Curated Insights 2018.04.29

Amazon shareholder letter 2017

In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.

The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope. Even in the example of writing a six-page memo, that’s teamwork. Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you. (As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)

How China is buying its way into Europe

We analyzed data for 678 completed or pending deals in 30 countries since 2008 for which financial terms were released, and found that Chinese state-backed and private companies have been involved in deals worth at least $255 billion across the European continent. Approximately 360 companies have been taken over, from Italian tire maker Pirelli & C. SpA to Irish aircraft leasing company Avolon Holdings Ltd., while Chinese entities also partially or wholly own at least four airports, six seaports, wind farms in at least nine countries and 13 professional soccer teams.

Importantly, the available figures underestimate the true size and scope of China’s ambitions in Europe. They notably exclude 355 mergers, investments and joint ventures—the primary types of deals examined here—for which terms were not disclosed. Bloomberg estimates or reporting on a dozen of the higher-profile deals among this group suggest an additional total value of $13.3 billion. Also not included: greenfield developments or stock-market operations totaling at least $40 billion, as compiled by researchers at the American Enterprise Institute and the European Council on Foreign Relations, plus a $9 billion stake in Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler AG by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. chairman Li Shufu reported by Bloomberg.

Is Google cheap?

According to Net Market Share, Google has around 82 per cent of the entire online search market. That figure includes China, where they are banned. Bing has around 5 per cent of the pie so, if the 3 trillion figure for Search holds true, Microsoft’s competitor processes 6,022 searches per second, versus Google’s 96,450.

Our readers may also point out Alphabet’s dependence on advertising revenues, a historically cyclical business which is an easy tap to turn off for many corporations in economic downturns. That being said, one could easily counter by mentioning the good ship Alphabet’s serene sail through the currently stormy waters of the wider advertising world. Or the fact that there are very few alternatives in terms of audience reach.

We have not even accounted for Google’s famed ‘Other Bets’ line — a collection of misfit, moonshot investments including self-driving software Waymo, health-data laboratory Verily Sciences and Alphaville favourite, smart-city planner SideWalk Labs.

Open, closed, and privacy

To focus on simply Google and Facebook, though, is to miss how much other data collection is going on: ad networks are tracking you on nearly every website you visit, your credit card company is tracking your purchases (and by extension your location), your grocery store is tracking your eating habit, the list goes on and on. Moreover, the further down you go down the data food chain, the more likely it is that data is bought and sold. That, of course, is as open as it gets.

First, it is even more unlikely that a challenger to either will arise without meaningful access to their proprietary data. This, to be fair, was already quite unlikely: the entire industry learned from Instagram’s piggy-backing on Twitter’s social graph that sharing data with a potential competitor was a bad idea from a business perspective.

Second, Google and Facebook will increasingly be the only source of innovations that leverage their data; it will be too politically risky for either to share anything with third parties. That means new features that rely on user data must be built by one of the two giants, or, as is always the case in a centrally-planned system relative to a market, not built at all.

Third, Google and Facebook’s advertising advantage, already massive, is going to become overwhelming. Both companies generate the majority of their user data on their own platforms, which is to say their data collection and advertising business are integrated. Most of their competitors for digital advertising, on the other hand, are modular: some companies collect data, and other collect ads; such a model, in a society demanding ever more privacy, will be increasingly untenable.


Facebook beats in Q1 and boosts daily user growth to 1.45B amidst backlash

Zuckerberg says one of his biggest regrets is that Facebook didn’t get to shape the mobile ecosystem because the company was still small when iOS and Android launched. That’s why Zuckerberg is adamant about Facebook having a major role in the future of virtual reality and augmented reality, which he sees as computing platforms of the future.

Global recorded music revenues grew by $1.4 billion in 2017

Global recorded music revenues reached $17.4 billion in 2017, up from $16 billion in 2016 — an annual growth rate of 8 percent. Streaming revenues in particular have contributed to this growth, and were up 39 percent year-over-year to reach $7.4 billion, or 43 percent of all revenues. But perhaps the biggest story of all is the growth of artists without labels. With 27.2% year-on-year growth this was the fastest growing segment in 2017.

Investing and business lessons from Aileen Lee (Cowboy Ventures)

Venture investors are looking for large addressable markets. How big is the market? What is the problem that you’re trying to solve? Who’s on your team? And how relevant is the team to that problem? What is the product that you’ve built, if you have built something? Or what do the wireframes look like? What kind of traction or feedback have you gotten from the market in terms of whether people are going to like the product, or whether they do like the product? What does the financial model and the economic model look like? What are you going to do with the money?” “What is the mission and vision of the company? Venture investors are looking for a big mission and vision that’s quite ambitious and that can be backed up by, ‘Here’s where we want to be and here’s how we’re going to get there over time. This is what we want to get done the next 12 months or the next 18 months.’

If you don’t attack a big market, it’s highly unlikely you’re ever going to build a big company. Great markets make great companies. We’re never interested in creating markets – it’s too expensive. We’re interested in exploiting markets early. I like opportunities that are addressing markets so big that even the management team can’t get in its way.

Why is China treating North Carolina like the developing world?

It’s about 50 percent cheaper to raise hogs in North Carolina than in China. This is due to less-expensive pig-feed prices and larger farms, but it’s also because of loose business and environmental regulations, especially in red states, which have made the U.S. an increasingly attractive place for foreign companies to offshore costly and harmful business practices.

How?

The market is all about discounting and expectations. It always has been and it always will be.

On January 31, 2006, Google Inc. announced its financial results for the fourth quarter of 2005: revenues up 97%, net profit up 82%. It’s hard to imagine how such phenomenal growth could be bad news. But Wall Street’s analysts had expected Google to do even better….Google’s stock fell 16% in a matter of seconds, and the market in the shares had to be officially halted. When trading resumed, Google, whose stock had been at $432.66 just minutes earlier, was hammered down to $366…Google earned about $65 million less than Wall Street had expected, and in response Wall Street bashed $20.3 billion off Google’s market value.

Basis—the “stable” cryptocurrency with $133 million invested—explained

Basis coins won’t be directly backed by dollars or any other asset. Instead, the Basis blockchain will attempt to adjust the supply of Basis coins over time to maintain a peg to the dollar, much as foreign central banks expand and contract their own money supplies to maintain a stable currency value.

The more consequential change is the addition of a third asset class called bonds. When the value of Basis coins falls, the system creates new bonds and sells them for Basis coins. Each bond has a face value of one Basis coin (and hence $1), but investors can acquire them at a market-determined discount.

Then, during a subsequent expansion, the system pays back these bondholders before paying anything out to shareholders. Bondholders get their money back in a first-in-first-out order, with the oldest bond being repaid first.

In effect, buying a bond amounts to making a bet that the demand for coins will rebound in a timely fashion. The less confident the market is that this will happen, the steeper the discount—a bond might sell for 0.8, 0.5, or even 0.2 Basis coins—and the greater the potential profit.

Kids worldwide spend less time outdoors, and then need glasses

Eyeglass sales are expected to double globally between 2012 and 2026, and the amount of time people are spending indoors may be a leading cause. By 2050, half of the global population, or almost 5 billion people, are projected to be nearsighted, up from a quarter, or 1.4 billion, in 2000.

Interestingly, however, while outdoor time helps to prevent nearsightedness, it doesn’t seem to affect its progression once it develops. The same recent summary suggests that the rapid rises in Asia are related in part to outdoor time: “The limited questionnaire data available suggests that the time that children spend outdoors is lower in the developed countries of East and Southeast Asia.”

Curated Insights 2017.12.31

Google Maps’s Moat

In other words, Google’s buildings are byproducts of its Satellite/Aerial imagery. And some of Google’s places are byproducts of its Street View imagery…so this makes AOIs a byproduct of byproducts. Google is creating data out of data.

With “Areas of Interest”, Google has a feature that Apple doesn’t have. But it’s unclear if Apple could add this feature to its map in the near future. The challenge for Apple is that AOIs aren’t collected—they’re created. And Apple appears to be missing the ingredients to create AOIs at the same quality, coverage, and scale as Google.

And as we saw with AOIs, Google has gathered so much data, in so many areas, that it’s now crunching it together and creating features that Apple can’t make—surrounding Google Maps with a moat of time.

Google likely knows what’s inside all of the buildings it has extracted. And as Google gets closer and closer to capturing every building in the world, it’s likely that Google will start highlighting / lighting up buildings related to queries and search results.

Apple to hit $1 trillion in market value in 2018

Today, Apple has an estimated 900 million customers. Many are buying services that include music streaming, movie rentals, applications, online storage, extended warranties, and digital payments. Apple’s recent purchase of Shazam, a service for identifying music clips, shows how Apple can add features to subscription services like Apple Music. Growing 23% in the past fiscal year, services account for 13% of Apple sales—and an estimated 20% of gross profit.

IPhone generates 60% of Apple’s revenue; there are an estimated 800 million active devices that provide a vast and growing base for services. A recent UBS survey of smartphone users in five key countries shows that retention rates have been climbing and stand at 85% for iPhone, versus 71% for Samsung and 78% for phones that use Android software. In other words, switching services isn’t common, but when it occurs, Apple generally wins.

Another upside source got less theoretical this past week with the passage of a sweeping corporate tax cut. Apple sits on more than $250 billion in cash and investments held overseas as a tax dodge, about a fifth of the total for all U.S. companies doing likewise. To bring that money home for dividends or stock buybacks, it would have had to pay the top corporate tax rate of 35%. The new law cuts the top rate to 21%; imposes a mandatory, one-time 15.5% tax on overseas cash and equivalents; and switches to a territorial tax system to reduce offshore avoidance.

For shareholders, the cake is the tax savings; the icing is that Apple loses its incentive to hold cash overseas. The second helping of cake with icing is that Apple has already booked enough to cover anticipated tax charges. Epoch’s Pearl reckons Apple could get a mid-single digit boost to ongoing earnings from the lower tax rate, and as much as a 7% increase from bringing home cash and buying back stock.

 

The near future of electric cars: Many models, few buyers

Electric cars—which today comprise only 1 percent of auto sales worldwide, and even less in the U.S.—will account for just 2.4 percent of U.S. demand and less than 10 percent globally by 2025, according to researcher LMC Automotive. But while consumer appetite slogs along, carmakers are still planning a tidal wave of battery-powered models that may find interested buyers few and far between.

Magna International Inc., for example, the largest auto supplier in North America, is having vigorous debates over whether to add capacity to tool up for electric cars when its executives don’t see much demand for them over the next eight years. The company predicts EVs will only grow to between 3 percent and 6 percent of global auto sales by 2025, said Jim Tobin, chief marketing officer at the Canadian company.

Industry executives convinced drivers will abruptly exit their internal combustion engine vehicles in favor of electrics may find themselves too overzealous, with LMC forecasting gasoline-powered engines will still make up about 85 percent of U.S. new car sales in 2025. But that shift could accelerate as electrified vehicles reach price parity with gasoline-powered cars, which Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts will happen by 2029 or sooner for most models.


Riders in Alphabet’s driverless car will be insured by startup Trov

So-called usage-based insurance, which changes in response to the customer’s needs or actions, has become popular among both traditional insurers and startups like Trov. A common example is car insurers’ use of devices to track a driver’s behavior and then offer discounts for good driving.

Trov CEO Scott Walchek said what appealed to Waymo was Trov’s ability to measure risk in what it calls “micro-durations.” The company asked if Trov’s technology for only assessing risk during periods when its users swiped on their coverage could be repurposed to cover passengers for the length of a ride in a Waymo vehicle. Trov developed a solution, Mr. Walchek said.


Kuka plans for robot domination in China and your garage

China is the world’s largest and fastest-growing automation market. Sales of robots in China, which amount to about one-third of the global demand, grew by 27 percent last year, compared to just 12 percent in Europe and 8 percent in the Americas, according to the International Federation of Robotics. With 68 robots per 10,000 Chinese manufacturing workers, far fewer than the 189 in the U.S. and 631 in South Korea, there’s room for growth and rising factory wages are powering more automation. “We want to become number one in China,” says the Kuka executive, noting that their market share for robots last year was around 14 percent (that puts it among the top three suppliers).

Along with its push into non-auto industrial robots, Kuka aims to leverage Midea’s sales networks and company connections to start producing consumer-focused robots too. The companies are jointly building a large industrial park near Guangzhou that will have R&D, technology development, a robotics training center, and critically, a production facility. “We are increasing capacity. That is the first step,” says Reuter. “For Kuka, the park will be a very, very important step towards becoming number one.”

Driver shortage sends truck haulage rates higher

The shortage of drivers comes as the industry looks to a future with self-driving, autonomous trucks. There are currently more than 3m truck drivers on the road in the US, with the job offering one of the highest levels of pay for non-college graduates. Last year, the median salary for drivers with three years’ experience tipped $57,000, according to the National Transportation Institute.

However, Mr Leathers warned that buzz around the technology could discourage people from working as drivers. “The last thing I can afford, and we can afford, is for our rhetoric on driver-assist or autonomous to get out in front of reality and [for us to] start seeing enrolments and interest in the field drop before the technology is ready to really engage,” he said.

Which nation does the world trust most? (Hint: Follow the Dollar)

America’s current 24 percent share looks much diminished compared with 30 percent in 2000 but about the same as the 26 percent share in 1980. It’s simple to cherry-pick a start date that makes American decline look bad, but the reality is that China is gaining global economic share at the expense mainly of Europe and Japan. America is a tested economic superpower, having survived 21 recessions and a Great Depression since 1900. China remains untested, having suffered not one outright recession since its modern renaissance began around 1980. It has yet to be seen just how well China will weather such a test, which is inevitable for any large economy.

Nearly 90 percent of bank-financed international transactions are conducted in dollars, a share that is close to all-time highs. When individuals and companies borrow from lenders in another country, they increasingly borrow in dollars, which now account for 75 percent of these global flows, up from 60 percent just before the global financial crisis in 2008.

In a dollar world, most countries are happiest when the dominant currency is cheap and plentiful. A strong dollar raises the cost of borrowing, which slows global economic growth and has often triggered debt crises in the emerging world. A weak dollar has the opposite effect, which is why the weakening of the dollar this year offers more evidence of its dominance: Partly as a result, the world is enjoying an unusually broad recovery encompassing every major economy.

Instead, the renminbi has gained no ground as a reserve currency and probably won’t as long as China’s financial markets remain largely closed, underdeveloped and subject to government meddling. History also suggests that economic size alone will not be enough to propel China to financial superpower status. From 1450 through the late 1700s, the leading reserve currency was held by smaller countries — first Portugal, followed by Spain, the Netherlands and France. These nations were all major trading and military powers with credible financial systems, but not one was the world’s largest economy. Throughout those centuries, the leading economy was primarily China. It never gained the advantages of having the leading reserve currency because, then as now, its financial system lacked credibility.


China’s $100 billion smartphone maker

Oppo makes $14 of operating profit apiece, Vivo $13 and Xiaomi a mere $2, Counterpoint reckons. That is of course minimal compared with the $151 per device they estimate Apple Inc. made, and $31 at Samsung Electronics Co.

Oppo and Vivo appear to be much more pure-play hardware businesses. This is risky, because customer loyalty is fickle and any margins they make leave them open to price competition. But at least they’re banking profits today instead of hoping for some future “economies of ecosystem” that may never come.


Chinese populism lives in a video app

According to one analysis, 70 percent of Kuaishou’s users earn less than $460 per month, 88 percent haven’t attended university, and a majority live in less developed parts of China. Kuaishou has managed to attract them by forgoing celebrity videos and promoted content in favor of algorithms that recommend items that other users like. It’s an approach that leaves users with the impression (if not the reality) that their videos have a fighting chance to be viewed. And that attracts users who know they’d be wasting their time posting content to sites focused on fashion, luxury and city life.

Indeed, even as other video platforms see their growth stunted by Chinese government oversight and brutal competition, Kuaishou expands. Today it’s the fourth largest social-media platform in China, behind WeChat, QQ and Sina Weibo. That’s why it’s a smart bet for investors like Tencent Holdings Ltd, which pumped in $350 million in March 2017. China’s smaller cities already produce 59 percent of China’s gross domestic product and retain significant commercial and cultural pull, both for those who still live in them and for the hundreds of millions who’ve migrated away.


Chinese consumers now rule the world. Get used to it

As China’s expansion increasingly depends on consumption, its growth will be not only more internally driven, but also less resource- and credit-intensive. Imports of premium goods and services will increase. This market will be more and more attractive to multinational firms and investors.

One significant byproduct: China’s politically-sensitive trade surplus will continue to shrink and the current account surplus, the broadest measure of capital flows, might contract even more. This, in turn, may exert downward pressure on the yuan.

China to overtake U.S. economy by 2032 as Asian might builds

The report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London sees India leapfrogging the U.K. and France next year to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy in dollar terms. It will advance to third place by 2027, moving ahead of Germany.

In 2032, three of the four largest economies will be Asian — China, India and Japan — and, by that time, China will also have overtaken the U.S. to hold the No. 1 spot. India’s advance won’t stop there, according to the CEBR, which sees it taking the top place in the second half of the century.

Also by 2032, South Korea and Indonesia will have entered the top 10, supplanting the Group of Seven nations of Italy and Canada.