Thursday, July 19, 2012

EBay, Mr. Market, and Amazon's Q2 Results

This is a shared post with, re-posted here because of its obvious ties to the Shleifer Effect, Mr. Market, profitability bias, and other investing concepts we discuss. 

Mr. Market is a funny dude. At this writing AMZN is trading up about five percent on the day. The reason? eBay.

Well, eBay plus lofty expectations that Amazon's current positive trend continues through its Q2 earnings announcement next Thursday. A look over the last few quarters of the relationship among earnings expectations, actual earnings, and Mr. Market's reaction...let's just say it shows an interesting dynamic.

The eBay Angle

eBay announced its Q2 results last night and exceeded every consensus expectation on the metrics Wall Street uses to gauge its performance. (See Scot Wingo's always well-informed discussion of the results at eBay Strategies here.) Mr. Market has pushed its price up over 10 percent on the day, touching - ever so briefly - its own 52-week high.

One of those important Wall Street metrics is eBay's Gross Merchandise Value (more or less its auction and marketplace revenue) growing at 15 percent, which pretty much matches the growth rate of the overall e-commerce market.

So here comes Mr. Market's logic...

Since Amazon has been crushing the e-commerce growth rate, outpacing it 2:1 with Q1 results in April when Amazon increased revenue 34 percent. And...with eBay showing it can match industry growth in the most recent quarter, then there must be some good tailwinds for e-commerce right now. Ergo...Amazon is going to kill it with Q2 results next Thursday! So let's bet on Amazon! 

Well, Mr. Market, you may be right. I'll grant that Amazon will probably outpace industry growth yet again. But what happens if earnings - once again - don't follow revenue growth? Moreover, what if earnings  (gasp!) disappear altogether for Q2 as Amazon has suggested is a distinct possibility?

Going Back in Time (But Just a Little)

Let's go back in time to look at Mr. Market's previous reactions to Amazon's earnings. We'll use some charts based on Wall Street analyst estimates of Amazon's performance (provided here by Businessweek) and go backwards from most recent.

Last quarter, Q1 results, Amazon surprised Mr. Market by earning .28 cents per share. This after his consensus estimate was .07. The stock shot up about 15 percent in the two trading sessions immediately following the news. It was the second such positive report, which leads us to...

Q4 of 2011 Amazon reported .38 cents per share. Mr. Market has expected .18. A 110 percent upside surprise. The stock actually fell seven percent on the news. Maybe that's because Mr. Market still had not recuperated from the hangover caused by the previous quarter's different kind of surprise...

In Q3 of 2011 Mr. Market had high hopes for Amazon. He was expecting .25 per share after Amazon had posted a hefty .41 cents per share in the previous period. He was hoping for the trend to continue, and in anticipation of it he had run up the stock price by about ten percent since the last earnings announcement. Amazon only earned .14 cents per share. Mr. Market's great hopes were dashed, and he punished Amazon, sending its stock price plummeting from about $225 to about $200 within a couple days. It went as low as $173 before starting to climb back up again.

Over this past year, Amazon has been nothing if not volatile. Google Finance is quick to highlight its 52-week range as 166.97 - 246.71. That's a wide spread, indicative of Mr. Market and this game of expectations he likes to play...and the bi-polar extremes that take over depending on whether Amazon has lived up to his expectations.

Q2 2012 and the Profitability Bias

Well Mr. Market's expectations for next week's results are not too lofty. At least as conveyed by the consensus estimates. It's at .03 cents per share (though the range is quite wide: .17 cents on the high side and .23 LOSS on the low side).

But the reaction today to eBay's results suggest to me that there exists loftier expectations than he's letting on to with the estimates. I think he secretly expects HUGE revenue numbers that will wow investors into paying even more for the privilege of owning shares.

I wouldn't bet against that happening. But even if the big revenue numbers come in and earnings disappoint, this faith in Amazon's upward performance trend is going to be dashed. And Amazon losing money in Q2 is a very real possibility. (Its guidance from the Q1 press release said this: "Operating income (loss) is expected to be between $(260) million and $40 million, or between 229% decline and 80% decline compared with second quarter 2011.") We know how heavily the company is investing in growth, and how willing it is to let those growth costs eat up profits. (See Amazon's Rapid Sales Growth...Buying the New Business?)

So, even if revenue growth blows us away, losses tend to shake investors' faith. Why? The profitability bias. It's almost as if we have an instinctive visceral reaction to seeing losses in a business that was previously showing earnings. We just can't help but think more losses are coming, that there's something wrong with the company, and that the losses will extend into future quarters. We have very weak stomachs for these things. Even if we know the business has staying power, is investing heavily in initiatives to make even better profits in the future, or is just going through a temporary funk. We just get spooked. We overreact and send the price down.

That's the basis for the Shleifer Effect

Note that I'm making no predictions for Amazon's results next week. I am, however, highlighting the appearance of high expectations combined with the POSSIBILITY (nothing more than that) of Amazon not satisfying those expectations. Plus, we've seen what happens to the stock price when Mr. Market's expectations are dashed.

I'll end with this incredibly inappropriate teaser...

Amazon finished today at 226.17. That's almost exactly where it was immediately prior to the Q3 2011 update when it disappointed and proceeded to fall to its year lows over the next three months.

What Would You Buy If Price Didn't Matter? (Take Two)

Somehow, inexplicably to me, this blog has generated a modest (and believe me, my humility in using the term "modest" is well-deserved humility) readership. And here I thought it was an echo chambers for my ears only. Go figure.

A theme you might notice in the blog is that I want to challenge the limited way of thinking inherent to the acolytes of value investing. Before the torches and pitchforks come out, let me say defensively...I'm one of you!  Well, mostly. Probably 90 percent. But the absolute fixation on price to the neglect of those other traits of a good business and a good investment...well, that just keeps me spinning in my own circles, flirting with the (gasp!) growth-story stocks.

I'm using price more as my last box to check off in my investment checklist. I'm interested first in the qualities of the business itself. Does it have a profitable economic model? (i.e., returns on invested capital, cash producing...even if we have to look into the future to see it) Does it possess real competitive advantages? (i.e., scale-price advantage, brand, network effect or other means of making captive demand, or legal protections) And does it have a big market to grow into to compound its earnings?

And then, within the context of those questions, is Mr. Market offering it at a price that's either reasonable or discounted?

Margin of safety is not strictly a function of price. It's provided by the interconnectedness of competitive advantages, economic profitability, and ability to grow.

Perhaps I get burned and the strict-value minds feel vindicated. If that's the case, I will probably never admit it publicly because I'll be too busy panhandling the streets of my small town. 

So, for anyone new or interested, I wanted to re-issue my thought challenge. 

A Thought Challenge For Value Investors

Dear Fellow Value Investors:

I'm offering you a rare opportunity to indulge yourself in fantasy. So suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine that you get to own the five companies whose characteristics fan the flames of your capitalist desires. You will own each for ten years.

This will all take place in a mythical market where there are no prices. Instead, investor returns are magically connected to a company's earnings growth over a long time horizon. If the business compounds earnings at five percent over those ten years, you'll get five percent; 15 percent gets you 15 percent; 30 percent...whoah, simmer down! Show some self-control here!

Oh yeah, and there are no shenanigans played with accruals that affect reported earnings. It's all legit in this little magical mystery market of mine.

So, let your mind wander. If you're freed from the constraints of price...if you get to pick any company you want that trades in the public markets...let your brain get excited and greedy over the exercise, and decide...what five companies would you pick?

The trick in eliminating price as the main consideration is to focus the mind on those variables that drive earnings growth. Namely...

1. Market Size. The business is participating in a large and/or growing market for its offerings, giving it plenty of runway for growth;

2. Competitive Advantage. The business possesses advantages that create barriers to entry and prevent encroachment by competitors, thereby protecting market share (it's not losing business to the competition) and/or margins (competitors aren't finding a toe-hold by under-pricing or otherwise doing battle via price);

While putting the following control in place:

3. Economic Profitability. The business has a model that is profitable both from the perspective of gross profits exceeding expenses and earnings exceeding the costs of reinvesting capital. (In other words, no cheating! You can't buy companies that grow in unprofitable ways...though I doubt many of these could last ten years.)

What are your five companies and why do you think they can compound their earnings at such a high rate?

Let me know your thoughts, and I'll keep a running update on the blog.



You can email me at pauldryden (at) gmail.

Over the long term, it’s hard for a stock to earn much better than the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for 40 years, you’re not going to make much different than a 6% return – even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you’ll end up with a fine result.
- Charlie Munger
(as quoted on p.233 of Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger by Peter Bevelin)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Understanding Amazon...A Spin Off

First, a housekeeping note. I've been experimenting with the mysterious world of twitter. I'll confess it baffles me, but it also intrigues. If you're interested in my occasional twitter musings, feel free to connect with me at this handle: @pauldryden

I've also put a box of tweet updates on the blog. 

This is a brave new world for me, folks. Be patient!

Now, as many of you have noticed, my interest in the business of has turned into an obsession. But it's a healthy one. I think. 

I don't want that to suck all the oxygen out of my other ideas and research exercises here on Adjacent Progression. Amazon-related posts now account for about a quarter of the content of this blog, and - for better or worse - there's a lot more coming. 

So it's time for a spin off. New musings about Amazon will appear at this site, I've also put a link to it at the top right hand corner of the side navigation bar. 

My goal is to continue posting at Adjacent Progression two or three times a week on average. There remains plenty of material to wrap my brain around. And while the cardinal purpose of the blog continues to be about helping me develop my own thoughts (especially around investments), I hope the readers who have stumbled upon it will still find it useful, entertaining, frustrating, confounding...whatever those reasons are that keep you reading.

Why all the thinking about Amazon? In brief, it's a remarkable business (which I mean less in the adoring fan sense and more from the perspective of a - somewhat - neutral researcher willing to be impressed by the performance of his specimen). It's poised to do some transformational things in its various spheres of influence. I see it taking those models refined in its web retailing ventures, and applying them to a long string of new initiatives. And I think its likelihood of success in the new businesses is unusually high. I'll explore those concepts more on the new blog.

From an investment perspective, I remain on the sidelines. The price is not right. Though I suspect it will be in the not so distant future. What is the right price? I have no idea the amount. The opportunity to buy will come less from a precise price and more from Mr. Market's attitude about the company. Today he is optimistic and excited. But because Amazon is investing so heavily in its growth opportunities - to a point where it could very well post a loss at some point in the next few quarters - and because those growth opportunities are hard to understand, I anticipate the current attitude will give way to overreaction on the downside. The sort of pessimism that, when attached to an outstanding business, gets my heart pumping.

I'll revert back to this Warren Buffett quote previously posted under No Extra Credit for Being a Contrarian:

The most common cause of low prices is pessimism - some times pervasive, some times specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It's optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.
I hold out great hope for calamity. My optimism in the market's eventual pessimism knows no bounds! And in the meantime I wait.

I hope you'll continue indulging my obsession by following the series at Understanding Amazon.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Re: Google vs. Your Boys (but really about amazon)

We had a very pleasant lunch, as we always do. He is an old and good friend. He was amused by my unhealthy fixation with Amazon. And so he sends me this gentle barb a few days later:  Google is coming! [Links to WSJ article.] 

Uh-oh, a threat to Amazon's AWS cloud computing service. I get these challenges with some frequency from people that have learned of my obsession. I love them. Not so much because it offers a chance for debate and I consider myself the superior debater. I'm not. It's more because the challenges keeps me honest. 

It reminds me of the verse from Rudyard Kipling's "If": 

...If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting, too...

It's the only way to keep a kernel of intellectual integrity in his game of investing...look for challenges to your theses. Not to fight back and counterpoint the opposing argument, but for the strength and the wisdom the challenge could bring, giving you the opportunity to improve your models, test your reasoning. It's possible to find something nearing sublime in approaching the debate with philosophical detachment, shunning dogma as best as our bloated egos allow.

Unfortunately, our tendency is to seek out those of like-minded opinions, forming echo chambers for our views and doubling down on the risk of our wrongness being compounded in a confirmation marketplace.

Below is my reply to my good lunch friend:

Thanks for passing this on, T. I'm fascinated by this impending convergence of the major tech giants. They're all sitting on these enormous and valuable assets, mainly large customer bases and some combination of tech gear, tech infrastructure, and customer captivity. As a sort of manifest destiny, they are all compelled to extend and expand the use of their infrastructure...those assets. It's inevitable, as if the combination of management ego and economic drive for higher profits, creates a siren's song for the businesses to expand. I've started calling it the growth imperative, a set of behaviors I've noted in other industries, too.

So it becomes interesting with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. [See The Great Tech War of 2012 by Farhad Manjoo in Fast Company back in October 2012.] Their markets, as they expand, are overlapping more and more. They must compete, not only to grow, but also to make sure one of the competitors doesn't gain some advantage that allows them to attack their core markets....sort of like offense is the best defense.

A theory I've considering works something like this: cloud computing is a huge market that Amazon entered early and has pretty much controlled. Amazon is taking great pains to commoditize the industry - making the services non-branded - so it will be defined by who can offer computing at the cheapest price to customers. Amazon has demonstrated its willingness to make AWS (its cloud computing) cheaper and cheaper, having lowered prices 20 times since launching. Jeff Bezos has thrown down a gauntlet and dared others - IBM, Microsoft, a slew of tiny players, and now Google - to follow. Amazon has said it will make it all about price.

That creates a fascinating dynamic, and this is where the theory part kicks in. What company can afford to offer cloud computing the cheapest? Both Amazon and Google have deep cash reserves, so they can duke it out on low price there while subsidizing any losses with their own cash. That could be a painful war, and we must ask who would win.

My bet would be with Amazon, and for a simple reason...Amazon has demonstrated both an indifference to how the stock market perceives it as it pursues long-term dominance of an industry, and it has demonstrated a capacity to suffer while its stock price is getting killed because it is losing money in pursuit of dominance. Jeff Bezos frequently says he's comfortable being misunderstood for long periods of time.

So let's consider this like a game theory have two giants pressing on the gas, hurling their dragsters at each other in a business that one of them (amazon) is willing to define by price. They will both take losses. The more they fight, the deeper those losses will be, and the more likely their stocks will tank as long as the war persists.

Jeff Bezos is fond of saying something to the effect of ..we want to sell the same thing as everyone else, but because we run more efficiently than they do, we can sell it cheaper. So if they want to have a price war, they'll go broke 5 percent before we do.

He's signaled to the world his intentions and his willingness to be a fanatic in pursuit of them. Now, how crazy is google willing to be as it enters the cloud computing market? How deep is its capacity to suffer? And remember, there's a lot of catching up to do since Amazon has been in the market since 2006.

In this game theory game of chicken, my vote is with crazy Jeff Bezos. That dude's a fanatic!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fooled By Randomness and Shleifer Effect

In this my third reading of Taleb's Fooled By Randomness in the past five years, my attention is drawn to a section he calls The Earnings Season: Fooled by the Results. Its description (below) is reminiscent of (or prescient of) the Shleifer Effect. It creates interesting questions about the model and how/whether it's tied to randomness.

First, allow me this point: The human brain works in funny ways. I make no claim that the Shleifer Effect is original in any way. I've already conceded (here) that its purpose is as a construct is to help me synthesize overlapping ideas gleaned from Benjamin Graham, Sir John Templeton, and Joel Greenblatt. And though I have no conscious recollection of this section from Taleb's book, I would assume his thoughts have influenced the Shleifer Effect as well.

From pages 164-5:
Wall Street analysts, in general, are trained to find the accounting tricks that companies use to hide their earnings. They tend to (occasionally) beat the companies at that game. But they are neither trained to reflect nor to deal with randomness (nor to understand the limitations of their methods by introspecting - stock analysts have both a worse record and higher idea of their past performance than weather forecasters). When a company shows an increase in earnings once, it draws no immediate attention. Twice, and the name starts showing up on computer screens. Three times, and the company will merit some buy recommendation. 
Just as with the track record problem, consider a cohort of 10,000 companies that are assumed on average to barely return the risk-free rate (i.e., Treasury bonds). They engage in all forms of volatile business. At the end of the first year, we will have 5,000 "star" companies showing an increase in profits (assuming no inflation), and 5,000 "dogs." After three years, we will have 1,250 "stars." The stock review committee at the investment house will give your broker their names as "strong buys." He will leave a voice message that he has a hot recommendation that necessitates immediate action. You will be e-mailed a long list of names. You will buy one or two of them. Meanwhile, the manager in charge of your 401(k) retirement plan will be acquiring the entire list.

Second, in terms of the Shleifer Effect and randomness, it begs some consideration. In his book Inefficient Markets, Andrei Shleifer's assumption seems to be that chance determines whether a company's earnings go up or down. He does not concern himself with competitive advantages protecting profits. He is digging through data, and his statistical models (in an attempt to make predictions) cannot spot any sort of rule that demonstrates whether earnings will go up or down for a given business in a given quarter.  So it is chance. 

I don't think that's his ultimate point, but it needs to be out there whether or not you agree with it. (I do, but only to a degree.)  The interesting part becomes the investor psychology in reacting to what might just be noise or random fluctuations in earnings results. The pattern-seeking human mind wants so badly to find order in the chaos, that we will invent a trend at the slightest hint of its presence. Even if the trend is no more than the chance outcome of random events.

That's Taleb's point here, too. I think. He constructs his cohort of 10,000 companies that "engage in all forms of volatile business." Perhaps I'm reading to much into it (or am so desperate to think that Taleb would find common philosophical ground with my own construct), but I make a distinction between a volatile business and one whose earnings are protected by some sort of competitive advantage. 

Either way, the outcome seems to be the same. You get one, two, or three actions moving in the same direction, and people begin seeing patterns. Analysts begin predicting more of the same in the future. Investors start buying in. The result is Shleifer's predicted overreaction. And it happens on the upside and the downside. 

For our purposes, we want to take advantage of businesses whose recent earnings have inspired an overreaction bias on the downside...BUT only if we see that the overreaction is based on misunderstanding the inherent qualities of the business. In other words, the recent earnings are a deviation from a longer-term trend of improved earnings in the future.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Amazon Entering Smartphone Game...Why?

Bloomberg reported this morning that Amazon has its own smartphone in development, that the company is working with Foxconn in China for production, and that it has actively been acquiring wireless technology-related patents in advance of the launch. See the story here

Even more so than its decision to challenge Apple's dominance of the tablet market by introducing the Kindle Fire, this move into smartphones is likely to leave a lot of consumers and investors scratching their heads. What business does Amazon - a web retailer - have getting into the phone market? 

Let me take a stab at that...

Convergence of the Tech Giants

Though Jeff Bezos will deny it until he's blue in the face, this is a classic move of defense by playing offense.  

There's a convergence going on in technology.  Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are quickly converging on the same base of customers. To be sure, there is a growth imperative at play, too. Each of these companies has become accustomed to growing at a rapid clip, and each has the ambition (and gall) to believe it should continue growing. And as each runs out of room to expand in its core markets, it will seek new growth by introducing services that poach customers from the other tech giants. The spheres in which they operate, once so placidly independent of each other, are beginning to overlap. If you put a Venn diagram of their markets on time-lapse video, the shaded areas of market overlap would grow darker and darker with each passing year. Convergence is happening.

And in a converging marketplace, if you don't play offense by actively growing into your competitors' markets, you run the risk that they will grow into yours in the near future. Offense becomes the best form of defense. It compels you to grow, thus the growth "imperative."

(To put this in the appropriate context, you should take a look at Farhad Manjoo's The Great Tech War of 2012, published in Fast Company back in October 2012.)

An Aside on Google

Google has been the most interesting case study for both the growth imperative and how a company reacts to convergence. For the time being, Google is spinning like a dervish. It seems to believe it must compete with each of these giants...and NOW. Its rivalry with Facebook has been well-documented with Google+. (See James Whittaker's Why I Left Google blog entry.) That's a competition for the future of advertising dominance, and I think it makes sense.

What makes far less sense to me is Google's foray into retail with its "Prime" one-day delivery deal with bricks-and-mortar shops (see this WSJ blog description and the best overview from here). Google benefits from competition among lots of retailers selling the same products and bidding up adword search prices to get premier listing on the search engine. But with Amazon becoming the ubiquitous web retailer, more consumers are skipping Google altogether and just going straight to Amazon for searches. This is costly for the search engine. And so it goes on the offensive, putting its considerable clout (and resources) behind an attempt at a competitive retail offering.

According to a Walter Isaacson (the Steve Jobs biographer) essay back in April, Larry Page visited Jobs in his dying days looking for advice. Jobs asked him..."What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great.”...FOCUS! Isaacson credits Page with taking the advice to heart. I think there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Amazon Devices to Prevent Apple iTunes Dominance

But back to Amazon and the smartphones. Amazon dips its toes in the water a lot. It's renown for its constant A/B testing and its devotion to running with winning concepts while ditching the losers. So once it decides on a strategy, Bezos brings the company all-in. 

In that regard, the smartphones can viewed as an extension of the reasons Amazon developed the Kindle Fire. A sizable chunk of its business is electronic media (songs, games, apps, movies, and books), and that media is being consumed more and more on mobile platforms. Apple gained an early lead in the market for those platforms with iPod, iPhone and iPad, creating a close-looped ecosystem of content to boot. Jobs and company might let others sell their content on iTunes, but they extracted a pound of flesh in return. This was problematic for Bezos and Amazon. To prevent total dominance by iOS, he had to present an alternative.

So we received the first iteration of Kindle Fire. But we know that electronic media is consumed on other devices as well, so it's only logical that Amazon continues its all-in philosophy to ensure it gets a piece of that action, too. I would expect more (and better) tablets in the future. I would expect better links into television sets (Amazon branded set-top boxes). I would expect music players. And I'm not surprised by the smartphones.

So What Should We Anticipate from the Amazon Move?

First, lots of hiccups. We saw this with the early Kindles and with the Kindle Fire. It's unavoidable when entering a sophisticated new market with complicated electronic technology. Amazon was not a device manufacturer a few years ago, but it is nothing if not a learning organization. Expect it to build on its experience, constantly improve, and ruthlessly eliminate defects. So, hiccups at first, but Amazon will only get better. 

Second, a low price. Amazon is committed to the low-margin/high-volume business model. It has the capacity to suffer, a willingness to take losses on the early batches of inventory while it grabs market share and improves its cost structure. 

Third, potential volatility in its stock price. Going all-in on phones - while juggling lots of other growth initiatives simultaneously - has the potential to move Amazon from profits to losses. And Bezos is not afraid of letting his company lose money for a while if he believes it will pay off in the long-term. The market, however, will not take kindly to this. It's reasonable to anticipate bad financial press and a hit to its stock price if the company sports losses over multiple quarterly earnings reports.  

Return of the Land Rush Metaphor

In 2001 Bezos told Charlie Rose (here) that Amazon understood the early days of web retailing (especially 1998 through 2000) through the heuristic of a land rush metaphor. That era was also dominated by a growth imperative. If Amazon didn't move at an almost reckless pace to establish scaled operations, expand its product selection, and improve its technology, it risked another retailer - fueled by a steady stream of venture capital cash - converging on its markets and earning the trust (and the habits) of customers. 

Bezos recognized the risk of being outflanked, so he engaged in the land rush. He bought into every niche retailer that sold a product that he thought Amazon might want to sell someday, better to bring your enemies close than let them flourish outside your control. He invested heavily in technology and distribution infrastructure. He priced his selection as aggressively as he could to attract customers. He bled cash, almost recklessly, because it kept Amazon in front of the pack and reduced the risk that another retailer could gain a toehold in its market. 

That land rush mentality came from Bezos' survey of the landscape at the time telling him that a convergence was afoot then, too. We see what he did to ensure he came out of the convergence as the dominant power.  Indeed, he came out of the dot-com bubble burst as the sole hegemonic power of web retailing. Despite the Amazon stock price falling from $106 to $6, despite losing countless hundreds of millions in equity investments in competing web retailers, and despite losing upwards of $500 million in personal fortune as the stock plummeted...the bursting of that bubble took all the outside cash out of the web retail industry. Everyone had to fend for themselves, and Amazon was the only one that could. Bezos did alright through it all.

If he's reading the current technology situation with a mind to his experience in the early days of web retailing, I think we can expect him to turn to a page from his old playbook. He will compete ferociously, bordering on recklessness. He will lean heavily into his investments. He will play to dominate the markets. 

Solon's Warning...More Thoughts On Success and Failure

I'm re-reading Nassim Taleb's Fooled By Randomness. There are a handful of books I think worth revisiting every year or two to see how your refined understanding of the world - those things you've learned since reading it the last time - influence how you interpret it. It can become a measure of how you've matured in your learning quest. Taleb's book(s) belongs in that rarefied air.

I'm not sure what it means about my own intelligence or reading comprehension level, but it just seems fresh with each new pass. Like I'm reading it for the first time though this is my third time flipping through its well-worn pages.

This will not be a book report. I wanted to highlight a quote that appears before the first chapter and relate it back to a previous post here.

Solon's Warning

Taleb retells an apocryphal story from ancient Greece in which King Croesus (the richest man) is making a futile attempt to get Solon (the wisest man) to agree that the former's wealth and success mean he must be the happiest.

Solon responded:
The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man's happiness that may yet, in the course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity has [guaranteed] continued happiness until the end we may call happy.

These are the thoughts it inspires (mostly self-plagiarized from a previous post):

Thoughts on Success and Failure

What is success? Is it really an outcome? Too often we think of it as a destination as if it were a platform we land on and upon which we reside forever more. I think we would find that most people we consider successful don't think of it as such a static thing. It's very dynamic. And it's not accurate to use the term in such a general way. I would argue it's just not a precise use of the term.

Perhaps you accomplished a specific thing successfully. You employed strong thinking in an investment decision process that produced an outcome with high returns. That was an example of being successful, but does it define you as a "success." Or say you produced a string of these good outcomes with high returns. Again, those are multiple instances of success, but are you now a "success?" 

You can have a thousand such "successes" followed by a single "failure." How are you then labeled? Or you have a thousand failures followed by a single success. 

Such labels are meaningless. I'm reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker profile of Nassim Taleb  [ah, this is why these thoughts reconnect for me a few months later...neural synapses, funny things] several years ago. (Click here to read Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster Into an Investment Strategy.) Taleb revered Victor Niederhoffer as one of the world's best traders and a brilliant thinker. Niederhoffer had a respected fund with investors desperate to include their capital in his investments. He had more wealth than most people could hope for. 

Niederhoffer had it all. Until he didn't. He "blew up", as traders put it, when the strategy he had used with such success for a decade suddenly didn't work. He lost everything. One day he was a "success" and the next he was a "failure." Well, that would be the description if you chose to think of it in such "destination" terms. 

It all brings to mind the story of the Taoist farmer. I had a vague recollection of the tale, and googling it produced this version (from this source):

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?"
A month later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer's good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?"
The farmer's son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?"
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer.

Luck is fleeting. It is a point-in-time result. What we perceive as luck today, we may view as the root of great misfortune tomorrow. The same reasons we might have used to consider a person lucky today we might use to pity him tomorrow.

So goes success, and so the path is circuitous and the arrow points forever further.

Henry Blodget

I'm hesitant to admit such a fascination with him, but after several posts quoting or featuring him, I must now confess a bit of an obsession with Henry Blodget. To refresh on his story, you may turn to Wikipedia here

It helps to know the back story to understand the context of why he posted this image on his business news aggregator Business Insider back in April:

The grit required to stage a comeback (it's in process) after being laid so low is a much better story - a Greek tragedy reversed - than a straight line success story. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nike Entering Shleifer Effect Watchlist

I'm catching up on some of my screens from last week, and I notice that Nike (NKE) took a big hit on news that it missed consensus earnings estimates by about 15 percent. The price dropped over nine percent on the news.

MarketWatch provides a news write-up here. Revenue was up 12 percent for last quarter, but earnings dropped about eight percent. Costs went up, the company increased marketing spending in preparation for the London Olympics, orders from China dropped quite a bit, and it reduced it earnings growth guidance for the year.

Here are some of the analyst quotes pulled from  MarketWatch article (mainly for entertainment purposes):

It’s “a rare miss for Nike,” said UBS analyst Michael Binetti, who added he’s “disheartened to hear” that the company’s gross-margin recovery will be pushed out again after three straight quarters of missing its own targets.

“Nike becomes a much trickier stock from here,” according to ISI Group analyst Omar Saad. Sales “may no longer be enough for investors to overlook the company’s perplexing ongoing margin pressure.” Saad also said the margin miss makes him “a little concerned that this highly sophisticated, dominant, global consumer company does not have as good a handle on its costs as one would hope.”

Nike is an incredible brand. An icon really. It's down about 20 percent from its 52-week high, but that $115 price was being fueled by a lot of optimism. It's now trading around 20x earnings trailing twelve month earnings. That's not cheap unless we think those earnings are depressed for some reason. A quick view of Morningstar data shows that Nike is actually near an all time earnings  peak.  

For now it's on the watchlist, but I would want to see some more healthy pessimism behind this before saying it's a prime Shleifer Opportunity.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Scale Advantage and The Great Coke Scandal

Profits are good. And our profitability bias - that preference to own, to cover, to work for, to partner with companies that turn a profit - is a pretty good filter to apply when evaluating a business for whatever reason. But the best companies sometimes forego profit in the short-term, investing capital more heavily than perhaps is absolutely required or plowing back what might have been profit to increase their expenses in certain areas that provide advantages over the competition. 

It's not as if they don't recognize that everyone prefers they were profitable. It's that they understand that delaying the gratification of immediate profits, when those dollars are spent wisely on honing the defenses of the business, can lead to much greater profits down the road. And, more importantly, it can lead to profits that are protected against the encroachment of bigger-smarter-richer competitors that want nothing more than to steal away its customers.

Profits can be very nice, but they do not necessarily make for the best businesses.  The best businesses couple profitability with sustainable competitive advantages that protect future profits. And when a dilemma requires companies to sacrifice either profits or competitive advantages, the best ones watch out for their long-term interests. They sacrifice profits and keep investing in their defenses.

Of the major categories of competitive advantage - strong brand, legal protection, captive demand, and scale - the one with the longest lasting benefits is scale. This is where the size and efficiency of your operations allow you to produce an offering for less than your competitors, so much so that no rational actor would dare attack your position. 

When combined with other forms of competitive advantage, scale makes for the deepest defenses of all.

The Curious Case of the Coca-Cola Secretary

In late-2006 a secretary at Coca-Cola headquarters conjured up a lurid plot. Working with two ex-convicts, she contacted arch-rival Pepsi and offered Coke's most sensitive trade secrets in exchange for large sums of cash. The cabal believed Pepsi would be eager to steal a glance of secret Coke recipes, that such information would somehow help the competitor in its never ending battle with Coca-Cola to win the cola wars. 

Pepsi wasn't so keen on the scam. In fact they called up the FBI immediately and were glad participants in an exciting sting to catch the crew in the act and send them away on federal charges. Besides questions of basic human decency, why would the Pepsi executives not be eager for the patented trade information offered up by the secretary?

At best, the secret Coke recipe is one part honest-to-god competitive advantage based on a particular mixture of ingredients to produce a specific taste. And it's nine parts marketing ploy, a wink at its audience to suggest Coke is so delicious that the company must keep the secret recipe behind locked doors (lest a competitor produce a beverage with the same flavors and thereby steal away all its customers, of course). The public loves the mystery that comes of a secret formula!

Coca-Cola's competitive advantages are far less grounded in the legal protection of patents and formulas defended as trade secrets than they are a potent combination of brand and economies of scale. The company has spent billions over the years on savvy marketing, creating a Pavlovian tie between the sound of fizz escaping from an opened bottle and a person salivating in anticipation of her refreshing drink. But more importantly, they have made the product omnipresent. You are probably never more than a few steps away from the opportunity to buy a cheap Coke the moment the urge hits you, whether that urge is induced from a commercial or your own thirst. 

This is an example of scale applied to distribution. Its products are everywhere, and making that happen is a far more impressive business feat than inventing a tasty carbonated beverage in the basement of an apothecary's shop. 

Coca-Cola has the benefit of scale in production costs, advertising, and distribution. They can produce a mind-bending amount of product for mere pennies per unit, with all the fixed costs being spread across  enormous production volumes. They can then buy national and international ads, reaching consumers all over the globe, inculcating them on the idea that Coke is it. And their distributors move tons upon tons of cases each day, spreading the cost of stocking shelves over all those bottles.

The benefit of investing to create all this scale means Coke can charge a pittance for each bottle of product, a dollar or two that most consumers will never miss, while still turning a very tidy profit. What would it take for a competitor to make a reasonable return at a comparable price point? Richard Branson tried in the mid-1990's with Virgin Cola, even pricing below both Coke and Pepsi in hopes of stealing only a sliver of their customers. The cola incumbents ramped up their advertising budgets in every market they thought Branson might have a reasonable chance of establishing a toe hold, and they leaned hard on their customers to keep shelf space off-limits to the upstart. Branson couldn't even get most grocery stores in his native UK to give his drinks a shot. When you can't gain entry through basic distribution channels, you must know your future is grim. Price doesn't even matter.    

Any other competitor would run into the same challenges trying to surmount the advantages provided by Coke's scale. As a last resort of scale, Coke could always fall back to its balance sheet - it has plenty of cash - and fight a price war to makes its products much cheaper than any alternative, gladly exchanging short-term profits to ensure it maintained long-term advantages. The profits will come back if the defenses remain strong.

And so we get a good chuckle out of the misguided secretary, hoping to make a buck selling Coca-Cola's most valuable secrets. In reality, Coke's competitive advantages are hidden in plain sight.  A big piece resides with its brand...but the bulk sits with its scale, the end-product of years of foregoing billions in additional profits in return for high volume production capabilities, wide reaching advertising, and a scaled distribution infrastructure.