tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:/posts Unpleasant Facts and Other Musings 2014-07-29T21:15:59Z Jeff Lonsdale tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/720419 2014-07-29T21:15:59Z 2014-07-29T21:15:59Z Piketty and Expected Return One of my favorite blogs came out of hibernation to comment on Piketty (Warning, it's pretty overtly political), and it reminded me that I still haven't contributed.

A lot of ink has been spilled the question of whether or not the return on capital after will be above the growth rate for significant periods of time.  The merits of the arguments generally fall on the side of r > g in perpetuity being nonsense. Either labor prices have to eventually rise (on a global basis they are doing just that) or the return on capital needs to fall.

How can the return on capital fall? Two ways come to mind.

1. Earnings stop growing. This can happen when effective taxes go up more than prices rise to compensate for the increase. This would also occur if unit labor costs started increasing more quickly than the prices of goods sold and profit margins fall. Already, the sales growth of the S&P 500 has been below the economic growth rate of the economy for the past few years - and this is noteable because the S&P also has exposure to faster growing emerging market economies. 

2. The expected return of assets fall. 

#2 has been interesting - because it is what has been happening over the past few years and yet analysts have if anything gotten more worried about wealth inequality. That's because in order for the expected future returns to capital to fall, prices today need to go up. A company with an earnings to enterprise value of 10% has a much higher expected future return than a very similar company with the ratio at 2.5%. But if the company is earning one million dollars a year in cash, it would have to move from a $10 million dollar valuation to a $40 million dollar valuation in order to reduce the expected return on capital. 

Analysts looking at the 16.0% total return to the S&P 500 in 2012 and 32.4% returns in 2013 will plug those numbers into models which uses past returns to predict future returns for various asset classes. After the recent bull market, they might assume that the future return on capital will be even higher than it was in the past. But over this time period, the price to earnings ratio rose from 14.87 to 18.15. In other words, the average earnings yield of all of the companies fell from 6.7% to 5.5%. Instead of concluding that the expected rate of return on capital is higher, analysts should be assuming that future returns will be lower.

The same principles apply to other asset classes, but in many cases interest rates are already below the nominal growth rate of the economy. Equities are one of the few places where the earnings yield is above the growth rate. So if we find ourselves watching the stock market go up over the next few years, it actually means Piketty is more likely to be empircally wrong than right in his r > g prediction on a forward looking basis..
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/715287 2014-07-17T19:38:40Z 2014-07-17T19:45:32Z Market Commentary from the Fed

In 1996, Alan Greenspan didn’t mean to say the markets were suffering from irrational exuberance, he just implied it when discussing whether or not central bankers should worry about the stability of asset prices:

Clearly, sustained low inflation implies less uncertainty about the future, and lower risk premiums imply higher prices of stocks and other earning assets. We can see that in the inverse relationship exhibited by price/earnings ratios and the rate of inflation in the past. But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?

Source: Bloomberg

After mentioning how concerned the Federal Reserve must be with asset price stability, Greenspan presided over one of the largest asset bubbles in modern history over the next three years.  Almost 18 years later when the S&P 500 is again making new highs, Janet Yellen has waded into the market commentary space with the Federal Reserve’s recent Monetary Policy Report. The valuation of a smaller class of equities is questioned:

Some broad equity price indexes have increased to all-time highs in nominal terms since the end of 2013. However, valuation measures for the overall market in early July were generally at levels not far above their historical averages, suggesting that, in aggregate, investors are not excessively optimistic regarding equities. Nevertheless, valuation metrics in some sectors do appear substantially stretched—particularly those for smaller firms in the social media and biotechnology industries, despite a notable downturn in equity prices for such firms early in the year. Moreover, implied volatility for the overall S&P 500 index, as calculated from option prices, has declined in recent months to low levels last recorded in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, reflecting improved market sentiment and, perhaps, the influence of “reach for yield” behavior by some investors.

(Emphasis added)

On a price to book basis, it does look like valuations are stretched in biotech companies.

Source: Bloomberg

The value of biotech companies, and social media companies for that matter, come from intangibles that aren’t measured in book value and are yet to be captured in earnings.  What the high valuation tells us is that investors think the expected value of these companies is higher relative to its tangible book value than it has been in the past. That may be because the drugs the new companies are working are particularly promising, or because investors have decided to value the lottery-like payout of biotech stocks at higher prices. But either way, investors can’t be said to be “reaching for yield” in these sectors because it’s exactly the wrong place to look for yield – yield only comes after sales and earnings exist.

The beta of the Nasdaq Biotech index to the market is 1.2, which implies that biotech stock valuations are being moved by factors other than whether or not their drug trials are going well. Part of the explanation may be that in a high liquidity environment the market will value lottery tickets more highly.  A higher proportion of companies with no earnings have been going IPO since the 1999 tech bubble.  And the companies with no earnings will on average have bigger IPO day pops than companies with earnings. It’s almost as if there is something about real earnings that makes investors look more skeptically at a company.

Source: Initial Public Offerings: Updated Statistics, Jay R. Ritter

The Federal Reserve report also mentions low interest rates, and compares them to the mid 90’s and mid 2000’s. Data for implied volatility doesn’t go back much farther than the 90’s, but we can look at the historic volatility as a proxy.

Source: Bloomberg, Author's Calculations

The other time periods that volatility was low were good economic times, the early 50’s and mid 60’s. So while regulators might be worried about the formation of eventual imbalances, it’s much more likely for low volatility time periods to lead to future periods of low volatility and high growth. The next Minsky moment in the US economy is a long way off.

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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/712021 2014-07-08T22:53:34Z 2014-07-08T23:22:50Z Unassorted Links 1. Keith Rabois has been raising money for a company that is likely to eventually be a REIT that will be easily funded thanks to its Silicon Valley halo.

2. Some of the odder parts of Transformers explained. (HT: Vasu) One of the interesting side effects of the rise of the Chinese consumer is cameos by pop stars and famous atheletes in blockbuster movies that are totally unknown to US consumers.

3. A Harvard professor demonstrates that social scientists suffer from significant cognitive biases when their status is called into question by others who fail to replicate experiments meant to prove subtle effects such as various priming scenarios. (HT: MR) The belief that most sociological theories tested in the lab are as true and unrefutable as the existence of black swans leads to silly attempts to defend them from criticism. One point that is worth thinking about is how to fully align the incentives of those who replicate studies with truth seeking behavior - if studies are only replicated when there is an axe to grind then there will be false negatives. But the proper answer to this problem should involve raising the status of those who replicate published studies rather than denigrating them. Pre-registering experimental methods (as the author suggests) - and publishing the results regardless of the outcome - would also help.

4.Tim Harford points out that low volatility is pretty consistent with good economic times. Before low volatility leads to high volatility and disruption, it leads to more low volatility growth.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/709745 2014-07-02T00:40:36Z 2014-07-02T00:40:36Z Assorted Links 1. Politics is not about policy - it's about who deserves higher status. Exhibt #5,271: The reaction to the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS ruling. (The SCOTUS is not to be confused with SCOTUSblog).

2. Facebook's psychological study caused a minor scandal, even if it didn't necessarily do what it claimed to do. On the one hand, this can be seen as worrisome that Facebook modified newsfeeds of some users and might have made them feel slightly worse. But on the other hand - it's seen as unethical to reproduce so many of the landmark experiments of our time and it is interesting that private companies have the potential to fund and run smaller experiments in potentially less regulated environments.

3. The value provided by HFT. Barclays wanted to pretend to pretend that they didn't have any "predatory" HFT firms in their system but without those firms they wouldn't have the liquidity to run their own dark pool.

4. Unfortunately for those growing up in poverty, peer group effects are very important. This link is quite relevant for anyone wondering whether or not they should utilize San Francisco's public school system.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/708040 2014-06-26T21:25:49Z 2014-06-26T21:25:49Z Momentum is still significant Campbell R. Harvey, Liu and Zhu present an analysis where they find that academic papers on cross sectional stock market factors are apparently about as untrustworthy as a large portion of medical literature. (HT: MR) Published papers in medical literature and on stock market factors suffer from data mining and publication bias issues where only positive results are analyzed and published. Not finding something is rarely seen as an accomplishment in the academic world. So after thousands of analysis are run, the paper that finds something that is only 1% likely to be a misinterpretation of random noise if you only did the study once - is likely to be exactly that - random noise. 

However, it's interesting that even with this bias there are still some very significant results to be found in cross sectional analysis of stocks. The stand out stock market cross sectional factors are value and momentum, which work well enough that even if they have been found by an explicit data mining processes the returns are good enough to suggest that they aren't just random noise.

The explanation behind value working is simple. Stocks trading at the largest premium to their book values are overvalued by overconfident market participants on average while stocks trading at lower book values are a bargain more often than not. The value approach is well known, with Warren Buffett being the prime example of a successful investor who utlizes the value approach.

Momentum is more interesting because it is less popular among the public. Adherents to momentum have often been denigrated as rash speculators, in contrast to the more stable and patient value investors. Momentum is the idea that prior price movements are preditive of relative future returns. This seems to be a violation of the weakest form of the efficient market hypothesis. Adherants to the EMH call momentum (and value for that matter) a "risk factor" - implying that stocks with higher momentum have a higher risk than low momentum stocks which keeps their theories from completely falling apart. 

But the actual mechanism behind momentum is more subtle- a fast growing company doesn't become a sensation overnight. It takes time for a company to overtake and replace its rivals even if the new company is better in almost every way. Along the way, small pieces of information will come out regarding the increasing success of the company and the well performing stock will be bought by more managers. The extra risk is that a market shock could induce aggressive managers to all sell their holdings at once or worse, change the environment that was making the company so succesful in the first place.

Momentum, value and small stocks are three of the classic cross sectional explanatory factors, with data on their performance available for download at Ken French's database - so the lack of significance of the small stock outperformance as determined by Harvey et al is notable. I've touched before on how public stock market size premium is likely to be lower than it has been in the past due to high valuations in the pre-IPO environment, but this suggests that looking to small stocks as a significant explanatory factor of performance might have always been a mistake. 

Size shouldn't be ignored - many people have found that value works much better among smaller stocks. 

The table above from Cliff Asness's white paper shows that momentum works slightly better among small cap stocks, though this result may occur more because small cap stocks are more volatile in general and not because momentum works any worse in the large cap world after adjusting for volatility.

Momentum works in multiple asset classes, and should be of interest to those who are pre-IPO investors. Everyone knows to invest in fast growing companies and to avoid companies who have had to take down rounds. An explicitly systematic momentum approach in pre-IPO companies is likely to generate significant alpha - particuarly in our current investment environment.

So when the value perspective of the 17 billion dollar pre-money Uber valuation can make the deal look ridiculous*, the investor who respects the momentum factor should be paying closer attention. After all, it seems far more likely that the dynamics of investors demand will have the company trading at a 30 billion dollar valuation before it trades at an 11 billion dollar valuation.


*The analysis underweights the increasing utilization of taxi-cab like services that the presence of Uber encourages, but apart from that it appears to be about as close to accurate as a valuation expert can be with the available information.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/702411 2014-06-10T22:21:14Z 2014-06-10T22:21:48Z Addendums In which I cover many prior topics in one post instead of making many follow up posts.

1. When will prosecutors go after Silicon Valley?  Looking at Gallup's 2013 industry poll we can see that tech is still more popular than the oil and gas industry ever was, and is currently viewed far more favorably than banking.
So despite the emergence of the trend of demonizing some people in Silicon Valley (See the TV show of the same name) - and recent lawsuits preventing wage fixing - Silicon Valley big shots still makes a less tempting target than industries like banking for a prosecutor that wants to attention and approval of the public. (The comparison to lawyers and the federal government approval rates are there purely for contrast - they aren't potential targets)

2. Following up on 10,000 hours of non-deliberate practice. The Economist looked at how much time is wasted passively watching a video. Gaming seems to be a closer substitute to work, given how both require problem solving. And the amount of time spent on gaming is growing - with 43 million people playing games for 22 hours a week in the US alone, gaming is one of the largest time sinks of intellectual power in human history.

3. High Frequency Trading - One additional worry is that trading firms pay for customer flow because they profit, but this seems much more about locking in their ability to arbitrage this flow without competing with other HFT firms rather than taking extra advantage of the retail investor.

4. Another example of 60's Conglomerate math. When Facebook bought Whatsapp, some analysts justified it on the basis of how the purchase was cheap for Facebook on a per user basis. Just like analysts in the 60's thought that when a growing company bought a stagnant company the stagnant company's earnings should be valued like a growth company, analysts are assuming that each user acquired brings a similar value to the Facebook shareholder as a current Facebook user.

Facebook's purchase might make sense strategically and might make even more sense if they violate their pledge to not serve ads to Whatsapp customers a few years down the line. But investors should constantly remind themselves that the earnings/revenue/users of one company is likely to be significantly different from that of another company. Any company using its high valuation to make significant acquisitions should be analyzed carefully so the effects of the acquisition aren't mistaken for intrinsic growth. 


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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/697845 2014-05-29T22:07:35Z 2014-05-29T22:07:36Z Unassorted Links
1. A lot of private equity shops can get away with charging more fees than they agreed to because their limited partners (more specifically, those who invest on behalf of the limited partners) seem to have an attitude of "Don't blame me, I invested in a famous name!" On top of this, the people making capital allocation decisions for pension funds are often onto their next job before the results of their fund investments are known. Maybe the next CIO of Calpers can do something smart in this area.

2. Conferences like Bilderberg are unlikely to involve any real conspiracy, but like any off the record meeting between government officials and business leaders there is "access." The meetings give those on the business side a chance to try and figure out and potentially influence future policy moves. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell which politicians will play along in return for favors and which politicians merely want opportunity to hear the perspectives of those present on an ex-ante basis. 

3. The number of freshman deciding that they want to be computer science majors is way up. The students who stick out their major for four years will probably be mildly disappointed by what the startup landscape looks like four years from now.  Some combination of a higher supply of programmers, more institutionalized processes and less extreme early stage valuations is likely to make their careers less exciting than their peers graduating today. But overall it's still a smart choice. Even if their jobs aren't directly related to coding, the general ability to be comfortable thinking algorithmically will be as important as thinking quantitatively.

4. One of the more sane perspectives on school shootings in general. More generally, it's sad how many different interest groups try to get media exposure for their favorite pet issue in the wake of high profile tragedies. 

5. Occupational licensing - keeping both prices and unemployment high!

6. Looking at this extreme inequality, we are reminded that politics isn't about policy. It is about who deserves high status.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/695100 2014-05-22T23:36:28Z 2014-06-02T17:54:50Z The 60's Conglomerate Boom and Today's Growth Companies The Conglomerate Boom of the 60's, like all bubbles, sounds ridiculous in hindsight. From 1965 through 1969, the market was obsessed with rising earnings and investors didn't seem to care if the earnings came from new business or from buying other business. As long as earnings growth was up the company would keep its high valuation multiple.

The basic formula was that a fast growing company valued favorably by the market would use their stock to purchase low growth companies - and the earnings of the combined company would have the same multiple as the fast growing company. 

Investors didn't seem to realize that the low growth company's earnings wouldn't magically start growing just because it was bought by a company with a high multiple. The total valuation of the combined company would be higher than the prior valuation of the separate companies. The market's irrational behavior created incentives for unnecessary mergers. This lasted as long as the credit financing mergers was cheap (Conglomerates didn't have to properly account for convertible debt until 1969) and the market was willing to give high valuations to companies that produced earnings growth through the acquisition of other companies.

We might be seeing the start of similar incentives in today's private early growth stage companies. Most of the new start up companies are seen as competitors with the potential to disrupt whole industries. They are judged more on revenue than on earnings since the logic is that revenue will be more easily turned into earnings after the competition is decimated. Winning is what matters.

Whenever there are successful companies attracting capital and getting high valuations, there are less successful companies who will only succeed in mimicking the visible traits of successful companies. This creates some perverse incentives. The valuation given to successful growth companies is anywhere from five to ten times revenue - or higher. Meanwhile, the average company in the S&P 500 is trading at 1.7 times sales and the smaller companies in the Russell 2000 are trading around 1.2 times sales. Right now, it should be very tempting for a variety of early growth companies with high valuation multiples to go out and use their stock to buy companies with old economy valuations, point to total revenue growth, and hope that investors don't significantly change their valuation multiples.

Lending Club's $140 million cash and stock acquisition of Springstone Financial LLC looks like a good example of the conglomerate boom dynamic resurfacing in the current market. Lending Club is currently valued at 40 times its 2013 revenue, which appears to be significantly more than Spingstone Financial was valued. If the market mistakes the additional revenue from Springstone as indistinguishable from growth in Lending Club's core business then the acquisition will push up the market value of Lending Club's future IPO. This could happen regardless of whether or not the move into financing private education and elective medical procedures works out for the company in the long run.

For those looking to make long term investments in growth stage companies, it's important to make sure that the revenue these companies are valued against is the type of revenue that can scale and not revenue gained from the acquisition of businesses. Nostalgia for the 60's should have its limits.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/693538 2014-05-20T08:51:42Z 2014-05-20T09:43:05Z Assorted Current Events 1. The DOJ is finally putting pressure on the Chinese government hackers that have been attacking multinational corporations for the past decade.  

It seems like the main difference between the Chinese and the Russian hackers is that Russian hackers are more often working purely for ways to immediately enrich themselves via theft/fraud, while the Chinese hackers have also mounted operations to support their state-owned enterprises. 

I wonder if the calculation of real return on equity for state-owned companies in China included these services as part of their hidden subsidies. 

2. The seemingly increasing closed mindedness of the political youth is an interesting phenomena. Between these graduation speaker protests and requests for trigger warnings on class material, it's hard to tell if the college students have gotten crazier or if the rest of society has gotten used to taking crazy people more seriously. 

3. Twitch TV, online game streaming platform, is rumored to be in talks to sell themselves to Youtube. This would make sense for Twitch for numerous reasons. Most obviously, tech valuations are relatively high but have been unstable recently so it makes sense to look to sell while values are still high. (Whether or not one billion dollars is a high price for Twitch is unclear, in 1999 Broadcast.com was able to sell themselves to Yahoo for $5.7 billion)

Beyond the volatility around technology valuations, a further risk to Twitch is that a very significant portion of their viewers come from a single game - League of Legends (LoL). Many of the popular LoL streamers are paid directly by Riot, the owner of LoL. If Riot decided to make their gamers stream on a platform of their own creation then Twitch could lose a lot of eyeballs/advertising revenue. 

If Riot does this successfully, it shows that those who own the games can choose to monetize their streamers directly unless Twitch works to keep them on board. This could lead to a situation where the economics of Twitch resemble music streaming services more than Youtube channels. If viewers left to watch their games on other services, this would also show that Twitch viewers aren't necessarily as sticky as Twitch would like buyers to think*. 

*Whether or not users will stick around in the long run seems to be one of the big questions when it comes to the valuation of many current tech companies. 
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/686896 2014-05-05T21:09:43Z 2014-05-06T07:00:37Z Pay more attention to the newer guys at the Ira Sohn Conference The Ira Sohn Conference is going on today. This is a charity event where top fund managers pitch trade ideas to attendees who spend (donate) thousands of dollars for the right to attend. Looking at the performance of last year's picks gives some clues to the incentives the presenters have. 

The big names, people like Bill Ackman, David Einhorn, Jeffrey Gundlach, Kyle Bass* and Jim Chaos, can push their largest positions or trades that have been doing well recently. They can impress investors just by the media and market reaction to their views. The common stock of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two companies whose stock might go to zero without extensive lobbying efforts, shot up today after Bill Ackman talked about them. And given that these managers are already well known, the marginal value of additional positive press is relatively small.

It's the smaller investors who need to make their name. The exposure from the conference gives many of these managers more media exposure than most of them have had in the past. A big win that was widely publicized ahead of time can help their funds gain a lot of exposure and make it much easier to raise assets. We know that the best ideas of fund managers are often be good ideas - so when lesser known managers are pitching their best ideas it makes sense to take a closer look.


*Apparently his fund makes money for investors, but every time his views are expressed in the news (Japan hasn't gone bankrupt yet!) it seems like following those views would lose a lot of money so I'm genuinely curious as to how that happens.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/683582 2014-04-28T23:56:39Z 2014-04-28T23:56:40Z A little bit of help My friend Ben (via his awesome tumblr) pointed me towards an article in National Geographic that highlights an empirical study on the impact of privilege and luck.

In order to study this topic, they looked at four different ways of giving out small levels of success - small amounts of funding on Kickstarter, positive ratings on Epinions, signatures on Change.org petitions, and awards to Wikipedia editors.


(van de Rijt et al, 2014.)

Those who were randomly given a random initial boost went on to do significantly better than those in the control group. Whether this is because the success attracted notice by others or more because the success made those granted positive feedback try harder isn't clear (except in the case of ratings, where additional effort would be less likely to impact a comment that is already made).  

But whichever effect dominates, the implication for what to do when you have friends embarking on projects is clear. Helping them a little bit can have a large impact on their eventual success. 

The study also found that large amounts of help were only marginally better than small amounts of help. This implies that helping four friends a little bit is probably going to have a higher return than spending four times as much effort helping just one person.  

This also explains why networking properly - helping lots of people you meet in little ways - can have a large impact in the long run.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/683456 2014-04-28T20:03:09Z 2014-05-01T13:30:58Z Assorted Links: Politics, Google, politics and antiobiotics 1. South Korean politics are strange. I could pretend that my model of scapegoats could somehow have predicted this, but the fact that a prime minister would have to resign after a (very tragic) regional accident really surprised me.

2. An interesting article on Larry Page and Google.  Investors should take note of the following:

"Page recognized that Google’s search-advertising business, with its insane profit margins and sustained growth, was exactly the kind of cash-generating machine that his hero, Nikola Tesla, would have used to fund his wildest dreams. "

A portfolio allocation towards Google seems less about betting on them creating shareholder value in the short or medium term, and more about making sure that if this company takes over large sections of the economy then at least they are hedged. A third scenario is that Google is more like the Xerox of our day. They might be the first to invent and implement a product that becomes as common as a computer mouse (Wow, this example might be a bit dated), but they might not be the company that fully benefits from their advancements. This is a risk as long as the cost of computing keeps falling, since what only a big company can do today might be cheap enough for college students to do from their dorm rooms five years from now.

3. The US Treasury is cracking down on financial insiders trading on material nonpublic government information.  Perhaps "cracking down" is the wrong set of words, "facilitating" seems to be a better word choice.  They are warning privileged investors about additional Russian sanctions before the rest of the market finds out.

Unfortunately this is nothing new - many financial players will attend events like the World Economic Forum because policy makers will often tell market participants what they are thinking before it is more widely known - Trichet in particular told attendees at a meeting a few years before the financial crisis that the ECB's monetary policy was going to be tighter than expected because of petrodollar flows. 

And it should be mentioned that the ones who go there to learn about policy ahead of time are the less harmful ones - those who use access to help shape policy in their interest, leading to regulatory capture, are the ones that do the most damage.

4. New Delhi metallo is an enzyme that can be produced by some bacteria that turns them into antibiotic superbugs. There were 6 cases in the UK in 2008 and 143 in 2013. Scientists are only sure about one treatment working, and expect that treatment to eventually stop working. 

Antibiotic resistance is one of the more interesting (and troubling) collective action problems of our day. Our medical system currently doesn't incentivize research into novel antibiotics enough since novel antibiotics are saved as a last line of defense against resistant bacteria. Part of the solution to this problem involves X-prize type bounties that incentivize researchers and companies to discover novel forms of antibiotics the can be used against bacteria with these new defenses. This is much more important than developing a tricorder, but perhaps it is too backwards looking for those who might otherwise want to be affiliated with the project.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/682690 2014-04-27T04:06:45Z 2014-04-27T04:06:46Z Why haven't prosecutors gone after Silicon Valley yet? One of the patterns of modern day politics is that prosecutors can move on to higher political offices by taking down a big name or two. Rudy Giuliani famously took down Michael Milken by threatening him and his company with the RICO act, a law that was designed to only apply to Mafia style organized crime organizations. That victory gave him the name recognition that helped him become the mayor of NYC.

Eliot Spitzer publicly went after many people on Wall Street, which raised his profile enough to become governor or New York State. He was eventually caught with a prostitute, but his story still adds another data point to the idea that all a prosecutor needs to do to achieve higher office is win high profile cases against big names. 

It doesn't matter to the prosecutor's career if the company or person getting prosecuted is acting significantly worse than their peers. All that matters is that the prosector gets positive press for fighting a big name (That they help the press demonize) and that the prosecutor finds some way to win. 

Today, inequality is a growing political issue. Many people see technology, and Silicon Valley as its proxy, as one of the driving factors of inequality. That leads to the obvious question: Why haven't prosecutors gone after any big Silicon Valley targets? 

It isn't because they don't have anyone to go after. Carl Icahn's attack against Marc Andreessen gives an overview of plenty of grey areas where it looks like a prosecutor could make his career.  The quote, "No conflict, no interest" is frequently attributed to John Doerr.  He sits on numerous public company boards while making VC investments in companies while benefiting from internal information gained at these board meetings. While there are many ways to break federal law, breaches of fiduciary duties are generally regarded as civil actions. So regardless of whether or not a determined investigation would find wrongdoing, this might not be as fertile an area for prosecutors as the headlines make it appear.

There are still other places prosecutors can look. Despite what many people seem to think, insider trading in private companies is illegal. And there are likely to be a few big names out there involved with situations where employees, the most sympathetic of the investors allowed to own shares in private companies, are found to have been ripped off by insiders who traded with them while misrepresenting relevant information about the company.

Michael Milken was largely thought to be a target of Giuliani because of how unpopular he was among certain groups of people. His work in high yield bonds took business from banks (if it weren't for the "junk bond" market, companies would have to get much higher cost loans from banks) and facilitated leveraged buy outs which were unpopular with both existing management and with workers at the companies that might get laid off after a takeover.  Eliot Spitzer only became the Sheriff of Wall Street after the stock market crash.

This presents two ways that Silicon Valley can be dragged into the bullseye of prosectors.

1. A financial crash centered around tech stocks. If investors start losing lots of money in tech stocks, a scapegoat will be required. This is the Spitzer scenario. In this case those behind the most inflated valuations will be most at risk.

2. The continued success of Silicon Valley as entrepreneurs focus on more traditional industries. If software continues to eat the world, those incumbents who find themselves being pushed to the sidelines will fight back. They might do more than fight to protect their rents, they might use their political connections to get prosecutors to punish those who they see as responsible for their business's growing irrelevance.

Either way, those in Silicon Valley should remember to be careful in their electronic communication. I'm sure that many of them are ahead of the curve when it comes to this issue, maybe that is why all of those secret sharing applications are getting funding.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/672615 2014-04-03T23:07:17Z 2014-04-03T23:07:18Z Simple Truths about High Frequency Trading The interest in High Frequency Trading, of HFT for short, comes from how it combines finance, technology and secrecy. The press around the subject has increased dramatically as Michael Lewis has been promoting his new book on the topic, Flash Boys.  A chapter appeared in the NYTimes that is well worth the read. Discussions around the issue made CNBC's daytime market coverage look very similar to Fox News (because of the yelling and screaming, not because of any right wing agenda).  In the midst of this uproar, the high frequency trading firm Virtu has delayed their IPO.

Michael Lewis is a good author, but he likes to tell narrative stories with good guys and bad guys. And as Tyler Cowen once said, "As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more."  So without getting into some of the more esoteric details, what's really going on?

1. The market has always needed intermediaries, the people who help connect buyers and sellers when they don't want to buy and sell at exactly the same time. These intermediaries need to make money. Without some money being paid to liquidity providers there will be no liquidity.

2. As floor traders have been replaced by computers running algorithms, spreads have narrowed. Investors spend significantly less money getting into and out of positions compared to 10 or 15 years ago.

3. HFT firms attempt to front run large traders. Any market intermediary needs to try to get out of the way of big buyers after the shares they have offered to buy or sell have been taken because if they didn't they would go out of business very quickly. But HFT set ups allow them to pretend there is are more shares available to be bought or sold in the market than there actually is which can be quite frustrating for those trying to execute large trades.

4. Googling "backing away" shows that intermediaries have been causing issues well before they consisted of the population labelled as "high frequency traders".

5. The ones losing the most money from high frequency traders are those attempting to trade large amounts of stock on the market. These are institutions such as mutual funds, pension funds and hedge funds.

6. While the situation remains annoying to institutions, HFT volumes and profits have actually been falling over the past few years. 

Wall Street rips people off all the time, but there seems to be more of an outrage when the people making money are outsiders and the people losing money are closer to being insiders. 

HFT firms have been the best customers of many of the exchanges - they pay high fees to get their servers situated next to the exchange and provide large amounts of volume to the exchange. In an effort to increase their profits from HFT traders many of the exchanges have implemented some trading rules that benefit HFTs at the expense of other traders on the exchange. Michael Lewis's story explains how some large institutional traders have figured out how they are being taken advantage of and are turning to people such as the IEX Group (The "good guys" in his book) in order to trade without having to worry about people gaming the system. 

Exchanges are going to have to reevaluate their own systems and make them more favorable to institutions that engage in relatively simplistic trading if they want to be profitable in the long run. (Part of this also involves setting up incentives for market makers which reduce the probability of future flash crashes, but that's a much more complicated subject).

If you are a retail investor, the hubbub over HFT shouldn't matter that much to you. You are getting better execution than you ever did under a system managed by human market makers. HFT traders are small parasites that have outcompeted bigger parasites. Overall they've been a net benefit to the ecosystem.  

And it is worth keeping in mind that the impact of HFT firms is small compared to other financial players. The only surprising thing about revelations that many large banks have been manipulating numbers they trade in both the interest rate and foreign exchange markets is that they finally got caught. And the additional 0.1% market impact that HFT firms might cause on large trades is very small when compared to the 5.1% average commission that Real Estate brokers take in on every transaction they make.  The HFT story is smaller than it looks. 
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/668975 2014-03-28T18:24:11Z 2014-03-28T18:24:13Z Thoughts on Current Events Facebook continues shopping with its overvalued stock: 

Facebook most recently bought Oculus Rift. The key here is that the purchase of both WhatsApp and Oculus Rift only make sense if Facebook plans on eventually ignoring the wishes of the founders. WhatsApp founders don't want ads and Oculus Rift founders don't want Facebook integration. It doesn't have to happen now, but if Facebook doesn't decide to spin out those companies then in three to five years there is no way that Facebook integration and ads aren't on both of those products.  Facebook is an important stock to watch, as any long term underperformance would be a strong signal that investors are falling out of love with tech.

Corrupt US Politicians:

 Leland Yee, the Californian State Senator who was in the running to be California's next Secretary of State, is really corrupt. The surprising part about the corruption is the small scale nature of it. Campaign debt of less than $75,000 was apparently enough to get him to participate in a gun running scheme. This might have been the tip of the iceberg and he could have been making a lot more money, but if corruption occurs for such low amounts of money then this is one of the best arguments for libertarianism I've seen in a long time. Corrupt politicians do less damage when they have less power.

Putin and Crimea:

The interesting thing about Russia's takeover of Crimea is that given Crimea's history and large russian population, Russia could have taken it back without force if they wanted to. One way to interpret this situation is that when their puppet, Viktor Yanukovych, got overthrown Putin wanted to make a statement. Others say that Putin is creating an "us versus them" situation to distract from the corruption that is being revealed about the set up for the Sochi Olympics. However, given that both Russia and the rest of the world would face short term pain if the situation escalated further it is unlikely to do so in the near term.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/668147 2014-03-27T01:09:46Z 2014-03-27T01:09:47Z Too Good to Question The Federal Reserver Bank of New York posted about their study that confirms many people's biases about moral hazard and large financial institutions. The question is "Do “Too-Big-to-Fail” Banks Take On More Risk?" and the answer is yes.  The basic idea is that higher government support leads to riskier loan portfolios, which indicates to many people that Too Big To Fail (TBTF) banks were abusing their positions by loading up on risk.

I'm sure TBTF banks have taken on more risk - I believe moral hazard exists in the financial system. But I am not sure this study should give anyone more confidence on this issue.

After controlling for many variables, the study found that on average eight months after an increase in the perceived government support as measured by Fitch's "Support Rating Floor" the bank would have more impaired loans around eight months later (and vice versa). 

This is using data from March 2007 through August 2013, so the time period covered both the financial crisis and the european sovereign debt crisis. Given that, which explanation is more likely?

1. The average bank goes out and makes riskier loans after getting government support.

2. A negative economic shock created a scenario where government indicated support rating floors are needed. Banks who more obviously needed help got it first. Because problems in banks balance sheets show up slowly, it took a while for the banks that got support to admit that more of their loans were impaired. Support goes away when it isn't needed and slowly the loans are found to be performing better.

3. Only after a bank is assured that it is getting more government support (this happens only after the support has been promised for some time) do the banks feel comfortable marking down part of their loan portfolio. 

4. Banks that take over ailing financial institutions become TBTF and get boosts in support levels. After taking over troubled institutions, they find that many of those loans end up impaired.

The analysis controlled for quarter year fixed effects among other things, so the simplistic "Oh they were just pricing in the timeline of the crisis" argument doesn't quite work.  But even so points 2, 3 and 4 seem far more likely than the first scenario. In their paper the NY Fed researchers claim that because tier 1 capital ratios didn't decrease then their interpretation of moral hazard is more likely to be correct, but this doesn't account for the capital raising that occurred during the crisis.

Thinking of it from another perspective, it's likely that the age of the impaired assets are greater than eight months - the banks didn't rush out to make or buy bad loans just because they got some more perceived support. The relationship between changes in the support floor an subsequent changes in the bank's portfolio are both related to the bank being in trouble and this isn't adequately captured by the other variables. It is far from certain that the story played out as neatly as people would like it to play out.

There is moral hazard and many banks have abused their positions a TBTF, but studies that confirm everyone's biases should be examined even more closely than usual. 
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/667324 2014-03-25T02:01:00Z 2014-03-29T01:41:33Z 10,000 Hours of Non-Deliberate Practice Deliberate practice is a very important.  When learning a skill, breaking down ideas into small pieces and mastering those segments can lead to competency and expertise if the process is repeated properly over a long enough period of time. 

Many people will put in the hours but will not actively engage in practice. This phenomena is everywhere, but it is most easily found in video games.  One account of players actively not learning can be found in a blog about StarCraft 2 on TeamLiquid.  In this account, the author (a player who was ranked among the top 85% percentile of all players) plays a strategy that has a counter so simple an absolutely new player could easily be coached to beat it via simple instructions. Most people he starts out playing it against do beat him, so he soon ends up playing in a league with the bottom 35% of players. Soon he starts winning about 50% of his matches with a strategy that is very simple to beat.

The mindset of the players who have been playing for a long time and are still really bad at an activity is interesting. Some of them have played for many years, and perhaps if you include their original StarCraft experience they might soon be candidates for the 10,000 hours needed to develop true expertise. And yet this is a group of people who have put in tons of time but have remained generally incompetent. It doesn't make them stupid, but they are definitely suffering from some forms of cognitive bias. Besides the relative immaturity of the players involved (both the author and his opponents), a few things stand out:

1. The losing player blames the game, claiming imbalance where none exists.
2. They declare that the player was not playing fairly. In Starcraft, "cheese" is what other games call cheap.  In both cases, the player tries to add extra rules to the game that their opponent isn't necessarily going to follow. This is a little reminiscent of investors creating structured products and claiming that they never expected housing markets to be correlated on a national level during the 2008 financial crisis.
3. They don't look up how to beat the specific strategy and apply the technique. Even more surprising is that some of the players who lost to the author had actually read his blog in which he describes quite clearly how to defeat the strategy.
4. Perhaps the most important factor is that most of the players who have been stuck at their level for a long don't conceive their actions in clear and defined plans. They act on feelings and find it hard to explain why they did what they did when thinking about the game they just played.

The importance of a plan is learned in many ways, but I was first exposed to it through chess.  Middle game rule #1 of the Thirty Rules of Chess* is probably the most broadly applicable rules of the thirty rules.

M1. Have all your moves fit into definite plans.

Rules of Planning:
a) A plan must be suggested by some feature in the position.
b) A plan must be based on sound strategic principles.
c) A plan must be flexible,
d) Concrete and,
e) Short.

Evaluating a Position:
a) Material
b) Pawn structure
c) Piece mobility
d) King safety
e) Enemy threats

Without a clear reason behind actions, in a chess game, a video game or in any activity requiring strategy, there is little room for significant improvement. Playing without a plan or a way to determine whether you are doing well or not is just as bad. 

So if you want to avoid 10,000 hours of non-deliberate practice, making sure that actions are formulated around plans with ways to determine whether or not the plan worked is a necessary start. 


*Reuben Fine's 30 rules of chess aren't really rules - they are more like suggestions that should be followed about 80% of the time by the average club level player.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/666141 2014-03-20T22:17:53Z 2014-03-20T23:57:37Z Rent Seekers Fighting Back Rent Seeking is using political lobbying to increase one's share of existing wealth without creating additional wealth. In many cases, the rent seeker actively prevents new wealth from being created in order to protect their share. The obvious example of rent seekers are patent trolls, but more recently other rent seekers have been in the news.

Car dealerships are a great example of the rent seeking class. Politically influential on a local and state level, car dealerships have after a long history lobbied for and gotten laws that force manufacturers to sell through them rather than directly to the consumer. There isn't a Walmart or Costco of cars because of laws designed to protect dealerships. These laws prevent manufacturers from significantly changing the terms of their relationships with their dealers and requires that they use essentially the same business model that existed before the information age. The Big Three automakers don't just have to contend with a larger union workforce than foreign competitors, they also have to keep doing business through many more of their inefficient existing relationships thanks to car dealership franchise laws that force manufacturers to continue to renew their contracts with dealerships*. This legal monopoly that the dealers have results in a transfer of wealth from consumers and manufacturers to the dealerships. For more detail on this subject, see this paper State Franchise Laws, Dealer Terminations, and the Auto Crisis.

These rent seekers recently won a victory in New Jersey when Tesla's direct sales to consumers were banned. Tesla had no previous existing relationship with dealers, and the existing law does not have provisions to handle a car company selling directly to consumers without giving a cut to some politically connected middlemen so Tesla sales were banned in the state. The mentality of the rent seekers is captured perfectly in this article on The Verge.

"This Musk guy, he wants all the profits for himself," says Tom Dougherty, a 25-year veteran of the business who now works in sales at the BMW dealership in upscale Princeton, New Jersey. "They wanted to go direct, which means no sales force. That’s cutting out a lot of people. No way that’s gonna fly."

Go back to the definition of rent seeking - these dealers think it is perfectly normal for them to insert themselves into a transaction between two parties that have no relationship to them, Tesla and the consumer, and take a cut from that transaction. It would be more efficient in the long run to pay the dealerships and sales people to find new jobs than it would be to continue having them and any future employees muck up the automobile transaction process with their legally protected inefficient local monopolies.

Another group of rent seekers are the owners of taxi medallions. Taxi's are protected from the pressures of a competitive market by a policy that grants them a legal monopoly as long as they operate in a specific manner. Taxi's can't compete on price, and they lobby for restrictions in the number of medallions issued so they weren't forced to compete very much on service quality either. That changed when Uber, Lyft and Sidecar started turning anyone with a car and spare time into potential competitors to taxis.

But a few days ago taxi companies won a victory in Seattle when they restricted the above companies to only having 150 cars active at a time. This limitation will make it very difficult for consumers to efficiently use the services of these companies.

It's unfortunate that rent seekers are winning these battles - whenever rent seekers win it means that innovation is delayed and consumers are inconvenienced. All of this happens so that parasites like Tom at the dealership and taxi medallion owners can claim a share of wealth that they are only getting because better people are being kept from performing the same job. 


*Ironically, during the auto bailout bankruptcy reorganization many Republicans remained either blissfully or willfully ignorant about how car dealerships are inefficient legal monopolies backed by the government. Their continued existence has very little to do with free markets.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/664096 2014-03-15T09:31:14Z 2014-03-15T09:31:15Z Adult as a Term of Approval C.S. Lewis was a fantasy author, and he has a great quote regarding his critics who worried about adults liking stories that are considered childish. 

Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

In searching for the context of the quote, I came across the excellent essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children. Towards the end he makes the point about how realistic fantasies can be much more dangerous than obvious fantasies.

The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease. 

In other words, 50 Shades of Grey represents a far more dangerous fantasy than Game of Thrones. And C.S. Lewis was saying this before the time of reality TV.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/663210 2014-03-12T21:20:48Z 2014-03-29T01:44:09Z Assorted Links 1. Counterintuitively, test prep actually helps minorities.  Perhaps a less politically correct interpretation of SAT research more generally is that it highlights how general intelligence factors and conscientiousness are heritable. These traits are correlated with both higher income and outperformance on standardized tests. 

2. Rent seekers win a round in New Jersey. If there is economic activity going on around automobiles in New Jersey, the dealerships want their cut even though they aren't adding any value. Many of these dealership owners are presumably Republicans, so this is an example of rent seekers in the "free market" party winning a round.

3. Technological adaptation favors the very young.

4. Risk aversion or approval seeking behavior by college women. The politically correct explanation is that it is the males who are overconfident. 
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/661039 2014-03-05T21:39:09Z 2014-03-05T21:39:10Z Random Links 1. Tracking the Ukrainian conflict - live. (Hat Tip: Garry)  The best way to pressure Russia seems to be to use the Magnitsky Act against any high profile Russians affiliated with Russia's invasion. Additionally, here are some interesting thoughts on how much US credibility actually matters in foreign affairs.

2. The perils of excess information.

"Once an experienced analyst has the minimum information necessary to make an informed judgment, obtaining additional information generally does not improve the accuracy of his or her estimates. Additional information does, however, lead the analyst to become more confident in the judgment, to the point of overconfidence."

This creates an interesting problem for asset managers who should know all of the risks to their portfolio but for whom overconfidence can be quite dangerous.

3. The French do seem to be more forgiving of personal indiscretions. After this poll I could see DSK entering politics yet again.

4. Scott Sumner on Abenomics
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/657978 2014-02-25T04:41:42Z 2014-02-25T04:41:44Z Finance Related Links 1. A valuation expert thinks about What's App from a valuation and from a trading perspective

Damodaran's trading perspective of looking at cost per user sounds plausible, but I wonder if the calculation was as simple as "Facebook messenger is going to be worth X% of the company in the future. Buying Whatsapp at least doubles Facebook's chance of dominating the message space, and X > 22% so it is worth paying almost 11% of the company for Whatsapp."  Also, from a valuation perspective Facebook doesn't have to monetize users more than 1 dollar a year in the short term, they can keep Whatsapp's promise to be ad free for 5 years and only later start aggressively monetizing a greater user base.

2. Warren Buffet talks about some of his real estate investments

He's trying to teach the idea of margin of safety, a long term perspective and investing in what you know, but it's interesting that in doing so he is highlighting investments that definitely underperformed Berkshire's book value as a whole. The farm is worth 5 times the amount it was bought in 1986, Berkshire stock is up over 5000% since 1987.  The actual calculation is more complicated than that since the farm gave off earnings in the meantime, but the difference is still quite notable.

3. MTGOX, the original bitcoin exchange, is down right now

It could be that they are insolvent or they are just particularly incompetent, but it is probably a combination of both.  The coins on the exchange, which could not leave MTGOX custody, were trading at less than 30% of the value of bitcoin on other exchanges.  It would be amusing, but highly illegal, if they were actually buying these discounted coins and arbitraging the difference on other exchanges to make it back to solvency.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/656145 2014-02-20T00:55:02Z 2014-02-20T00:55:03Z Facebook is Buying Continued Relevance When Facebook was going public they bought Instagram for around a billion dollars. Instagram was succeeding at something Facebook was trying to do - get teens to engage with a photo-sharing and social network app on mobile. Facebook paid about 1% of its market capitalization to own this emerging company. Later data revealed that it was definitely a good move - people really like Instagram.
   
More recently, they paid a lot more for Whatsapp, a messaging app founded in 2009. They paid $16 billion, or $19 billion dollars when restricted shares that will paid out as retention bonuses are included. That works out to over 10% of Facebook's current market capitalization.  Whatsapp was starting to beat Facebook in the messaging space - in most of the developed world outside of Japan and Korea Facebook and Whatsapp are the number one and number two messaging apps (It's unclear if counting Apple's iMessage as a separate app would change the math significantly).

There is no question that owning the messaging and mobile photo sharing spaces is what Facebook needs to do. And the mobile messaging space in particular appears to be very profitable. Line has been monetizing their user base quite well recently. But the big question is whether or not these nascent competitors that Facebook bought will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future.  

Zynga tried to implement the strategy that Facebook is applying when they bought Omgpop, the company behind the popular app Draw Something. Zynga wanted to get a foothold in the mobile gaming space but found out that success was not repeatable. While the analogy is worrying considering Zynga's subsequent troubles, Facebook is in a signficantly better position. With Whatsapp the network effects are stronger and there is no pressure for Whatsapp to create any other hits - they just have to outcompete other messaging apps and monetize their current business. 

But if consumers move on to other methods of communication in a few years, Facebook will have to buy the new competitor in the space if they are unable to innovate successfully. The social space is adapting to new technologies and is changing much more quickly than other areas. If Facebook needs to continue to buy competitors to keep their mindshare with consumers constant they will dilute their shareholders before they are able to deliver significant value. They might also start to attract the attention of the FTC.

One thing that this acquisition highlights is just how technology companies are threatened by the changing technology landscape. An investor who is bullish on technological innovation should be wary when buying the current technological incumbents - these incumbents risk either be outcompeted by new entrants or having to buy them at inflated prices.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/654748 2014-02-14T19:50:26Z 2014-02-14T19:54:20Z Any press is good press, right? The current story with Under Armour and the US Olympic speed skating team could test that hypothesis. There is a lot of speculation about whether or not the suits, which have vents that might be making them less aerodynamic, are holding the team back from winning the medals they were expected to win.

Under Armour, the only thing holding the US Olympic speed skating team back.

I'm guessing that wasn't the message the marketing executives were going for when they decided to sponsor the speed skating team. In actuality it should probably work out okay for them since their name is being mentioned in a lot of places. Also, the product that isn't working optimally, olympic speed skating suits, isn't something that is or could generate significant earnings for the company. This doesn't seem to be anything like the Lulu Lemon bend over test situation where consumers were starting to notice their favorite brand was declining in quality. As strange as it might sound, this is probably a case where Under Armour does a little bit of damage control and benefits from the free press. It will be interesting to look at this issue again in a year or so and see if there was any noticeable impact.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/651428 2014-02-07T00:07:04Z 2014-02-07T08:49:11Z Russians officials are bad at propaganda The sorry state of the hotels the media are staying in at Sochi have themselves become a major story of the Sochi Olympics. It's a sad story because the hotels were probably fully funded, and it is likely that the extreme level of corruption innate in the workings of Russian government and business led to their current incomplete and dilapidated state.

What makes this story even more of a tragicomedy is how Russian officials have responded to these stories. The WSJ article on this, titled Russian Officials Fire Back, is quite peculiar.

First, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of Olympic preparations implied that foreign journalists are making the whole thing up out of bias against Russia. Not only that, but he has proof they are making up stories because they have surveillance video from the hotel rooms which show journalists doing things that would destroy the showers before they take pictures to post online.  When asked directly about surveillance video (which he implied was aimed at the showers of the visiting media) he was pulled away by an aide who apparently realized that their boss was going down a path where he was admitting to much worse wrongdoing in order to cover up general incompetence. 

In a later press conference, Kozak said something un-ironically that is quite scary.

"The realization of such a project is an enormous victory for the entire country," he said. "As we say in Russia, victors don't get blamed."

In the West there is also a saying, "Winners write the history books." But when it is said by a prospective winner they are admitting that they are being evil but will be able to cover up their misdeeds due to the lack of influence of the losers. Apparently in Russia, government officials still take the attitude that they won't be held accountable as long as they achieve certain primary goals. 

And with the exception of Vladamir Putin's spokesman, who shows up at the end of the article, none of the officials quoted seem to worry about sounding like corrupt despots who think they can change reality just by lying enough.

If it is this bad when the world spotlight is shining brightly on Russia, it's scary to think about how corrupt and broken things are on a day to day basis.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/649878 2014-02-04T01:13:37Z 2014-02-04T01:13:38Z Negative EV Superbowl Betting Bloomberg had an article before the big game on how amateurs and professional bet on the Superbowl.  Amateurs like lottery ticket type payouts - bets that pay off in low probability situations. The two trades highlighted in the article were "Will there be a safety" and "Will there be overtime?" 

Thanks to the first play of the game, amateurs made out well if they bet the first score would be a safety (or even if there would be a safety at all). But it was yet another game without any overtime. The amateurs pushed the overtime odds from a 13 to 1 payout to a 6 to 1 payout - and despite a small point spread it didn't even come close to paying off.

In general, the favorite trades of retail "investors" are either even odds or ones in which they risk a little capital to make a lot. In general, risking a lot of capital to make a little bit just doesn't seem fun or safe - even when the probabilities are in the investor's favor.  It's also a lot more fun to make or even read about high payoff bets than it is to look at all of the bets that didn't pan out. 

And while these bets are often negative expected value, they can sometimes make money. Plus, having money riding on random events can turn a boring game into something interesting. So while retail bettors are going to lose money on average, maybe the bets aren't negative expected value after accounting for psychic benefits.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/645762 2014-01-24T22:47:07Z 2014-01-24T22:47:08Z Some Links, Some Comments 1. The Cult of Overwork by JamesSurowieki. It's interesting to note that overwork generates cognitive dissonance where employees will be more dedicated to their job after working long hours because their actions indicate that they have been dedicated. Cialdini calls this form of influence "commitment and consistency."

2. NFL treats is cheerleaders quite badly if they are thought of as employees. If instead the NFL made clear that cheerleaders were joining an elite club and not a job, it would be interesting to see if the quality of cheerleaders fell significantly.

3. Some historically bad forecasts. It's interesting to note that Samuelson wasn't alone in his bullishness on the U.S.S.R. - most economists after World War 2 believed that planned economies, which could generate far more savings and investment, would win out in the end.

4. The Bill Gates 2014 letter. It's an interesting read that highlights some of the good that foreign aid does, but it is obviously biased in favor of what Mr. Gates has been spending billions of dollars on. One amusing part is in which Bill Gates uses the general population's cognitive bias of anchoring as a rhetorical flourish: 

"When pollsters ask Americans what share of the budget goes to aid, the average response is “25 percent.” When asked how much the government should spend, people tend to say “10 percent.” I suspect you would get similar results in the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere." 

The actual amount is below 1%, and if Americans knew this they still might think it should be slightly lower. The 10% figure was only mentioned because it was within an order of magnitude of the erroneous 25% estimate. While foreign aid definitely saves lives in the short term, the letter definitely overstates their positive long term impact.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/641977 2014-01-15T00:18:46Z 2014-01-15T16:45:15Z A Ballsy Strategy Step 1: Create a portfolio of 25 companies to hold for the year. Make it public.

Step 2: Create a fund around this portfolio of 25 companies - companies that will not change. The fund will be equal weighted.

Step 3: Charge investors 3.5% for the privilege of investing in this fund, because buying 25 equally weighted stocks and holding them for a year is really hard

Step 4: Wait and see if anyone chases the -3.5% underperformance. Sell them all of the other high fee products you can! (Step 4 is speculative)

Outside observers: Wonder who would actually invest in this fund. Check to see if those investors are managing their own money or are pretending to act as fiduciaries.

I'm not using the company or fund name in this post. I'm not sure if the actual fund will be equal weighted and exposed to the same 25 stocks throughout the year, but that is what the news stories suggest. Even if it was a harder strategy to replicate, 3.5% in fees is a high cost for any long only US equity strategy.  And there are many funds that charge really high fees for simplistic strategies - the difference is they usually aren't mentioned in top Bloomberg stories.
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/641279 2014-01-13T11:26:37Z 2014-01-13T11:26:38Z Cocktail Signaling in Vietnam Those who are used to Western style cocktails and prefer to drink their alcohol in the form of cocktails should tread carefully in Vietnam. A general rule of thumb is that drinks will be worse than you expect them, regardless of the venue. Even in the States, a bar with live music, a dance floor or other entertainment expected to have worse then average drinks. But in Vietnam, even a nice hotel bar with a long cocktail menu will mess up anything more complicated than a rum and coke - and that's if they have rum in the first place, more often than not they'd only be serving whiskey or vodka.

This should be expected - in a country with a GDP per capita of under 2000 US dollars, liquor from the Western world is an expensive luxury. Those in a position to afford the liquor will be more likely to drink it straight, and have an expensive bottle to signal how wealthy they are to their friends. One of the principles involved in finding good food, taken from Tyler Cowen, is that the quality food rises or falls to meet the quality demanded by the consumers. Expecting to find good cocktails in a place where no one drinks them is akin to hoping to find good Chinese food in a community with no Chinese residents. 

And even in the United States, appreciation for well made cocktails only really heated up in the past decade or two. Vietnam's cocktails might most closely resemble those made in the US in the 80's, "...when artificial flavoring and sweeteners were introduced, and fresh squeezed juices and class liquors deemed "our Grandfather's booze" were pushed to the side."

Still, there are some places that put effort into making cocktails according to modern Western sensibilities. Hiring a bartender who actually knows what they are doing and providing them with fresh ingredients is relatively expensive compared a getting bartender whose comparative advantage is just their foreign language skills and giving them off the shelf mixers, so the bar wouldn't just lay out another cocktail menu and expect people to know that their cocktails are going to be good. They show that they have some really interesting stuff going on.
The above bar, Angelina, is attached to one of the most expensive hotels in Hanoi. They have a few very involved cocktails on the front of their menu that cost between 150% to 200% the price of the rest of their drinks. When ordered by someone not sitting at the bar, the waiter will invite them to the bar to look at how these cocktails are made (it's a drink and a show). These drinks are relatively labor intensive and the process is relatively complicated - and sometimes dry ice is added around the drink for no reason at all. The final result is a drink that both costs and tastes like it was made in NYC. The important thing is that the other cocktails at this bar are also made very well. By showing that they are serious about cocktails the customers can order the cheaper classic drinks off of the menu without worrying that about being stuck with a random green sickly sweet concoction. 
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Jeff Lonsdale
tag:unpleasantfacts.com,2013:Post/641271 2014-01-13T09:58:24Z 2014-01-13T09:58:26Z Regarding the Seahawks Restricted Ticket Sales There is some controversy around the way the Seahawks are selling tickets to the AFC title game. They aren't letting fans from the state of their opponents, the 49ers, buy tickets. They are only being sold locally.

"...fans wanting to cheer on the Niners in the January 19th NFC Championship Game in Seattle will not be able to buy tickets through the Seahawks, as the team is restricting sales to only zip codes in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Canada."

This ticket ban is aimed at keeping both distant ticket scalpers and opposing fans out of the ticket buying process. The tickets would sell out either way, so this is unlikely to impact the Seahawks organization financially - if anything the slight increase in home field advantage that this generates helps raise their longterm value. What the restriction really does is gives more consumer surplus to Seahawks fans. People who buy tickets are getting something worth much more than face value, as suggested by the inflated price of tickets on secondary markets, so keeping tickets local means more Seahawks fans will benefit.

One of the big selling points that sports teams arguing for stadium subsidies use is that it brings in tourists for local businesses. Seattle's stadium, CenturyLink Field, was publicly funded after a long debate. And this game will surely bring in fans from outside of Seattle, but there is no question that making the visiting team's fans buy tickets on the secondary market will mean fewer visitors. It will be interesting to see if this gets brought up the next time an owner threatens to leave a city without public funding (especially if the Seahawks need a new stadium at some point in the next few decades).

Unfortunately that probably won't be the case - there has been agreement among economists that subsidies are a waste of public money for some time, and yet subsidies persist almost every time a team threatens to leave a city without a team. Maybe proponents of public funding for stadiums should just come out and admit that the subsidy is for local sports fans and isn't about economic development.
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Jeff Lonsdale