Curated Insights 2019.08.09

Good for Google, bad for America

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Netflix is not a tech company

Hence, Netflix isn’t using TV to leverage some other business – TV is the business. It’s a TV company. Amazon is using content as a way to leverage its subscription service, Prime, in much the same way to telcos buying cable companies or doing IPTV – it’s a way to stop churn. Amazon is using Lord of the Rings as leverage to get you to buy toilet paper through Prime. But Facebook and Google are not device businesses or subscription businesses. Facebook or Google won’t say ‘don’t cancel your subscription because you’ll lose this TV show’ – there is no subscription. That means the strategic value of TV or music is marginal – it’s marketing, not a lock-in.

Apple’s position in TV today is ambivalent. You can argue that the iPhone is a subscription business (spend $30 a month and get a phone every two years), and it certainly thinks about retention and renewals. The service subscriptions that it’s created recently (news, music, games) are all both incremental revenue leveraging a base of 1bn users and ways to lock those users in. But the only important question for the upcoming ‘TV Plus’ is whether Apple plans to spend $1bn a year buying content from people in LA, and produce another nice incremental service with some marketing and retention value, or spend $15bn buying content from people in LA, to take on Netflix. But of course, that’s a TV question, not a tech question.

Why we sold Trupanion

Why is Trupanion not outpacing the industry when it is the first name many pet owners hear? It could be that pet owners hear about pet insurance from their vet, go home, compare prices, and choose a more affordable option. It’s not an impossible problem for Trupanion to solve, but again, consumers don’t typically understand insurance value until they file a claim.

But at an investor event we attended a few months ago, Darryl said that he was making plans to switch to an executive chairman role in 2025. While we understood Darryl’s choice on a personal level, it also sharply increased our uncertainty around whether company management will be able to successfully build a moat and transform pet insurance as we had hoped. In our opinion, Trupanion will continue to need a visionary leader in the CEO role and finding another visionary to replace Rawlings will be a massive challenge.

Given the industry’s rapid growth, we think it’s perfectly normal for both regulators and pet insurance companies to have some growing pains. While Trupanion has been fined, faces more state investigations, and admits it should have paid more attention to regulators as a stakeholder, we considered these matters minor to our thesis. Regulators may require Trupanion’s Territory Partners to be licensed in all states, but this is more like a speed bump rather than a roadblock.


TGV Intrinsic on MercadoLibre

Network effects are among the highest entry barriers for competitors to build and leverage business. As market leader, MercadoLibre has been able to permanently focus on strengthening the network effects of the marketplace and eliminate points of conflict in transaction processing between buyer and seller. The most important point of conflict between seller and buyer in the past were the payment arrangements. To simplify this process, MercadoLibre launched its own payment service “MercadoPago” in 2004 (comparable to PayPal). MercadoPago provides a secure way to pay for goods and simplified the coordination between buyers and sellers in terms of payment. Today, over 90% of the value god goods sold on MercadoLibre is paid with MercadoPago, which equates to a payment volume of 11 billion US dollars.

Apart from that, logistics costs in many Latin American countries pose a major hurdle for buyers and sellers. The investments required to setup one’s own logistics system are high, delivery times in Latin America are relatively long, and service is rather mediocre. With the founding of MercadoEnvios in 2013, MercadoLibre took over an ever more extensive control over the logistics of goods in several steps. Today, MercadoEnvios operates its own logistics centres, takes over the first mile from the seller or organises the last mile to the end customer with selected partners. In 2018, at least part of the logistics was taken over by MercadoEnvious for 66% of the goods sold through the marketplace. Thanks to the sizeable investments in a proprietary payment system and the continuous expansion of its own logistics, MercadoLibre has massively expanded its marketplace and the network effect that has been set in motion over the past two decades. The value of these investments is reflected in the growth in the number of transactions amounting to 28% per annum over the past decade.

The value of this ecosystem lies in the ever-growing economy of scale. MercadoLibre has more touch points with its customers than its competitors, be it specialised online retailers, payment service providers, or logistics companies. At each of these points of contact, MercadoLibre can distribute its costs in customer acquisition to more services than its competitors. As a result, the costs for new customers per product are lower than for competitors. Second, MercadoLibre can freely decide which areas of a customer relationship to monetise and which not. For example, MercadoLibre may offer MercadoPago payment service to new brick-and-mortar retailers for free but would require a marketplace transaction fee for this merchant’s online product sales. A specialised payment provider does not have this flexibility. As a result, MercadoLibre has created a flexible and cost-effective customer acquisition engine that only very few companies have.


Zebras can change their stripes

Since 2012, JUVE has gone on to secure many other high profile “free” transfers with established winners such as Dani Alves and Sami Khediera, but then also find those that have significant upside potential like Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, and Emre Can. By far, the most impactful and value-accretive “free” transfer was Paul Pogba. In 2012, Juventus signed 19 year-old Pogba from Manchester United, and only four seasons later (and after winning four league titles) sold him back to Manchester United for a world-record fee of $116 million. In total, since 2011, the top 10 free transfer signings by Juventus have created $204m of value (i.e. market value of the players at time of signing) and over $135 million of cash from transfer sales proceeds. Yes, Pogba was an outlier, but JUVE has utilized the free transfer market better than any other club over the past decade.

Let us not forget this is a business, and Ronaldo prints money. Before the ink dried on the contract, the Ronaldo effect took Juventus, and Italy, by storm. His name generated over $60 million in jersey sales in one day – that is the best global branding a club can ask for. JUVE’s Twitter account showed a 10% increase in followers on the day he was signed. Then ESPN acquired the U.S. Serie A TV rights at a massive step-change in the fee ($55 million per year, versus $28 million previously) only one month later. And to no one’s surprise, the first game aired on August 18th showcasing Ronaldo in his new black and white jersey. Your author duly signed up for ESPN+ exclusively to live stream I Bianconeri. The acquisition led to a nice bump in GreenWood’s performance, and most importantly, Ronaldo helped his team win another Serie A title.

The periodic table of investments

Winner-take-all phenomenon rules the stock market, too

Just 1.3% of the world’s public companies account for all the market gains during the past three decades. Outside the U.S., the gains are even more concentrated, with less than 1% of all equities driving all of the net appreciation in share prices.

Just five companies — Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.Com Inc., Alphabet Inc. (Google) and Exxon Mobil Corp. — accounted for 8.3% of global net wealth creation. It is hard to imagine a greater example of the winner-take-all distribution — these five companies account for just 0.008% of the total sample set of 62,000 publicly traded companies. Expand that to the top 0.5%, or 306 companies, and they account for 73% of global net wealth creation. The best performing 811 companies (1.33% of the total) accounted for all net global wealth creation.


Negative rates could happen in America, too

What’s behind negative interest rates? Many observers blame central banks like the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan (BOJ) that are taxing banks’ excess reserves with negative deposit rates and have made bonds scarcer by removing them from the market through their purchase programs. The BOJ now owns about half and the ECB about 30% of the bonds issued by their respective governments, according to Bloomberg.

However, we believe central banks are not the villains but rather the victims of deeper fundamental drivers behind low and negative interest rates. The two most important secular drivers are demographics and technology. Rising life expectancy increases desired saving while new technologies are capital-saving and are becoming cheaper – and thus reduce ex ante demand for investment. The resulting savings glut tends to push the “natural” rate of interest lower and lower.

LBOs make (more) companies go bankrupt, research shows

According to researchers at California Polytechnic State University, roughly 20 percent of large companies acquired through leveraged buyouts go bankrupt within ten years, as compared to a control group’s bankruptcy rate of 2 percent during the same time period.


Is great information good enough? Evidence from physicians as patients

We compare the care received by a group of patients that should have the best possible information on health care service efficacy—i.e., physicians as patients—with a comparable group of non-physician patients, taking various steps to account for unobservable differences between the two groups. Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly better in adhering to both low- and high-value care guidelines than non-physicians – but not by much and not always.


Health facts aren’t enough. Should persuasion become a priority?

Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge. In other words, those with the least understanding of science had the most science-opposed views, but thought they knew the most.

Curated Insights 2018.01.14

As of this year the App Store alone will overtake Global Box Office revenues.

The iOS economy, updated

Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Tencent, YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, Google, Baidu, Instagram, Amazon, eBay, JD.com, Alibaba, Expedia, Tripadvisor, Salesforce, Uber, AirBnB and hundreds of others are all “free” apps enabling hundreds of billions of dollars of interaction none of which are captured in the App Store revenue data. The vast majority of activity for the top commerce, communications and media properties are now coming through mobile devices.

By weight of users and their propensity to engage, iOS enables about 50% to 60% of mobile economic activity. Based on assumptions of revenue rates for mobile services and iOS share of engagement, my estimate of the economic activity on iOS for 2017 is about $180 billion. Including hardware sales, the iOS economy cleared about $380 billion in revenues 2017.


Wal-Mart already has a thriving online grocery business—in China

Wal-Mart has already developed a big online grocery delivery business in China, capable of transporting fresh produce from its shelves to homes within an hour. To accomplish that feat, it’s created a network of chilled mini-warehouses, used artificial intelligence to tailor inventories, and employed an army of crowdsourced deliverymen to rush meat, fruits, and vegetables to customers’ doorsteps. That could provide the megaretailer with plenty of insight and experience to keep tech upstarts from disrupting it out of one of its core U.S. businesses.

Only 2 percent of fresh food was bought online in China last year, according to data from Euromonitor International.


Ensemble Capital: Nike Update

Nike’s sales are 50% larger than its closest competitor Adidas and it is more than twice as profitable. The next few competitors, like Under Armor and Puma both at $5 billion, are markedly smaller in scale. When Nike was founded in 1964 by Phil Knight, Adidas was a much larger incumbent in the sneaker business and Nike was the scrappy startup.

The bigger growth opportunity going forward comes from the international markets, where Nike expects 75% of its future growth to come from and now accounts for about 60% of sales. In addition, this growth is likely to be more profitable over time as its direct to consumer business via its own stores, website, and app will account for a greater percentage of its total sales while creating a more direct relationship with the customer.

New lift technology is reshaping cities

The lift is to the vertical what the car is to the horizontal: the defining means of transport. Like cars, modern lifts are creatures of the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century. Like cars, they have transformed the way that cities look, changing how and where people live and work. And today, like the cars that are lidar-sensing their way towards an autonomous future, lifts stand ready to change the city again.

The Chinese appetite for more, higher and faster lifts is like nothing seen since 1920s New York. In 2000 some 40,000 new lifts were installed in the country. By 2016 the number was 600,000—almost three quarters of the 825,000 sold worldwide. China not only wanted more skyscrapers; it wanted taller ones. More than 100 buildings round the world are over 300 metres; almost all of them were built this century, and nearly half of them in China. The country is home to two-thirds of the 128 buildings over 200 metres completed in 2016.

Liftmakers say that “Destination control”, in which the lift system tells the user which lift to use, rather than the user telling the lift where to go, reduces door-to-desk time by 30%. Pair it with double-decker lifts, which in very tall buildings usefully serve odd and even floors simultaneously, and you increase capacity even further.

Why experts believe cheaper, better lidar is right around the corner

“Our lidar chips are produced on 300-millimeter wafers, making their potential production cost on the order of $10 each at production volumes of millions of units per year,” MIT researchers Chris Poulton and Michael Watts wrote last year. Their chip uses optical phased arrays for beam steering, avoiding the need for mechanical parts.

Experimental, low-volume hardware for cutting-edge technology is almost always expensive. It’s through the process of mass manufacturing and iterative improvement that companies learn to make it cheaper. Right now, lidar technology is at the very beginning of that curve—where antilock brakes were in the early 1980s.

The world’s biggest miner is building a battery supply hub it doesn’t want

BHP began work to build a nickel sulphate plant at Nickel West in recent weeks and is considering a slate of further expansions to make it the largest source of the material and a hub for other battery ingredients. It’s aiming to sell 90 percent of output into the battery supply chain by about 2021, from less than a third at the end of last year. Global nickel demand could more than double by 2050, fueled in part by rising electric vehicle sales, Bloomberg Intelligence said in a June report.

The world’s biggest mining companies are ratcheting up their response to the booming demand for battery raw materials. Rio Tinto Group is developing a lithium project in Serbia, while Glencore Plc plans to double production of cobalt and is effectively “a one-stop-shop” for investors seeking exposure to EV gains, Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. said in a note this month.

The good luck for BHP is that only about 40 to 45 percent of existing nickel mine supply is suitable for processing into a battery-grade chemical product, Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw said by phone. “BHP’s Nickel West fits into that category.”


The most powerful research tool is a great network

The two changes he noted are global environmental standards sponsored by the International Maritime Organization. The first is the “Ballast Water Management Convention” that went into force late last year. It requires that newly built ships have waste-water treatment equipment that purifies ballast water to certain minimum levels. After September 2019, ships that were built before these standards came into force will need a costly upgrade to their equipment to meet this standard for the vessels to pass their periodic inspections.

The second standard will be implemented in 2020. I was amazed to learn that the world’s biggest 25 ships emit more sulfur than the entire world’s fleet of cars! Accordingly, the regulation’s goal is to limit this pollution. Ship-owners must achieve this goal and have several ways to do so, such as retooling to switch to a less polluting fuel like gas or methanol or by installing scrubbers to lower concentrations of pollutants.

If freight rates do not rise with the investment required to build new ships, then there is little economic incentive for many ship-owners to spend the additional capital required to meet the new regulations. This short term squeeze on shipping economics could prompt an increase in vessel scrapping as older ships are retired from service and less new supply is forthcoming from shipbuilders, who are already under pressure from the collapse in freight rates. Any force that constrains supply relative to demand should be positive for freight rates and, in time, the economics of shipping. One unintended consequence of these regulatory changes could be a surprisingly strong bull market in shipping costs!

Why it is time to change the way we measure the wealth of nations

Invented in the 1930s by Simon Kuznets, initially as a way of calculating the damage wrought by the Great Depression, GDP is a child of the manufacturing age. Good at keeping track of “things you can drop on your foot”, it struggles to make sense of the services — from life insurance and landscape gardening to stand-up comedy — that comprise some 80 per cent of modern economies. The internet is more perplexing still. In GDP terms, Wikipedia, which puts the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips, is worth precisely nothing.

Among GDP’s shortcomings, the distinction between flow of income and stock of wealth, highlighted by the story of Bill and Ben, is one of the most serious.

Among the report’s findings, the full details of which are embargoed, is a huge shift of wealth over 20 years to middle-income countries, largely driven by the rise of China and other Asian countries. A third of low-income countries, however, especially in Africa, have suffered an outright fall in per capita wealth over that period, in what could be a dangerous omen about their capacity for future growth. In the world as a whole, the report finds, human capital represents a whopping 65 per cent of total wealth. In 2014, this was $1,143tn, or about 15 times that year’s GDP.

The report is particularly illuminating in tracing the path to development as countries, in the manner described by Dasgupta, trade in one form of capital for another. Crudely put, they use income derived from natural resources to build up other forms of capital, principally in infrastructure, technology, health and education. So, while natural capital accounts for 47 per cent of the wealth of low-income countries, it represents only 3 per cent of the wealth of the most advanced.

The Ripple effect

XRP, the Ripple token, is unlike any other crypto token in the market. It is entirely centrally controlled, operating more like an ETF unit than anything else since the issuer has the capacity to release or absorb (pre-mined) tokens in accordance with their valuation agenda. More egregiously though, the token plays little part in Ripple’s central business case. For the most part it’s just a cute add-on.

Ripple “the settlement tech” is thus arbitrage tech, highly dependent on the whims, activities and behaviours of its liquidity provider community. This means it’s partial to the same exact problems HFT suffers from: namely, the fact there’s no guarantee liquidity providers will always be around when you really need them. In FX this sort of solution doesn’t really cut the mustard. People want a dependable FX service, not one that’s subject to the whims of unknown third-party participants. A bit of historical context is useful at this point, since what XRP really aims to do (we think) is copycat the role played by the offshore dollar in the days before the euro.

Twitter Snacks 2017.07.12