year.

Rivulet Capital’s Oscar Schafer on Dollar Tree

Dollar Tree operates 15,000 stores under two distinct banners: Dollar Tree, a chain of variety stores selling a unique assortment of discount merchandise, all priced at a dollar, and Family Dollar, a chain of discount stores offering everyday goods and general merchandise. The Dollar Tree business is doing great, and it continues to execute on a growth model that has worked for three decades. The company acquired Family Dollar in 2015 and strove to really stabilize that business and turn it around. The reasons to be optimistic are that they have paid down debt and started ramping up investment in the Family Dollar stores. Most importantly, the stock price has declined to a point where I feel that I’m buying Dollar Tree for a fair price and getting Family Dollar for free. I like free options.

The Dollar Tree segment is a strong and stable business that will generate over 80% of consolidated operating income this year. A true “dollar” store, Dollar Tree employs a rapidly rotating assortment of merchandise to create a “treasure-hunt” experience. This format has proved to be largely insulated from e-commerce competition. The growth at Dollar Tree has been spectacular over the past 10 years, including during the financial crisis. Since 2006, the store count has more than doubled, from 3,200 to 6,900. Same-store sales growth has averaged 4.1%, and operating income is up by almost five times, with a compound annual growth rate of 15%.

Family Dollar’s business is different. A direct competitor is Dollar General. Family Dollar offers an assortment of everyday necessities in general merchandise, primarily to low-income consumers. Physical stores are much smaller; consumables make up almost 80% of the sales, and, over the past few years, the company has suffered from a litany of issues: food deflation, management turnover, and strategic operational business mishaps.

For many years, Dollar Tree was a stock-market darling, driving a 28% compound annual return from 2006 to 2014. Since acquiring Family Dollar in 2015, Dollar Tree shares have gone almost nowhere. This is due to dramatic multiple compression, not stagnating earnings. In fact, earnings were up by more than 60% in the past three years. On a combined basis, Dollar Tree is now trading at a relatively discounted valuation of less than 16 times forward earnings, and less than 10 times enterprise value to Ebitda.

We see multiple ways to win. First, we estimate that Dollar Tree can grow Ebitda at a mid-single-digit rate, even if we assume continued deterioration at Family Dollar. In this scenario, the company should still generate a billion dollars in excess free cash flow per year over the next few years. Having recently gained investment-grade status, the company can reallocate the cash flow from debt pay-down to share buybacks. This should drive double-digit earnings growth. Assuming a 16-times-earnings multiple on our estimate of 2021 earnings, I see 30% upside over the next two years.

Second, we see an opportunity for value-creating corporate action. In 2014, Dollar General attempted to buy Family Dollar for almost $10 billion. My research suggests that given the chance, Dollar General would again jump at the opportunity to consolidate its nearest rival. I estimate that the market is currently ascribing zero value to Family Dollar within Dollar Tree, so even if they sold Family Dollar at a discount to the 2015 purchase price, this would still unlock substantial value for Dollar Tree holders.

Serving the six-sided teeter totter: 2018 year in review —

We often get asked by sellers, “What will do for my company? What resources will you provide? What kind of growth can you promise?” Our answer is short and meant to be sweet — plan on being a fair, long-term home for the business and its people, and nothing else. The response is almost always met with incredulity and usually leads to a great conversation.

What organizations do is overrated, while what organizations don’t do is highly underrated. It’s easy to make promises and we’ve certainly made plenty over the years that haven’t turned out well. What’s hard is following through — doing what you say you’ll do, when you said you’d do it, and under the terms agreed upon.

What’s even harder than doing what you say is intentionally not doing, and being transparent about it. Our first rule is “do no harm.” Humans are creatures of progress and crave shortcuts. We’ve learned that progress (almost) never comes by prescription, nor pill. Knowledge can light the path, but it can’t walk it for you. Often the right decision is to wait, gather more information, and reassess.

We ask that our sellers and company leadership have low expectations for us around everything except how we treat them. We’re not in the business of interventions, although we have paid for rehab a few times. If we intervene, we must see it through. It’s like a tree branch that is growing in the wrong direction. Merely pulling on it won’t solve the problem. The branch must be pulled and held, almost indefinitely. Sometimes we can help identify a poor direction, but leadership teams are the ones who pull and hold the branches.

The only other way to acquire a skill set is by hiring outside talent, a consultant, or a firm that can perform the difficult task. Again, there’s a nasty selection bias at play. If you’re excellent at a difficult-to-acquire and valuable skill, you typically don’t seek employment opportunities, or consulting gigs, or customers in small business, and especially in non-sexy industries.

Our goal is to find someone who has a range of experiences in successfully generating revenue through varied channels, building teams, and taking ownership of results. We know it’s humanly impossible for one individual to have deep experience in all the revenue disciplines. We expect this leader to build a team, both at the level and within the portfolio companies, and draw on some stout resources already here.

Curated Insights 2018.10.26

A change in perspective

Which one of these investments would you want for the next 20 years? Mathematically you should be indifferent, but behaviorally you won’t be.

If you are aged 25-44, asset C will be cheap while you are still in the wealth accumulation stage of your life. This is why Josh Brown says millennials should be stoked for a market crash, and he is right. However, since we don’t know the future, it would be near impossible to stay with asset C while assets A and B also exist. Once again, the deciding factor is perspective.

This is why you should never forget the impact of your perspective, and the perspectives of others, when making investment decisions. You have to consider someone else’s investment umwelt before you make any important financial choices. When you see friends rushing into the hottest asset class, consider what their goals are. When you hear about a new stock tip from a broker, think about why they would be telling you that. When you feel the panic set in as everyone around you is selling, remind yourself of your long term financial plan.

Can the stock market predict the next recession?

By my calculations, the S&P 500 has had 20 bear markets (down 20% or worse) and 27 corrections (down 10% but less than 20%) since 1928. The average losses saw stocks fall 24% and lasted 228 days from peak-to-trough. Of those 47 double-digit sell-offs, 31 of them occurred outside of a recession and didn’t happen in the lead up to a recession. That means around 66% of the time, the market has experienced a double-digit drawdown with no recession as the main cause. Of those 31 which occurred outside of a recession, the losses were -18% over 154 days, on average.

We’ll have a recession at some point but odds are the stock market won’t tip us off ahead of time. In fact, most of the time people don’t even realize we’re in a recession until after it’s already begun. NBER typically gives the official word for a recession around the time they’re ending or already in the midst of a slowdown. The recession that began in March 2001 wasn’t officially called a recession by NBER until November 2001, the month it ended. The recession that began in the summer of 1990 wasn’t determined until the spring of 1991. And the recession that began in the summer of 1981 wasn’t called a recession until January of 1982.

21 lessons from Jeff Bezos’ annual letters to shareholders

2017: Build high standards into company culture
2016: Move fast and focus on outcomes
2015: Don’t deliberate over easily reversible decisions
2014: Bet on ideas that have unlimited upside
2013: Decentralize decision-making to generate innovation
2012: Surprise and delight your customers to build long-term trust
2011: Self-service platforms unlock innovation
2010: R&D should pervade every department
2009: Focus on inputs — the outputs will take care of themselves
2008: Work backwards from customer needs to know what to build next
2007: Missionaries build better products
2006: Nurture your seedlings to build big lines of business
2005: Don’t get fixated on short-term numbers
2004: Free cash flow enables more innovation
2003: Long-term thinking is rooted in ownership
2002: Build your business on your fixed costs
2001: Measure your company by your free cash flow
2000: In lean times, build a cash moat
1999: Build on top of infrastructure that’s improving on its own
1998: Stay terrified of your customers
1997: Bring on shareholders who align with your values
Links to Jeff Bezos’s Shareholder Letters (1997-2017)

The quality of quantity at Netflix

Calculating the customer acquisition cost for Netflix is easy — take the segmented marketing costs (handily provided by the company), and divide by the number of paid subscribers added.

The lifetime value of a Netflix subscriber. To work this out: 1. take the average revenue of a user in the quarter; 2. multiply it by the gross margin (to figure out how profitable a subscriber is), then
3. divide this figure by the churn rate — the proportion of customers which leave each quarter.

On to stage 2 of our calculation: the profitability per user. So that’s the numbers above, multiplied by the gross margin (revenues, minus the cost of providing the service).

Lower gross margins in the future due to higher content costs might effect the lifetime value assessment, but lets stick with existing numbers for now. So we’ve got the first two parts of our customer lifetime value calculation, leaving just the churn rate.

But that isn’t really what we’re after, what we want to know is the ratio between how much money a paid subscriber is worth — the lifetime value — and how much it costs Netflix to pull one in to its platform — the customer acquisition cost.

Tesla short seller warns of ‘massive’ supply-chain disruption

“We question the ability for Tesla to actually deliver on their promises to their customers when they’re on the brink of potentially a massive supply-chain disruption,” Quadir said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “We see very little contingency planning, and we also see executives from the supply chain department departing in recent weeks and months.’’

Trupanion stock sinks after report of state probe

Part of the short thesis on Trupanion is based on the idea that vet activity may not comply with some state insurance regulations. It represents a bigger risk than consumer complaint investigations, which are commonplace for insurers. If regulatory challenges continue it could further dent investor sentiment about the shares.

Serverless computing’s innovative approach to software development

“By purchasing more cloud computing capacity then they really need – even as a deliberate strategy to safeguard against crashing key systems – or buying advanced reserves that they will never use, companies across all industries may be overspending on cloud services by an average of 42%, according to data compiled by Densify, a cloud optimization firm that works with big companies worldwide. That can translate into hundreds of thousands or even millions of lost dollars in IT budgets a year, depending on the size of cloud deployments, the firm said. Its estimates are based on input from 200 cloud-industry professionals and 70 global companies over the last year.”

Serverless is based on a very different resource management model. The biggest overhead is in the design of the application. Serverless applications are woven or composed from a collection of loosely coupled, lightweight modules or microservices. Each such module is only given resources when triggered by another application module or invoked by an external function. Serverless modules are expected to run for a relatively short time, and are generally limited in how long each invocation is allowed to run. Once the module finishes running, its resources are returned to the serverless platform and made available to other modules that need them. The modules are stateless, meaning that no information is carried over or remembered between invocations. Any information that needs to be persistent across invocations must be explicitly stored in a separate file or data base.

Given the special nature of serverless applications, developers no longer need to plan, allocate or provision module instances. Once a module is invoked, the serverless platform will figure out the resources it requires and automatically provision them. As other modules are invoked, the platform will automatically allocate the required resources, and take them away once they’ve finished running. Developers are only charged for the resources used during the time their modules actually run. If invoked infrequently, or if invocations are spiky, there’s no need to plan for and pay for just-in-case-resources.

Now apps can track you even after you uninstall them

Uninstall tracking exploits a core element of Apple Inc.’s and Google’s mobile operating systems: push notifications. Developers have always been able to use so-called silent push notifications to ping installed apps at regular intervals without alerting the user—to refresh an inbox or social media feed while the app is running in the background, for example. But if the app doesn’t ping the developer back, the app is logged as uninstalled, and the uninstall tracking tools add those changes to the file associated with the given mobile device’s unique advertising ID, details that make it easy to identify just who’s holding the phone and advertise the app to them wherever they go.

Curated Insights 2018.10.19

AMA with Steli Efti

A lot of times, people who are insecure about their product will offer it for free as a way to feel more comfortable, as a way to offer the customer something that’s “fair”. I would argue strongly against that. If you’re inclined to do that, don’t. Instead, ask them for money, tell them it’s completely refundable, and then don’t under any circumstance spend that money. Put it in a separate bank account. It’s not revenue until the customer has stayed for six months and says that they are happy with everything—then you can touch the money.

This has the same effect as giving your product away for free—there’s zero risk for the customer—but by doing this you’ll weed out bad customers and you’ll learn how to get customers to pay you. In the enterprise world, if you’re not putting a price tag on your product, it’s not going to be valued. A lot of times people think I’m going to start by not asking for money and then it’ll organically lead to asking for money. That’s not true. You have to charge enterprise customers, no matter how early it is. If you don’t, a lot of people are going to be friendly and give you pleasant feedback. “Oh, new technology, of course I want to see this!” It’s even going to feel like you’re accomplishing things. But you’ll be wasting your time.

Netflix’s pricing power

Despite steadily increasing the quality of its service for customers, Netflix’s pricing has lagged the growth of that consumer value leading to the build up of a large consumer surplus. That surplus, or the excess consumer value over the price of the service, is an important factor that has driven such a rapid rate of growth for the service. The bigger the surplus, the better the deal for the consumer. But this also results in a sub-optimal return for the shareholder, at least in the short run, which can look like an inferior business model if you don’t look more carefully.

The power of the model is to realize that the consumer surplus represents latent pricing power that can be reallocated via price increases or reinvestment changes towards future profits for shareholders. In Netflix’s case, we believe this is an important lever in managing the rate of its growth and returns. By offering a compelling value proposition to incremental consumers, Netflix drives subscriber growth because it is a fantastic deal at $10/month. The consumer surplus is an investment in Netflix’s rapid growth, an implicit subscriber acquisition expense in the form of foregone revenue and profit, intentionally leveraged to quickly scale so that nearly all traditional media incumbents would be left too far behind when they awoke to the direct to consumer global scale streaming video opportunity. It’s clear at this point that this strategic goal has either been accomplished or nearly has.

Tesla through the lens of Apple

Tesla picks up on Apple’s vertical integration strategy but takes it further. In addition to hardware, software, and retail, Tesla also owns and operates manufacturing facilities as well as a global supercharger network. Vertically integrating battery pack production at its Gigafactory is why Tesla is the only high volume EV manufacturer today. Had Tesla waited for the supply chain to catch up, it wouldn’t have been able to launch and scale the Model 3 for years. In our view, this is a key reason why no auto maker has released a viable competitor to the Model 3 thus far and why no company will be able to do so until 2020 at the earliest.

Tesla has spent more than a decade preparing for this moment and, in our view, has the most compelling EV pipeline of any company. The Tesla Model 3 and Model Y (a crossover SUV) have the potential to catapult EVs into the mainstream, much like the one-two punch from the iPhone and iPad in mobile computing. In the U.S. the Model 3 competes in a price category that has three times the addressable market of the Model S, and the price category where the Model Y is likely to compete has an addressable market eight times larger than the Model X. Scaled globally, if the Model 3 and Model Y are as successful as the S and X in their respective segments, Tesla should be able to generate on the order of $65 billion sustainably, even on a distribution footprint that constrains it from selling in 26 states and imposes severe price penalties on its imports into China—the world’s largest EV market. Follow-on products, such as the pickup, the semi-truck, and the Roadster, will pave the way for at least a decade of rapid growth.

While Tesla’s and Apple’s product strategy and business models share many similarities, their financial pictures could not be further apart. Apple had $9 billion in cash in 2007, while Tesla has $12 billion of long-term debt today. Apple’s gross margins were approaching 40%, while Tesla’s are 14%, and Apple spent 6% of its revenues on capital expenditure compared to Tesla’s 26%.4 In other words, Tesla’s business today is less profitable and more capital intensive than was Apple’s in 2007, a seemingly inferior model made more questionable by its substantial debt load and meager cash flows.

Adobe remains a creative software king

Great software companies have more than one act, and Act 2 for Adobe has centered on analytics and digital marketing initiatives, which are currently housed in the digital experience segment. Adobe’s prowess in creative content has allowed it to nab synergies in the digital marketing space, cross-selling to enterprise chief marketing officers already using Adobe’s software. The product, now dubbed Experience Cloud, operates in a nascent and growing industry, but Adobe’s end-to-end functionality, built internally and through acquisitions such as Omniture, TubeMogul, Magento, and Marketo, has meant it is largely regarded as the leader in the space. As companies look to create omnichannel, targeted ad campaigns, Adobe’s marketing software has become a mission-critical offering for major brands and enterprises. Experience Cloud spans marketing, advertising, and analytics, among other features. It competes with the likes of (CRM) and Oracle (ORCL), which compete in the broader customer relationship management space, but we think a rising tide can lift multiple boats, with optionality for Adobe to cement itself as a digital experience leader.

Ensemble Capital quarterly call transcript Q4 2018

An important point here is that Trupanion prices its policies based on how much it costs to treat a certain breed of a certain age in a certain zip code. Once Trupanion determines how much it costs to service an average pet based on the previous data points, it adds a 30% margin to calculate the pet’s premium payments.

Each state has its own insurance regulations and Trupanion says its Territory Partners are licensed where they need to be. Technically, Territory Partners do not sell directly to policyholders in the veterinary channel and Trupanion does not pay veterinarians or their staff for referrals. The actual solicitation of the policies is done on Trupanion’s website or over the phone with one of their licensed agents. We also believe Trupanion has increasingly viewed state regulators as partners and it has added to its compliance department in recent years. That said, state insurance regulations are intentionally vague and give regulators a lot of discretion in enforcement. As such, we won’t be surprised if there’s some adverse regulatory news during our investment. But the magnitude of these events and their impact on the long-term success of the business should be kept in context.

We believe that Trupanion customers are by-and-large extremely satisfied with the product – Trupanion consistently produces monthly retention rates above 98.5% and has growing customer referrals. Surveys also show that veterinarians recommend Trupanion more frequently than any other pet insurance offering. We also believe that the company is facilitating a positive ecosystem that creates value for all the parties involved — pet owners, pets, and veterinarians.

Booking has intentionally focused on these areas because hotel reservations are far more profitable than airfare and market fragmentation outside the US makes hotels far more dependent on Booking than those in the US. In the US, the top 10 hotel chains lead the market with many travelers going directly to or to book a room. While in Europe and Asia, independent hotels dominate, and these hotels need some sort of central “marketplace” on which travelers can find them.

Booking is so dominant that one risk they run is letting their heavy spending on advertising (Google ads or ads on other travel sites such as TripAdvisor) push up the going rate on these auction-based ads. With that in mind, the company strategically reduced their spending on these sorts of ads starting last year in an attempt to reduce market prices and reinvest in driving visitors directly to their website. One casualty of this move was online hotel metasearch site Trivago, which was so dependent on Booking’s ad spend that the company’s strategic shift lead to Trivago’s revenue growth to fall from +70% to a 20% decline over the last year, sending the stock down 80%. Rarely in our memory can we recall a competitive move by one of our holdings so completely debilitating another member of their industry.

Ctrip and Booking have essentially declared a truce with Booking owning a large stake (with the right to buy more) of Ctrip. In essence, their agreement funnels Chinese travelers using Ctrip to travel outside of China to while many non-Chinese travelers traveling to China via are routed to Ctrip. Why have they made this deal? Well, in the words of Ctrips CEO Jane Sun, “ is a global brand and in hotels, they are just so far ahead of anybody else. I think it will be very difficult for anybody to come close to them.”

How Netflix expanded to 190 countries in 7 years

Taken together, the elements of Netflix’s expansion strategy constitute a new approach that I call exponential globalization. It’s a carefully orchestrated cycle of expansion, executed at increasing speed, to an increasing number of countries and customers. The approach has helped the company expand far more quickly than competitors. Going forward, Netflix will face increasing competition not only from other global players such as Amazon Prime but also from new entrants and regional or local players. In that regard, it will have to continue to expand its blending of global and regional content.

Did Uber steal Google’s intellectual property? | The New Yorker

Indeed, even if the criminal investigation and the arbitration against Levandowski come to naught, in many ways Waymo and Google have already prevailed. “The people at Google got what they wanted,” one of the lawyers who represented Uber told me. “They got Anthony fired, they distracted Uber and slowed its progress for an entire year, and they let everyone know that if you leave with some of their stuff they can screw with you so bad that everyone will think you’re toxic.”

Porsche IPO could value carmaker as high as $81 billion, CFO says

Porsche is Volkswagen’s crown jewel and closely connected with its history. The companies were separate until Volkswagen acquired the Porsche brand in 2012 in the aftermath of a failed takeover attempt by the the descendants of Ferdinand Porsche. The family, which was forced to sell the maker of the 911 sports car after financing collapsed on the deal, still controls a majority of Volkswagen’s common stock and would need to sign off on any deal to spin off Porsche.

Ferrari’s listing in 2015 not only showed the supercar maker’s own value, but also exposed weaknesses at parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s mass-market operations, Meschke said. Fiat was able to address these more specifically after the spin off, he said. While it’s been a windfall for the Italian-American auto maker, the strategy isn’t infallible. Aston Martin, another luxury sports-car maker that is seeking a Ferrari-like multiple, has slumped more than 20 percent since its London debut this month.

Points International poised for 72% reward

PCOM operates in the loyalty industry with an unfair advantage in airline loyalty programs. They work with: 7/10 largest airlines in North America; 2/10 largest airlines in Europe; 2/10 largest airlines in AMEA (Emirates was onboarded this year).

Little/no real competition except internal systems developed by airlines.

PCOM is typically the 2nd largest buyer of loyalty points after the banks. The loyalty industry is a large and growing.

In addition, PCOM has developed a software/technology layer that provides common functionality to all three businesses. This technology layer is what the company calls “Loyalty Commerce Platform”. In the last 5 years PCOM has invested heavily into developing this platform which now enables client onboarding in as little as 3 weeks. It also provides operating leverage as the system manages many of the functions previously managed by people.

It takes years of working with multi-billion-dollar brands to get access to their customer base. This represents a level of stickiness that cannot be built quickly with venture capital money. It is also resistant to disruptive technology.

Schadenfreude: reposting a 2011 post on Sears

My view: owning Sears as a property play is a demonstration of the arrogance and breathtaking naivete of much that passes on Wall Street. Sears Holdings has over 300 thousand employees. I don’t know how you successfully liquidate a business integrated with that many lives. I don’t know of anyone who has ever successfully liquidated a business with that many employees.** I am not sure it can be done and it certainly can’t be done by someone with my skill-set (highly analytical, ability to spy value or value traps but no people management skill and not much tact).

The idea that Sears was going to be managed/liquidated by a bunch of hedge fund guys (people like me) well – that was comical.

Just to stress the point for my fund manager friends who read accounts and have my skills (but like me are often disconnected from the businesses they invest in) I will state the obvious. The employees are living breathing people and as you pull the business apart the way you treat those people and how they think about you (and behave towards you) are critical to any value you extract in liquidation. Someone has to look these people in the eye and tell them they don’t have a job. And someone has to pick-and-choose which people to fire and which to retain. And they have to do this without destroying much of the value extracted along the way. They have to liquidate the firm in such a way that the value accrues to the liquidators and not to the people who are being screwed.

Curated Insights 2018.10.12

“[The whole tech bubble] is very interesting, because the stock is not the company and the company is not the stock. So as I watched the stock fall from $113 to $6 I was also watching all of our internal business metrics: number of customers, profit per unit, defects, everything you can imagine. Every single thing about the business was getting better, and fast. So as the stock price was going the wrong way, everything inside the company was going the right way. We didn’t need to go back to the capital markets because we didn’t need more money. The only reason a financial bust makes it really hard is to raise money. So we just needed to progress.”

“Everything I have ever done has started small. Amazon started with a couple of people. Blue Origin started with five people and the budget was very small. Now the budget approaches a billion dollars. Amazon was literally ten people, today it’s half a million. For me it’s like yesterday I was driving packages to the post office myself and hoping one day we could afford a forklift. For me, I’ve seen small things get big and it’s part of this ‘day one’ mentality. I like treating things as if they’re small; Amazon is a large company but I want it to have the heart and spirit of a small one.”

“I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition and guts. Not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis you should do so. But it turns out in life your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste and heart.”

“AWS completely reinvented the way companies buy computation. Then a business miracle happened. This never happens. This is the greatest piece of business luck in the history of business as far as I know. We faced no like-minded competition for seven years. It’s unbelievable. When you pioneer if you’re lucky you get a two year head start. Nobody gets a seven year head start. We had this incredible runway.”

“We are so inventive that whatever regulations are promulgated or however it works, that will not stop us from serving customers. Under all regulatory frameworks I can imagine, customers are still going to want low prices, they are still going to want fast delivery, they are still going to want big selection. It is really important that politicians and others need to understand the value big companies bring and not demonise or vilify big companies. The reason is simple. There are certain things only big companies can do. Nobody in their garage is going to build an all carbon-fiber fuel efficient Boeing 787. It’s not going to happen. You need Boeing to do that. This world would be really bad without Boeing, Apple, Samsung and so on.”

How big can Amazon get?

What business is Amazon most similar to? Definitely not Wal-Mart. Amazon’s model is much, much closer to Costco’s model. How does Costco’s model differ from Wal-Mart’s model?

Costco does not try to be a leading general retailer in specific towns, counties, states, the nation as a whole, etc. What Costco does is focus on getting a very big share of each customer’s wallet. Costco also focuses on achieving low costs for the items it does sell by concentrating its buying power on specific products and therefore being one of the biggest volume purchasers of say “Original” flavor Eggo waffles. It sells these waffles in bulk, offers them in one flavor (Wal-Mart might offer five different flavors of that same product) and thereby gets its customer the lowest price.

There’s two functions that Costco performs where it might be creating value, gaining a competitive advantage, etc. One is supply side. Costco may get lower costs for the limited selection it offers. In some things it does. In others, it doesn’t. The toughest category for Costco to compete in is in fresh food. I shop at Costco and at other supermarkets in the area. The very large format supermarkets built by companies like HEB (here in Texas) can certainly match or beat Costco, Wal-Mart, and Amazon (online and via Whole Foods stores) when it comes to quality, selection, and price for certain fresh items. But, what can Costco do that HEB can’t? It can have greater product breadth (offering lots of non-food items) and it can make far, far, far more profit per customer.

Now, an interesting question to ask is what SHOULD determine the market value per customer. Not what does. But, what should? In other words, if we had to do a really, really long-term discounted cash flow calculation – what variables would matter most? If two companies both have 10 million customers which company should be valued higher and why? Two variables matter. One: Annual profit per customer. Two: Retention rate. Basically, we’re talking about a DCF here. If Company A and Company B both have 10 million customers and both make $150 per customer the company that should have a higher earnings multiple (P/E or P/FCF) should be the one with the higher retention rate.

What Spotify can learn from Tencent Music

Tencent Music is no small player: As the music arm of Chinese digital media giant Tencent, its four apps have several hundred million monthly active users, $1.3 billion in revenue for the first half of 2018, and roughly 75 percent market share in China’s rapidly growing music streaming market. Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, however, almost none of its users pay for the service, and those who do are mostly not paying in the form of a streaming subscription.

Its SEC filing shows that 70 percent of revenue is from the 4.2 percent of its overall users who pay to give virtual gifts to other users (and music stars) who sing karaoke or live stream a concert and/or who paid for access to premium tools for karaoke; the other 30 percent is the combination of streaming subscriptions, music downloads, and ad revenue.

Tencent Music has an advantage in creating social music experiences because it is part of the same company that owns the country’s leading social apps and is integrated into them. It has been able to build off the social graph of WeChat and QQ rather than building a siloed social network for music. Even Spotify’s main corporate rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, aren’t attached to leading social platforms.

Traffic acquisition costs

In other words the two companies have an agreement that Apple is paid in proportion to the actual query volume generated. This would extend the relationship from one of granting access for a number of users or devices to revenue sharing based on usage or consumption. Effectively Apple would have “equity” in Google search sharing in the growth as well as decline in search volume.

The idea that Apple receives $1B/month of pure profit from Google may come as a shock. It would amount to 20% of Apple’s net income and be an even bigger transfer of value out of Google. The shock comes from considering the previously antagonistic relationship between the companies.

The remarkable story here is how Apple has come to be such a good partner. Both Microsoft and Google now distribute a significant portion of their products through Apple. Apple is also a partner for enterprises such as Salesforce, IBM, and Cisco. In many ways Apple is the quintessential platform company: providing a collaborative environment for competitors as much as for agnostic third parties.

Shares of pet insurer Trupanion are overvalued

Much of the Trupanion excitement is based on the low 1% penetration rate and the fact that it’s the only pet-insurance pure play. Bradley Safalow, who runs PAA Research, an independent investment research firm, disputes the lofty expectations. Bulls extrapolate from industry data that say about two million pets out of 184 million in North America are insured now. Safalow says that ignores a key factor—the income levels of pet owners. Because Trupanion’s policies cost about $600 to $1,500 annually and don’t cover wellness visits, he estimates that, in the case of dogs, which represent 85% of the pet market, a more realistic target customer would be owners who earn $85,000 or more a year. Based on that benchmark, Safalow estimates insurance penetration—of those most likely to buy it—at about 6% already for dogs.

The requests for rate increases would indicate that premiums aren’t keeping up with claims; that the policy risks are worse than the company expected; and that the profitability of its book of business is relatively weak. APIC’s ratio of losses and loss-adjustment expense to premiums earned have risen steadily over the past four years to 75.6% in the first quarter of this year from 68.9% for all of 2014, according to state filings. The loss ratio is total losses incurred in claims plus costs to administer the claims (loss adjustment expense) divided by premiums earned.

Bob Iger’s bets are paying off big time for Disney

Iger thinks he knows how to coax consumers who already pay for one streaming service to either add another or switch to Disney’s. “We’re going to do something different,” he says. “We’re going to give audiences choice.” There are thousands of barely watched movies on Netflix, and Iger figures that people don’t like to pay for what they don’t use. So families can buy only a Disney stream, which will offer Pixar, Marvel, Lucas, Disney-branded programming. Sports lovers can opt just for an ESPN stream. Hulu, of which Disney will own a 60% stake after it buys Fox (and perhaps more if it can persuade Comcast to sell its share), will beef up ABC’s content with Fox Searchlight and FX and other Fox assets. “To fight [Amazon and Netflix], you’ve got to put a lot of product on the table,” says Murdoch. “You take what Disney’s got in sports, in family, in general entertainment—they can put together a pretty great offer.”

Having a leader who is willing to insulate key creative people from the vicissitudes of business has helped Disney successfully incorporate its prominent acquisitions. They have not been Disneyfied. Marvel movies are not all of a sudden family friendly (at least not by Disney standards). Pixar movies have not been required to add princesses. Most of the people who ran the companies before Disney bought them still run them (with the exception of John Lasseter, who was ousted in June in the wake of #MeToo). “I’ve been watching him with his people and with Fox people; he’s clearly got great leadership qualities,” says Murdoch.”He listens very carefully and he decides something and it’s done. People respect that.”

Can anyone bury BlackRock?

Today the Aladdin platform supports more than $18 trillion, making it one of the largest portfolio operating systems in the industry. BlackRock says Aladdin technology has been adopted in some form by 210 institutional clients globally, including asset owners such as CalSTRS and even direct competitors like Vanguard.

“Not only does it provide risk transparency, but it also provides an ability to model trades, to capture trades, to structure portfolios, to manage portfolio compliance — all of the operating components of the workflow,” Goldstein says. “It’s a comprehensive, singular enterprise platform versus a model where you’re piecing together a lot of things and trying to figure out how to interface them.”

In a market that’s traditionally been very fragmented, BlackRock’s ability to offer an integrated, multipurpose platform has proven a strong selling point for prospective clients — even when it’s up against competitors that perform specific functions better.

How to break up a credit ratings oligopoly

This is not to say Kroll’s firm, Kroll Bond Rating Agency, hasn’t been successful. It grew gross fees by 49 percent annualized between 2012 and the end of 2017 on the back of growing institutional demand for alternative investments. Since 2011 it has rated 11,920 transactions, representing $785 billion and 1,500 issuers. Still, KBRA and other competitors, including Lisbon-based ARC Ratings and Morningstar Credit Ratings, that have entered the sector in the last decade have barely made a dent in the market share of the big three.

The upstarts are facing more than just deeply entrenched competition, although that is striking: S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch control more than 90 percent of the market combined. A host of other complex factors have combined to make it nearly impossible to dislodge the big three — and to address the central conflict of interest baked into the ratings agency business model.

Elon Musk, Google and the battle for the future of transportation

We think a similar analogy is likely with AV/EV — the most economically well-off people will still care about comfort, features, and identity that the AV/EV they ride and arrive in imparts on them. If Waymo can deliver a premium experience at a better price and higher utility than their current solution (i.e. driving themselves in their own cars or Ubers/taxis) with cost economics that yield a strong profit margin/ROIC at scale (1/2-1/3 the pricing of Uber at 1/10 the cost), it will have built an offering that will be set to be the leading AV service and create tremendous value for shareholders despite the early capital intensity. Estimates of the value of this Transportation as a Service (TaaS) or Mobility as a Service (MaaS) go from hundreds of billions on up based on Morgan Stanley’s estimate of 11 billion miles (3B in the US) driven globally and forecasted to double over the next decade.

Eventually, if Waymo is successful at taking the strong lead via network effects in AV and converting enough consumers to use its premium service (achieving a cultural and regulatory tipping point), it could decide to open up its service’s usage across other auto “hardware” partners as they demonstrate their ability to deliver a certain level of quality experience and scale globally, enabling a broader application of its service to lower tiers of the market with lower capital intensity (akin to Apple’s 2nd hand iPhone market, which broadens its user base for services offerings).

Network effect: How Shopify is the platform powering the DTC brand revolution

“The 21st-century brand is the direct-to-consumer brand,” said Jeff Weiser, chief marketing officer at Shopify. “A couple of things have enabled the rise of the DTC, which is the ability to outsource the supply chain.” For Weiser, who described himself as “loving” anything to do with DTC, what Shopify does is power all of that ability — from selling to payments to marketing. “We run the gamut of a retail operating system.” The company has admittedly benefited from a DTC boom: Starting with small businesses run from people’s kitchens, then going upmarket to giant Fortune 500 companies, Weiser said that DTC’s “graduation” into giant juggernauts themselves has made a huge difference. Shopify powers hundreds of those companies, from Allbirds to mattress brand Leesa to Chubbies.

Just as Google and Facebook are core to anyone marketing online, Shopify is becoming the same to those who sell directly online. Like any platform, Shopify is building an ecosystem of developers, startups and ad agencies. The company has 2,500 apps through its own app store. The company can, like the Apple App Store, add apps into its ecosystem that merchants can then purchase.

Why the Elastic IPO is so important

Elastic’s open source products are downloaded voluminously, with over 350M downloads of its open source software to date. As a result, sales engages with customers who are already users and highly familiar with the products. This leads to shorter sales cycles and higher sales conversions. Additionally, awareness and engaged prospects are generated by popular open source projects, such as Elasticsearch and others from Elastic, obviating the need for top-of-funnel and mid-funnel marketing spend. Elastic still spent a healthy 49% of revenue on Sales & Marketing in FY ’18 (year ending Jan ’18) but this was down from 60% the prior year, and the implied efficiency on Elastic’s Sales & Marketing spend is extremely high, enabling the 79% top-line growth the company has enjoyed. Finally, Elastic shows how disruptive an open source model can be to competition. There are already large incumbents in the search, analytics, IT Ops and security markets, but, while the incumbents start with sales people trying to get into accounts, Elastic is rapidly gaining share through adoption of its open source by practitioners.

Elastic controls the code to it open source projects. The committers are all employed by the company. Contributions may come from the community but committers are the last line of defense. This is in contrast to open source projects such as Linux and Hadoop, where non profit foundations made up of many commercial actors with different agendas tend to govern updates to the software. The biggest risk to any open source project is getting forked and losing control of the roadmap, and its difficult for a company to build a sustainable high margin business supporting a community-governed open source project as a result. Elastic, and other companies who more tightly control the open source projects they’ve popularized, have full visibility to roadmaps and are therefore able to build commercial software that complements and extends the open source. This isn’t a guarantee of success. The viability of any open source company rests with the engagement of its open source community, but if Elastic continues to manage this well, their franchise should continue to grow in value for for foreseeable future.

Elastic closed 94% up in first day of trading on NYSE, raised $252M at a $2.5B valuation in its IPO

“When you hail a ride home from work with Uber, Elastic helps power the systems that locate nearby riders and drivers. When you shop online at Walgreens, Elastic helps power finding the right products to add to your cart. When you look for a partner on Tinder, Elastic helps power the algorithms that guide you to a match. When you search across Adobe’s millions of assets, Elastic helps power finding the right photo, font, or color palette to complete your project,” the company noted in its IPO prospectus.

“As Sprint operates its nationwide network of mobile subscribers, Elastic helps power the logging of billions of events per day to track and manage website performance issues and network outages. As SoftBank monitors the usage of thousands of servers across its entire IT environment, Elastic helps power the processing of terabytes of daily data in real time. When Indiana University welcomes a new student class, Elastic helps power the cybersecurity operations protecting thousands of devices and critical data across collaborating universities in the BigTen Security Operations Center. All of this is search.”

The Big Hack: How China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies

One government official says China’s goal was long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks. No consumer data is known to have been stolen.

With more than 900 customers in 100 countries by 2015, Supermicro offered inroads to a bountiful collection of sensitive targets. “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who’s studied Supermicro and its business model. “Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”

Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code. The illicit chips could do all this because they were connected to the baseboard management controller, a kind of superchip that administrators use to remotely log in to problematic servers, giving them access to the most sensitive code even on machines that have crashed or are turned off.

Can anyone catch America in plastics?

Ethane, once converted to ethylene through “cracking” is the principal input into production of polyethylene. Simply put, ethane is turned into plastic. Polyethylene is manufactured in greater quantities than any other compound. U.S. ethane production has more than doubled in the past decade, to 1.5 Million Barrels per Day (MMB/D).

The result is that ethane trade flows are shifting, and the U.S. is becoming a more important supplier of plastics. The Shale Revolution draws attention for the growth in fossil fuels — crude oil and natural gas, where the U.S. leads the world. But we’re even more dominant in NGLs, contributing one-third of global production. The impact of NGLs and consequent growth in America’s petrochemical industry receives far less attention, although it’s another huge success story.

Amazon’s wage will change how U.S. thinks about work

If $15 an hour becomes the new standard for entry-level wages in corporate America, its impact may be felt most broadly among middle-class workers. Average hourly earnings for non-managerial workers in the U.S. were $22.73 an hour in August. The historically low level of jobless claims and unemployment, combined with $15 an hour becoming an anchor in people’s minds, could make someone people earning around that $22 mark feel more secure in their jobs. Instead of worrying about losing their job and being on the unemployment rolls for a while, or only being able to find last-ditch work that pays $9 or $10 an hour, the “floor” may be seen as a $15 an hour job.

That creates a whole new set of options for middle-class households. In 2017, the real median household income in the U.S. was $61,372, which is roughly what two earners with full-time jobs making $15 an hour would make. A $15-an-hour floor might embolden some workers to quit their jobs to move to another city even without a job offer there. It might let some workers switch to part-time to focus more time on education, gaining new skills or child care.

Circle of competence

It’s not the size of your circle of competence that matters, but rather how accurate your assessment of it is. There are some investors who are capable of figuring out incredibly complex investments. Others are really good at a wide variety of investments types, allowing them to take advantage of a broad set of opportunities. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Figure out what feels comfortable, and do that. If you are not quite sure whether something is within your circle of competence or not – that in and of itself is an indicator that it’s better to pass. After all, to quote Seth Klarman’s letter to his investors shortly after the Financial Crisis of 2008, “Nowhere does it say that investors should strive to make every last dollar of potential profit; consideration of risk must never take a backseat to return.”

Lessons from Howard Marks’ new nook: “Mastering the Market Cycle – Getting the Odds on Your Side”

… you can prepare; you can’t predict. The thing that caused the bubble to burst was the insubstantiality of mortgage-backed securities, especially subprime. If you read the memos, you won’t find a word about it. We didn’t predict that. We didn’t even know about it. It was occurring in an odd corner of the securities market. Most of us didn’t know about it, but it is what brought the house down and we had no idea. But we were prepared because we simply knew that we were on dangerous ground, and that required cautious preparation.

Market timing is hard

People use data to justify market timing. But it’s hindsight bias, right? If you know ahead of time when the biggest peaks and troughs were through history, you can make any strategy look good. So Antti and his co-authors made a more realistic and testable market timing strategy. And here’s the key difference — instead of having all hundred years of history, Antti’s strategy used only the information that was available at the time. So, say for example it’s 1996, early tech bubble. We know after the fact that the U.S. stock market would get even more expensive for a few years before it crashed. But in 1996 you wouldn’t actually know that. So by doing their study this way, Antti could get a more realistic test of value-based market timing.

The interesting and troubling result was when we did this market timing analysis the bottom line was very disappointing. It was not just underwhelming, it basically showed in the last 50-60 years, in our lifetimes, you didn’t make any money using this information.

The Decision Matrix: How to prioritize what matters

I invested some of that time meeting with the people making these decisions once a week. I wanted to know what types of decisions they made, how they thought about them, and how the results were going. We tracked old decisions as well, so they could see their judgment improving (or not).

Consequential decisions are a different beast. Reversible and consequential decisions are my favorite. These decisions trick you into thinking they are one big important decision. In reality, reversible and consequential decisions are the perfect decisions to run experiments and gather information. The team or individual would decide experiments we were going to run, the results that would indicate we were on the right path, and who would be responsible for execution. They’d present these findings.

Consequential and irreversible decisions are the ones that you really need to focus on. All of the time I saved from using this matrix didn’t allow me to sip drinks on the beach. Rather, I invested it in the most important decisions, the ones I couldn’t justify delegating. I also had another rule that proved helpful: unless the decision needed to be made on the spot, as some operational decisions do, I would take a 30-minute walk first.

Risk management

Once you frame risk as avoiding regret, the questions becomes, “Who cares what’s hard but I can recover from? Because that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about, ‘What will I regret?’”

So risk management comes down to serially avoiding decisions that can’t easily be reversed, whose downsides will demolish you and prevent recovery.

Actual risk management is understanding that even if you do everything you can to avoid regrets, you are at best dealing with odds, and all reasonable odds are less than 100. So there is a measurable chance you’ll be disappointed, no matter how hard you’ll try or how smart you are. The biggest risk – the biggest regret – happens when you ignore that reality.

Carl Richards got this right, and it’s a humbling but accurate view of the world: “Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything.”

The most important survival skill for the next 50 years isn’t what you think

Even if there is a new job, and even if you get support from the government to kind of retrain yourself, you need a lot of mental flexibility to manage these transitions. Teenagers or 20-somethings, they are quite good with change. But beyond a certain age—when you get to 40, 50—change is stressful. And a weapon you will have [is] the psychological flexibility to go through this transition at age 30, and 40, and 50, and 60. The most important investment that people can make is not to learn a particular skill—”I’ll learn how to code computers,” or “I will learn Chinese,” or something like that. No, the most important investment is really in building this more flexible mind or personality.

The better you know yourself, the more protected you are from all these algorithms trying to manipulate you. If we go back to the example of the YouTube videos. If you know “I have this weakness, I tend to hate this group of people,” or “I have a bit obsession to the way my hair looks,” then you can be a little more protected from these kinds of manipulations. Like with alcoholics or smokers, the first step is to just recognize, “Yes, I have this bad habit and I need to be more careful about it.”

And this is very dangerous because instead of trying to find real solutions to the new problems we face, people are engaged in this nostalgic exercise. If it fails—and it’s bound to fail—they’ll never acknowledge it. They’ll just blame somebody: “We couldn’t realize this dream because of either external enemies or internal traitors.” And then this is a very dangerous mess.

The other danger, the opposite one, is, “Well, the future will basically take care of itself. We just need to develop better technology and it will create a kind of paradise on earth.” Which doesn’t take into account all of the dystopian and problematic ways in which technology can influence our lives.

Curated Insights 2018.09.14

Risk, uncertainty and ignorance in investing and business – Lessons from Richard Zeckhauser

People feel that 50% is magical and they don’t like to do things where they don’t have 50% odds. I know that is not a good idea, so I am willing to make some bets where you say it is 20% likely to work but you get a big pay-off if it works, and only has a small cost if it does not. I will take that gamble. Most successful investments in new companies are where the odds are against you but, if you succeed, you will succeed in a big way.” “David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.

…in any probabilistic exercise: the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters…. even though Ruth struck out a lot, he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters…. Internalizing this lesson, on the other hand, is difficult because it runs against human nature in a very fundamental way… The Babe Ruth effect is hard to internalize because people are generally predisposed to avoid losses. …What is interesting and perhaps surprising is that the great funds lose money more often than good funds do. The best VCs funds truly do exemplify the Babe Ruth effect: they swing hard, and either hit big or miss big. You can’t have grand slams without a lot of strikeouts.

Risk, which is a situation where probabilities are well defined, is much less important than uncertainty. Casinos, which rely on dice, cards and mechanical devices, and insurance companies, blessed with vast stockpiles of data, have good reason to think about risk. But most of us have to worry about risk only if we are foolish enough to dally at those casinos or to buy lottery cards….” “Uncertainty, not risk, is the difficulty regularly before us. That is, we can identify the states of the world, but not their probabilities.” “We should now understand that many phenomena that were often defined as involving risk – notably those in the financial sphere before 2008 – actually involve uncertainty.” “Ignorance arises in a situation where some potential states of the world cannot be identified. Ignorance is an important phenomenon, I would argue, ranking alongside uncertainty and above risk. Ignorance achieves its importance, not only by being widespread, but also by involving outcomes of great consequence.” “There is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.

Hank Paulson says the financial crisis could have been ‘much worse’

While Bear Stearns’ failure in normal markets would not hurt the U.S. economy, we believed that the system was too fragile and fear-driven to take a Bear Stearns bankruptcy. To those who argue that Bear Stearns created moral hazard and contributed to the Lehman failure, I believe just the opposite—that it allowed us to dodge a bullet and avoid a devastating chain reaction.

If Bear had failed, the hedge funds would have turned on Lehman with a vengeance. Lehman would have failed almost immediately and the result would have been much worse than Lehman’s September failure, which occurred after we had stabilized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bank of Americaacquired Merrill Lynch. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if this whole thing started before we’d stabilized Fannie and Freddie.

An interview with Tim Geithner on this topic was done recently at the Yale School of Management and he speaks much more authoritatively on the limits of the Fed powers than I, but here goes. While our responses may have looked inconsistent, Ben, Tim, and I were united in our commitment to prevent the failure of any systemically important financial institution. But we had a balkanized, outdated regulatory system without sufficient oversight or visibility into a large part of the modern financial system and without the necessary emergency powers to inject capital, guarantee liabilities, or wind down a non-banking institution. So we did whatever we could on a case-by-case basis.

For Lehman, we had no buyer and we needed one with the willingness and capacity to guarantee its liabilities. Without one, a permissible Fed loan would not have been sufficient or effective to stop a run. To do that, the Fed would have had to inject capital or guarantee liabilities and they had no power to do so. Now, here’s the point that I think a lot of people miss: In the midst of a panic, market participants make their own judgments and a Fed loan to meet a liquidity shortfall wouldn’t prevent a failure if they believed Lehman wasn’t viable or solvent. And no one believed they were.

AIG is a cautionary tale. We should not have let our financial regulatory system fail to keep up with modern financial markets. No single regulator had oversight visibility or adequate powers to deal with AIG. Its insurance companies were regulated at the state level, its holding company was like a giant hedge fund sitting on top of the insurance companies, and it was regulated by the ineffective Office of Thrift Supervision, which also regulated—get this—Countrywide, WaMu, IndyMac, GE Capital. They all selected their regulator. So you get the picture, it’s regulatory arbitrage.

And I’m concerned that some of the tools we effectively used to stave off disaster have now been eliminated by Congress. These include the ability of Treasury to use its exchange stabilization fund to guarantee the money market funds, the emergency lending authority the Fed used to avoid the failure of Bear and AIG, and the FDIC’s guarantee of bank liabilities on a systemwide basis, which was critical.

The global smartphone supply chain needs an upgrade

At the peak in October 2017, smartphone components accounted for over 33% of exports from Taiwan, 17% of those from Malaysia and 16% from Singapore. Smartphones comprise 6% of Chinese exports. Memory chips flow from South Korea and Vietnam; system chips from Malaysia, Taiwan and elsewhere; and displays from Japan and South Korea. Rich-world firms, such as Qualcomm, sell licences to use their intellectual property (IP). The parts are then assembled, mainly by armies of Chinese workers.

Apple and 13 of its chip suppliers earn over 90% of the total pool of profits from the Apple system. Meanwhile the tail of other firms doing more basic activities must pay for most workers, inventories and fixed assets (see chart). So they have in aggregate a weak return on equity, of 9%, and a net profit margin of just 2%. Their earnings have not risen for five years. They include assemblers such as Taiwan’s Hon Hai and niche component makers, some of which are visibly struggling. On August 22nd AAC Technologies, a specialist in making phones vibrate, said its second-quarter profits fell by 39% compared with the previous year.

Apple, Samsung and most semiconductor makers could ride out such tensions, with their high margins and cash-laden balance-sheets. But the long chain of other suppliers could not, given their razor-thin margins, big working-capital balances and fixed costs. Tariffs could push them into the red. Of the 132 firms, 52% would be loss-making if costs rose by just 5%. And a ZTE-style cessation of trade would be disastrous. If revenues dried up and the 132 firms continued to pay their own suppliers, short-term debts and wages, 28% of them would run out of cash within 100 days.

If you are running a big firm in the smartphone complex, you should be reimagining things in preparation for a less open world. In a decade, on its current trajectory, the industry will be smaller, with suppliers forced to consolidate and to automate production. It may also be organised in national silos, with production, IP, profits and jobs distributed more evenly around the world. Firms will need to adapt—or be swiped away.

The story of Box: A unicorn’s journey to public success

The early days of Box’s selling file sharing and collaboration have largely been replaced by big corporate wins. One measure of Box’s success is its penetration of the Fortune 500—from 52% in the second quarter of 2016 to 69% in the same quarter of fiscal 2019. About 58% of Box’s total revenue comes from enterprises of 2,000 employees or more.

In Box’s recently completed fiscal quarter, it closed 50 deals of more than $100,000, compared with 40 a year ago; 11 deals of more than $500,000, versus eight a year ago; and two deals of more than $1 million, compared with four a year ago. It expects a strong pipeline of seven-figure deals in the back half of this year.

But in encouraging its salespeople to pursue bigger deals, Box increasingly faces competition from deeper-pocketed competitors in a total addressable market pegged at $45 billion, based on market research by Gartner and IDC.

Soccer fans, your team is coming after you

At the time of its 2012 initial public offering, Man United counted 659 million fans worldwide. Analysts estimate the team’s revenue this year will be about 587 million pounds ($763 million) — just $1.16 per supporter. Twitter Inc. has just 338 million active monthly users, yet enjoys revenue of $2.4 billion and a market value of $27 billion.

Digital marketing provides the opportunity for teams to put themselves in the middle of the sale of a service or product. It’s not simply about using a website or an app to sell fans more jerseys or baseball caps. It’s about turning the team into a platform, a way of connecting brands to customers, in the same way as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. already do.

Much in the way that price-comparison websites charge insurers or credit card companies for connecting them to customers, a sports team could, for example, offer its own exclusive video content with another provider’s mobile phone contract and take a cut of the proceeds. If that meant each fan were to spend just one more dollar a year with the club, it would provide a significant boost to sales.

Alibaba-backed apparel-sharing company YCloset brings sharing economy to a new level

Founded in December 2015, YCloset charges a monthly membership fee of 499 yuan and allows female users to rent unlimited clothes and accessories country-wide. Furthermore, users can choose to buy the apparel if they like to and prices fluctuate according to the rent count. Thus far, 75% of the income comes from membership fees and the remaining comes from sales of clothing. YCloset positions itself as a company that offers affordable luxury, professional and designer brand clothing. The company hopes to have the top famous brand to drive the long-tail brands.

In terms of business model, YCloset gradually shifted from one-time supplier purchase to brand partnerships with clothing companies. Brand partnerships allow revenue sharing between YCloset and their partners. To these clothing companies, YCloset gave them a new revenue, at the same time, they may get consumer insights from the data YCloset collects. In the future, YCloset will have joint marketing campaigns with the brands and assist in incubating new brands.

Autonomous delivery robots could lower the cost of last mile delivery by 20-fold

Last mile delivery – the delivery of goods from distribution hubs to the consumer – is the most expensive leg of logistics because it does not submit to economies of scale. The cost per last mile delivery today is $1.60 via human drivers but could drop precipitously to $0.06 as autonomous delivery robots proliferate.

Autonomous delivery robots are roughly seven times more efficient than electric vehicles on a mile per kilowatt basis. The major costs for autonomous delivery robots are hardware, electricity, and remote operators. Unlike in electric vehicles, the battery is not the largest cost component in slow moving robots. Air resistance is a function of velocity squared, suggesting that a robot traveling at four miles per hour loses much less energy than a car traveling at highway speeds to air resistance. As a result, rolling robots do not require large batteries, lowering both hardware and electricity costs relative to more traditional electric vehicles.

If rolling robots enable last mile delivery for $0.06 per mile, artificial intelligence could be advanced enough to improve their unit economics. A remote operator responsible for controlling robots in difficult or confusing situations probably will oversee roughly 100 robots, accounting for more than half of the cost per mile, as shown below. As autonomous capability improves, remote operators should be able to manage larger fleets of robots, bringing down the costs per robot.

Hospitals are fed up with drug companies, so they’re starting their own

A group of major American hospitals, battered by price spikes on old drugs and long-lasting shortages of critical medicines, has launched a mission-driven, not-for-profit generic drug company, Civica Rx, to take some control over the drug supply. Backed by seven large health systems and three philanthropic groups, the new venture will be led by an industry insider who refuses to draw a salary. The company will focus initially on establishing price transparency and stable supplies for 14 generic drugs used in hospitals, without pressure from shareholders to issue dividends or push a stock price higher.

Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years

There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades. Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.

More than 90 per cent of Chinese teens access the internet through mobile phones, says report

The proportion of Chinese children under 10 years old who use the internet – which was only 56 per cent in 2010 – reached 68 per cent last year. More than 90 per cent of Chinese minors, those aged up to 18, can now access the internet through mobile phone and over 64 per cent of primary school kids have their own smartphones. Nearly 85 per cent of Chinese minors use WeChat, compared to only 48 per cent five years ago, but Chinese juveniles are still more fond of QQ, while Chinese adults prefer WeChat as a social app.

Curated Insights 2018.09.07

A market shakeup is pushing Alphabet and Facebook out of the tech sector

One of the biggest impacts will be on tech—a sector that has grown so big, at 26.5% of the S&P 500, it has produced more than half of the market’s gain this year, according to Bespoke Investment Group. Tech is being cut down to size, though, as several of its biggest stocks head over to the new communication sector. The losses will chop about 23% off the tech sector’s market value. It will be more oriented to chip makers, hardware, and software.

Thankfully, S&P and MSCI don’t make such changes often. The GICS taxonomy goes back to 1999. It has grown to 11 sectors, the latest being real estate, carved out of financials in 2016. But that was minor compared with the new musical chairs—affecting more than 1,100 companies globally.

Redrawing the GICS boundaries was necessary to reflect the changing tech and media landscapes. When the old sector lines were drawn, people made calls with flip phones, used MySpace for social media, and paid AT&T for cellular service and landlines. But mergers and tech developments have jumbled things up: Netflix is threatening Hollywood, Comcast has turned into a media giant, and Alphabet is in everyone’s business. Sure, technology remains the heart of these businesses. But so what? Facebook and Alphabet aren’t like Apple and Microsoft, which develop hardware and software, says Blitzer. It makes more sense to group Facebook and Alphabet with firms making money off advertising, content delivery, and other types of “communications,” he says.

Amazon sets its sights on the $88 billion online ad market

In turn, brands are increasingly recognizing Amazon’s vast customer reach, particularly to its more than 100 million Prime subscribers. In a study conducted last summer by Catalyst, the search and social media marketing company, only 15 percent of the 250 brands marketers polled felt they were making the most out of advertising on Amazon’s platform, and 63 percent of the companies already advertising there said they planned to increase their budget in the coming year.

In India, Google races to parry the rise of Facebook

Facebook ads, compared with those on Google search or YouTube, tend to transcend language barriers more easily because they rely more on visual elements. Pinpointing younger consumers and rural populations is easier with Facebook and its Instagram app.

Facebook and Google between them took 68 percent of India’s digital ad market last year, according to advertising buyer Magna. Media agency GroupM estimates digital advertising spending will grow 30 percent in India this year.

The tension is building between Spotify and the music industry

The easiest way for Spotify to save money would be to cut labels out of the process entirely. While the company has said time and time again that it doesn’t want to operate a label or own copyrights, it has been taking on functions of a record label. The company has developed tools to help artists plan tours and collect royalties, funded music videos and recording sessions, and held workshops with songwriters.

Record companies know Spotify can’t cut them out completely. They control too much music and offer resources artists need. But Spotify’s growth poses a threat. Successful independent artists, like Chance the Rapper, have created the perception that musicians may not need labels at all. “The music industry hates that Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music reduce the relevance of the traditional music business,’’ Masuch said. “Distribution is controlled by companies that aren’t part of the traditional ecosystem.’’

4 reasons Tesla Mobility is worth a lot less than Alphabet’s Waymo

Jonas estimates that Tesla has a 13% discount rate, versus Waymo’s 10%. “Tesla likely has a higher cost of capital vs. Alphabet/Waymo,” he writes.

Tesla will have to make money on the rides themselves, while big tech companies like Alphabet can also make money off the time spent in the car as well as what it learns from drivers. “Tesla’s business model offers potentially less room for adjacent revenue monetization,” he explains.

Tesla has offered very little information on what Tesla Mobility’s business model will look like, while Waymo and General Motors (GM) have “become increasingly conspicuous with their efforts to grow the business with specific targets for commercialization and deployment,” he explains.

More than half the value assigned to Waymo by Morgan Stanley’s internet team came from logistics, by which they apparently mean moving people and stuff around. That’s an opportunity Jonas doesn’t include for Tesla. “Logistics accounts for $89bn of the total $175bn value in our internet team’s Waymo DCF,” he writes. “We have not specifically ascribed any logistics based revenue to Tesla Mobility at this time.”

Lessons from Chance the Rapper (Value chains and profit pools)

“There is what’s called a master and a publishing portion of the record. So the master is the recording of it, so if I sign a record deal or a recording deal, I sign away my masters, which means the label owns the recording of that music. On the publishing side, if I write a record, and I sign away my publishing in a publishing deal, they own the composition of work… so the idea of it, you know what I’m saying? So if I play a song on piano that you wrote, I have to pay you publishing money, because it comes from that idea. Or if I sing a line from that song, it’s from the publishing portion. If I sample the action record, if I take a piece of the actual recorded music, that’s from the master. None of that shit makes any sense right, that shit didn’t make any sense to you? ‘Cause that shit is goofy as hell.”

Peak Valley?

Silicon Valley has always had one important advantage over other regions when it comes to the tech sector. There is a much higher density of talent, capital, employment opportunity, and basic research in Silicon Valley versus other locations. When I say density, I mean physical density. If you walked a mile, how many tech companies would you pass along the way? That metric in Silicon Valley has always been higher than elsewhere and still is. So even though the return on capital (human and invested) has significant headwinds in today’s Silicon Valley, it is still a lot easier to deploy that capital there. And I think that will continue to be the case for a long time to come.

Quantum computing: the power to think outside the box

That could make it easier to design new materials, or find better ways for handling existing processes. Microsoft, for instance, predicts that it could lead to a more efficient way of capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere for use in fertilisers — a process known as nitrogen fixation, which currently eats up huge quantities of power.

When something is familiar and common, you set a low reference point. So most bad outcomes are placed in the “Oh well, you got unlucky. Next time you’ll do better,” category, while all wins are placed in the, “Easy money!” category. Index funds live here. Even in a bad year, no one thinks you’re crazy.
When something is new or unfamiliar, you have no idea where the reference point is. So you’re cautious with it, putting most bad outcomes in the “I told you so” category and most wins in the “You probably got luck” category. When something is new and unfamiliar, the high reference point means not only will bad outcomes will be punished, but some good outcomes aren’t good enough to beat “par.” So even high-probability bets are avoided.


We were doing something different. And anytime you’re doing something different the only people who can participate are people who don’t have career risk. Anytime you introduce the factor of career risk into the decision-making process, you have to do the norm. It’s a divergent system: If you invest in a divergent system and it goes wrong, you have massive downside for your career personally, separate from the organization. It could be the right decision – it was probabilistically a great bet. But if it goes wrong and it looks different, you could get fired. And if it goes right, you still may not have enough upside career-wise.

Deciding whether to do something isn’t just about whether or not it’ll work. It’s not even about the probability of whether it might work. It’s whether it might work within the context of a reference point – some gauge of what others consider “normal” to measure performance against. Thinking probabilistically is hard, but people do it. And when judging the outcomes of decisions, a win isn’t just a win; it’s “You won, but that was an easy bet and you should have won.” Or, “You won, but that was a gamble and you got lucky.”