Curated Insights 2018.04.08

The most important self-driving car announcement yet

The company’s autonomous vehicles have driven 5 million miles since Alphabet began the program back in 2009. The first million miles took roughly six years. The next million took about a year. The third million took less than eight months. The fourth million took six months. And the fifth million took just under three months. Today, that suggests a rate on the order of 10,000 miles per day. If Waymo hits their marks, they’ll be driving at a rate that’s three orders of magnitude faster in 2020. We’re talking about covering each million miles in hours.

But the qualitative impact will be even bigger. Right now, maybe 10,000 or 20,000 people have ever ridden in a self-driving car, in any context. Far fewer have been in a vehicle that is truly absent a driver. Up to a million people could have that experience every day in 2020.

2020 is not some distant number. It’s hardly even a projection. By laying out this time line yesterday, Waymo is telling the world: Get ready, this is really happening. This is autonomous driving at scale, and not in five years or 10 years or 50 years, but in two years or less.


Facebook, big brother and China

Whether users are OK with this is a personal judgment they make, or at least should be making, when using the services. In open and democratic societies, perhaps users are less worried about what large corporations, who can be secretly compelled to hand over data to the state, know about them. Users are protected by the rule of law, after all. If they are going to see advertising in exchange for content, storage and functionality, then they would rather see relevant than irrelevant advertising alongside their web pages, emails, photos, videos and other files. Most citizens are not criminals and not concerned about what the state knows – they just want to share their holiday photos and chat with each other and in groups via a convenient platform, knowing that Facebook can mine and exploit their data.

But in authoritarian states such as China which control what their citizens can see and which lack a reliable rule of law, such networks pose a bigger threat. Tencent, for example, with its billion active accounts, knows the social graph of China, who your friends and associates are, where you go, what you spend (if you use their payment app) and what you say to each other and in groups on the censored chat platform. Similarly Sina Weibo. The state security apparatus has access to all of this on demand, as well of course as access to data from the mobile phone operators. So even if you stay off the Tencent grid, if you use the phone network then the state will know a lot about anyone you call who is a user of these platforms, as well as being able to profile you based on your repeated common location with other users. All of this data is likely to be accessible to the state in China’s forthcoming Orwellian Social Credit System, a combination of credit rating with mass surveillance. Knowledge is power. No wonder then that China won’t allow Facebook into the game.

Nvidia announces a new chip… But it’s not a GPU

The new chip, NVSwitch, is a communication switch that allows multiple GPUs to work in concert at extremely high speeds. The NVSwitch will enable many GPUs – currently 16 but potentially many more – to work together. The NVSwitch will distance Nvidia from the dozen or so companies developing competing AI (artificial intelligence) chips. While most are focused on their first chips, Nvidia is building out highly scalable AI systems which will be difficult to dislodge.


Nvidia: One analyst thinks it’s decimating rivals in A.I. chips

[Nvidia CEO] Jen-Hsun [Huang] is very clever in that he sets the level of performance that is near impossible for people to keep up with. It’s classic Nvidia — they go to the limits of what they can possibly do in terms of process and systems that integrate memory and clever switch technology and software and they go at a pace that makes it impossible at this stage of the game for anyone to compete.

Everyone has to ask, Where do I need to be in process technology and in performance to be competitive with Nvidia in 2019. And do I have a follow-on product in 2020? That’s tough enough. Add to that the problem of compatibility you will have to have with 10 to 20 frameworks [for machine learning.] The only reason Nvidia has such an advantage is that they made the investment in CUDA [Nvidia’s software tools].

A lot of the announcements at GTC were not about silicon, they were about a platform. It was about things such as taking memory [chips] and putting it on top of Volta [Nvidia’s processor], and adding to that a switch function. They are taking the game to a higher level, and probably hurting some of the system-level guys. Jen-Hsun is making it a bigger game.

Nervana’s first chip didn’t work, they had to go back to the drawing board. It was supposed to go into production one or two quarters ago, and then they [Intel] said, ‘We have decided to just use the Nervana 1 chip for prototyping, and the actual production chip will be a second version.’ People aren’t parsing what that really means. It means it didn’t work! Next year, if Nervana 2 doesn’t happen, they’ll go back and do a Nervana 3.


Apple plans to use its own chips in Macs from 2020, replacing Intel

Apple’s decision to switch away from Intel in PC’s wouldn’t have a major impact on the chipmaker’s earnings because sales to the iPhone maker only constitute a small amount of its total. A bigger concern would be if this represents part of a wider trend of big customers moving to designing their own components, he said.

Apple’s custom processors have been recently manufactured principally by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd. Its decision may signal confidence that TSMC and other suppliers such as Samsung Electronics Co. have closed the gap on Intel’s manufacturing lead and can produce processors that are just as powerful.

Live Nation rules music ticketing, some say with threats

Ticket prices are at record highs. Service fees are far from reduced. And Ticketmaster, part of the Live Nation empire, still tickets 80 of the top 100 arenas in the country. No other company has more than a handful. No competitor has risen to challenge its pre-eminence. It operates more than 200 venues worldwide. It promoted some 30,000 shows around the world last year and sold 500 million tickets.

Though the price of tickets has soared, that trajectory predates the merger and is driven by many factors, including artists’ reliance on touring income as record sales have plummeted.

Live Nation typically locks up much of the best talent by offering generous advances to artists and giving them a huge percentage of the ticket revenue from the door. Why? Because it can afford to. It has so many other related revenue streams on which to draw: sponsorships for the tour, concessions at venues, and, most of all, ticket fees. The fees supply about half of Live Nation’s earnings, according to company reports.

Critics say enforcement of the consent decree has been complicated by what they call its ambiguous language. Though it forbids Live Nation from forcing a client to buy both its talent and ticketing, the agreement lets the company “bundle” its services “in any combination.” So Live Nation is barred from punishing an arena by, say, steering a star like Drake to appear at a rival stop down the road. But it’s also allowed, under the agreement, to redirect a concert if it can defend the decision as sound business.

Roku’s business is not what you think

That’s far from the only ad inventory Roku has access to. The Roku Channel offers free-to-watch popular movies, which Roku sells ad time against. Many of Roku’s “free” channels are ad supported, with Roku having access to all or some of the ad time on many of those channels (not all of them).

While selling ads is the biggest piece of the company’s Platform business, there are some auxiliary sales as well. See those Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, YouTube, etc. buttons on your Roku remote? The company was paid to put them there. Additionally, some TV brands have licensed the right to include Roku OS right into their television set, another source of revenue.

All told, Platform revenue is 44% of total sales, and growing rapidly. In fact, it more than doubled in 2017, and has increased more than 3-fold over the past 2 years. Even better, Platform revenue carries a gross margin near 75%, meaning that already it makes up 85% of Roku’s gross profitability. Completing the trifecta of good news, Platform sales are far more recurring and reliable in nature than hardware sales, giving the company a firmer footing from which to expand their business. Bottom line here? Roku is not really a commodity hardware maker. It is more of a consumer digital video advertising platform.

There is no shortage of ways to get streaming content. And all of them are fighting tooth-and-nail for users. Google and Amazon practically give away their devices to get users into their ecosystem. Against that lineup, it really has very few competitive advantages. There is no meaningful lock-in to the platform. It is really quite simple and painless for a consumer to switch from a Roku to a competing offering. Getting new customers is even more of a dog fight.

Netflix makes up over 30% of streaming hours through Roku’s platform, but the channel provides essentially no revenue back. Same for Amazon, Hulu, and the most popular ad-supported video network in the world, YouTube. Roku relies on monetizing Roku Channel and other, less prominent content channels. However, there is nothing stopping those other channels from switching to a different ad provider, or (if they are large enough), building out their own.


Alibaba is preparing to invest in Grab

Alibaba leaned heavily on its long-time ally SoftBank — an early backer of Tokopedia and Grab — to get the Tokopedia deal ahead of Tencent. That’s despite Tokopedia’s own founders’ preference for Tencent due to Alibaba’s ownership of Lazada, an e-commerce rival to Tokopedia. SoftBank, however, forced the deal through. “It was literally SoftBank against every other investor,” a separate source with knowledge of negotiations told TechCrunch. Ultimately, Alibaba was successful and it led a $1.1 billion investment in Tokopedia in August which did not include Tencent.

CRISPR recorder

While the Cas9 protein is involved in cutting and correcting DNA, the Cas4 protein is part of the process that creates DNA and genetic memory. CRISPR evolved from a bacterial immune defense system in which bacteria destroy viral invaders. Now we are beginning to understand how bacteria detect the invaders and remember the encounters. With Cas4, bacteria can record these encounters in their DNA, creating a permanent ledger of historical events.

Our understanding of Cas4 is rudimentary, but its potential applications are provocative. Not only will it timestamp key events, but it should be able to monitor how an individual’s body works and how it reacts to different kinds of bacteria. A Cas4 tool should be able to fight antibiotic resistance, an important use case addressing a significant unmet need.

How do wars affect stock prices?

Our research is not alone in reaching this conclusion. A 2013 study of US equity markets found that in the month after the US enters conflict, the Dow Jones has risen, on average, by 4.0 percent—3.2 percent more than the average of all months since 1983. A 2017 study found that volatility also dropped to lower levels immediately following the commencement of hostilities relative to the build-up to conflict. During the four major wars of the last century (World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War), for instance, large-cap US equities proved 33 percent less volatile while small-cap stocks proved 26 percent less volatile. Similarly, FTSE All Share and FTSE 100 volatility has historically fallen by 19 and 25 percent over one- and three-month horizons following the outbreak of conflict.

Regression to lumpy returns

Missing a bull can be even more detrimental than taking part in a bear. Following the two huge bear markets we’ve experienced this century, many investors decided it was more important to protect on the downside than take part in the upside. Risk is a two-way street and I’m a huge proponent of risk management, but investors have taken this mindset too far. Missing out on huge bull market gains can set you back years in terms of performance numbers because you basically have to wait for another crash to occur, and then have the fortitude to buy back in at the right time. I have a hard time believing people who missed this bull market because they were sitting in cash will be able to put money to work when the next downturn strikes.


How to talk to people about money

In the last 50 years medical schools subtly shifted teaching away from treating disease and toward treating patients. That meant laying out of the odds of what was likely to work, then letting the patient decide the best path forward. This was partly driven by patient-protection laws, partly by Katz’s influential book, which argued that patients have wildly different views about what’s worth it in medicine, so their beliefs have to be taken into consideration.

There is no “right” treatment plan, even for patients who seem identical in every respect. People have different goals and different tolerance for side effects. So once the patient is fully informed, the only accurate treatment plan is, “Whatever you want to do.” Maximizing for how well they sleep at night, rather than the odds of “winning.”

Everyone giving investing advice – or even just sharing investing opinions – should keep top of mind how emotional money is and how different people are. If the appropriate path of cancer treatments isn’t universal, man, don’t pretend like your bond strategy is appropriate for everyone, even when it aligns with their time horizon and net worth.

The best way to talk to people about money is keeping the phrases, “What do you want to do?” or “Whatever works for you,” loaded and ready to fire. You can explain to other people the history of what works and what hasn’t while acknowledging their preference to sleep well at night over your definition of “winning.”

Curated Insights 2018.03.18

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don't just give up. -- Steven Hawking (1942-2018)

An Apple R&D bonanza

Much of this focus mantra is driven by the fact that Jony Ive and his Industrial Design group oversee Apple’s product vision and the user experience found with Apple products. With only 20 or so members, Jony and team can only do so much at any given moment. In a way, Apple’s organizational and leadership structure serve as safeguards preventing Apple from spreading itself too thin and doing too much. Instead of trying to expand the design team in order to work on more products, Apple’s strategy appears to be to do the opposite and place bigger bets on a few products.

These bigger bets come in the form of owning the core technologies powering Apple devices. Apple wants to reduce dependency on others. We are quickly moving to the point at which every Apple product will be powered by core technologies developed in-house. Such a reality would have been a pipe dream just a few years ago. Apple believes this strategy will give them an advantage in the marketplace. It’s a new twist to the Alan Kay line about “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” We are moving to the point at which companies serious about software should design their own silicon. Having $285 billion of cash on the balance sheet gives Apple the freedom to pursue this ambitious goal. It is this motivation to control more of the user experience while pursuing new industries to enter that is driving the remarkable increase in Apple R&D expenditures.


Apple goes from villain to coveted client with this Finnish firm

Created through a merger of Sweden’s Stora AB and Finland’s Enso Oyj in 1998, the company has spent billions shifting from the declining paper business — as people increasingly switched to digital from printed newspapers — to focusing on innovative wrappings made from tree and plant fibers. More than a third of its sales now come from consumer board and packaging solutions, up from a fifth two decades ago.

Apple has undergone its own shift, away from plastic packaging. For its recent iPhone 8 launch, Apple used a fiber-alternative instead of the polypropylene wrap around the power adapter. The packaging for the iPhone 7 used 84 percent less plastic than the previous version.


Intel fights for its future

“…Broadcom is already an Apple parts supplier, and it wouldn’t want to jeopardize a good relationship with a negotiation over royalties. The exact percentage that Qualcomm charges in royalties is of the utmost importance to a standalone Qualcomm…But for a merged Broadcom-Qualcomm, the exact amount of the royalty would be less important than a good working relationship with Apple.”

If the dispute is settled, Intel loses its wireless modems deal with Apple. No mobile CPUs + no modems = nothing of substance. Broadcom would be in charge — they would hold all the cards.


Google wants to impose order on India’s street address chaos

Google is tackling the project as part of its own search for the next billion users. Non-standard addresses now increase the costs of running all types of commerce from ride-hailing to online retailing and food delivery. Plus Codes — in a ‘6-character + city’ format — can be generated and shared by anyone on Google Maps, while apps that use location services can incorporate those codes on their own platforms. And a user can enter the Plus Code into searches to call up a location. Google Maps is also adding voice navigation in six more Indian languages, after introducing Hindi three years ago.

WhatsApp could shake up digital payments in India

At stake is an Indian digital payments market that Credit Suisse Group AG estimates could be worth $1 trillion within five years and has homegrown and global players jostling for dominance. WhatsApp joins Google, Alibaba-backed Paytm, a unit of local e-commerce leader Flipkart and dozens of others already vying for customers as smartphone adoption surges. Mobile payments caught fire at the end of 2016 when the government’s demonetization temporarily took 86 percent of all paper currency out of circulation to tackle corruption.

“WhatsApp is likely to change the digital payments scenario by cannibalizing other wallets’ users and adding new converts,” said Satish Meena, an analyst at Forrester Inc. “Its base of 200 million users, a daily active usage that’s about 20 times higher than Paytm’s, and the fact that Indian users spend a lot more time on WhatsApp than even on parent Facebook has huge advantages,” said Meena.


Amazon turbocharged Audible’s domination of audiobooks

Audible accounts for about 41 percent of all audiobooks sold, including digital and physical formats, according to researcher Codex Group LLC. Amazon also sells audiobooks directly through its website and, with Audible, accounts for more than half the market. Audible doesn’t disclose financial information, but says its annual subscriber growth is in double digits. Most customers pay $15 for a monthly subscription that comes with a single audiobook. (A la carte, they often cost more than $20.) The company’s library includes 400,000 titles.


How Amazon’s bottomless appetite became corporate America’s nightmare

For many companies, perhaps what’s scariest is that Amazon has lots of room to grow, even in retail. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of all retail sales still happen in physical stores. In some big categories, including home furnishings, ­personal-care products, toys, and food, the brick-and-­mortar numbers are even higher. As the share of online shopping continues to increase, Amazon seems likely to benefit the most. It’s responsible for roughly 44¢ of every dollar Americans spend online, and it’s now mixing in retail stores.

Amazon is far from invulnerable. All the same old red flags are there—a puny 2.7 percent e-commerce profit in North America, massive outlays to establish delivery routes abroad—but few are paying attention. Anyone buying a share of Amazon stock today is agreeing to pay upfront for the next 180 years of profit. By one measure, it’s generating far less cash than investors believe. And its biggest risk may be the fear of its power in Washington, New York, and Brussels, a possible prelude to regulatory crackdown.


Netflix’s secrets to success: Six cell towers, dubbing and more

Why Netflix almost never goes down. The company’s service achieved an availability rate of 99.97% in 2017, according to Netflix engineering director Katharina Probst. Part of that is due to the fact that Netflix learned from outages early on, and now uses Amazon’s AWS data centers across three regions. When one of those regions does go down, Netflix automatically redirects all of its traffic to the two other regions.

In fact, the company even tests this fall-back regularly by just taking a region offline itself — something the company calls chaos engineering. “We intentionally introduce chaos into our systems,” explained Probst. Up until recently, it took Netflix up to an hour to successfully redirect all requests in case of such a massive failure. More recently, the company was able to bring that time down to less than 10 minutes.

Amex to woo retailers with biggest fee cut in 20 years

At a presentation for investors in New York last week, the company said the global average of the fees it charges merchants — known as its discount rate — would decline five or six basis points this year, to about 2.37 per cent. Each basis point is equivalent to about 11 cents of earnings per share, said Don Fandetti of Wells Fargo Securities.

The fee cuts for 2018, which are about double previous guidance, are the latest sign of competitive and regulatory pressures on the biggest US consumer finance company by market value. American Express is facing questions from Wall Street about competition from US banks, which use the rival payment networks Visa or MasterCard. Big-spending Americans have flocked to premium cards issued by banks.


SoftBank looks to invade Wall Street’s turf

Until recently, SoftBank’s fledgling investment arm was little more than a group of analysts in Tokyo and London sifting through possible deals. Buying Fortress provided the group with a template to use as it moved to becoming an actual institution, with a formal investment committee, compliance department, trading desk and investor relations unit. The new entity is now 1,000 people strong.


How China’s Huawei killed $117 billion Broadcom deal

Huawei uses Broadcom’s chips in networking products such as switches that direct data traffic between connected computers. Qualcomm also works with Huawei. The two said on Feb. 21 they completed testing on technology that advances faster 5G mobile services. Under one envisioned scenario, wireless carriers may be forced to turn to Huawei or other Chinese companies for cutting-edge telecoms gear. That’s unacceptable for a U.S. government that, concerned about the security of Huawei’s gear, has already blocked the sale of the Chinese company’s smartphones on American carriers’ networks.

Government officials and industry executives have long harbored suspicions that the closely held Huawei works primarily for Chinese government interests, especially as it sells increasing amounts of critical telecoms infrastructure to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

WordPress is now 30 per cent of the web

Public data recorded that WordPress’s share of the top 10 million websites had ticked over from 29.9 per cent to 30 per cent. The firm put some context on that data by noting that 50.2 per cent of the world’s websites don’t run a content management system (CMS) at all. That means WordPress has over 60 per cent share among websites that do run a CMS. That’s a dominance few products in any category can claim. It’s also notable that WordPress has nearly ten times the market share of its nearest competitor, Joomla, which has 3.1 per cent share of all websites and 6.3 per cent of the CMS-using population.

Share buybacks work better in theory than in practice

The top 20 companies in terms of buybacks accounted for almost 50 percent of total expenditures.

The main problem with buybacks is that effects of bad decision-making don’t become clear until much later. To paraphrase Jeff Macke, stock buybacks are an allocation decision that has a hypothetical value to shareholders, but a real explicit value to option-holding executives. These people are supposed to be managing companies for the long term but get compensated over the short term. This misalignment if incentives should be a concern. It does seem like those with a vested short-term interest in stock prices put a thumb on the scale away from investments or dividends and towards buybacks.

Diving into the detail, the top culprit was Biotech companies, with 97% of biotech IPOs in the loss making camp. Second place, no prizes for guessing, was Technology companies at 83%. But interestingly enough that left 'all other companies' at 57% - which is actually a record high.

What’s the biggest trade on the New York Stock Exchange? The last one

Last year, 26% of all trading activity on the NYSE’s flagship exchange took place in the last trade of the day, up from 17% in 2012, exchange data shows. Last year, trades at the close accounted for more than 8% of trading volume in S&P 500 stocks, nearly four times what it was in 2004, according to Credit Suisse .

At least $10 billion worth of shares are traded in the NYSE’s closing auction on an average day, with a final tally of stock prices typically listed by 4:05 p.m.

A fund manager such as Vanguard, for instance, might need to buy millions of shares at a time. Making such a big purchase in the middle of the day could dry up supply, causing the price of the stock to jump—bad for Vanguard. By waiting to trade at a time when there are millions of shares being bought and sold, the risk of moving the price is reduced, saving Vanguard money.

Last year, the NYSE collected $87 million—45% of its net revenue from the exchange’s core stocks-trading business—from trading at the close, according to the research firm Equity Research Desk. The NYSE’s maximum fees for trading at the close have gone up 16% over three years, according to regulatory filings.


Is the US stock market overvalued? Depends on which model you ask

The Fed model was valid during the period from 1958 to 2010. Since after 2010 there has been no relationship between the stock’s earnings yield and the bond yield, the Fed model cannot be used to judge whether the US stock market is overvalued. In other words, the Fed model cannot support the high current CAPE ratio on the grounds of the low-rate environment.

The Shiller model is over-simplistic. It is justified only on the grounds that there is an empirical inverse relationship between the CAPE value and the subsequent stock market return over horizons ranging from 10 to 15 years. What is less known about the validity of the Shiller model is that it has forecasting power only for real returns.

The other serious problem with the Shiller model is that it cannot be successfully used to time the market. If the investor believes in the validity of the Shiller model, this investor should buy the stocks in the early 1970s. However, in this case, the investor would be highly disappointed because the stock prices had been decreasing till the early 1980s. Similarly, if the investor uses the Shiller model, this investor would sell stocks in the early 1990s, missing out on huge net gains over the full bull/bear cycle.

Pozen Priorities

“The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel.”


Ironies of luck

If risk is what happens when you make good decisions but end up with a bad outcome, luck is what happens when you make bad or mediocre decisions but end up with a great outcome. They both happen because the world is too complex to allow 100% of your actions dictate 100% of your outcomes. They are mirrored cousins, driven by the same thing: You are one person in a 7 billion player game, and the accidental impact of other people’s actions can be more consequential than your own.

In investing, a huge amount of effort goes into identifying and managing risk. But so little effort goes into doing the same for luck. Investors hire risk managers; no one wants a luck consultant. Companies are required to disclose risks in their annual reports; they’re not required to disclose lucky breaks that may have led to previous success. There are risk-adjusted returns, never luck-adjusted returns.

Here’s why Stephen Hawking never won the Nobel prize in physics

It takes decades to build the scientific equipment to test theoretical discoveries; to put this into context, Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves in space, which he first proposed in the 1920s, was only recently proven in 2016.

One of Hawking’s most important finds was “Hawkings Radiation,” the theory that black holes are not completely black after all, but emit radiations that ultimately cause them to disappear. The issue is, the technology needed to observe this radiation will take years and cost millions before Hawking’s theory can ever be verified.