Curated Insights 2019.08.23

The WeWork IPO

Given this vision, WeWork’s massive losses are, at least in theory, justifiable. The implication of creating a company that absorbs all of the fixed costs in order to offer a variable cost service to other companies is massive amounts of up-front investment. Just as Amazon needed to first build out data centers and buy servers before it could sell storage and compute, WeWork needs to build out offices spaces before it can sell desktops or conference rooms. In other words, it would be strange if WeWork were not losing lots of money, particularly given its expansion rate.

What is useful is considering these two graphics together: over 300 locations — more than half — are in the money-losing part of the second graph, which helps explain why WeWork’s expenses are nearly double its revenue; should the company stop opening locations, it seems reasonable to expect that gap to close rapidly. Still, it is doubtful that WeWork will slow the rate with which is opens locations given the company’s view of its total addressable market.

The sheer scale of this ambition again calls back to AWS. It was in 2013 that Amazon’s management first stated that AWS could end up being the company’s biggest business; at that time AWS provided a mere 4% of Amazon’s revenue (but 33% of the profit). In 2018, though, AWS had grown by over 1000% and was up to 11% of Amazon’s revenue (and 59% of the profit), and that share is very much expected to grow, even as AWS faces a competitor in Microsoft Azure that is growing even faster, in large part because existing enterprises are moving to the cloud, not just startups.

WeWork, meanwhile, using its expansive definition of its addressable market, claims that it has realized only 0.2% of their total opportunity globally, and 0.6% of their opportunity in their ten largest cities. To be fair, one may be skeptical that existing enterprises in particular will be hesitant to turn over management of their existing offices to WeWork, which would dramatically curtail the opportunity; on the other hand, large enterprises now make up 40% of WeWork’s revenue (and rising), and more importantly, WeWork doesn’t have any significant competition.

In short, there is a case that WeWork is both a symptom of software-eating-the-world, as well as an enabler and driver of the same, which would mean the company would still have access to the capital it needs even in a recession. Investors would just have to accept the fact they will have absolutely no impact on how it is used, and that, beyond the sky-high valuation and the real concerns about a duration mismatch in a recession, is a very good reason to stay away.

Pershing Square on Berkshire Hathaway

Berkshire’s primary asset is the world’s largest insurance business, which we estimate represents nearly half of Berkshire’s intrinsic value. In its primary insurance segment, Berkshire focuses on the reinsurance and auto insurance segments. In reinsurance, Berkshire’s strong competitive advantages are derived from its enormous capital base, efficient underwriting (a quick yes or no), ineffable trustworthiness, and its focus on long-term economics rather than short-term accounting profits, all of which allows the company to often be the only insurer capable of and willing to insure extremely large and/or unusual, bespoke insurance policies. We believe that Berkshire’s reinsurance business, operating primarily through National Indemnity and General Re, is uniquely positioned to serve its clients’ needs to protect against the increasing frequency and growing severity of catastrophic losses. In auto insurance, Berkshire subsidiary GEICO operates a low-cost direct sales model which provides car owners with lower prices than competitors that rely on a traditional agent-based sales approach. GEICO’s low cost, high quality service model has enabled it to consistently gain market share for decades. The enduring competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance businesses have allowed it to consistently grow its float (the net premiums received held on Berkshire’s balance sheet that will be used to pay for expected losses in the often distant future) at a higher rate and a lower cost than its peers. While Mr. Buffett is best known as a great investor, he should perhaps also be considered the world’s greatest insurance company architect and CEO because the returns Berkshire has achieved on investment would not be nearly as good without the material benefits it has realized by financing these investments with lowcost insurance float.

For more than the last decade, Berkshire has grown its float at an 8% compounded annual growth rate while achieving a negative 2% average cost of float due to its profitable insurance underwriting, while incurring an underwriting loss in only one out of the last 15 years. These are extraordinary results particularly when compared with the substantial majority of insurance companies which lose money in their insurance operations and are only profitable after including investment returns. Furthermore, we believe that Berkshire’s cost of float will remain stable or even decline as its fastest growing insurance businesses (GEICO and BH Primary) have a lower cost of float than the company’s overall average. Since the end of 2007, we estimate that Berkshire has averaged a nearly 7% annual rate of return on its insurance investment portfolio while holding an average of 20% of its portfolio in cash. Berkshire has been able to produce investment returns that significantly exceed its insurance company peers as the combination of the company’s long-duration float and significant shareholders’ equity allow it to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in publicly traded equities, while its peers are limited to invest primarily in fixed-income securities. We believe these structural competitive advantages of Berkshire’s insurance business are enduring and will likely further expand. Berkshire also owns a collection of high-quality, non-insurance businesses, which include market-leading industrial businesses, the largest of which are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Precision Castparts, an aerospace metal parts manufacturer. While Berkshire’s non-insurance portfolio is comprised of highly diversified businesses that have been acquired during the last 50 or so years, we estimate that the portfolio derives more than 50% of its earnings from its largest three businesses: Burlington Northern (>30%), Precision Castparts (~10%), and regulated utilities (~10%).

While we have utilized a number of different approaches to our valuation of Berkshire, we believe it is perhaps easiest to understand the company’s attractive valuation by estimating Berkshire’s underlying economic earnings power, and comparing the company’s price-earnings multiple to other businesses of similar quality and earnings growth rate. Using this approach, we believe that Berkshire currently trades at only 14 times our estimate of next 12 months’ economic earnings per share (excluding the amortization of acquired intangibles), assuming a normalized rate of return of 7% on its insurance investment portfolio. While generating a 7% return on such a large amount of investment assets is not a given—particularly in an extraordinarily low-rate environment—we believe that Berkshire’s ability to invest the substantial majority of its insurance assets in equity and equity-like instruments and hold them for the long term makes this a reasonable assumption. Based on these assumptions, we believe that Berkshire’s valuation is extremely low compared to businesses of similar quality and growth characteristics.

WeWTF

The last round $47 billion “valuation” is an illusion. SoftBank invested at this valuation with a “pref,” meaning their money is the first money out, limiting the downside. The suckers, idiots, CNBC viewers, great Americans, and people trying to feel young again who buy on the first trade — or after — don’t have this downside protection. Similar to the DJIA, last-round private valuations are harmful metrics that create the illusion of prosperity. The bankers (JPM and Goldman) stand to register $122 million in fees flinging feces at retail investors visiting the unicorn zoo. Any equity analyst who endorses this stock above a $10 billion valuation is lying, stupid, or both.


The dating business is IAC’s best asset — and its greatest challenge

Match is among IAC’s greatest hits. The stock has nearly doubled this year alone, thanks largely to soaring Tinder membership. IAC sold a portion of Match in a 2015 IPO at $12. The stock is now $85, and IAC’s Match stake is worth close to $19 billion. It accounts for more than 90% of IAC’s current $21 billion market value.

This month, Levin and IAC disclosed a solution to the Match problem. The company is considering distributing Match shares to its shareholders in a tax-free transaction. And IAC is thinking about a similar handoff of its 84% stake in ANGI Homeservices (ANGI). That operation is a $4.3 billion market-cap business that IAC created in 2017 by acquiring publicly traded Angie’s List and merging it with IAC-owned HomeAdvisor.


How big stars maximise their take from tours

Historically, tours were loss-leaders used to promote albums. As revenues from recorded music have collapsed and productions have become increasingly elaborate to draw the crowds, ticket prices have risen steeply. The cost of a concert ticket in America increased by 190% between 1996 and 2018, compared with 59% for overall consumer prices. But as the continued success of scalpers demonstrates, they are still far below the market-clearing price.

How aggressively cute toys for adults became a $686 million business

Funko Pops are now available from 25,000 retail brands worldwide, from Walmart to Amazon to Hot Topic and even, somewhat bizarrely, Foot Locker. In 2018, the company’s net sales increased 33 percent to $686.1 million, with figurines accounting for 82 percent of all sales. After the company released its Q2 earnings report in early August, declaring that sales up are 38 percent compared to this time last year, CEO Brian Mariotti called his company “recession proof.”

Collectors like Jack make up 36 percent of Funko’s customers, while 31 percent are “occasional buyers.” Wilkinson says Funko Pops appeal to both markets because of the “science of cute” behind the figurines’ design.

Funko now has more than 1,000 licensed properties, from the Avengers to the Golden Girls, Fortnite to Flash Gordon, Stranger Things to The Office. “Evergreen and classic” properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Disney make up nearly half of all Funko Pop sales, but the company is seemingly constantly procuring new, unexpected licenses, from drag queens to food mascots to NASCAR drivers.

A May 2019 investor presentation from the company boasts that a Pop can be designed and submitted to a licensor in 24 hours, molded into a prototype in 45 days, and “sourced from Asian facilities while maintaining quality control” in just 15 days. Funko also prides itself on its low production costs — each new figure costs between $5,000 and $7,500 to develop.

Is it possible, then, that Funko will run out of things to Pop? At present, the company’s profits continue to climb, from $98 million gross profit in 2015 (when Funko had just 205 active properties) to $258 million in 2018. History has shown us that collectibles tend to decline in popularity, and it is possible that Funko Pops could go the way of the Beanie Baby. Yet at present, there are more than enough fans keeping the company in business.

To encourage collectors, Funko uses many tried-and-tested market tricks, like releasing toys exclusive to certain locations (Mr. Rogers is exclusive to Barnes & Noble) and producing limited-edition runs (only 480 holographic Darth Mauls were released at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012). Yet the company doesn’t just rely on people like Jack and Tristan. A third of all customers are only occasional buyers, and the customer base appears to be a diverse set of people with a diverse range of fandoms. In 2018, no single property made up more than 6 percent of purchases; Pops related to new theatrical releases encompassed 20 percent of sales, TV show-related Pops accounted for 16 percent, and gaming Pops made up 17 percent. There is a roughly equal gender split in customers (51 percent women to 49 percent men), and last year, international sales grew 57 percent.

Interestingly, Funko’s average customer is 35 years old — two years younger than Jack, who says his date recovered from seeing his spare room. “The rest of the night went very well and we went on several more dates,” he said. Although it ultimately didn’t work out with her, Jack says his “crazy room of Funko Pops” didn’t have “too much influence on it either way.”


Move over Lego: The next big collectable toy powerhouse is here

Collectibles are a $200 billion market on their own, and video games are on pace to be a $300 billion industry by 2025. And Funko sits right in the middle of it all.

Funko is very good at what it does; its revenue and fanbase is proof of that. But when Microsoft reached out about a video game collaboration, there were all sorts of new questions on Funko and Microsoft’s part because Funko wasn’t just an aesthetic anymore; it had to be interactive for the first time. And interactive is tricky. It forces designers to decide, how does a Funko walk? How does a Funko fight? Can a Funko bleed? (No, by the way, they can’t).


The real story of Supreme

Twenty-five years later, as fads (like televised street luge) have fallen by the wayside, Supreme remains a skate brand—a purveyor of all the hard and soft goods one needs for the sport. But it is something much more than that, too. Since its beginning, in 1994, Supreme has slowly worked its way to the very center of culture and fashion. Or more accurately, culture and fashion have reconfigured themselves around Supreme. Supreme’s clothing and accessories sell out instantly, and the brand has become a fashion-world collaborator of the highest caliber with projects now under way with designers high (Comme des Garçons, Undercover) and low (Hanes, Champion). Though the particulars of the privately held company’s business are undisclosed, a $500 million investment in 2017 from the multinational private equity firm the Carlyle Group, for a 50 percent stake, put Supreme’s valuation at $1 billion.

The formula for success—for building a brand that lasts for 25 years—sounds simple enough: Create a high-quality product that will last a long time, sell it for an accessible price, and make people desperately want to buy it. But executing such a plan is far trickier. And in figuring out how to thrive according to strict adherence to its own highly specific principles and logic, Supreme has, deliberately or not, re-arranged the alignment of the entire fashion industry.

Powerful as Supreme has become as a trendsetter, the company is still fiercely committed to its own novel approach. Supreme didn’t launch a website until 2006. It was purposefully late to Instagram, too. Outside of Japanese fashion magazines and downtown NYC wheat-paste poster campaigns, Supreme’s only real marketing efforts are made in the skate world. Conveniently, marketing to skaters is likely the best way for Supreme to market to the fashion world. In other words, the fact that Supreme doesn’t pander to the fashion industry only makes its allure more powerful.

ETF fear mongering myths

Even if every ETF investor wanted to sell (which would never happen), remember that ETFs only own approximately 6% of the stock market and 1% of the bond market.