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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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

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.

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.

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.

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.