Curated Insights 2018.11.02

Steve Jobs had an incredible definition of what a company should be

The company is one of the most amazing inventions of humans, this abstract construct that’s incredibly powerful. Even so, for me, it’s about the products. It’s about working together with really fun, smart, creative people and making wonderful things. It’s not about the money. What a company is, then, is a group of people who can make more than just the next big thing. It’s a talent, it’s a capability, it’s a culture, it’s a point of view, and it’s a way of working together to make the next thing, and the next one, and the next one.


Fossil fuels will save the world (really)

That fossil fuels are finite is a red herring. The Atlantic Ocean is finite, but that does not mean that you risk bumping into France if you row out of a harbor in Maine. The buffalo of the American West were infinite, in the sense that they could breed, yet they came close to extinction. It is an ironic truth that no nonrenewable resource has ever run dry, while renewable resources—whales, cod, forests, passenger pigeons—have frequently done so.


Gundlach: People want to be told what to think. I don’t

My biggest lesson that I’ve learned… I have the same flaw that every human being has and that is: As you’re growing up and getting older, you believe that everybody’s like you. You just extrapolate your personality traits and proclivities on other people. Then you start to realize increasingly, that that’s not true. And I believed, therefore, that everybody was intellectually objective and honest and wanted to figure things out for themselves. And I didn’t understand, for probably as long as 20 years, why I couldn’t convince people of almost mathematically analytical arguments regarding markets. And it was finally after years of this that I realized that people actually want to be told what to think.

It took me a long time to understand that. Not me, see, I don’t want to be told what to think. And so I figured nobody wants to be told what to think. But indeed, I think almost everybody wants to be told what to think. That creates a tremendous advantage in managing money. Because in that window of time between a fact and people being told what the fact means, you have a window if you’re capable of figuring out what it means – and don’t need to be told what it means – where you can actually act before other people and I found I’ve made a lot of money that way.

I remember when Ben Bernanke announced the Fed funds rate was going to stay at 0% for three years, and the markets didn’t move. And I had my traders look for this asset class in the bond market that would be the primary beneficiary of rate staying at zero for three years. And I said, “How much of the prices up?” And they said, “They’re not up at all.”

Assessing IBM’s $34 billion Red Hat acquisition

Dan Scholnick, general partner at Trinity Ventures, whose investments have included New Relic and Docker, was not terribly impressed with the deal, believing it smacked of desperation on IBM’s part. “IBM is a declining business that somehow needs to become relevant in the cloud era. Red Hat is not the answer. Red Hat’s business centers around an operating system, which is a layer of the technology stack that has been completely commoditized by cloud. (If you use AWS, you can get Amazon’s OS for free, so why would you pay Red Hat?) Red Hat has NO story for cloud,” he claimed in a statement.

Forrester analyst Dave Bartoletti sees the cloud native piece as being key here. “The combined company has a leading Kubernetes and container-based cloud-native development platform, and a much broader open source middleware and developer tools portfolio than either company separately. While any acquisition of this size will take time to play out, the combined company will be sure to reshape the open source and cloud platforms market for years to come,” he said.


IBM’s old playbook

The best thing going for this strategy is its pragmatism: IBM gave up its potential to compete in the public cloud a decade ago, faked it for the last five years, and now is finally admitting its best option is to build on top of everyone else’s clouds. That, though, gets at the strategy’s weakness: it seems more attuned to IBM’s needs than potential customers. After all, if an enterprise is concerned about lock-in, is IBM really a better option? And if the answer is that “Red Hat is open”, at what point do increasingly sophisticated businesses build it themselves?

The problem for IBM is that they are not building solutions for clueless IT departments bewildered by a dizzying array of open technologies: instead they are building on top of three cloud providers, one of which (Microsoft) is specializing in precisely the sort of hybrid solutions that IBM is targeting. The difference is that because Microsoft has actually spent the money on infrastructure their ability to extract money from the value chain is correspondingly higher; IBM has to pay rent:

The threat of Amazon’s content strategy

Even if content is created by a publisher and merely distributed through the tech platform, the tech company still captures its data; Netflix, for example, doesn’t share ratings data with TV producers, and Amazon doesn’t share Kindle readership data with the publishing industry. Meanwhile, Facebook actually shared false data with brands about their video’s viewership for years.

  • Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired a stake in RateBeer, a leading beer review platform, and October, a beer culture website.
  • Popular makeup startup Glossier initially launched as a content site; it then used insights gathered from users to develop its own line of cosmetics. Now, it aims to launch a new social commerce platform to encourage user reviews and feedback.
  • L’Oreal invested in Beautycon Media, which creates digital beauty content and hosts festivals for influencers
  • Mattress startup Casper even launched its own magazine; the current issue includes features like “A skeptic’s guide to crystals” and an adult coloring book.

Social Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya says ‘we need to return to the roots of venture investing’

“The dynamics we’ve entered is, in many ways, creating a dangerous, high stakes Ponzi scheme. Highly marked up valuations, which should be a cost for VCs, have in fact become their key revenue driver. It lets them raise new funds and keep drawing fees.”

“VCs bid up and mark up each other’s portfolio company valuations today, justifying high prices by pointing to today’s user growth and tomorrow’s network effects. Those companies then go spend that money on even more user growth, often in zero-sum competition with one another. Today’s limited partners are fine with the exercise in the short run, as it gives them the markups and projected returns that they need to keep their own bosses happy.”

“Ultimately, the bill gets handed to current and future LPs (many years down the road), and startup employees (who lack the means to do anything about the problem other than leave for a new company, and acquire a ‘portfolio’ of options.)”

The coming storm for consumer staples dividends

AB InBev argued that by taking its leverage down to 2x net debt/EBITDA, it will reduce its cost of capital and “maximize total enterprise value.” All else equal, a lower cost of debt would in theory increase enterprise value, yet AB InBev already has solidly investment-grade credit ratings (e.g., A- from S&P). A ratings upgrade within the investment-grade space would likely only have a marginal impact on lowering cost of debt. Deleveraging could even increase its cost of capital, as more expensive equity takes a greater share of the capital structure.

Ultimately, a company’s dividend should be affordable, reflect the growth in shareholder value creation, and help management more prudently select high-return projects rather than pursue wasteful “empire building” deals. Dividends can be a problem, however, when they become too generous and handcuff management’s ability to invest in high-return projects and defend or widen the firm’s economic moat. When this happens, a dividend “rebasing” or “cut” would benefit long-term shareholders.


Uber-inequality

Uber received proposals from investment banks that pegged the ride-hailing firm’s IPO valuation at $120B. So, that posits Uber’s value is greater than the value of the US airline industry or the US auto industry (excluding Tesla). I love Uber and think the firm is genius. But that valuation is insane. Uber’s model doesn’t have the moats of an auto firm or even Airbnb, which must create global demand and supply (a local competitor to Airbnb doesn’t work, as visitors from other countries wouldn’t know about it). In contrast, local on-demand taxi services abound, even if without an app. The 120K readers of this newsletter could each put in $250, and boom — we have the number-three ride-hailing firm in Miami. Who’s with me?

In today’s economy, innovation means elegant theft: robbery of your data, privacy, health insurance, or minimum-wage protection. Uber has 16K employees and 3M driver partners. “Driver partner” means some great things. It means you don’t have to show up to an office. And it means you can work whenever you want — this is key. When I speak to Uber drivers, I always ask, “Do you like working for Uber?” The overwhelming majority say yes and reference the flexibility. I’ve been especially struck by how many need the flexibility, as they’re taking care of someone who’s sick. So many people taking care of others. So many people loving other people. And it comes at a huge cost. Many of them used to have jobs with benefits. Many had to move to a strange place to take care of their sister, mother, nephew.

The economic value of artificial intelligence

In the near term, around $6.6 trillion of the expected GDP growth will come from productivity gains, such as the continued automation of routine tasks. Over time, increased consumer demand for AI-enhanced offerings will overtake productivity gains and result in an additional $9.1 trillion of GDP growth by 2030.

China is expected to see the greatest economic gains from AI, a $7 trillion or 26% boost in GDP growth. One reason is the high proportion of China’s GDP that is based on manufacturing, where AI is expected to have a particularly big impact between now and 2030. Even more important over the longer term is China’s higher rate of AI investments compared to North America and Europe.

China is expected to see the greatest economic gains from AI, a $7 trillion or 26% boost in GDP growth. One reason is the high proportion of China’s GDP that is based on manufacturing, where AI is expected to have a particularly big impact between now and 2030. Even more important over the longer term is China’s higher rate of AI investments compared to North America and Europe.

In North America, the economic gains from AI are expected to reach $3.7 trillion or 14.5% of GDP growth by 2030. North America will see the fastest growth in the near term, given its current lead in AI technologies, applications, and market readiness. But China will likely begin to catch up by the middle 2020s given its accelerating AI investments.


A.I. is helping scientists predict when and where the next big earthquake will be

Some of the world’s most destructive earthquakes — China in 2008, Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011, among them — occurred in areas that seismic hazard maps had deemed relatively safe. The last large earthquake to strike Los Angeles, Northridge in 1994, occurred on a fault that did not appear on seismic maps.