Energy superabundance (10/30/22)
In a world where we’re experiencing energy shortages around every turn, it’s worth taking a look at policies that got us here and what would have to change to bring us into a world with endless energy – a future where energy is so clean and plentiful, that limiting its consumption would be unnecessary. I came across this super interesting policy paper from The Center for Growth and Opportunity at the Utah State University that explores the concept of “Energy Superabundance.”
Though energy may never be “too cheap to meter,” Vernon and Dourado explain that higher energy consumption directly increases economic growth. Achieving energy superabundance would radically improve the US economy as well as the quality of life for all Americans. They show us a vision of the future that includes flying cars, hyperloop, sub-orbital point-to-point travel, electric autonomous trucking, vertical farming, water-from-air condensation, water desalination, and so much more.
In this research-based vision, cities are no longer limited by access to ground transportation. Plastics and cement are made from air, water, and electricity. Vernon and Dourado even predict a carbon shortage.
This future is only possible if we remove the many obstacles standing in the way of building new infrastructure. New power plants, transmission lines, transportation infrastructure, and better energy technology are all being held back by red tape that stops us from building a better future. This paper will help us show policymakers and thought leaders what is possible if we are able to reform our policies and reclaim a future of superabundant energy and prosperity.
The TJs club (10/23/22)
I was oddly excited about going back to Trader Joe’s as my primary grocery store with the move out to California. It’s cheap, their seasonal items are to die for, and I always have the most pleasant experience in every one of their stores. Without any sort of formal advertising, the brand has created a cult-like following. Despite low prices, they’re among the most profitable grocery chains out there. It’s a fascinating business and of course there’s a podcast on it – take a listen if you’re a fellow TJs enthusiast.
The innovation factor (8/28/22)
Investing in innovation in the public markets is an interesting game – in a world where the market is typically looking for a short-term gain, it can be difficult to invest money into something that is going to pay off several years down the road. That being said, innovation stocks had recently been very in vogue in the public markets and it was a wild ride up and, then subsequently a wild ride down, as things tend to mean-revert. But it doesn’t mean that investing in the public markets doesn’t pay off. I read a really interesting paper on how you can actually quantify investing in innovation – by tracking patents associated with technological revolutions (right now those would be things like AI, blockchain, genetics, cloud computing, or autonomous vehicles while in the 1980s it was things like magnetic recording, optical fiber, or semiconductors). This punchline of this study is that innovation stocks outperformed the market by 2.6% on average in the last 50 years, but these stocks were also very volatile (as you’d expect – higher risk, higher reward). The paper itself is not that long and an interesting read for anyone who has a few minutes to spare, and it breaks down this analysis in much more detail. I’ve always been a sucker for innovation and look for it in the public markets, but also have braced myself for a lot of volatility that comes with investing in these stocks (SRPT is a great example) while also diversifying into other super boring (yes innovative in their own ways) businesses like Waste Management.
Passive House (8/14/22)
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about Passive House. This video is a great 90 second Passive House tutorial, TLDR it’s a way to design buildings that maximizes energy efficiency and reduces energy use by 80-90%. In the context of climate change resulting in global record heat waves and rising energy costs, this concept is even more relevant. The **coolest** thing is that a lot of local utility providers actually have incentive programs in place to actually implement some of these types of design elements in order to reduce energy usage. Next time you get your utility bill, take a minute to go into the utility company’s website and take a look at their initiatives, see if you can get some free upgrades to improve the energy efficiency of your home, and watch your energy bills go down while also doing something good for the environment. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Inflation Reduction(?) Act (7/31/22)
Democrats brought forth a package called the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” that would raise closer to $740b from a 15% corporate minimum tax, prescription drug pricing reform, and closing tax loopholes while spending $369b on energy security and climate change and overall resulting in a $300b reduction in the government deficit. The stated goals of this act are to –
- Enact historic deficit reduction to fight inflation
- Lower energy costs, increase cleaner production, and reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030
- Allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs to $2k
- Lower ACA healthcare premiums for millions of Americans
- Make biggest corporations and ultra-wealthy “pay their fair share” by closing tax loopholes
Even though this falls pretty short of what Democrats had initially hoped for climate reform action, it would still be the biggest pro-climate legislation ever passed. With the Senate divided 50/50 and Republicans pretty unanimously against this, Democrats need unanimous support with the VP’s tie-breaker vote to make this happen. It’s not certain where support from the Democrats stands on this. While this could make some big moves toward addressing climate change, it doesn’t actually seem like it would do anything for reducing inflation, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, which seems like a pretty big mislabeling of the legislation… Anywho, I guess stay tuned to see what happens on this front.
Keeping time (7/24/22)
I’ve always been fascinated by brands that can stand the test of time – what makes them special, what makes them tick. Rolex squarely falls into that category. They have a secret sauce that has made these watches the gold standard for generations. In my curiosity about this brand, I came across an article from 2015 by a reporter who was actually able to visit the Rolex manufacturing facilities in Europe. For any Rolex enthusiasts (or tbh anyone else), this article was a fascinating read about the history of the brand and a unique view into the manufacturing process.
TikTok wars (7/17/22)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the uncool person who doesn’t use TikTok. It’s likely for the best because it’s the most addictive social app by user time spent per month – the average user spends 28.7 hours on TikTok every month while that number is 15.5 hours for Facebook, 7.8 hrs for Instagram, and 6.1 hours for Snapchat. The user habits didn’t happen on accident – the product was designed to make it happen – and the company is milking it to generate advertising revenues. The company is charging as much as $2.6m for a one-day run of a TopView ad (the first thing on users’ feed), which is 4x what they charted a year ago. To put that into context, a 30-second Super Bowl ad costs about $6.5m and TikTok can charge these types of rates every ding dong day. Not surprisingly, this is slowing turning TikTok into an advertising giant, which is a market that has been totally dominated by Facebook and Google for years. This was a great article on how TikTok is redefining media, why it’s a billion-user problem for Meta, and how TikTok is projected to earn $12bn this year; more than Twitter and Snap combined.
Abe’s Legacy (7/10/22)
ICYMI, former Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, was assassinated on Friday while giving a speech for a political candidate ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections. Unlike the frequency of gun violence we’ve been experiencing in the US recently, gun violence is actually quite uncommon in Japan and deaths from shootings are very rare – their gun control laws are super tight and handguns and rifles are straight up banned. The motive behind the assassination isn’t clear quite yet, and Abe, as any politician, had fans and critics. There were many things he did during his time as the longest-tenured PM in Japanese history – beefing up the country’s defense capabilities and strengthening an alliance with the US will be honorable mentions. But his best-remembered legacy will likely be “Abenomics” – a fairly controversial economic stimulus strategy that likely helped revive the Japanese economy (until COVID, obviously). There were pros and cons to his theoretical policies and real outcomes but he seemed to bring political stability to the country that hadn’t really existed before him. TIME magazine put together a great piece highlighting some of the more notable aspects of Abe’s legacy and is worth the quick read if you’re wondering why this assassination is sending such shockwaves across the world.
Revisiting history (7/3/22)
I’ve been loving reading historical fiction recently, and especially as we see more and more polarization in the US, I’ve been brushing off my Civil War knowledge. On that quest, came across a super interesting series of podcasts – four podcasts with the final installment being released this Independence Day. In the first of the series, historian Adam Smith explores the origins of the war – how moral, political, and economic problems of slavery made conflict inevitable – an interesting perspective on the situation at hand. Worth a listen on your travels during this holiday weekend.
Any good news (6/26/22)
In a time when the economy is slowing, emotions are running high from Supreme Court decisions, and the war in Ukraine continues to rage on, I was in desperate need of finding some feel-good things happening in the world. For any in the same boat, check out https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/
Avoiding groupthink (6/19/22)
I came across this SUPER interesting 16 min conversation between Danny Kahneman (won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision sciences, I’ve talked about his book Thinking Fast and Slow), Annie Duke (World Series of Poker champion who researches cognitive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania), and Michael Mauboussin (Head of Consilient Research at Counterpoint Global and has also taught finance for decades at Columbia).
The topic of conversation here is the concept of “pre-mortem” – where you imagine how a decision would fail, and it’s an approach meant to overcome groupthink, because pessimists are really unpopular in group decision-making.
If you’re part of a lot of groups that make decisions, I’d highly recommend taking a listen to this quick conversation about pre-mortems, prospective hindsight, legitimizing dissent, self-serving bias and pre-parade or backcasts to see how this can impact and improve decision-making.
Under the Influence (6/12/22)
This week’s content was suggested by an amazing and super intelligent mother to the cutest little curious baby out there – a podcast that dives into the “mom internet.” For all you moms out there (and obviously everyone else totally fascinated by this phenomenon, I didn’t realize such a thing even existed) – take a listen to “Under the Influence” –
Under the Influence is a deep dive into the Mom Internet, a place haunted by aspirational marketing where it feels like every other mom is a social media influencer trying to sell you something, all while posed in white kitchens that never seem to get messy… with toddlers in cloth diapers that never ever leak; a bastion of carefully curated lives that are #blessed. And behind this airbrushed perfection is money, so much money. Billions and billions of dollars. Journalist and mom Jo Piazza looks at how we got here, what it all means and how the commodification of motherhood is driving mothers a little insane. And through it all she wonders whether or not she has what it takes to join the ranks of the momstagrammers, if she too can make thousands of dollars off beautiful photos of bath time, frolic-ing in fields of purple flowers and posing her newborn next to a beautiful latte.
Davos thoughts (6/5/22)
World leaders came together again, in person, at Davos for the 2022 World Economic Forum annual meeting to address some of the most important issues today – Ukraine (the conflict has officially been going on for over 100 days…), climate crisis and its impact on food and poverty, the outlook for a recession and the future of work, and getting through and preparing for future pandemics, the list goes on and on. The theme of this year’s meeting was “History at a Turning Point” and it resulted in some great initiatives. The big themes that came out of this year’s meeting were
- Global cooperation in the face of the war in Ukraine
- The interconnected crises of climate, food, and energy
- The potential looming recession
- How preparing for the next pandemic requires ending health disparities (many countries around the world still don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines)
- Gender, inequality, and the jobs of tomorrow
- The digital future
It’s exciting to see public and private sector leaders come together to solve these problems but it’s all about action. As of January, only 1% of the $67b pledged toward racial equity by large companies has actually been put to work and only 22 of the Fortune 500 companies report on their racial and ethnic diversity. Acknowledging these issues is the first step, actually making progress is another thing all together.
Bull market psychology (5/29/22)
It seems like markets were displeased with me being away for a few weeks because… wow… what a bloodbath. We did see a bit of a reversal this week though as markets rallied to close one of the best weeks since November 2020, reversing a painful 7-week losing streak. What we’ve seen is a long-overdue correction for an exuberant market that just would not quit. The S&P 500 has returned, on average, a little over 10% a year. If the market was just run by a bunch of machines, it would probably return about 8-12%, steadily, each year. But the market has returned between 8-12% only 6 times in the last 65 years because the ups and downs are driven by investor psychology shifting and we’ve gone from a state of irrational exuberance to one of irrational pessimism in the last few months.
The latest memo from Howard Marks is a great read if you want to get into the psychology of bull markets, but the crux of the message is this – though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme, and we’ve seen this type of irrational exuberance turned to irrational pessimism many times in the past. Marks’ lessons from studying those past cycles go like this –
- Optimism builds around the things that are doing spectacularly well.
- The impact is strongest when the upswing arises from a particularly depressed base in terms of psychology and prices.
- Bull market psychology is accompanied by a lack of worry and a high level of risk tolerance, and thus highly aggressive behavior. Risk-bearing is rewarded, and the need for thorough diligence is ignored.
- High returns reinforce belief in the new, the unlikely, and the optimistic. When the crowd becomes convinced of those things’ merit, they tend to conclude “there’s no price too high.”
- These influences cool eventually, after they (and prices) have reached unsustainable levels.
- Elevated markets are vulnerable to exogenous events, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- The assets that rose the most – and the investors who over-weighted them – often experience painful reversals.
History of Earth Day (4/24/22)
Earth Day was first started inspired by the student anti-war movement – policy makers wanted to replicate the energy of the student anti-war protests into increasing public awareness about air and water pollution. The date for the first teach-in on college campuses, April 22, was strategically chosen as a weekday between spring break and finals when they’d be able to maximize student participation. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a beautiful bipartisan effort between Republicans and Democrats, with widespread support from effectively every demographic of person out there. It soon led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of several environmental laws. In the 1990s, the movement went global, mobilizing 200m people across 141 countries, and has grown into being recognized today as the largest secular observance in the world with over a billion people mobilizing globally to change human behavior and create policy change locally, nationally, and globally for a cleaner environment. If you’re interested in more fun facts about the history and impact of Earth Day you can find them here, but in the meanwhile hopefully you get outside, appreciate what Mother Nature has to offer, and do your part in protecting her!
The price of crypto (4/17/22)
I was just scrolling on Twitter, inundated by everyone’s thoughts about Elon Musk making an offer to buy the social media platform for $43b, and I came across some tweet about the growth in cryptocurrencies. Being a pragmatic (hopeful?) sustainability advocate, I started thinking about how the growth in crypto actually translates into the environmental impact of its digital mining operations. And it’s not a particularly great story. This article walks through why the mining of bitcoin is so energy intensive – this one cryptocurrency alone uses more energy than the entire country of New Zealand on an annual basis and emits about 57 million tons of CO2 each year. Interestingly, not all cryptocurrencies use the same amount of energy so if you’re also a sustainability enthusiast and interested in cryptocurrencies, read through this quick primer on the energy requirements of the various coins before diving in.
Colonialism & climate change (4/10/22)
The latest series of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports have explored the impact of colonialism on climate change. They not only list colonialism as a driver of climate change but also a factor exacerbating the vulnerability to climate change faced by certain peoples. Positively, however, the native peoples’ generational ecological knowledge and traditional stewardship of their environments is the solution to help rehabilitate and, in the process, decarbonize and create resiliency in their native areas. There has been an explosion of academic research exploring this topic in the last decade – I went down a pretty deep rabbit hole learning more about this, so the information is out there if you want to explore it, but here are a few examples that really demonstrate how this has played out from research that came out of Penn State –
- Excavations have found native housing throughout the Caribbean that was built with local materials to be resilient to hurricanes and other severe weather events. After those islands were colonized, European architecture took over and today’s homes are made with reinforced concrete (which is not locally available) that is easily overwhelmed during hurricanes – this makes the structures easily prone to damage and also much more difficult/expensive to rebuild after major storms.
- Madagascar’s forests and land resources were completely destroyed as European colonialization sought its profits. The indigenous people there today inhabit poorer lands that are wrought with issues like soil degradation, erosion, and deforestation, making them even more acutely vulnerable to climate change.
The vast future (4/3/22)
I love thinking about our place in the grand scheme of things. Reminding myself that we are mere specs in the vast universe that has existed for years and will continue to exist for years after we’re gone – it helps put into perspective so many things that I deem to be “the worst ever.” It’s not that important, calm down. Anyway, I came across an article this week on the past and potential future of the human race that was full of fun facts that reminded me of the grand scheme of things – the full thing is worth reading (it’s not too long) but these were some of my favorite tidbits –
- 109 billion humans have lived and died before us – they’re the ones who have built everything we know today – civilizations, languages, foods, music, tools, everything.
- The Earth might remain habitable for a billion years and if we survive as long as the plant is habitable, there are 125 quadrillion children that will be born in the future (a quadrillion is 1 followed by 15 zeros) aka we’re in the early innings of the human race unless some catastrophe brings an end to us sooner.
- Which brings us to the concept of “Longtermism,” which is the idea that people who live in the future matter morally just as much as those of us alive today – so what can we do to improve the world’s long-term prospects?
The end of globalization (3/27/22)
Larry Fink is a whale in the finance industry – his company, BlackRock, manages $10 trillion globally and the man writes an annual letter to investors that’s typically got some splashy statements that get a ton of attention. The letter this year was largely centered around the war in Ukraine and called for the end of globalization and the power of capitalism to come together against violence and aggression –
“…the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades. We had already seen connectivity between nations, companies and even people strained by two years of the pandemic. It has left many communities and people feeling isolated and looking inward. I believe this has exacerbated the polarization and extremist behavior we are seeing across society today.
The invasion has catalyzed nations and governments to come together to sever financial and business ties with Russia. United in their steadfast commitment to support the Ukrainian people, they launched an “economic war” against Russia.
Capital markets, financial institutions and companies have gone even further beyond government-imposed sanctions. As I wrote in my letter to CEOs earlier this year, access to capital markets is a privilege, not a right. And following Russia’s invasion, we saw how the private sector quickly terminated longstanding business and investment relationships.
These actions taken by the private sector demonstrate the power of the capital markets: how the markets can provide capital to those who constructively work within the system and how quickly they can deny it to those who operate outside of it. Russia has been essentially cut off from global capital markets, demonstrating the commitment of major companies to operate consistent with core values. This “economic war” shows what we can achieve when companies, supported by their stakeholders, come together in the face of violence and aggression.”
SWIFT action (3/13/22)
One of the first ways the rest of the world cut off Russia after declaring war on Ukraine was cutting it off from SWIFT. For those who thought this might be a travesty that the Russians can’t listen to Taylor’s Version of Red or Fearless, it’s actually the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. It basically connects over 11k financial institutions across over 200 countries (kind of like a messaging system) and it processes ~42m messages daily that’s critical for actual financial transactions to happen. With Russian banks cut off from SWIFT, it severely restricts the flow of money in and out of the country, which results in real economic headwinds for Russia. If you’re looking for some more information on the issue, I found these two articles from Bloomberg and NYT to be helpful.
Urgent call to action (3/6/22)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second installment of their 6th assessment report this week. This effort involved 67 different countries and 34k studies and provided one of the most comprehensive assessments of the risks associated with climate change, especially for some of the poorest countries and marginalized communities. The window for action is narrowing pretty fast and These were some of the biggest takeaways from the report that the UN Secretary General referred to as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” –
- Already, climate impacts are more widespread and more severe than we would have expected – since 2008 severe climate events have forced over 20m people from their homes every year and half the global population faces water insecurity at least one month per year.
- Regardless of what we do to reduce emissions, our actions so far have already locked us into even worse impacts from climate change in the near future – in the next decade, climate change is going to drive 32-132m people into extreme poverty and increase food insecurity, and heat-related mortality, heard disease, and mental health challenges.
This was a pretty great summary of the report in case you’re looking for some addition information from the report. TLDR – climate change is here, it’s insanely real, it’s no bueno, and we need to be better about addressing it…like yesterday.
Annual Letter from Omaha (2/27/22)
It’s time for Warren Buffett’s annual letter once again! There are a couple interesting nuggets in the letter if you’re interested in reading the whole thing, but these were a few of my favorites:
Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly. Talking to university students is far superior. I have urged that they seek employment in (1) the field and (2) with the kind of people they would select, if they had no need for money. Economic realities, I acknowledge, may interfere with that kind of search. Even so, I urge the students never to give up the quest, for when they find that sort of job, they will no longer be “working.”
Berkshire’s history vividly illustrates the invisible and often unrecognized financial partnership between government and American businesses… Berkshire pays roughly $9 million daily to the Treasury [in the form of taxes]. In fairness to our governmental partner, our shareholders should acknowledge – indeed trumpet – the fact that Berkshire’s prosperity has been fostered mightily because the company has operated in America. Our country would have done splendidly in the years since 1965 without Berkshire. Absent our American home, however, Berkshire would never have come close to becoming what it is today. When you see the flag, say thanks.
For The Kids (2/20/22)
Taking a break from the regularly scheduled programming to highlight one of my favorite things happening this weekend – the Penn State Dance Marathon. THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer with the mission to provide emotional and financial support, spread awareness, and ensure funding for critical research—all in pursuit of a cure. Like everything else, the pandemic has totally changed what THON looks like this year. It’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced and it’s difficult to express in words what this weekend and this organization means to the families it supports. If you can, please join me in supporting one of the greatest causes out there – you can donate here today!
The Smiling Curve (2/13/22)
There have been some big transactions in the gaming market in the last few months – starting with Take-Two acquiring Zynga, then Microsoft acquiring Activision-Blizzard, and most recently Sony announcing its acquisition of Bungie. The consolidation in this industry has been super fascinating and I came across a piece that explains why we’re seeing this consolidation through a concept called the Smiling Curve – where the highest value is created by differentiated content creation and aggregating that content on a platform for a seamless content discovery experience. The piece goes into some interesting details on the transactions as well as the super fascinating concept of competition in this space, outside our analog world, which is a world of scarcity. Worth the read if you’re interested in the gaming universe.
SPOT the problem (2/6/22)
If you noticed a bunch of songs being “unavailable” on Spotify this week and you didn’t know why – the company had a big Joe Rogan crisis. Neil Young found an NPR report with information about an open letter to Spotify from teachers, scientists, and medical professionals about the false information regarding COVID vaccines being featured on Joe Rogan’s podcast. In response to this, Spotify seemingly didn’t react. Neil Young took it personally, and decided Spotify could either have him or Rogan. He took his music off Spotify and many others followed his lead. Cue full on chaos at Spotify. Google this and you’ll find lots of articles on the details of what happened, Joe Rogan’s apology, and more.
It’s such a conundrum that media companies face today – where do you draw the line between simply being a platform that hosts material and encourages free thought and policing that material when it’s in the interest of the public good. But then the question arises about who gets to decide what is “public good” given it can be such a subjective decision. For the record, when you dispute facts and science that put people’s lives in danger, that seems to be a pretty hard line you’ve crossed. Spotify happens to control 31% of the global streaming subscription market – that’s a lot of ears listening to the content posted on the platform and I guess somebody has to monitor fake news. This has unsurprisingly been an issue for the stock (SPOT), which has been on an unfortunate roller-coaster in the last year.
A sneaky second (1/30/22)
Did you know that Facebook Marketplace is the world’s second largest marketplace (based on monthly active users)? Surprising nobody (hopefully) Amazon comfortably sits in first place. I came across a really interesting story about Deb Liu, who led the team that pitched, built, launched, and scaled the product. It was a quick read, so I’ll leave it here with you.
Doughnut economics (1/23/22)
A book was recommended to me this week called Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. The book is written by an economist at Oxford who is challenging the last century’s economic models in the context of today’s very real issues of meeting the needs of all people within the means of our living planet. The “safe and just space for humanity” in which humanity can thrive is built between a social foundation (no one is left falling short on life’s essentials), but within an ecological ceiling (we don’t overshoot the planetary boundaries that protect the planet’s life-supporting systems). And this type of a system has to be designed – to be regenerative and distributive – not simply focused on linear (or exponential) growth. Highly recommend giving the book a chance if you have some time, if not, you can catch the spark notes in the author’s TED talk.
Marks’ remarks (1/16/22)
Love me a good Howard Marks memo – the latest on selling as a part of the **investment** (not trading) process. One of the most popular tenets of investing a lot of people reference is “buy low, sell high.” But investing isn’t quite as simple, and investor behavior definitely doesn’t follow that logic. A lot of investors sell high when their investments are profitable because they’re afraid their profits will goa way. A lot of investors also sell low when their investments are losing because they’re afraid of those losses compounding. The former is a bad reason to sell, and the latter is simply an illogical reason to sell. But investor psychology rarely follows logic. The real reasons for selling existing investments are related to opportunity cost:
- If your investment thesis seems less valid than it did previously and/or the probability that it will prove accurate has declined, selling some or all of the holding is probably appropriate.
- Likewise, if another investment comes along that appears to have more promise – to offer a superior risk-adjusted prospective return – it’s reasonable to reduce or eliminate existing holdings to make room for it.
Aside from making smart decisions on selling, the most important thing is simply to be invested – time, not timing, is the key to building wealth in the stock market. In the 20-year period between 1999 and 2018, the annual return on the S&P 500 was 5.6%, but your return would only have been 2.0% if you had sat out the 10 best days (or roughly 0.4% of the trading days), and you wouldn’t have made any money at all if you had missed the 20 best days. In the past, returns have often been similarly concentrated in a small number of days. The moral of the story here is that if you sell for the wrong reasons, you never get to fully participate in the market’s positive long-term trend, which is a cardinal sin in **investing** (not trading) because you miss the wonders of long-term compounding.
New year, new resolution (1/9/22)
Between the markets being nonstop chaos over the last two years and planning a wedding, I had noticed my mind was always working on overdrive. To give myself some TLC, I decided I was going to try and practice mindfulness for a few minutes each day – I downloaded an app to help keep me in check but tbh I haven’t been very good at sticking to any sort of routine. Enter a new year’s resolution! This TED talk is a great reminder about why mindfulness is so very important in our insanely busy, information-overloaded, technology-consumed lives.
Holiday travel playlists: part 3 (12/19/21)
For the last addition to your holiday travel playlist, I have a revelation for you – movies and podcasts have apparently collided in a format called “podcast movies.” This is good news especially for all you fans of thrillers out there – Ghostwriter features Kate Mara and Adam Scott in a psychological thriller about a former journalist (Mara) who takes on a ghostwriting job to collaborate on a murder mystery novel for a billionaire (Scott). Obviously as they go through the process, the story evolves through major questions and suspicions.
Holiday travel playlists: part 2 (12/12/21)
As a Philly resident, La Colombe has a special place in my heart. For any of you who have tried their draft lattes, you know that it is literal heaven made of clouds of caffeine. Anyway, for the second edition of “podcast playlist for the holiday travels,” here is a great hour-long conversation with Todd Carmichael and J.P. Iberti – two friends who met at a grunge concert in Seattle in the 1980s and went on a quest to open a café and premium roastery that would produce coffee at a higher quality than anything available in the country. They soon co-founded La Colombe Coffee Roasters in Philadelphia, and went on to play a leading role in the “third wave” of specialty coffee in the U.S.
Holiday travel playlist: part 1 (12/5/21)
I’m going to try and give y’all a podcast episode each week this month that you can add to your playlist if you’re traveling for the holidays. First up is a great conversation with Niraj Shah, the CEO and co-founder of Wayfair Inc (W), a stock I talked about during the depths of the pandemic. Wayfair started in 2002 as a collection of websites dedicated to specific categories of furniture until 2011, when they combined all 240 (yes, two hundred and forty) sites into the wayfair.com that we know today. The conversation includes so much great insight into the transformation of the ecommerce world since 2002, the niche of home goods, and some insights into how the current supply chain bottlenecks.
Build Back Better (11/21/21)
Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a $1.75 trillion bill (the “Build Back Better Act”) to fund a lot of Biden’s top priorities and, if passed, will be the largest expansion of the social safety net in this country in decades. As it currently stands, the bill funds a whole slew of things including –
- Universal pre-K (goal here really is to get parents back to work faster after kids)
- A 7% cap for child care costs
- Four weeks of federal paid leave (parental, sick, caregiver, etc.)
- Another year of expanded child tax credits (FYI these credits have cut the child poverty rate y 25% in the last year!)
- Expansion of Medicare and other healthcare benefits
- Affordable housing
- Renewable energy credits (this is a good REC 101 if you’re interested)
- An increase in the state and local tax deduction from $10k to $80k
There were 13 Republicans who supported the bill, yay for some level of bipartisan work. The bill still has to get through the Senate, which is likely to include a good number of revisions in the next few weeks. The goal is to wrap this up in a pretty bow and deliver it to Biden’s desk as a Christmas gift, but tbd if that actually happens as several Senators have already come out in strong opposition to several aspects of the bill. Stay tuned!
Glasgow Climate Pact (11/14/21)
For about two weeks, global leaders from almost 200 countries have been meeting at COP26 (26th Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow. This was basically a status check on countries’ plans to cut emissions by 2030 on the path to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement (keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. At the end of the summit, the biggest takeaway is that we’re far behind where we need to be in the fight against climate change, and on track for about 2.4 degrees of warming. The new agreement establishes the need to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2030, curb methane emissions, phase down coal, and calls upon wealthier countries (that are historically responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions) to finance these efforts, especially for the poorest countries. We’ll get another update on progress next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see some movement out of the Biden administration in terms of policy changes to push the US closer to its targets on this front.
Protecting democracy? (11/7/21)
I haven’t had a Facebook in years, so I can’t say that I firsthand experienced any of the issues that have landed the social media platform into such a pile of steaming caca, but I thought this Ted talk about the impact of Facebook on Brexit was a really interesting take on the tech giant’s influence on democracy – posing the question of whether a fair election is ever possible in a world where Facebook exists.
The billionaire tax (10/31/21)
If you’ve been keeping tabs on the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress, you may have heard about the “billionaire” tax being considered as part of paying for the costs associated with the bill. Tax law was actually my least favorite class in college so I can’t pretend to be an expert in the matter, so I turned to one of my favorite finance teachers out there – NYU Professor Aswath Damodaran – who provided a good overview of why this is “perhaps the worst thought-through and most ineffective attempt ever, at rewriting tax code.” If you want a good understanding of the history that has led us to this point and additional details on the implications, I’d highly recommend reading through his entire blog post, but here are the key points:
- This only targets a very few people and those very few people also have the resources to hire an army of lawyers and accountants to figure out the loopholes to minimize the impact of this tax – aka it might not actually raise the revenues needed to appropriately fund the infrastructure bill.
- The current proposal is potentially going to tax unrealized capital gains in addition to realized capital gains. Let me digress to explain what this actually means. Say you paid cash to buy a share of Tesla stock (it was valued at $705.67 at the beginning of the year) and you planned to just hold it as part of your investment portfolio. Today, it’s worth $1,114 (it’s still just held in your investment portfolio) so your unrealized gain is the appreciation in value of the stock ($480.33). If the stock price goes down $200 in the next month, your unrealized gain is only $280.33. So, the value of your unrealized gain is volatile – it literally changes every second while the market is open. This gain becomes a “realized” capital gain when you actually sell the stock and receive cash in return. The value of your realized gain will not change. Since unrealized capital gains are super volatile, so it makes it very difficult to predict revenues associated with unrealized capital gains taxes, which makes it very difficult for the government to plan spending associated with this stream of income.
- Taxes are paid with cash – if your wealth is tied up in investments and you’re being taxes on unrealized gains, the question arises about how you’re actually going to pay for said taxes since you haven’t actually received any cash associated with your investment.
- The tax is on incremental wealth, not total wealth. Which means it literally goes after people who have built their wealth through innovation and hard work (aka the literal American Dream) instead of people who have simply inherited wealth. Might just be me but this seems totally backward.
Hedging against inflation (10/17/21)
How to hedge against inflation has been the hot topic for many investors right now as prices continue to climb higher and there’s a good chance much of this inflation is here to stay, it’s not transitory as many had thought earlier in the year. I came across an interesting take on hedging against inflation in portfolios – traditional thought would say you should invest in real assets that can be a store of value but this piece argues that equities, and especially cheap equities, are the best way to actually protect against inflation in the long-term –
We have a relatively sanguine view on the likelihood of inflation becoming ingrained in the system (much as it pains us to agree with the Fed). However, the dark arts of macroeconomics are notoriously tricky, and we have often talked of the need to build robust (as opposed to optimal) portfolios – effectively, portfolios that can withstand multiple outcomes. As such, it behooves us to consider how to deal with inflation in the context of your portfolio. The first choice you must make is to determine whether you are interested in an inflation hedge (something that closely tracks inflation) or a store of value (something that will preserve purchasing power). For long-term investors, the latter is probably of more interest. A focus on the store of value naturally leads to a search for real assets. Despite conventional wisdom, commodities in general haven’t been a good store of value. The ‘best’ real asset we have found is equities. They make a terrible inflation hedge but over the long term they are the businesses that charge prices and pay wages, so their cash flows should be real if these two elements are roughly matched, and thus they act as a store of value in the longer term. Of course, you can do better than simply buying equities, you can buy cheap equities. This is like being offered inflation insurance at a discount.
Human capital (10/10/21)
A lot of academic research in the world of finance, as you can imagine, entails developing regression models to predict stock returns. Most of the time, the factors used in these types of analyses tend to be strictly financial and operational in nature. I get really excited when I find literature that allocates stock performance to more qualitative aspects of companies, especially qualities indicating more socially and/or environmentally responsible companies. I recently came across a paper that looked at the importance of assessing employee satisfaction as a factor driving stock price performance over four decades –
“We find that the [best in class for employee satisfaction] portfolio outperforms in most of the periods spanning the four decades that we study. More importantly, we find that the outperformance is significantly higher during the crisis periods. These results are consistent with the idea that committing to high levels of social responsibility and having a great corporate culture are more important during “bad” times such as in challenging operational environments or financial crises.”
I’ve gotten the question many times this week – what’s happening with Evergrande and how did something happening in China create a ripple effect on stocks globally. I’ll send you to two great articles that go into the company itself and why it matters.
David & Goliath (9/19/21)
I’ve been following the Elizabeth Holmes trial (obvi) and started digging into the investors who had initially taken a bet on Theranos. Partner Fund Management (PFM) had invested over $96m in the firm in 2014 when Theranos was valued at a whopping $9b. Eventually, Theranos settled a lawsuit with PFM. Anyway, PFM used to be one of the biggest tech-focused hedge funds on the west coast and funny enough, the guy behind it all, Chris James, founded a new company – it was the little engine that could. James’ latest venture, Engine No 1, if you haven’t heard if it, is the latest David going against corporate Goliaths. With only 22 employees and $240m in assets under management, the company was able to launch an activist investor campaign against ExxonMobil and grab three board seats with the purpose of preparing the company for a fossil fuel free future (they might first need to work on addressing the “Exxodus” of employees, the company seems to be bleeding talent so fast it’s literally turned into a trending hashtag on LinkedIn). Engine No 1 is focused directly on impact investing and recently released a framework about how they think about this philosophy. Worth a read if you’re interested in the topic.
The Dropout, Part 2 (9/12/21)
Guys. I had mentioned The Dropout, a podcast about the story of the meteoric rise of Elizabeth Holmes, and the subsequent demise of somebody who was glorified as the “next Steve Jobs” and recognized as the youngest female self-made billionaire. Her trial started and the podcast is back, following the events that are unfolding now. The new episodes are just as captivating as the first six. Highly recommend if you’re looking for something new (also recommend starting at the beginning if you haven’t actually listened to the first six episodes). Will report back when this is all said and done, but follow along if you can.
I’ve been on the road for some pretty long trips for the last few weeks and have really gotten back into the podcast game to pass the time. The latest find was actually a little different than the regular genres I listen to (future hubs picked it) but it was a really interesting story in the music industry –
In 2010, Logic the rapper, born as Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, released his first official mixtape titled “Young, Broke & Infamous.” At 20 years old, Logic certainly was young and broke, and while crashing on a friend’s couch, he poured himself into his music. Logic’s career could have fizzled if it wasn’t for Chris Zarou, a young college athlete-turned-manager who had no more experience in the music business than Logic. Undeterred, the two decided to work together, continuing to use free music and social media to build Logic’s reputation as a talented, fast-flowing rapper with a hopeful message. In 2012, Logic signed to Def Jam Records and in 2014 dropped his debut album “Under Pressure,” which shot to number 4 on the Billboard charts. His third album in 2017 went platinum and included the breakout single “1 800 273 8255.”
For a true American Dream story, check out their episode of How I Built This.
The Undoing Project (8/29/21)
My bookshelf includes pretty much every book written by Michael Lewis – one of his books came up on a podcast I was listening to and I got back to thinking about it – The Undoing Project. The book is about Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – both wildly influential psychologists who were an essential part of developing a better understanding of behavioral economics. As most Michael Lewis books, this one is also a great and easy read, but for those who don’t want to get into the details of the fascinating relationship between two completely opposite personalities, this New Yorker article is a good place to start.
Code red for humanity (8/15/21)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a UN effort) just released the first installation of their sixth report this past week and it’s a pretty dire warning on climate change that’s being called a “code red for humanity.” The Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees (Celsius) above pre-industrial levels is going to be effectively impossible to achieve unless we have immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in carbon emissions. That 1.5-degree threshold is super important because it’s considered to be the tipping point, beyond which there will be irreversible changes to the climate system that will accelerate even further global warming. The report interestingly has done a fantastic job of actually attributing global warming and emissions to human activity vs not and underscores the ability for changing human behaviors to help at least limit the damage, which isn’t just restricted to rising temperatures, but also includes more intense rainfall and flooding, more intense droughts, rising sea levels, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, etc. aka just overall chaos in the climate system. There will undoubtedly be a shift in policy from the Biden administration toward a lower-emission future for this country, but there are also so many things we can do as individuals to help in the decarbonization of the global economy – check this out if you need ideas!
Tail-end risks (8/8/21)
A year after this blog post was published, I came back to it and felt it was worth sharing. I’ve shared other pieces by Morgan Housel in the past, and this one is especially worth reading in its entirety if you have a few minutes. There’s a great story behind it, but the punchline is that there are three distinct sides of risk – the odds you’ll get hit, the average consequences of getting hit, and the tail-end consequences of getting hit.
“In investing, the average consequences of risk make up most of the daily news headlines. But the tail-end consequences of risk – like pandemics, and depressions – are what make the pages of history books. They’re all that matter. They’re all you should focus on. We spent the last decade debating whether economic risk meant the Federal Reserve set interest rates at 0.25% or 0.5%. Then 36 million people lost their jobs in two months because of a virus. It’s absurd. Tail-end events are all that matter. Once you experience it, you’ll never think otherwise.”
Macro views (8/1/21)
I’ve shared a few other memos from Howard Marks before, and found his latest to be super topical, given it’s about inflation. It’s worth the read if you’re trying to wrap your head around how to best invest in the current environment where we’re seeing inflation unlike we’ve seen in a v long time. He lays out reasons why inflation might persist to be high and also reasons why inflation might be more temporary like the Fed is saying. At the end of the day, he argues that nobody really knows what’s going to happen – even the markets (equities, bonds, gold) don’t all agree on what’s going to happen. In that environment, his takeaway is that investors should acknowledge that higher inflation might be real, but not really invert asset allocations in response to the macro expectations today, because, again, nobody really knows what’s going to happen.
Mars Landing (7/25/21)
On Thursday, researchers published a map of the interior of Mars using seismic data they had collected using NASA’s Mars InSight lander. This is the first interior map that’s ever been created of another planet and their findings suggest that Mars was actually formed millions of years before Earth when the sun was still condensing from being a cloud of gas. This project has also been a super cool collaboration between more than 40 scientists across the world. If you’re a space nerd like me, this was a fun read.
A fractured country (7/18/21)
I came across a really interesting piece in The Atlantic this week that addressed the bifurcation of ideals in this country – according to this author into four parts or narratives – Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. It’s a bit of a lengthy piece but well worth the read if you have the time to think about how people in this country no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning and whether reconciliation is possible.
A history lesson (7/11/21)
We’ve been in an environment of such low inflation for so long that the 4% inflation prints we’re seeing today are forcing many investors to consider the impact of that inflation on their portfolios. Typical anti-inflation investments are tangible assets – gold, commodities, real estate, and inflation-linked securities (like TIPS) – so when inflation spooks the market, sectors like tech (which have more intangible value) come under pressure. While trying to get smarter about how markets have performed in high inflationary environments in the past, I came across this piece from GMO that was looking at just that – going back to 1933. Their study found higher quality stocks performed better than the broader equity market during these times. Moreover, pairing quality with value (lower multiples) resulted in even better results.
The HOOD (7/4/21)
Robinhood officially filed paperwork for an IPO this week. Their account growth through the pandemic has been pretty insane despite all the meltdowns the platform experienced over the last 18 months – they were able to grow funded accounts (which have bank accounts linked to them) from 7.2m in March 2020 to 18m in March 2021. The assets held in Robinhood accounts have also increased to $80b this March compared to $19.2b a year ago. The company plans to trade under the ticker “HOOD” but…
Anyway, here’s the latest we know about the IPO if you’re interested in the story, can’t wait for this madness to hit the markets.
I’ve started going back into the office a few days a week, which means I’m back to battling traffic for hours of my life every week, which means podcasts are back in my life. I listened to this episode with John Harris, the Managing Partner of Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb. The episode was a great conversation about long-term investing – what goes into analyzing these types of investments and the importance of quality and resilience of companies. I would highly recommend listening to the whole conversation if you’ve got some spare time.
Well that’s a first… (6/13/21)
El Salvador became the first country to adopt bitcoin as legal tender this week as the country’s Congress voted in favor for the law with a supermajority win. Under the new law, bitcoin has to be accepted by companies as payment for goods and services, so if you go to McDonalds and decide you want to pay for your burger in bitcoin, McDonalds has to accept that form of payment. Taxes can also be paid in bitcoin. The government plans to promote the training and infrastructure needed for the population to access bitcoin transactions. Currently, about 70% of the population doesn’t have access to traditional financial services and this is being viewed as a way to increase financial inclusion. I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to actually make this happen, but the change goes into effect in three months, so stay tuned on whether this actually ends up becoming successful or crashes and burns, but here’s a good summary of what we know so far.
Signs of a bubble (6/6/21)
The stock market continues to test new highs and assets seem to be priced to perfection, and investors are worried about a bubble. We’ve seen some correction in tech stocks but speculation in general seems rampant across many asset classes these days (stocks, crypto, home prices, etc.) and I always love hearing from money managers who have been through other cycles and bubbles. I recently listened to this podcast with Jeremy Grantham, long-term investment strategist and co-founder at GMO about what he believes to be the three signs of a market bubble (crazy valuations, speculative individual investor behavior, and vertical acceleration of returns) and the role of the retail investor in today’s bubble (aka reddit mania).
Environmental racism (5/30/21)
I received this article from a friend this week and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a pretty jarring piece on a point I had touched on at the beginning of the pandemic – the environmental inequity that exists along racial divides. This article walks through the history of slavery and the industrial revolution that continues to underpin social injustice in parts of Louisiana; it’s unfortunately a story that can be found across so many parts of the country. It’s a worthy and insightful read to provide some background on how wide and deep these issues are that face many black communities around the US.
A history lesson (5/23/21)
It feels like conflict in the middle east never really ends, the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip seems to have come to an end (maybe) with a case-fire this past week. The damage, however, seems to be pretty extensive with homes, businesses, mosques, and hospitals being leveled to the ground, including the area’s only COVID testing lab. ICYMI, I found this to be a pretty comprehensive review of the situation over the last couple weeks and this to be a great history lesson if you need a refresher of the on-going conflict in this region.
What’s an entertainment company (5/16/21)
Streaming services have officially taken over traditional cable at my house, and honestly at most other homes during the pandemic. What was initially a world dominated by Netflix has very quickly become crowded with more services than I can name at this point. One of the most surprising success stories in streaming in the last two years has been Disney+. I was skeptical at first because even though Disney is the most iconic and loved brand, they really had no pre-built way to sell their streaming service. I very quickly learned that the brand loyalty trumped all else. It’s a true “entertainment company” – which only does three things at its core – create/tell stories, build love for those stories, and monetize that love – and those companies that can do this best (i.e. Disney) create a really meaningful feedback loop. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Marvel movies, but when in doubt I’ll always go back to the entertainment I know I love. This is a great read on today’s entertainment company with Disney as the perfect case study.
Who do you trust? (5/9/21)
Blockchain, cryptocurrency, NFTs, etc. have all become a much more commonplace topic of conversation today. Their attractiveness stems from their lack of dependency on an institution, which came about because of the lack of trust being garnered by those institutions without clear transparency and accountability. These technologies, on the other hand, have created a transparent and accountable way for us to trust strangers. When I was exploring this idea of trust, I came across a great TED talk that literally touched on this idea – how we’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers. While blockchain-enabled technologies are one example of this phenomenon, there are so many other case studies that explore this idea – ride-hailing apps (Uber, Lyft, DiDi) and vacation rentals (Airbnb, Booking.com, Vrbo) are among the most prevalent at least in my life. I make my decisions to trust a stranger to drive me or host me based on transparent ratings from other users, and I, in-turn, am always on my best behavior because I know my ability to transact on the platform in the future depends on my ratings as well. The question now becomes what other aspects of our lives are going to change in the future driven by a similar type of technology-enabled distribution of trust. Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the world of investing, and an institution (like an investment advisor or manager) managing your capital. I think the reddit mania might be the first step in that already happening…
A history lesson (5/2/21)
I love drawing parallels between current events and history because history tends to repeat itself. Ray Dalio, who runs Bridgewater (massive money manager) has a knack for looking to history the same way. He recently wrote a piece highlighting parallels between Biden and Roosevelt regarding their thoughts on taxes, inequality, and corporations that’s worth a read.
World building (4/25/21)
Most of my peers (and friends) are real go-getters, ready to make a difference in their own way through their work. To effect change, however, you have to sell that change – so it’s not surprising that a very common piece of career advice is “you work in sales, even if you don’t realize it.” I read an interesting take on this advice amended to “you work in world-building, even if you don’t realize it.” The crux of this piece from one of my favorites, Alex Danco, was that in order to change complex systems, you have to create an entire world people can step into, get familiar with, and then participate in on their own. And the secret sauce to succeeding is having a coherent purpose that acts as the north star.
The business of politics (4/18/21)
While many companies have long cared about their social impacts, engagement on social issues has somewhat turned into an expectation these days. It’s blurring the lines between business and politics, which always tends to get a bit messy for companies, but it’s also resulting in some important issues getting backed by a massive amount of capital. I’ve always been a big believer in the ability for capitalism (if done correctly) to make big impacts in the world (hence my focus on environmental and social impact driven investing). Though it’s exciting to see so many companies come out and publicly support causes, I’m more interested in how they actually change the way they invest their capital to align with the causes they’ve been publicly supporting. The latest round of this corporate uproar has been in relation to new legislation that would lead to voter suppression in the state of Georgia.
Recovery on the mind (4/11/21)
Y’all I’ve spent the better part of this week trying to recover from the side-effects of my vaccine, tbh really shocked I was able to squeak out this newsletter (but SO excited to be fully vaccinated!!!). So, I’m going to share something that’s been on my mind for the last ~72 hours – delicious soup recipes. Hope you find some in here that will come in handy to beat the sniffles this allergy season.
The Global Gender Gap (4/4/21)
The World Economic Forum recently published its gender gap report and it got me super fired up. Here are some facts (some fun, others not so much) from their findings:
- We’re only 68% of the way to gender parity globally, which is a slight step backward because of COVID and based on the current trajectory, it would take 135.6 more years to close the gap. I have strong qualms about this.
- 98 countries made improvements in political participation of women – Belgium and Togo elected their first female PMs in the last year but political empowerment is still the widest gender gap.
- It will take another 267.6 years to close the economic participation and opportunity gender gap, we’re only 58% of the way there.
- 30 countries have reached parity for educational attainment (yay!!) and we’re 95% of the way there to closing this gap globally.
- Only 22 countries have closed at least 80% of their gender gap in managerial roles while 20 others have gender gaps as wide as 80% for this metric.
- More women lost their jobs in the pandemic than men.
Life Thoughts (3/21/21)
Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but what if there’s a more fulfilling path? Happiness comes and goes, but having meaning in life – serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you – gives you something to hold onto according to writer and researcher Emily Esfahani Smith. Her TED talk (it’s quite short and worth the listen) walks through four pillars to a meaningful life –
- Belonging, which comes from being in a relationship where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically – the true belonging springs from love and it’s a choice to cultivate this belonging with others
- Purpose, which is less about what you want than about what you give – it can be your work or anything else that’s the “why” that drives you forward
- Transcendence, which she identifies as rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life and your sense of self fades away – you feel connected to a higher reality
- Storytelling, and specifically the story you tell yourself about yourself – importantly it’s a narrative you control
The Greatest Show (3/14/21)
I’ve mentioned a few things written by Morgan Housel over the years – I find his writing to be consistently thought-provoking. I loved his latest post on the importance of learning about investing by looking at things that have nothing to do with investing. And learning about things that have nothing to do with investing by looking at investing. Things like greed, fear, risk, opportunity, scarcity etc. are some of the most critical topics in the investing world, but they reveal themselves across all sorts of fields. And if you can figure out how these types of things manifest consistently across many fields, you’re probably figuring out more fundamentally how the world works, which is invaluable as you think about making long-term investments. His favorite fields to explore are –
- Health – teaches how people make short-term tradeoffs with long-term consequences
- Sociology – teaches people’s desire to belong to a tribe and how they identify success
- Military history – teaches how people underestimate complex systems, become overconfident, react in stressful situations, and underestimate risks
- Evolution – teaches the concept of gaining competitive advantages
- Nature – teaches the importance of compounding over long periods of time
At the same time, studying the field of investing has the ability to reveal so much about other aspects of life like lessons on risk, confidence, and happiness. I 110% agree with this concept, and it’s why I explore so many things not related to finance as part of this newsletter.
The Oracle of Omaha (3/7/21)
It’s time again for Warren Buffett’s annual letter. He spent a good bit of the letter explaining why the “conglomerate” that is Berkshire Hathaway is actually more of a partnership than a true conglomerate. My favorite part of the letter, however, was devoted to Buffett’s love of this country and underscored what the American Dream has achieved for families even in flyover states and towns we tend to ignore next to the glitz and glamour of large coastal metropolitan areas like NYC or San Fran.
“Today, many people forge similar miracles throughout the world, creating a spread of prosperity that benefits all of humanity. In its brief 232 years of existence, however, there has been no incubator for unleashing human potential like America. Despite some severe interruptions, our country’s economic progress has been breathtaking. Beyond that, we retain our constitutional aspiration of becoming “a more perfect union.” Progress on that front has been slow, uneven and often discouraging. We have, however, moved forward and will continue to do so. Our unwavering conclusion: Never bet against America.”
Guys. What could be better than listening to a conversation between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen? The correct answer is “few things.” I recently discovered Renegades: Born in the USA, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood to think about the glory of the fundamental American ideal that recognizes the hard work lying ahead for all of us to make this country and the world a more equal, just, and free place.
For the kids (2/21/21)
Taking a break from the regularly scheduled programming here to highlight one of my favorite things happening this weekend – the Penn State Dance Marathon. THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer with the mission to provide emotional and financial support, spread awareness, and ensure funding for critical research—all in pursuit of a cure. Like everything else, the pandemic has totally changed what THON looks like this year. It’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced and it’s difficult to express in words what this weekend and this organization means to the families it supports. If you can, please join me in supporting one of the greatest causes out there – you can donate here today!
The pirate game (2/14/21)
Ok I think this will be the last bit (for now) related to the GameStop madness. Wasn’t planning on talking about it again this week but found a really fun parallel to the issue that came with a fun riddle, the pirate game –
The pirates rank themselves 1-5, by ascending seniority. The most junior pirate (1) goes first. He proposes a split of the treasure. There aren’t any rules aside from indivisibility of coins. Once Pirate 1 submits his proposal, all pirates vote. If a majority, or at least a tie, of the pirates vote in favor, the pirates split the treasure according to the proposal and go their separate ways. Alternately, if a clear majority votes against the proposal, Pirate 1 is thrown overboard and Pirate 2 presents a proposal of his own. And if that proposal fails, it goes to Pirate 3, and so on. So, if you’re Pirate 1, what’s the most treasure you can get?
Here’s the solution and how it’s related to GME.
Underlying issues (2/7/21)
The fall of GameStop this week has been about as dramatic as its rise last week. As the saga continues, so do my thoughts on the underlying issues at hand. There’s a blatantly obvious inequality problem. But are we suffering from a lack of equality, a lack of equity, or a lack of justice? Likely all. I love this graphic below to demonstrate the nuances – they’re different issues that need different solutions.
Equality solutions might be something like a birth dividend, where the government gives every newborn $2k that’s invested in the stock market (an S&P 500 index fund for example) that can’t be accessed until they’re 65. If the S&P 500 repeats history, its returns on average have been 10-11%, which would result in everyone having $980k to their name on a nominal basis when they’re 65. Another solution might be universal basic income (UBI).
Equity solutions might be something more akin to the way funds were disbursed through the CARES Act – where the birth dividend and UBI could be disbursed across a gradient – identifying geographies (piggybacking off existing opportunity zones), income brackets, etc. that receive higher levels of support.
Justice is honestly the most difficult I think to achieve because it requires those that have more to give up something. I think there are plenty of people out there who would love to do this (and already are) but many more who would vehemently oppose this. But it would get us to the right square 1 from which to then build a more equal playing field for everyone.
These are all top-down policy types of solutions but I’ve also been asked about bottom-up solutions and I keep coming back to better education on personal finance. One of the best things about this country is that every kid can go to school and get an education for free. Personal finance lessons (spending within your means, saving, investing and growing wealth) need to be engrained into the education system so children are learning about this from a young age. There are great books out there that touch on these concepts for kids as young as 2 years (How the Moonjar Was Made by Eulalie Scandiuzzi and Neale S. Godfrey’s Ultimate Kids’ Money Book are great examples) that should be incorporated into public education curriculums (I also know what I’ll be getting all the kiddos in my life for birthday/holiday gifts).
I’m actually super optimistic about the potential for great things happening with our education system. COVID forced educators to rethink how they teach, what they teach, etc. and we have a champion of education in the White House. Next on my list is exploring how to actually affect change at the policy level on this front. Until then, thanks for attending my TED talk
GUYS. There are so many people who participated in the stock market for the first time in the last two weeks. It’s wildly exciting because making this world more accessible to everyone is *literally* the purpose of this newsletter. BUT, what’s happened in the last two weeks in the market is also so bananas that it deserves some thoughtful unpacking. One of the most iconic Finance professors out there today is Aswath Damodaran, he teaches corporate finance and valuation at the NYU business school. He’s spent his career trying to disrupt the banking and money management business by giving away the data and the tools needed to do both for free. He also shares basically all the content he teaches in his classes. I’d put him squarely into the “champion of the people” category of finance professionals (aka the real Robin Hood). Because of this, his thoughts on the GameStop saga are definitely attention-worthy and actually aligned really well with my sentiment on the situation. If you need a primer on the mechanics of what actually happened, his blogpost on this is a great place to learn (it’s almost like he’s a good teacher). In terms of what might happen next, here are a few thoughts (sorry in advance for the Russian novel) –
For the people who have invested in GameStop or AMC or Blackberry etc. recently, it will likely end in one of four ways:
- The stock actually ends up being a good investment. This is about as likely as having a freshman year roommate with orange hair and turns out to be a record-holding tennis player while also being a math wiz and homebrew master. Chances are REAL slim.
- GameStop remains a good trade. If you’re a buyer, there has to be a seller out there. Conversely, if you’re a seller, there has to be a buyer out there. The stock has reacted as it has because everyone has been buying. You may get lucky and be able to exit the position before everyone else tries to, but the risk that you will be caught in a stampede is high, as everyone tries to rush the exit doors at the same time. Herd mentality has been driving this whole thing.
- Teach hedge funds and Wall Street a lesson. Unfortunately, if one goes down, another takes its place. The biggest threat to hedge funds isn’t going to be Reddit investor groups or regulators, but a combination of stupidly high fee structures and mediocre performance that will cost them clients. Also, not all institutional investors are created equal, Wall Street manages basically all pension funds and 401ks out there, so make sure when you’re “sticking it to the man,” you’re not also tanking your neighbor’s retirement savings.
- Play savior. Maybe your end game was totally selfless and you just wanted to help these businesses survive but unfortunately a higher stock price doesn’t really achieve that end goal because their businesses are still fundamentally failing.
More interestingly, here’s what this might mean for the financial industry longer-term:
- The investment world is flattening. Access to data and tools makes trading easier and more accessible to everyone, not just a select few.
- Investment expertise is too expensive. Many money managers have become rich from the excessively high fees they charge for not so great investment returns and people aren’t going to pay those excessive fees much longer.
- The value and the price of a stock are not the same thing. Almost everything being discussed (the rising power of the individual investors, the ease of trading on apps like Robinhood, the power of social media investing forums to create crowds) are factors that drive price, not value. Fundamental investors will continue to focus on value as a key input for investment decisions.
Growth vs Value Investing (1/24/21)
I’ve shared memos by Howard Marks before and I find them to be super well-written thoughts from a legendary investor. His latest tackles the dichotomy of growth vs value investing these days and is an absolute must-read. Value investing is one of the most important and established practices in the world of investing and is a quantitative assessment of the intrinsic worth of an investment based on its fundamentals and cash flows. You make the investment if the current price represents a meaningful discount from that value. The quantitative assessment requires making judgment calls about the inputs required to run the analysis and then only acting in the market if there is a valuation disparity (i.e. buying at a discount or selling at a premium). In the old days, this typically involved investing in companies trading at low valuations on an absolute basis.
Over the last 80-90 years, we’ve seen the emergence of growth investing, where you invest in a company that’s growing rapidly and awarded a high valuation for that exceptional long-term performance. I fall somewhere between a growth and a value investor, where my expectations for rapid growth determine the valuations I ascribe to stocks today, but I don’t make the investment unless the stock is currently trading at a discount to that ascribed intrinsic value. Think of our conversations about BTAI, YETI, ROKU, SQ, and W.
The punchline of this memo, which aligns directly with that thinking, is that even though value and growth investing have divided the investment world for the last fifty years, the two should never have been viewed as mutually exclusive to begin with. Value investing should consist of buying whatever represents a better value proposition, taking all factors into account. These are some of the most notable takeaways from this memo for me:
- Carrying low valuation parameters is far from synonymous with underpriced. It’s easy to be seduced by the former, but a stock with a low P/E ratio, for example, is likely to be a bargain only if its current earnings and recent earnings growth are indicative of the future. Just pursuing low valuation metrics can lead you to so-called value traps: things that look cheap on the numbers but aren’t, because they have operating weaknesses or because the sale and earnings creating those valuations can’t be replicated in the future.
- To be a good equity investor, you have to be an optimist. On the other hand, since bonds generally lack potential for long-term returns in excess of their promised yields, bond investing mostly requires skepticism and attention to the downside.
- Value investing was born in a time when the level of competition was much lower, the process of searching for information on investments was much more difficult (literally had to go looking in newspapers and libraries), and few people knew how to turn the data they did find into profitable investment conclusions. In this environment, bargains could literally be hiding in plain sight for anyone with the willingness to look and the capacity to analyze.
- Today, we live in a world with so much data and information readily available and widely distributed, that investing on the basis of just formulas and readily available fundamental, quantitative metrics shouldn’t be particularly profitable. In that world, if something carries a low valuation, there’s probably a good reason and successful investing has to be more about superior judgments concerning qualitative and non-computable factors and how times are likely to unfold in the future. This is a bigggg part of why I underwrite management teams of companies with a ton of scrutiny.
- Skepticism is important for any investor; it’s always essential to challenge assumptions, avoid herd mentality, and think independently. Skepticism keeps investors safe and helps them avoid things that are too good to be true. But it also can lead to knee-jerk dismissiveness.
- In the world where so much innovation is happening at such a rapid pace, a skeptical mindset should be paired with deep curiosity, openness to new ideas, and willingness to learn before forming a view. Without attaining real knowledge of what’s going on and attempting to fully understand the positive case, it’s impossible to have a sufficiently informed view to warrant the dismissiveness that many of us exhibit in the face of innovation.
Top 10 surprises for 2021 (1/17/21)
Since 1986, Byron Wien has been publishing an annual list of ten surprises for the market in the coming year. He defines a “surprise” as an event that the average investor would only assign a one out of three chance of taking place but which has a likelihood of occurring that’s greater than 50%. It’s always a fun list to read through, here’s the list for 2021:
- Trump starts his own television network and also plans his 2024 campaign. Yikes.
- Biden begins to restore a constructive diplomatic and trade relationship with China.
- The success of 5-10 vaccines, together with an improvement in therapeutics, allows the U.S. to return to some form of “normal” by MDW. Wow. Dreams.
- The Justice Department softens its case against Google and Facebook, persuaded by the argument that the consumer actually benefits from the services provided by these companies. This will be especially interesting to watch unfold given the current debate on their ability/right to “restrict free speech”
- The economy develops momentum on its own because of pent-up demand, and depressed hospitality and airline stocks become strong performers. Fiscal and monetary policy remain historically accommodative. Nominal economic growth for the full year exceeds 6% and the unemployment rate falls to 5%. We begin the longest economic cycle in history, surpassing the cycle that lasted from 2010 to 2020.
- The Fed and Treasury continue accommodative policies. As long as growth exceeds the rate of inflation, debt levels don’t seem to matter. Because inflation increases modestly, gold rallies and cryptocurrencies gain more respect during the year.
- WTI prices rises to $65/barrel and energy stocks are among the best performers in 2021.
- The market corrects almost 20% in the first half, but the S&P 500 trades at 4,500 later in the year. Cyclicals lead defensives, small caps beat large caps and the “K” shaped equity market recovery unwinds. Big cap tech stocks are laggards for the year.
- The surge in economic growth causes the 10-year Treasury yield to rise to 2%. The yield curve steepens, but a related increase in inflation keeps real rates near zero. The Fed extends the duration of bond purchases.
- The slide in the dollar turns around and US Treasury bonds maintain a positive yield and the carry trade continues.
The Alchemist (1/10/21)
I took a break from doomscrolling on my Twitter this week to read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The book tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels from Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. What starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. The book is packed full of wisdom and worth a read if you have the time, it’s not particularly lengthy. These are a few of my favorite quotes:
“I have inside me the winds, the deserts, the oceans, the stars, and everything created in the universe. We were all made by the same hand, and we have the same soul.”
“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”
What’s a SPAC, anyway? (1/3/21)
ICYMI, “SPAC” is the newest buzzword in the finance industry. A SPAC is a special purpose acquisition company that’s basically a way to help companies go public (aka start trading on the stock market) without going through the traditional IPO (initial public offering) process. It started off as an unsexy type of financing but SPACs are having their moment in the sun recently. For those interested in learning more, this is a great summary that walks through SPACs and compares them with the traditional IPO process.
Guys, remember that time I talked about Robinhood and the chaos its users were creating in the market? This week, the SEC announced Robinhood paid a $65m settlement on charges related to its business practices. Between 2015-2018, the company “made misleading statements and omissions in customer communications” about how it generated its largest revenue source – payment for order flow. Additionally, while the company was claiming on its website that its trade execution was as good as (or better than) competitors, they were executing trades at inferior prices that “in aggregate deprived customers of $34.1 million even after taking into account the savings from not paying a commission.” This announcement came on the heels of a complaint filed by the Massachusetts Securities Division citing the company’s “aggressive tactics to attract inexperienced investors, its use of gamification strategies to manipulate customers, and its failure to prevent frequent outages and disruptions on its trading platform.” I love that more people are getting interested in the markets and I guess the Robinhood platform seems more approachable to the masses, but there’s something to be said about putting your trust (and hard-earned money) in the hands of a tested and regulated entity versus a platform like Robinhood. Robinhood’s big appeal was that it didn’t charge for trades, but all the major brokerages are offering $0 commission trades now. After Robinhood’s days of outages during the market volatility in February and March, plus these types of charges, I wonder about the long-term viability of the platform…
One of my all-time favorite podcasts is How I Built This. Each episode features an entrepreneur and the story of the successes and pitfalls throughout the journey of the businesses they have built. Given the wild success of the DoorDash IPO this week, here’s the episode with DoorDash founder Tony Xu –
In 2013, Tony Xu was brainstorming ideas for a business school project when he identified a problem he wanted to solve: food delivery. For most restaurants, it was too costly and inefficient, leaving most of the market to pizza and Chinese. Tony and his partners believed they could use technology to connect customers to drivers, who would deliver meals in every imaginable cuisine. That idea grew into DoorDash.
In case you missed the record-breaking online-shopping over Black Friday and Cyber Monday – we spent $9b online on Black Friday (+22% vs last year) and $10.8b on Cyber Monday (+15% vs last year). Merchants on Shopify alone had made $2.4b by the end of Black Friday and, here’s my favorite part, Shopify actually offset 20k+ tons of carbon emissions from Black Friday deliveries. Shopify works with a firm called Pachama, a company that leverages technology to verify projects that are preventing deforestation around the world. They specifically make sure that their carbon offset projects are protecting endangered forests. Shopify offsets its carbon emissions by protecting trees in the Peruvian rainforest through the Brazil Nut Concession REDD+ Avoided Unplanned Deforestation Project, which protects over 350k hectares of tropical forest from deforestation. This region is an important carbon sink, which means it captures and stores a high amount of CO2 produced by humans: 14.5 million tons of CO2 emissions are prevented because of this project.
Silver Linings (11/22/20)
The eruption of the Mt. Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815, which instantly killed ten thousand locals, spewed debris 26 miles into the sky and ejected enough ash to cover California two feet deep. The ash spread around the globe and caused temperatures to drop, making 1816 the coldest year in recorded history, and destroyed agricultural yields. This disaster eventually led to:
- The discovery of nitrogen-based fertilizer that basically still dominates global agriculture
- The invention of the bicycle
- The coalescing of the anti-slavery movement
I’m excited to see what silver linings we can find from 2020 being 2020.
The Girardian President (11/15/20)
Last summer, I had mentioned the philosophies of René Girard, a French historian/literary critic/social scientist known for his work in anthropological philosophy. This week, I came across a great comparison of Girard’s philosophy to the message tooted by the Trump administration and their obsession with differentiation. The world is filled with complexities – guilt about global warming and an aspiration to meet peer standards of carbon-neutrality or guilt about social justice and an aspiration to meet peer standards of active allyship – that are important but sometimes exhausting. For many, the appeal of Trumpism is likely the escape from the crushing set of expectations in Progressive America. It will be interesting to see how this rhetoric plays out over the next few years.
Revisiting US History (11/8/20)
This election has forced me to revisit much of my high school US History curriculum that, at the time, seemed insanely mundane and irrelevant. Little did I know it would give me such heart palpitations in the years to come. Anyway, I went digging this week about the history behind the electoral college and found this interesting read – the crux of the issue comes down to slavery. It’s interesting to ponder why the electoral college exists today if its purpose is no longer relevant and how the process could be improved to more directly reflect a democratic process. Also wonder how this election will be taught in the history books of the future. Hoping Gritty gets a special feature #PhillyPhilly.
Elections & stock markets (11/1/20)
Given the market’s recent focus on the election, I went digging for some information on how markets have reacted during prior presidential elections and found this fascinating article. It’s worth a read if you have time but the punchline is that the market’s immediate reaction on the day following the election tends to be positive for Republican wins and negative for Democratic wins. Looking past the initial reaction, however, investors have enjoyed great returns under Democratic presidents. Unsurprisingly, the market also likes predictability and tend to outperform when incumbent presidents and parties are re-elected because they offer continuity. “Since 1900, when parties retain White House, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained 15.3% in the average election year but lost 4.4% when incumbents were ousted.”
Bad ideas (10/25/20)
I read a white paper this week on five bad ideas that investors should avoid because they’re being totally disrupted by innovation taking place right now:
- Physical bank branches (being disrupted by digital wallets – the thesis behind ALLY, MA, SQ)
- Brick and mortar retail (honestly already totally annihilated by e-commerce and provides the thesis behind FDX, BABA, and ZBRA to name a few)
- Linear TV (being disrupted by over-the-top services that deliver on-demand and live programming via the internet and provides the thesis behind ROKU)
- Freight rail (to be disrupted by autonomous electric trucks)
- Traditional transportation (robotaxis will put at risk $8T in public equities in oil, autos, insurance, car rentals, and ride hailing)
I think the last two are further out on the time horizon but the first three are already happening in a big way and have obviously informed some of my long-term investment decisions. Might be time to look into the other two in more detail to see if there’s a way to play those trends as well (did someone say Tesla?).
Lower for Longer (10/18/20)
Howard Marks is back with another memo, and his essays tend to be some of my favorite morning reads with a little side of coffee. If you remember a few weeks (months? I’m kind of worried about my inability to keep track of time anymore) ago, I had shared his memo “Time for Thinking.” His latest memo compares this recessions/recovery to the prior cycles he has experienced throughout his career. The biggest difference being that the downturn was brought on by a pandemic (not economic events), and we need to get the disease under control to really make a recovery.
The most interesting discussion for me was around today’s low interest rate environment being the dominant consideration for investors. It’s causing prospective returns on investments to be the lowest in history. Though he outlines a few alternatives for investors, none are completely satisfactory but there really aren’t any other options in his view:
- Invest as you always have and settle for today’s lower returns (realistic but not exciting)
- Reduce risk in deference to the high level of uncertainty and accept even lower returns (even less exciting)
- Go to cash at near-zero returns and wait for a better environment (this seems extreme)
- Increase risk in pursuit of higher returns (should work but doesn’t work as well when basically all other investors are doing the same)
- Put more into special niches and special investment managers (move into alternatives or private markets, but this introduces illiquidity, manager risk, and comes at an additional cost)
Marks leans toward being more defensive at this time because uncertainty is high and asset prices should be low (which they’re not) to create higher future returns. Since the low interest rate environment has resulted in a world in which all returns are much lower, the odds aren’t on the side of the investor and the market is vulnerable to negative surprises.
The Psychology of Money (10/11/20)
The newest book to hit the fintwit world by storm is The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness by Morgan Housel. It’s been hyped up and sold out so I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it. But, I find the blog on the topic he wrote a few years ago a really good read and what I expect he elaborates on in the book. His whole argument is that investing isn’t the study of finance, it’s the study of how people behave with money (this is what people in the finance industry would call “behavioral finance”). Where the finance industry talks too much about what to do, and not enough about what happens in your head when you try to do it. In his blog post, he identifies 20 flaws, biases, and causes of bad behavior when people deal with money. My favorite is the “rich man in a car paradox” which is basically just recognizing that people generally aspire to be respected by others, and humility, graciousness, intelligence, and empathy tend to generate more respect than a display of wealth (i.e. expensive cars).
Yes, it’s real (10/4/20)
For those who, like me, feel like they’ve been working 24/7 since March, this study from Harvard Business School will seem super validating. The study analyzed emails and meetings for 3.1m people across 16 cities around the world and found:
- The workday has increased by 8.2% (~49 mins)
- Employees sent 5.2% more emails a day, and 8.3% of those emails were sent after business hours (case in point, idk what business hours even are anymore?)
- People attended 13% more meetings but meetings were 20% shorter
AMaZiNg beginnings (9/27/20)
I recently came across the first Amazon job posting that Jeff Bezos had posted in 1994. At that point, the he was calling the company “Cadabra” but after somebody pointed out the similarity to the word “cadaver,” that name thankfully didn’t stick. Less than a year after this posting, Amazon began selling books online. Even then, it was pretty evident the type of vision Bezos wanted to build, and knowing what we know of Amazon today, it checks out.
“Well-capitalized start-up seeks extremely talented C/C++/Unix developers to help pioneer commerce on the Internet. You must have experience designing and building large and complex (yet maintainable) systems, and you should be able to do so in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible… Top-notch communication skills are essential. Familiarity with web servers and HTML would be helpful but not necessary. Expect talented, motivated, intense, and interesting co-workers…”
He signed off with the following quote: “It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it” – Alan Kay.
RIP RBG (9/20/20)
A flurry of thoughts have been running through my mind following the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. If my social media feed and democratic fundraising are any indication, I’m not alone. I found the following reads to be super informative about her legacy and the impact of a Supreme Court seat vacancy this close to what’s set up to be a wild presidential election –
- RBG’s biggest cases & legacy
- Complications of filling a Supreme Court vacancy in an election year
- Role of the Supreme Court in presidential elections (i.e. Bush v. Gore)
Sustainable Aquaculture (9/13/20)
I’ve heard about sustainable aquaculture (fish farming) gaining traction in recent years but never fully read up on what makes aquaculture unsustainable in the first place and what sustainable solutions are being implemented today. I came across a Forbes article about a fund that literally only invests in sustainable aquaculture so I decided to learn a little more. Most commonly, aquaculture utilizes nets or cages anchored to the sea floor in the ocean near the coast and tends to be unsustainable because –
- 33% of the global fish harvest goes toward feeding other fish being harvested. For example, it takes almost 3 tons of forage fish (like sardines) to produce one ton of salmon. Because of this, forage fish are overfished and some populations have been completely destroyed, which obviously disrupts the entire food web
- Fish waste, leftover food, and antibiotics/pesticides spillage from nets into the ocean causes nutrient pollution in the waters, which can cause oxygen depletion and stress or kill surrounding aquatic creatures
- Disease and parasites arise that may then spread to wild species as farmed fish can escape into the ocean, which can also impact the genetic diversity of the ecosystem
- Unfun fact: shrimp farming has caused the destruction of 38% of the world’s mangroves
Aquaculture is becoming more sustainable through –
- Moving aquaculture out into the open ocean where the currents are strong and steady enough to continually flush the farms of fish waste and pests
- On land, some fish farms are using recirculation systems to recycle their water and using waste from the farms to generate energy
- Other farms are finding alternatives for fishmeal such as recycling waste from seafood processing plants
Homesteading the Twittersphere (9/6/20)
I’ve mentioned him before, but Alex Danco is one of my favorite thought leaders to follow – he constantly offers unique perspectives to so many things we see/use in our daily lives. His latest piece that caught my eye was focused on Twitter – but from the perspective of a “gift culture” that emerges in an environment of abundance. And with that abundance comes the challenge of achieving and maintaining positional scarcity – status. Status is scarce and the way you earn it in a gift culture is by putting in real effort and then giving away the fruits of that effort. The effort you put in, however, has to actually be valuable and recognized as such by your peers. To be successful, you must identify a specialty that’s useful but unique, and then “homestead” it – establish and cultivate it for the communal benefit of everyone. Gift culture works fine when the value of gifts being exchanged is well understood, but it works even better when the value of those gifts is difficult to know exactly.
The optimal return for you is to give something away that’s highly, but imprecisely valuable; and new, but not completely new.
A Different Kind of Magic (8/30/20)
I recently came across Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life by Rory Sutherland, broadly considered to be a marketing guru. The book is basically a “how-to” on practicing irrational thinking to stand out from the competition and come up with unique solutions. Three of the biggest takeaways from his thoughts –
- Knowing that people usually act irrationally is a great foundation when thinking about developing brand relationships. For example, most people prefer to use toothpaste with different colored stripes in it – there’s no actual advantage to this and it’s completely irrational but the extra color stripe just makes people think they’re getting multiple benefits aka it’s just great design.
- Sweat the little stuff. Rory actually has a great TED talk on the topic.
- Focus on the outliers instead of the average customer.
Accidentally Active (8/23/20)
ICYMI, Apple made the history books this week as its market cap reached the $2T mark. Apple, along with the other top five companies in the S&P 500 (Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet aka Google) make up 21% of the entire index. If there was a 1% in the stock market, this would be it. These five stocks have performed phenomenally well this year, so when “the market” has reached record highs this week, it is in large part driven by these five stocks. If you own the S&P 500 through index funds, that’s great, but the weight of this group within S&P 500 index funds makes it hard for most stock pickers to outperform “the market” unless they own >20% of their portfolio in these five names alone. So basically, if you’re a passive investor (i.e. you invest in index funds) you have inadvertently concentrated your portfolio in these five stocks and likely outperformed active investors (i.e. stock pickers) because of that concentration. The irony in all this is that passive investment approaches are generally meant to be more diverse (lower risk) while active investment approaches are meant to be more concentrated (higher risk). PSA – if you’re invested in index funds that have become highly concentrated in a few names, it might be worth taking a look at rebalancing and diversifying your portfolio.
Cumulative Probabilities (8/16/20)
We often hear of “hundred-year” events when it comes to weather events – devastating hurricanes, supernormal rainstorms, inland flooding, pandemics. Climate change is causing many hundred-year events to turn into 50-year events or even worse. Despite this trend, policymakers, market participants, and the general public appear to be underestimating the risks, including the potential for negative market impacts. I read a super interesting piece this week on how misperception on the cumulative probability of climate-related events is likely the reason people haven’t taken this as seriously as they should. A hundred-year event just means there’s a 1-in-100 (1%) probability of that event occurring in any given year. But probabilities aren’t limited to one-time occurrences. For example, Houston has experienced three “500-yr” floods in the last decade. The cumulative probability of that event actually is much higher. Mathematically, a hundred-year event has a 99% probability of not occurring – over a 20-year period, that’s a 0.99^20 (or 81.8%) probability of not occurring aka an 18.2% probability of occurring (not just 1%).
Time for Thinking (8/9/20)
I always find it super informative to read investor letters from seasoned fund managers – their wealth of knowledge gained from experience is difficult to learn just through textbooks. This week I read Howard Marks’ memo to clients at Oaktree Capital Management. It’s not a particularly lengthy read and includes his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 (and our inability to appropriately manage the crisis) on the economy and stocks overall. Two things I found most interesting –
- Valuations – the overall stock market is trading close to its February highs, which doesn’t make sense given the underlying state of the economy and negative earnings growth. Marks explains this away with the market’s earnings yield in a low interest rate environment. The earnings yield is the ratio of earnings to price (inverted P/E ratio). Marks argues the earnings yield should be 2% [treasury yield (< 1%) + equity premium (~3%) – long-term annual earnings growth rate (~2%)] – so if the E/P is 2/100, then the P/E should be 50, which means stocks still have a long way up (the S&P 500 is trading at a 22.3x P/E today).
- What a 32.9% decline in 2Q20 GDP really means – it’s the percentage by which 1Q21 GDP would be below 1Q20 GDP if GDP were to decline in the next three quarters at the same rate as it did in 2Q20. In the business world, we’d be looking at the relationship between GDP in 2Q20 vs 2Q19, which actually only fell about 9%.
ICYMI, there’s this platform called Robinhood that’s the no-fee trading app that’s known for its young user base and unicorn-level valuation. The “no-fee trading” bit of this app provided a relative competitive advantage for this platform until every other platform went to zero fees on online trades. Anyway, Robinhood has been pretty topical during the COVID-19 pandemic so if you haven’t been keeping up, I’ll give you a second to grab the popcorn because there was a lot of **drama** before reading up about how millennials basically traded their way through the pandemic.
How Racism is Killing the Planet (7/26/20)
I recently discovered the Sierra Club through an article they published at the beginning of the BLM movement addressing the intersection between racism and climate change, which I thought was absolutely fascinating and worth sharing. The crux of the argument presented was this – “you can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.” When we pollute a place, it’s a way of saying that the place, and the people and all other life that call the place home, are of no value. These places tend to be home to Black and Indigenous people, and the polluting actions tend to build wealth for white communities. If you think about it, this is nothing new – before White settlers came to America, most of the Native peoples of the area lived in a balanced and regenerative relationship with the land – they didn’t take more than the land could sustain. But with the settlers, the Indigenous idea of land as a commonly held gift was replaced with the notion of it being private property. This was facilitated by The Doctrine of Discovery which was invoked by Pope Alexander VI to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they “discovered” and fueled white supremacy. This doctrine actually made its way into US law in 1823 through a US Supreme Court ruling. “It’s no secret that our country was built on a foundation of enslavement of Black people, the theft of Native land, and near genocide of Indigenous people.” This is not just in the past but structural racism still exists today, and it’s intertwined with climate change.
Global Food Crisis (7/19/20)
My last (for now) global issues highlight is food insecurity. After years of decline, world hunger has been on the rise again since 2015. One in nine people around the world don’t get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are the biggest risks to health worldwide, bigger than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Food insecurity, while most prevalent in Africa and southern Asia, is also present in North America and Europe, where 8% of the population doesn’t have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food. Some organizations working to combat this issue on a global scale include the World Food Programme, the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. But there is no shortage of organizations working on addressing food insecurity at the local level all throughout the United States. Especially at a time when children are not able to attend school (which is how they might receive most of their meals) and unemployment is at sky-high levels, supporting local food banks is an easy way for all of us to combat the global food crisis.
Global Water Crisis (7/12/20)
Next up on my global crisis highlight special – the water crisis. There are 2.2 billion people in the world without access to safe drinking water (that’s almost 3 in 10 people) and there are over 4.2 billion people in the world without access to safe sanitization services (that’s over half the global population). It’s no surprise that water-borne illnesses are a leading cause of child mortality. There are so many different organizations working on combating this global issue, but one of the best I’ve discovered is charity: water. I came across this nonprofit through a great podcast episode focused on how the founder was able to really tap into creating a successful nonprofit model by realizing that in a world where everyone craves instant gratification, if you can inspire somebody to give and then show them how their money did good, it creates a virtuous cycle. Every penny of donations goes directly to the field (their operating costs are covered by separate donors) and they track every dollar you donate and show you exactly which projects you’ve helped to fund, including GPS location and photos. It’s a great organization to follow on your socials to stay educated about the global water crisis and, if you can, give them a helping hand!
Global Poverty Crisis (6/28/20)
Global issue highlight #2 – poverty. While we think of poverty as just the lack of income to provide sustainable livelihoods, it rears its ugly head through hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, and social discrimination and exclusion. Even though global poverty rates have reduced dramatically from 16% in 2010 and 36% in 1990, one out of every ten people in developing regions still live on less than $1.90 per day, which is the international poverty line. Most of those in poverty live in Eastern/ Southeastern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where 42% of the population still lives below the poverty line. As you could expect, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, as horrible as it’s been in the US, has been much more detrimental on developing nations without strong financial and medical infrastructures. According to the International Labour Organization, the progress we’ve made on poverty reduction is expected to reverse as ~80% of those employed around the world have been impacted by the crisis with ~430m full-time jobs lost in the first half of the year. In response, the UN has developed a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
Every Action Counts (6/21/20)
We are in the midst of a civil rights movement and I hope it changes the course of our history for the better. It’s been really inspiring to see how the call for action has been so widely heard and acted upon, and I hope it creates a lasting change in both public and private sectors. It also gives me hope that we could, with the same gusto, use this momentum to lift people up across the globe who are facing hardships we cannot begin to fathom. In that effort, I’ll be highlighting a few of those global issues over the next few weeks, along with avenues through which you can support the causes. First up is the global refugee crisis as yesterday was World Refugee Day. Inspired by the actions seen around the world through the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racism protests, the theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is “Every Action Counts.”
We are currently witnessing the highest level of displacement on record. According to the UN, nearly every two seconds, one person is forced from their homes due to conflict and persecution. Half the refugees are under the age of 18. There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and, with it, access to basic rights like education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. The UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people. There are a few ways to get involved with the UNHCR’s efforts – you can donate (they’re currently in need for donations to combat the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their efforts – it only takes $15 to provide primary healthcare services to a refugee) or simply learn more and spread awareness (I follow UNHCR and Everyday Refugees on Insta for my daily dose of knowledge on the issue).
For the love of coffee (6/14/20)
If you’re anything like me, the morning cup of coffee is a sacred ritual. Side note, I’m so pleased it’s cold brew season. Unfortunately for me, and others who enjoy good coffee, Ethiopia’s prized Arabica coffee is facing extinction as a result of climate change. The Kafa Biosphere Reserve is considered to be the birthplace of Arabica coffee – the biodiversity of coffee species found in this area help scientists and farmers discover how to develop coffee strains that are resistant to things like coffee berry disease. However, 60% of the 124 wild coffee species are threatened with extinction because of climate change. So for those coffee lovers out there who might think that they are unaffected by global warming, think again.
Data-driven Solutions (6/7/20)
As many others, I’ve spent the last few days educating myself on racism in general, and more importantly on the impact of racism on policing. The issue is abundantly present, the actionable solution to said issue has been more elusive. Given I’m a numbers person, I always like to find data-driven solutions, and it brought me to the work being done at the Center for Policing Equity – they partner with police departments around the country to analyze their policing data and offer actionable solutions to help curtail racial disparities in policing. Apparently, their partners have seen an average of 25% fewer arrest, fewer use-of-force incidents, and 13% fewer officer-related injuries. I found this organization through a TED talk (shocker, I know) featuring Dr. Phil Atiba Goff, the organization’s co-founder, and PhD in social psychology. Here are some highlights and examples about how the Center for Policing Equity provides actionable solutions to the problem:
- Trying to solve racism feels necessary yet impossible because our definition of racism makes it seem impossible. “The most common definition of racism is that racist behaviors are the product of contaminated hearts and minds” so people will talk about solving racism by stamping hatred out of our hearts. However, “one of the foundational insights of social psychology is that attitudes are very weak predictors of behaviors, but more importantly than that, no Black community has ever taken to the streets to demand that white people would love us more. Communities march to stop the killing, because racism is about behaviors, not feelings.”
- When you change the definition of racism from attitudes to behaviors, you can change the impossible problem to a solvable problem, because you can measure behaviors.
- For example, they found the issue in Las Vegas stemmed from the prevalence of foot pursuits, so they had to train their offers to slow down and take a breath instead of allowing the adrenaline in the situation to escalate it.
Innovation Allocation (5/31/20)
I have brought up ARK Invest several times before – it’s one of my favorite buy-side shops that looks at disruptive innovation in the public markets, effectively bridging the space between the VC and stock market worlds. They recently published a white paper recommending including exposure to innovation in asset allocation. Asset allocation basically means how you think about diversifying the holdings in your portfolio to optimize risk and return characteristics to best fit your goals. ARK’s research leads them to believe that disruptive innovation will add $50T to the global equity markets by 2032 (today, they only account for about $6T, meaning there’s a 21% annual rate of return for the next 12 years if you can find the right place to invest your money). The five innovation platforms that ARK is following right now include blockchain, energy storage, DNA sequencing, robotics, and artificial intelligence. A lot of the stocks I’ve mentioned fall under these platforms, because I also believe in their ability to completely change how we live. In times of uncertainty (like right now), investors tend to flock to safety, which generally means stepping away from growth-y types of innovation. This means those stocks are usually trading at a beautiful discount, providing a great opportunity for investors willing to find the right opportunities. Keep your eyes open for one of these stocks coming your way next week!
The Fifth Risk (5/24/20)
I read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis this week and 10/10 would recommend everyone read this before the election comes around in November because I am so much more educated now. In this book, Lewis talks about three government agencies that do way more than I ever would have thought – the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. If you’ve read other works by Lewis, you’re familiar with his love of all things data – and it makes sense he’s picked these three departments to focus on because they all maintain treasure troves of data.
The crux of the issue is that Trump either doesn’t care about them or understand what they do, or doesn’t like what he thinks they do, and has sent in people intent on crippling these departments. After the Trump administration took over, data disappeared across the federal government. The data that disappeared concerned issues that Trump’s people opposed or didn’t care about – like climate change, food safety regulations, and poverty.
Some of the main functions run out of these three departments like protecting nuclear waste, food safety, feeding the poor, and predicting the weather, all seem to be under threat. The “fifth risk” that Lewis highlights throughout this book is “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions. … ‘Program management’ is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. … It is the innovation that never occurs and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”
Lessons learned (5/17/20)
PSA of the week: Biodiversity experts are warning that pandemics like COVID-19 could occur more frequently unless we stop encroaching on natural habitats. About 1.7m viruses are estimated to exist in mammals and water birds that could infect humans and the increasing deforestation, agricultural expansion, and infrastructure development are bringing us closer to these viruses. As the government stimulus programs continue, these scientists are suggesting those programs should consider environmental consequences by strengthening and enforcing environmental regulations. While it may seem politically efficient to relax environmental standards and prop up industries like intensive agriculture or long-distance transportation right now, it’s going to be costly in the long run. Secondly, they’re stressing the importance of adopting a “one health” approach that recognizes the complexities and interdependencies among the health of people and the surrounding environment.
Master thinker (5/10/20)
Adam Grant is one of my favorite sources of thought leadership – I find his work and opinions to be wildly informative and they generally tend to get my own thoughts rolling on different subjects. For those who aren’t familiar with Grant, he’s been Wharton’s top-rated professor for years and is an organizational psychologist focused on how we can find motivation, meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. Needless to say, he has a very long and impressive resume. Anyway, I came across an old TED talk by Grant from 2016 (right around when he published Originals) titled “The surprising habits of original thinkers” so obviously I had to take a listen. His studies find that originals tend to procrastinate (but there’s a balance between being too early to the game and being too late to the game), embrace the fear of failing to try, and just plain have a lot of ideas that they act on – many of them are bad ideas but once in a while there are a couple great ones in there. The entire TED talk is only about 15 minutes, so if you have the time, I’d recommend taking a listen – I promise you won’t regret it.
Jazz Festing in Place (5/3/20)
One of my favorite annual traditions is making my way to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Though I’m not there in person this year, I’m making do with listening to some old recordings and “jazz festing in place.” The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a two-weekend event, which would have been attended by over three hundred thousand people at the Fair Grounds racetrack, and quite different from what it looked like when it first began 50 years ago. The first Jazz Fest in 1970 only sold 350 tickets (at $3 a piece) and was held in Congo Square, which was the gathering place for enslaved African Americans as far back as the 1700s, and featured the likes of Duke Ellington and Fats Domino. For those wanting a taste of this all-time favorite tradition of mine (sans the great NOLA food) a local radio station is streaming recordings from 50 years of Jazz Fests all weekend – you can listen on their app (WWOZ 90.7 FM).
The Passion Economy (4/26/20)
The COVID-19 crisis is bringing into question so many things that we previously knew to be true while further strengthening other emerging trends that we were just starting to notice. In that second category lies how we think about a “job” in today’s world and what that might look like in the future.
Historically, we’ve been raised to believe a truth that you go to college, get a degree, get a job, advance through the ranks (either at the same company or elsewhere), retire, and then reap the benefits of working hard your whole life and pursue passions that tend to be completely unrelated to how you spent the prime of your life. There are two ways this “truth” is being challenged. The first is through the disruption of higher education and its perceived value proposition. The second is through the emergence of the “passion economy.” There are now more ways to capitalize on creativity – platforms that allow users to build audiences at scale to turn their passions into livelihoods in a way that highlights their individuality. Those closely monitoring this space would argue that you only need 100 true fans to make a living off your passions if you –
- Create premium content and a community that has no close substitutes
- Deliver tangible value and results
- Demonstrate accountability
- Provide access, recognition, and status
With 26m people fresh out of traditional employment, I’m curious to see if the passion economy emerges through the COVID-19 crisis even stronger.
“From the perspective of physics and chemistry, biological life is surprising. There is no physical or chemical theory from which we can predict biology, and yet if we break down any biological system into its elementary constituents, there is no chemistry or physics remaining unaccounted for.” Desperately searching for something unrelated to COVID-19, I came across this introduction for a paper recently published in the Theory of Biosciences about measuring individuality, which is a wildly interesting concept if you think about the fact that there’s a nearly universal assumption about what an “individual” is. In this paper, the authors propose that “individuals are aggregates that propagate information from their past into their futures.” This “information theory of individuality” allows for the identification of an “individual” at all levels of an organization – molecular to cultural.
I’d recommend reading through the paper if you have some extra time (I mean who doesn’t right now? I’ve read four nonfiction books in the last month, which is more than I’ve read in the last four years). All the biological buildings blocks that make up living things exist to decrease entropy and then pass that decreased state of entropy forward in time – this is the case for even the most basic single-celled organism. When the process exists and is trying to maximize the amount of information passed forward, it would be considered an “individual” per this paper.
I’ve brought up GatesNotes before – it’s Bill Gates’ blog and just a fantastic source for catching up on thought leadership from one of my favorite leaders (Gates for President anyone?). He recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post (also one of the latest GatesNotes blog posts) on what our leaders can do now to affect the course of COVID-19. The post starts with – “There’s no question the United States missed the opportunity to get ahead of the novel coronavirus.” PREACH! Smh at the level of federal response, but moving on to solutions, Gates recommends the following three steps:
- A consistent nationwide approach to shutting down
- A better process for testing
- A database approach to developing treatments and a vaccine
This should all fall under the “duh” category but the federal government has proven otherwise. At least the private sector’s response has been inspiring – one of my favorite updates of the week was news that Apple and Google are working together to help track COVID-19 exposure. Anyway, the punchline of this whole thing – Gates gave a TED talk in 2015 specifically warning of this type of a pandemic situation. Some of the examples he uses in the talk (inspired by the Ebola outbreak) are eerily reminiscent of what’s happening in the world today.
Social Distancing, it actually works (4/5/20)
Academic research relevant to the current state of affairs is starting to appear left and right in an effort to figure out what happens from here. One of the favorites I came across this week was a collaboration between the Fed and MIT. The title of this paper is “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu.” The study analyzed economic outcomes of 43 different cities during the 1918 flu and found economies of cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively actually grew faster after the pandemic was over. The v-shaped recovery that we so desperately seek is only possible after a complete shutdown, which is immediately painful but actually beneficial in the long-term. Government mandated social distancing not only lowered the mortality rates, but also lessened the negative economic consequences. Stay home y’all, it works.
Silver Lining (3/29/20)
Here with a silver lining to this very trying time – quarantine life is proving to be quite beneficial to the environment. Scientists are speculating that CO2 levels, which are usually at their peak in May, might be the lowest recorded in over ten years. The level of reduction in China’s carbon emissions over the last few weeks could result in a 1% drop in their carbon emissions this year. Mountains are visible through clean air again. Wildlife is making a comeback in otherwise traffic-leaden areas. Just a little reminder that human actions can have a very direct (and immediate) impact on the environment with which we coexist.
The Progressive Era (3/22/20)
I have followed Social Capital and its CEO for a few years now. The CEO’s annual letter was published two weeks ago and I finally had time to sit down and go through it because quarantine life has really opened up a lot of reading time for me. If you have the time, I’d go through the whole thing, it maybe takes 20 minutes to read, and it’s definitely worth it.
Social Capital, as you might be able to gather from its name, aims to generate compounding economic and social returns for the long-term by empowering entrepreneurs to solve the world’s hardest problems. If you know me, you know why this really speaks to my soul. The theme of the letter was the comparison of today’s world with the Gilded Age (1870s-1900), which was characterized by rapid economic growth driven by industry and technology but it was also a time when greedy and corrupt industrialists/bankers/politicians enjoyed extraordinary wealth at the expense of the working class. The point of this comparison was to think about what came next in history – the Progressive Era – and what that means for our future.
The biggest prediction was around tightening regulations for today’s version of the Gilded Age’s railroads – the big tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – in the form of antitrust actions, increased taxation, and changing market incentives around stock-based compensation.
Other topics included the talent hoarding happening at these big tech companies, a new space race, views on the market, and some views on life:
- The importance of living a life of purpose and forgiveness by being emotionally rich and available, being coherent and honest with other people, and taking the advice of others but carefully consider how it applies to you.
- Building for the long run with one very important secret hidden in plain sight – you cannot help others until you help yourself. “When you are at your best, you can give your best in any situation and to those around you.”
Circuit Breakers (3/15/20)
Trading was halted twice this week because stocks fell so precipitously. Here’s what that actually means. Circuit breakers are precautionary measures designed to slow trading so investors can actually take a breather and understand what’s happening before they start trading again. They were adopted after the Black Monday crash on October 19, 1987 when the Dow fell 22%. There are three levels that trigger circuit breakers:
- A drop of 7% from the prior day’s closing price causes a 15-minute halt in trading.
- A drop of 13% triggers another 15-minute halt in trading.
- A drop of 20% triggers a halt for the rest of the day.
The first level was triggered twice this week. Trading on the New York Stock Exchange has been halted a few other times in history and here are some of the more notable ones:
- 1865: Assassination of Abe Lincoln
- 1973: A Philadelphia bank (Jay Cooke & Company) went bankrupt but since the company was one of the biggest underwriters of treasuries, the ensuing panic caused the NYSE to halt trading
- 1914: WWI
- 2001: 9/11
- 2008: Global Financial Crisis
Crisis Investing (3/8/20)
Came across a really interesting study of market panics since 1970 that basically distills what stocks work best in times when people are panicking – obviously fits well in the current context of the coronavirus sell-off happening in the markets right now. The main takeaways from the study are:
- Cheap stocks outperform expensive stocks (based on multiples)
- The greatest opportunities come when panicked sellers are washing their hands of stocks that generally demonstrate lower daily trading volumes
- Companies generating positive net income generate ~50% higher returns than companies that aren’t generating positive net income
Green Gold (3/1/20)
Guilty as charged of being an avocado-loving millennial. The world consumes 11 billion pounds of avocados annually and consumption in the US has more than doubled in the last decade. Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of two avocados is twice that of 2.2 pounds of bananas and has some other significant environmental impacts as well. Mexico is the leading producer of avocados globally and the Mexican state of Michoacán produces 80% of Mexican avocados and 50% of avocados produced globally. Forest lands have been destroyed or even intentionally burned to bypass Mexican laws requiring permitting to change the land-use to commercial agriculture, leading to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Additionally, about 2.5 billion gallons of water are used daily for avocado production, causing a massive extraction from the Michoacán aquifers and leading to collateral damage like opening up subsoil caverns that could be causing the small earthquakes being frequently recorded in the area. I’d love to see some form of environmental impact assessment in trade agreements (like the one between the US and Mexico) or some form of certification that avocados being sold aren’t the byproduct of deforestation, organized crime, or exploitation of aquifers. Until then, I’m now a more informed consumer.
Oracle of Omaha (2/23/20)
One of my favorite yearly reading list items is Warren Buffet’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders. My favorite takeaways this year –
- The power of retained earnings – companies can use their earnings to create shareholder value in several different ways including dividends paid directly to shareholders and retaining the earnings to reinvest them into further enhancing the business. Buffet commented on how they’re using retained earnings at Berkshire Hathaway – they first seek to invest in the businesses they already own and then seek to buy businesses that meet three criteria (read: here’s how Warren Buffet picks stocks):
- They must earn good returns on the net tangible capital required in the company’s operations.
- They must be run by able and honest managers (management teams matter so much, EXPE story this week for example).
- They must be available at a sensible price (earnings multiples are a great way to think about stock pricing).
- If current rates hold over coming decades and corporate tax rates remain near today’s low levels, it’s almost certain that equities will over time perform far better than bonds.
Food Fraud (2/16/20)
We’ve had organic honey at work for ages, but they recently switched over to what we like to call “Chinese honey” in the office because “honey laundering” is a real thing. A lot of honey you can buy at the grocery store is adulterated with things like high-fructose corn syrup through an elaborate method of evading tariffs but it is labeled and sold as “pure honey.” I realized this week that this isn’t the only example of food fraud. There’s fake olive oil where cheaper oil (sometimes not even olive oil) from inferior regions is inaccurately labeled and sold as “extra virgin olive oil.” Apparently wood pulp (included in the ingredients as cellulose) is commonly used as a filler in grated parmesan cheese (and other hard Italian cheeses). An independent test found the Wal-Mart store brand contained 7.8% cellulose, even the Whole Foods 365 brand (which didn’t list it as an ingredient) contained 0.3% cellulose. Arabica coffee beans are mixed in with Robusta coffee beans. This makes me want to just farm my own produce and call it a day. Might have to learn to keep bees. I’ve been thinking about switching to avocado oil. And I guess stop buying shredded cheese. Life is becoming too complicated SOS.
Dem Debates (2/9/20)
ICYMI, there was another Democratic debate this week ahead of the New Hampshire primary and seven candidates took the stage – Former VP Joe Biden, Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang. Race was the hot topic, which makes sense given South Carolina’s importance in the primaries later this month, where voters of color are a crucial part of the electorate. These were some takeaways –
- Sanders is now a clear front-runner, as was evidenced by the “classic front-runner” types of questions and attacks from his opponents and the moderators. Separately, he also admitted that he’s changed his views around gun control. Seems like a real fundamental thing to change your views about…
- There were lots of focused attacks on Buttigieg from effectively everyone else on the stage as candidates were trying to stop his momentum. Many of the attacks highlighted his lack of support among voters of color.
- Biden acknowledged that he would probably take a hit in the New Hampshire primary. I just want to see more Biden/Obama memes…why haven’t they made a comeback yet?
- Warren’s momentum is clearly struggling at this point of the race – she’s stuck somewhere between the college-educated whites supporting Buttigieg and the progressives who have this renewed interest in Sanders.
Slightly related, Trump was acquitted this week and the impeachment drama is now behind us.
Okay Google.. (2/2/20)
Google has become the default solution to any question out there and I just assume the man behind the company should also have a lot of answers, so I tend to listen when he speaks. Google (and now parent company Alphabet) CEO Sundar Pichai was recently discussing the future of quantum computing, its risks, and how it could improve our lives with applications for healthcare, reducing carbon emissions, and improving battery and storage solutions to facilitate more widespread use of renewables.
800 Pound Gorilla in the Room (1/26/20)
There was a lot of talk about how to tackle climate change at Davos. As economic growth raises the standard of living, Asia is expected to represent 43% of the global energy demand by 2040 and remain the leader in energy consumption for the foreseeable future. The silver lining is that places like China are already leaders in the supply of alternative energy and technology. By 2017, China accounted for 72% of the world’s solar production while the US and Europe only accounted for 3% combined. In fact, including other forms of renewable energy like hydropower, China actually accounts for about a third of all installed renewable capacity. Separately, China is the largest market for EVs (and also the largest producer – about 70% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries are produced in China). With experts predicting global demand for oil to peak in the next 15 years, the transition to renewables will be crucial and it’s a relief to see the largest energy consumers working toward the solution.
2020 Big Ideas (1/19/20)
One of my favorite investment shops to follow is ARK Investment Management – the fund’s thesis is focused on identifying the public market’s mispricing of companies involved in disruptive innovation. At the beginning of each year, they publish the “Big Ideas” they’re thinking about for the upcoming year and I always find it a fascinating read. Below are my favorites for 2020:
- 3D printing – ARK believes 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing, growing 65% annually through 2024, and it’s something investors seem to be underestimating (I’m feeling it with Proto Labs’ performance over the last year, but this big idea underscores my thesis behind the name). While 3D printing accounts for about 40-50% of the protoypes created, it only accounts for 6% of molds and tools and 1% of end-use parts created – ARK sees massive market opportunity here.
- Aerial drones – Lower batter costs and autonomous technology should enabledrones to deliver packages and food quicker than ever before, pushing e-commerce from 14% of retail sales today to 60% in 2030. That’s only 10 years away and a scary thought for traditional brick & mortar retailers.
- Digital wallets – The US population is adopting digital wallets at twice the speed it adopted social media and ARK expects 220m digital wallets in the US by 2024. Their low customer acquisition cost allows digital wallets to offer banking services to low income earners in ways that traditional banks cannot. Not only are they facilitating peer to peer transactions, digital wallets are also taking share in the consumer credit market and account for 39% of the unsecured consumer loan market (this is the big thesis behind my call on LendingClub).
For the 2020s (1/12/20)
The beginning of a new year always brings a plethora of theses for the upcoming year’s expectations. This just happened to also be the turn of the decade and I found an interesting list of prediction for the 2020s that spans many different topics. These are my favorites:
- Cameras will be where smartphones evolve the most. Machine vision will continue to improve and its use cases will accelerate. For example, the use of the non-visual spectrum could allow you to wave your phone around the room and find your keys even if they’re buried under something. Desperately need something like this to find my phone first though…
- Cryptocurrencies will become a tool for political and social dissenters who don’t necessarily care about the price but care about it being un-censorable.
- Grad school is going to be disrupted. Large employers that have been offering to pay for their employees to attend professional graduate schools might realize they can do it themselves and do a better job at it. Really applies for MBAs. Research graduate degrees are being revolutionized by Twitter, which is giving students a path to establishing their own brands without being constrained or dependent on their supervisor’s labs.
- There will be a major speculative bubble in the public markets in biotech companies.
Taking a break from our regularly scheduled interesting learnings for an update on a significant geopolitical update. ICYMI, Trump significantly escalated tensions with Iran this week when he authorized a targeted air strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was largely considered to be the second most powerful leader in Iran after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (there’s nobody quite in a similar position in the US, but imagine the Director of the CIA or the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff). Hezbollah have taken to the streets in Iran, chanting “vengeance is coming,” which doesn’t sound promising. This military action is sending shockwaves throughout the Middle East, as it is more significant than the deaths of Osama bin Laden an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Soleimani was known as the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s networks across the Middle East and operated largely in the shadows, he was an agent of chaos. The US had been pursuing him for decades as his operations in Iraq have killed over 600 American personnel. No telling what comes next but navigating this situation requires sophisticated diplomacy and strategy, which is not a special skill you’d find on either party’s resume. This has already sent stock and energy markets into turmoil and adds another layer of uncertainty into the markets right now.
Supercharging the Fight Against Climate Change (12/22/19)
The impacts of climate change have been front and center in a lot of the content I’ve been spending my time learning recently. This week I came across a solution that combines battling climate change with the game changing technological evolutions in genetics – supercharged plants. We all know that plants capture CO2 and process it into sugars. The problem is that when the growing season ends and the plant dies and decomposes, all their carbon-based biomass goes right back into the atmosphere as CO2. Plants also store carbon in their roots in a product they create called suberin, which contains very little oxygen (which is what microbes look for when they’re decomposing the plants), making it a much better way to store carbon. So, if plants could have bigger, deeper roots to store more suberin (aka more carbon) further into the soil, plants could play supercharged role in helping us address climate change. The best part is that today’s genetic sequencing and editing technology allows us to identify the genes that cause bigger, deeper roots and replicate those specific genes in other plants. Scientists think such supercharged crop plants will be the answer – let’s see if farmers are up for this grand experiment.
Crowds and Power Online (12/15/19)
We establish an identity and self-image that is wrapped in the bubble of our personal space and we don’t like it when people invade that space – we’re constantly trying to maintain and protect the perimeter and it’s frankly exhausting. There is one place where that personal space isn’t as guarded – in crowds. Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power explores how the deep-seated aversion of a breach in our personal space is best assuaged by immersion in a crowd, it provides a form of relief from the exhaustion of protecting your boundaries. It’s fascinating how much this phenomenon applies just as well online. Our status online is effectively our personal space, but in today’s internet age, maintaining that personal space is a 24/7 job, and plays into the internet cliché that it brings out the status-seeking narcissists in us. So, when we have the opportunity to pile onto internet crowds, we seize the opportunity for some relief from maintaining that personal space and it plays into another cliché that the internet brings out the angry mob in us. This ebb and flow of personal space is embedded in our nature, but the nice thing about experiencing this phenomenon online is that you can pretty quickly change the experience. It’ll be interesting to see how social media platforms navigate this, especially with an election year approaching.
Modern Romance (12/8/19)
Did you know that at least 65% (but likely over 75%) of all new relationships in 2019 began online? Costs of online dating – safety, monetary, time, social stigma, etc. – have almost fallen to zero. The number of available partners is now significantly higher, which seriously changes the dynamics of marginal and opportunity costs for the “market participants.” This also means that the cost of rejecting a potential partner is relatively low. In the end, this effectively forces people onto dating apps – think of it this way – if Amy is on dating apps but Joe isn’t, Amy is dating with the understanding that she can literally instantaneously get another date, which puts Joe at a relative disadvantage. The effect of this, however, is that individuals are meeting many more potential partners, allowing them to make more informed decisions and divorce rates are on the decline. I’d be curious to see how these statistics hold up for the ~75% of new relationships that started in 2019, but what a world of modern romance we live in today…
Thanksgiving tales (12/1/19)
As an ode to the holiday, I found a collection of interesting articles on the topic for some light reading while eating all the leftovers –
- The Modern Invention of Thanksgiving because obviously during colonial times, the tradition didn’t include the Macy’s parade, whole turkeys, football, and the beginning of Black Friday madness. Apparently Thanksgiving Has Been Reinvented Many Times.
- Let’s Talk Turkey because why is it called a turkey and did you know Americans eat 46 MILLION every Thanksgiving?!
- In the never-ending argument over jelly or chunky cranberry sauce, here are Seven Things You Might Not Know About Cranberries.
- But most importantly, here’s why naps are inevitable after the feast.
Dem debates (11/26/19)
Democratic candidates took the stage this week for the fifth debate of the season. Much of the event played out just as expected but here are some of the biggest takeaways –
- Foreign policy, voting rights, and child care were prominent topics of discussion.
- Impeachment hearings probably stole the show away from the debate as Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, testified on Wednesday.
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the candidate to watch this week as his rise in the race has been notable recently – he’s polling well in some of the early state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, he hasn’t been able to capture the African American votes (it’s almost impossible to win a Democratic ticket without these votes), and oh by the way he’s only 37.
- Biden’s performance included some cringeworthy moments when it came to violence against women and race, which doesn’t help after we got some unpalatable news about his (and his son’s) involvement in the Ukrainian company at the center of the Trump whistleblower complaint.
Impeachment 101 (11/17/19)
ICYMI the Trump impeachment hearings officially began this week and I felt the need to take a trip down memory lane to AP US History and brush up on my impeachment process knowledge. In our country’s history, 19 officials (including two presidents) have been impeached (aka tried by Congress) – eight were found guilty (and removed from office), seven were found not guilty, and three resigned. After understanding the process and the political affiliations of Congress, it’s difficult to see how the Republican-majority Senate will find Trump guilty, but here’s to trusting the process, which (for those of you who, like me, need a refresher) goes something like this:
- Speaker of the House declares an official impeachment inquiry. Pelosi made this official in late September.
- An impeachment investigation begins in the House of Representatives. Six committees are investigating Trump – Intelligence, Judiciary, Oversight & Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, and Ways & Means. These committees all have Democratic majorities – the outcome here seems too easy to predict…
- The House of Representatives has to vote on the rules that define how the impeachment inquiry will be conducted by the committees. This was approved by the House at the end of October by a vote of 232 to 196.
- Public hearings are held (this is happening right now) and the Intelligence committee reports all the information gathered to the Judiciary committee. The Judiciary committee then holds additional hearings during which the president and his legal counsel can defend their case.
- Each of the committees can offer one or more articles of impeachment (aka the specific charges warranting impeachment) and the Judiciary committee will vote (by simple majority) to other the articles to the House of Representatives.
- The entire House of Representatives votes (by simple majority) on the articles of impeachment. If any article is approved, the case goes to trial in front of the Senate. The House currently consists of 233 Democrats and 197 Republicans – again, seems easy to predict the outcome here…
- Like step #3, the Senate has to vote on the rules that will define the trial procedures. Things get a little more exciting here as the Republicans control the Senate with 53 seats.
- A trial is conducted where the Supreme Court’s chief justice presides over the hearing, House members serve as prosecutors, and all 100 members of the Senate serve as the jury.
- Senate decrees a verdict of not guilty (in which case the President remains in office) or guilty (if 67 or more senators find the President guilty, he’s removed from office).
Story time (11/10/19)
Traditional economic theories are based around the assumption that people use all available information to consistently make rational decisions. Traditional economists have clearly never attended a college football tailgate. Robert Shiller, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics, offers an alternative economic theory called “Narrative Economics,” which studies contagious narratives that can drive large economic events. In his recent book, Shiller identifies the ebb and flow of stories through history that have led to major economic consequences like war and heightened inequality and unemployment. A framework of economic theory that uses tools like the textual analysis of social media is especially relevant in today’s world when this country’s President is a powerful communicator of “narratives that frequently challenge the collective wisdom of the entire economics profession” (crediting Forbes for that fantastic line). While we’ve grown up on traditional economic theory, many of those theories were formed in a time when information was distributed and consumed very differently than it is today. The impact of the internet and social media in the dissemination of information is fundamentally disrupting many aspects of the economy (think about consumption of goods and services through ecommerce), why is economic theory any different?
“Everything is Amazing, But Nothing is Ours” (11/3/19)
Recently, I’ve had issues with my oven buttons’ sensors and my car’s highly computerized system that have me yearning for the days when ovens just had knobs without complex electronic systems that could fail and cars were manual and not controlled by a centralized computer system. As much as household items have transformed through the implementation of more complex systems, so has technology. I found a great post this week addressing this topic and it really hit the feels because of recent happenings. We use technology today to take processes with a lot of friction and create a frictionless system made of dependencies – the cost of this frictionless system is that the process is now “complex, outsourced, and brittle.” I’m definitely not advocating for regressing in innovation, but I wonder if this trend in consumer behavior ever shifts back in favor of simpler and more stable solutions, I know I wouldn’t be the only one who might like to see that happen.
Loving what is (10/27/19)
Came across a great book recommendation lately – I’m not a big “self-help” type of book reader but this one piqued my interest because of its simplicity and seeming alignment with my existing thoughts. The book is called Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie and addresses the process of tackling stress and suffering. The premise of the book is that “we are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens” and “the only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is.” For those with some time on your hands, I’d recommend picking up the book as its filled with examples that demonstrate the stress-reducing process that Katie refers to as “The Work.” For the rest of you, here’s a decent summary.
Widespread Technology Adoption (10/20/19)
Came across an interesting blog post about why technology isn’t easily adopted but the more fascinating part of the blog post was about a time in history when new technology was broadly adopted overnight. On April 12, 1955 Dave Garroway announced on NBC that the polio vaccine actually worked – it was “safe, effective, and potent.” Within six months, 57m vaccines were delivered. Within four years, 87m Americans were vaccinated. This might seem like a no-brainer given the life-saving capacity of this vaccine, but the adoption of penicillin took almost 20 years and the adoption of seat belts in cars took 50 years. The author’s reasons for technology adoptions taking longer than you would think are fairly straight-forward –
- New technologies aren’t ready for primetime and incumbents with deep pockets keep competition at bay
- Convincing people you can solve their problems is harder than it seems because people don’t want to be told the way they’ve always done things is wrong
- “This is how we’ve always done it” is generally synonymous with “this is the best way to do it”
- Grasping the value of new technology requires imagination
A Case Study (10/13/19)
I talked about the founding murder of Silicon Valley two weeks ago as WeWork’s IPO started to unwind. I explored this issue a little further this week by considering IPOs in the context of an alternative – a direct listing. Spotify’s public market debut was a direct listing and provides a great case study (conveniently Harvard has already done the work). A direct listing allows the company to be listed on a stock exchange without the use of an intermediary (usually a bank that charges hefty fees for these services). Spotify chose to go public via a direct listing for three big reasons (and IPOs don’t offer any of these solutions):
- Offer better liquidity to existing shareholders without raising capital (an IPO is a capital raise and usually comes with lock-up periods that restrict existing shareholders from trading shares for ~6 months after the IPO)
- Provide unrestricted access to all buyers and sellers of its shares (banks try to oversubscribe IPOs by 10-20x so there’s always more demand than supply and the shares are generally not accessible to retail investors like you or me)
- Conduct the process with the maximum level of transparency and price discovery (Historically, IPOs have not been priced appropriately – fun fact I learned on a podcast this week, Goldman has mispriced IPOs by 33% over the last 10 years – they’re the worst offender of all the banks but somehow have the greatest reputation)
Spotify has done tremendously well in the public market and I’ll be curious to see if other companies decide to utilize this route given how difficult the IPO market has been lately.
The global water crisis (10/6/19)
I had the pleasure of attending a fundraising event last week for Thirst Project, an organization dedicated to fighting the global water crisis (if you’re looking for a worthy cause for a donation, do it). I’m sure most everyone is at least aware that not everyone in the world has access to clean and safe drinking water, but the statistics around the global water crisis are quite humbling and remind me to be conscious of such an essential part of life that we can frequently take for granted and do my best to resolve this crisis on a personal level. These are some of the most concerning numbers from the UN:
- 340,000 children under the age of five die each year from diarrheal diseases
- 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services while 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitization services.
- In communities without access to water sources, women and children walk miles to the nearest water source, which they might share with wildlife and cattle, to retrieve water. This means women aren’t working and children aren’t attending school.
- Water scarcity affects four out of every ten people.
The Founding Murder (9/29/19)
The valuation bubble of Silicon Valley has come into question so many times this year as IPOs have priced the darlings of the venture capital world into oblivion. The question is pertinent today as WeWork’s path to IPO keeps getting dismantled. It justifies bringing up a concept I came across recently – the founding murder – a moment of shocking violence at the origin of a society that’s stable over the long term, the memory of which helps keep the community together. The founding murder of Silicon Valley was the dot com bubble and as the industry came back roaring, the thought of another collapse was concerning. To keep the sanity, Silicon Valley developed a thought process that effectively interprets failure as a good thing and differentiates each failure to avoid believing any single failure is indicative of some larger systematic issue. WeWork, which was last priced at $47b by the private market, is having difficulty pricing at even $20b in the public market. As Silicon Valley spins its gears in an effort to make sure the failure of WeWork isn’t interpreted as a systematic issue for the entire community, it’s equally important to consider the impact that private investors (like Softbank) are having on these startups and valuations. We need to check the capital madly chasing after these investment opportunities, otherwise it’s only a matter of time until we’re crying “tulip mania.”
Immutable Truths (9/22/19)
Within the world of finance and investing, opinions are largely influenced by a person’s risk tolerance. I came across an interesting article this week that addressed some of the immutable truths in finance in the context of the following statement I found to be pretty profound:
The only thing worse than thinking everyone who disagrees with you is wrong is the opposite: being persuaded by the advice of those who need or want something you don’t.
The author’s version of the immutable truths in finance is a list of 17 that you can read through here but I found these to be the most noteworthy:
- Luck and risk are the opposite sides of the same coin but we treat them very differently. This is a phenomenon we study extensively in finance – everything in finance is about probability and since most probabilities are less than 100, there’s a chance you can make a good (bad) decision and still end up with a bad (good) outcome. The former is risk. The latter is luck. People generally see risk as something that happens to them while luck is treated as something they did to themselves. Returns always get adjusted for risk but never for luck.
- Behavior > analytics, because one can’t be taught and the other can. Good behavior and no data can still do well, but tons of data mixed with poor behavior is a lit fuse. Behavioral finance is probably my favorite part of this field. The point above falls into this broader category.
Decisions, decisions (9/15/19)
This week I came across the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert who “studies happiness,” so obviously color me interested in his findings. He’s got a great TED Talk if you’re interested but my biggest takeaways from his findings –
- Events have far less impact on our happiness than we expect them to have because of our “cognitive immune system” that’s wired to synthesize happiness through largely nonconscious cognitive processes that help humans change their views of the world so they can feel better about the world in which they find themselves.
- People are generally happier with decisions when they can’t undo them. When we can undo decisions, we tend to consider both the positive and negative features of our decisions. When we can’t undo decisions, we tend to concentrate on the good features and ignore the bad. Therefore, we are more satisfied when we make irrevocable than revocable decisions. Ironically, we don’t necessarily realize this happens and strongly prefer to have the option to change our minds.
The punchline is that our longings and worries are overblown to some degree because we have the capacity to internally manufacture the happiness we are constantly chasing when we choose experiences. Hakuna matata.
The Education Value Proposition (9/8/19)
The value proposition of education is an interesting concept today given the rising costs of higher education resulting in ever increasing levels of student debt coupled with companies like Microsoft no longer requiring college degrees for their applicants. Exploring this topic, I came across the really interesting education business model of Lambda School where students pay for the education through an income sharing agreement.
It’s an online tech school with several tracks including Android, iOS, and full stack development as well as data science and user experience design. They offer live classes, one-on-one support, and career placement assistance. The last bit is important because students pay for this education through an income sharing agreement – students pay nothing for the education until they land a job paying at least $50k and then pay 17% of their monthly salary until either they’ve made 24 payments, they’ve paid a total of $30k, or it’s been five years since graduation.
Land of Fire and Ice (9/1/19)
As promised, reporting back from Iceland. For any outdoor adventurer, I’d highly recommend making the trip – it’s a 5-hour flight from the east coast and the landscape and culture is definitely worth exploring. You can see everything from beaches to glaciers to volcanos to caves to mountains within a country that’s about the size of Ohio. Highlights of the trip –
- Walking through Þingvellir National Park, which is the site of the first parliament meeting site in Europe in 930 AD and is one of only two places in the world where you can see two tectonic plates meeting above the earth’s surface. The North American and Eurasian plates are moving apart here about 2cm each year.
- Climbing down into the Vantshellier Cave, which is an 8000-year-old lava cave tunnel system that was created by a volcanic eruption as the surface lava cooled while the lava underneath continued to flow.
- Hiking the Fimmvörðuháls Mountain Pass, which is one of Iceland’s most popular hiking trails that lies in a mountain pass between two glaciers in South Iceland. The landscape you see along the way includes everything from waterfalls and green mossy fields to lava fields and glaciers.
- Visiting Jökulsárlón, which literally means “Glacier’s River Lagoon” and is a lagoon in southeast Iceland where icebergs break away from the largest glacier in Iceland. These icebergs eventually drift out into the sea and get polished by the waves before being washed back onto Breiðamerkursandur, a black sand beach. These pieces of ice shine in the sun like gems, giving this beach its nickname – Diamond Beach.
- Attending the Reykjavik Culture Night, which is an annual celebration in the city that turns the streets into a party that lasts all night – local artists, vendors, food, and all the music.
Our Better Nature (8/19/19)
I consider myself an outdoorsy person – being in nature has always made me feel “centered.” Being a quantitative person, I was thrilled to find research that proves the effect of nature on our social, psychological, and physical wellbeing.
We’ve been living in cities for such a small percentage of time compared to how long humans have actually existed – this shift between forest living to concrete jungle living has been very recent and very dramatic. Psychologist Ming Kuo initially began exploring the negative effects of the urban environment on humans but eventually realized her data pointed to the positive effects of nature on human health. Neighborhood greenness has been consistently tied to life expectancy and all-cause mortality, even when controlling for socioeconomic status and other variables and the range of health outcomes tied to nature is quite extensive.
Stay in the Game (8/11/19)
It’ll take you maybe 5 minutes to read this blog post. Do it, you won’t regret it. That’s all I’ll say.
All the Options (8/4/19)
This upcoming presidential election is already generating quite the buzz and the Democratic debates have been nothing short of primetime entertainment. Currently, TWENTY Democratic candidates are taking the debate stage. Ever wonder how these candidates get picked and how they progress to future debates? Based on the number of donors for their campaigns…
To qualify for the June and July debates, candidates must have 65k individual donors and to move on to the September and October debates, that number doubles to 130k individual donors. A lot of candidates have turned to social media as a way to attract donors contributing $1 at a time, but experts estimate that it costs up to $70 in online advertising to find one new $1 donor. Which means these candidates need wealthy donors to afford to even buy the contributions from the smaller donors. These rules have fundamentally changed the way candidates connect with their constituents through grassroots campaigns.
The Making of Boris Johnson (7/28/19)
ICYMI, the UK has a new Prime Minister – Boris Johnson. Theresa May decided to step down after failing to deliver on a Brexit deal and under party rules, the next party leader was to be chosen by the members of the Conservative Party (only 160k people versus the 46.8m total registered voters in the UK). Putting aside that disregard for democracy… I spent some time learning a little more about this man that’s apparently going to make Brexit a reality and his story literally reads like a soap opera. Somehow, a man with seemingly no deeply rooted convictions who is seemingly planning on just winging it, has been selected to get the UK through one of the biggest political challenges in its history. Read on for a recipe for disaster…
Boris Johnson is a celebrity politician – he has crazy bright white hair that’s always a mess (tbh looks like Trump), he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s disorganized. He’s not what you would imagine a British Prime Minister to be.
As a politician, he built a following around him to challenge David Cameron (Conservative Prime Minister before Theresa May) and found a way through Brexit. Cameron was against leaving the EU and assumed his party and government felt the same way. Johnson had even written an editorial supporting the decision to remain. But at the last minute, he did a 180 and became the leader of the campaign to leave the EU. This decision seemed to be driven not by his conviction on the matter at hand, but by the political calculation that this could land him in the seat to be the next Prime Minister. Given he didn’t think Brexit would actually get voted through, he was totally surprised when 52% of the population voted to leave the EU and it became evident that Johnson didn’t actually have a plan for any of it. So many of his supporters withdrew their support that Johnson backed out of the race all together. That’s when Theresa May came into the picture but her inability to make progress on Brexit and her unpopularity with the government, which led to her decision to step down, provided another chance for Johnson to step in. I’m still confused as to how he managed to do this despite everything. The EU actually thinks the man is a total clown, so I’m really curious to see what he’s able to accomplish in terms of a Brexit deal, which has an October 31st deadline. Brb grabbing the popcorn to watch this story unfold.
Gates Notes (7/21/19)
I stumbled upon Bill Gates’ blog recently and wow love it. Aside from his incredible achievements at Microsoft, the man is an amazing author, philanthropist, humanitarian, and apparently the most admired man in the world. Shocking zero people, his blog rises to the high standards of the man himself and covers topics from the fight to eradicate polio to climate change to tech. Given I’m always looking for a good read, I loved getting into his summer reading list. I was actually most fascinated by a blog post about the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team. This team that Gates calls “The Avengers of virus hunters,” is a group of scientists that helps local governments stop infectious diseases.
Here’s his reading list for those interested – if you decide to join me in picking up these books over the summer, lmk what you think!
- Upheaval by Jared Diamond – the book uses a series of case studies to demonstrate how countries manage challenges and how societies react during times of crisis.
- Nine Pints by Rose George – apparently filled with super interesting facts that “will leave you with a new appreciation for blood.” This one might be more suited for those of you who, unlike me, are not grossed out by blood.
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – this is a novel about a count that’s sentenced to life under house arrest in a Moscow hotel.
- Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss – includes stories nine major conflicts the US entered in the 1800s and 1900s and highlights important lessons about presidential leadership.
- The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier – a thought-provoking book with a smart perspective on where capitalism is headed given the current polarization we’re seeing on the topic.
A few months ago, I had referenced a podcast featuring an interview with Adam Robinson that noted economic observations based on indicators from groups of traders. Two observations are worth revisiting given the current focus on interest rates – when bond and equity traders disagree about the economy, bond traders are usually right and early and metal traders are better than bond traders are predicting the direction of interest rates. On the first, the spread between corporate bonds and treasuries actually started increasing at the beginning of this month, signaling a weakening economy. This aligns with the views that would call for the Fed to cut interest rates due to slowing economic indicators. However, equity traders are contradictorily bullish as they’ve sent equities to all time-highs this month. On the second observation, the 10-year treasury yield has increased in the last few weeks after falling for a few months, while the interest rates implied by metal traders has remained relatively stable, following a downward trend over the last three months. My takeaway here is that equity traders are a little too bullish right now and it’s prudent to be weary of the stock market reaching all-time highs while so many indicators are flashing caution signs.
Striking Gold (7/7/19)
I recently had dinner with a Caltech scientist whose team’s chain of observatories around the world recorded, for the first time, ripples in space and time (aka gravitational waves) as well as light produced and emitted by the same cosmic event: the collision of two neutron stars (smallest and densest stars known to exist – 1 tsp of neutron star material has a mass of ~1 billion tons). These observations provided the first proof that such collisions lead to the creation of elements heavier than iron – including platinum and gold.
Less than 20 known paintings can be attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, a quintessential renaissance man – scientist, inventor, painter. The last Da Vinci to be discovered was the Benois Madonna in St. Petersburg in 1914 and as of 2005 only two paintings were unaccounted for – Leda and the Swan and the Salvator Mundi. Originally created in 1500 for Louis XII of France, the Salvator Mundi passed through many hands before being purchased in 2005 for $1,000 at an auction by art speculator Alexander Parish and gallery owner Robert Simon. Given the large proportion of restoration required for this piece, there is much skepticism by experts around the world about not only the value of the painting but also the attribution of the painting. It also begs the question – when does conservation become invention?Adding to the controversy, the painting became part of a melodrama of money – it was eventually purchased by dealer for $83m, immediately sold to a Russian oligarch for $127.5m (which started a litigation battle), and then purchased (allegedly) on behalf of the Saudi crown prince for $450.3m to be given to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. ICYMI this painting was originally purchased 12 years prior to this for only $1,000. Raise your hand if you want to go find Leda and the Swan with me. Unfortunately, the painting never made its debut at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its current whereabouts are unknown. Let the conspiracy theories run wild.
The Other Kind of Libra (6/23/19)
I’ve talked about Chinese consumer behavior before, including the widespread use of mobile payments, because fintech and the adoption of new technologies within this space is pretty fascinating (think back to the Law of Diffusion of Innovation). It seemed like particularly opportune timing to look into the adoption of electronic payment systems this week given Facebook’s announcement of a cryptocurrency (Libra) and mobile wallet (Calibra) to enable free transactions around the world for users on its platforms. Given Facebook’s recent privacy and antitrust issues, I think widespread adoption of this new technology is an uphill battle. But I came across some really interesting research that found in the presence of externalities, large and temporary economic (or policy) shocks can lead to persistent waves of technology adoption. Given the current level of global uncertainty – Brexit, the future of the Eurozone, slowing global growth, tensions in the Middle East, trade wars, and on and on – the end of this economic growth cycle might just provide Facebook the economic shock necessary to pull this off.
The Art of Gathering (6/16/19)
I heard a quote this week from a group conflict resolution specialist: “Every gathering is an opportunity to create a temporary world.” Interesting. So I dug deeper into The Art of Gatheringand came away with some interesting takeaways for everyday gatherings – meetings, baby showers, dinner parties, etc. – that could probably turn a lot of these gatherings into more meaningful interactions with others. These are the three steps suggested by the author:
- Embrace a specific and disputable purpose – the “why”and not the “what”of the specific gathering. For example, just because you’re planning a baby shower, you can’t just find cute ideas for games off Pinterest – what’s the actual purpose of this for the couple who is about to have a baby? Is it to just have fun? Is it to help them better prepare for parenthood? Find that purpose for this specific gathering and build the event around it.
- Cause good controversy – remove the norm of politeness that could prevent progress. For example, if there is unspoken tension, facilitate the discussion via
- Use of pop-up rules – because of the diversity in most gatherings, unspoken norms are trouble because everyone’s norms are different.
Political Disagreements (6/9/19)
Headlines tend to paint the current political divides at all time highs. I listened to a podcast recently that made me feel like I was back in my high school US History class. My favorite thought from the podcast – similar to how problems are being solved through innovation in the private sector, conflict causes similar innovation in the political system. During this conversation, Harvard historian David Moss framed conflicts as either productive or destructive. An example of a productive conflict would be one between small states and large states that wanted equal and proportionate representation, respectively, in Congress. When the Constitution was finally created, leadership reached a compromise, not by meeting in the middle, but by taking the best of both ideas and creating a House of Representatives and Senate. This structure has proven quite effective for hundreds of years. An example of a destructive conflict, on the other hand, would be that arising after Abe Lincoln’s election when the disagreement on slavery led to the Civil War. Is our current political polarization wide enough to cause a productive or a destructive conflict? I hope despite everything, we can come together, as Ben Franklin wisely chose to put on the national seal, e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
Unicorn schmunicorn (6/2/19)
A few large unicorns have come to the public market this year and while some IPOs have done well, two of the most widely known (Uber and Lyft) have not been received well by the public equity market. I’ve been asked many times why this happened and my answer (backed by anecdotal evidence) has been that a) there’s too much money chasing these companies in the private market, which drives up valuation and b) early investors are looking for a way to cash out. This week, however, I came across a paper from Stanford that answered this question from a quantitative perspective (you know how much I love that). The punchline is that reported valuations in the private market assume all shares are valued the same as the most recently issued shares, which generally have more protections (IPO return guarantees, vetoes over down-IPOs, seniority over other investors) and therefore a higher value. However, this method over-values previously issued shares by 58%. After valuing each share class individually based on the risk profile, the study found the average unicorn in the sample was overvalued by 50%.
Instagram vs. Reality (5/26/19)
In our lives of planning and living by those plans, we sometimes forget that these plans are abstractions of reality, not reality itself. Think of maps, for example, as presented by mathematician Alfred Korzybski in a paper from 1931 on mathematical semantics. In the technicalities of the paper, Korzybski introduced an idea – the map is not the territory (i.e. the model is not reality) –
A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory
Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics. Thus, if in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, a similar relation is found in the actual territory.
A map is not the actual territory.
An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, etc., endlessly…we may call this characteristic self-reflexiveness.
and identified a map’s limitations –
A map could be incorrect without us knowing it.
The map is, by necessity a reduction of the actual thing, a process in which you lose certain important information.
A map needs interpretation, which can cause major errors (the only way to solve this would be through self-reflexiveness).
Super interesting 15-page paper for those interested in reading through it, but my main takeaways:
- You can’t understand models (or maps) unless you understand their limitations – it’s important to understand the context in which the models and plans we use are useful
- When the map and terrain are different, follow the terrain
Good to Great (5/19/19)
Turnaround stories can make for the best types of investments, but what turns a company from a good company to a great company? Jim Collins did some research around this – he started with 1,435 good companies and looked at their performance over 40 years to find the 11 companies that became great (i.e. generated cumulative returns that exceeded the broader stock market by at least 3 times over 15 years) – and wrote an interesting little piece on the common characteristics of these companies. He starts by shutting down probably the most stereotypical “strategy change” myths –
- The launch event/tag line and proceeding activities.
- Stock options, high salaries, and bonuses grease the wheels of change.
- The fear of being left behind, watching others win, or presiding over monumental failure.
- You can acquire your way to growth and, therefore, greatness.
- The breakthrough can be achieved by using technology to leapfrog the competition.
and the punchline of his study is that each of the great companies has a down-to-earth and pragmatic framework that kept the company, its leadership, and its people on track for the long term. This ties in so well with one of my favorite concepts from Angela Duckworth on grit, but I’ll save that one for another week.
Shoe Dog (5/12/19)
Nike’s success story is probably one of the most common business curriculum case studies, especially when it comes to brand marketing, and the story of the company’s success has always made me admire the entrepreneur of Phil Knight. His memoir, Shoe Dog, is a fantastic read for those interested in being inspired by this company’s incredible ride, but here are the main lessons:
- You’re only going to get a few chances to start something, might as well go for broke when you’re young. Knight had written a paper on Japanese high-end, low-cost running shoes. While in Japan on a trip after graduation, he came across such shoes and decided to just cold-call the CEO of the company that manufactured those shoes and the CEO ended up giving Knight the rights for to sell the shoes in the western United States.
- Find somebody who can be your mentor and partner – somebody who will believe in you and bring valuable skills to the table. Knight’s track coach was this person for him.
- As a leader, don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what you want to achieve and let them figure out how to get there – if you’ve built the right team, they’ll surprise you.
Anthropological Philosophy (5/5/19)
This week I came across a piece on René Girard, a French historian/literary critic/social scientist known for his work in anthropological philosophy. The topic itself sounds super interesting, so obviously loved the read – it’s not too long for those who might want to get into it on their own, but for the rest, below are some of the main parts of Girard’s ideology that basically suggest a stable society is a differentiated one.
Humans don’t want things, they want to be things. Mimetic desire is the core of Girard’s work – he argues the root of what we desire isn’t the objects or experiences we pursue, it’s really more about mimicking “models” that we strive to become. The Don Drapers of the world play to this human nature – they’re not selling you a product, but they’re selling you membership to a particular peer set – whether it’s one that drives Ford pick-up trucks or uses Louis Vuitton handbags.
The nature of human conflict (to succeed, the hero must overcome the obstacle in order to reach a goal, where the primary relationship is between the hero and the goal) realistically is one where the hero’s goal is actually the hero’s model – wanting what the model wants or has – generally in today’s society is in the pursuit of status, which Girard believes to be a zero-sum game in which models and their imitators become rivals. However, distance between the model and imitator is important. If the model is far (God, historical figures, etc.) then the imitator will generally always be able to strive to become like the model and that relationship probably won’t change. The dynamic is much different for when models are close to the imitators (family, coworkers, neighbors, etc.).
Cash & Carry (4/28/19)
If you’ve been with us for long enough, you’ll remember one of my very first posts was about one of my go-to books on investing called One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch. One of the main takeaways from the book is to know what kind of investor you are – know how you’re going to react when the market goes down 25% and make sure you can stomach losing that money before you invest it. I came across a really interesting investor letter this week that highlights some characteristics of a dividend growth mindset as well as a value mindset. I love both when thinking about long-term investments, so obviously found the piece to be a great read. If you’re into it, I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing, otherwise below are my main takeaways.
As a dividend growth investor – focusing on positive carry investments (a company that grows at 12% every year) versus future monetization investments (a company that will be monetized at 3.1x the value today in 10 years). Both companies give you a 12% compounded annual return, but the positive carry investment is the superior investment (from the perspective of most rational investors, but especially from the perspective of a dividend growth investor) because:
- Money now is better than money later – the consistent annual returns can be reinvested at higher rates of return
- Consistent performance allows investors to assess progress – does the company’s performance continue to support your thesis on the investment?
- The public market is not a private market and it’s crazy to approach public market equity investments with the mindset of evaluating a private business with a permanent time horizon (this company’s investment horizon is around three years). My pushback on this argument, and I go back to a fundamental learning from “One Up on Wall Street” for this, is that once you buy a stock, sell it once your reason to own the stock changes, not just because of the price reactions in the market. By default, I think of my investments to have a much longer time horizon. But that’s the type of investor I am – I have a thesis for the business itself and I keep the stock until it no longer fits that thesis.
As a value investor – the tendency to overlook opportunity cost. For example – you have $100 today and two options over a year’s time:
- Have $110
- Have $105
A rational investor would choose option 1. But if you add some more color to these options so that your two options now are:
- Have $110 but after you see your investment rise to $150 and then fall to $110
- Have $105 through slow and steady positive returns
While option 1 is still the superior option, from an emotional standpoint most people would think about how they “lost” $40 through option 1 because it’s more visible. If you choose option 2, you don’t see your money disappear at my point during your investment, so you come out of it thinking you’ve made $5 while you’ve actually lost $5 compared to option 1. That $5 is your opportunity cost.
We think of diversity so much in the sense of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. but this week I came across Scott Page’s work on cognitive diversity. His book closes with this thought – “when we meet people who think differently than we do…we should see opportunity and possibility. We should recognize that a talented ‘I’ and a talented ‘they’ can become an even more talented ‘we.’” YAS!! I have observed this anecdotally, but for the data-driven thinkers like me, Page actually puts together a large body of empirical evidence and lays out two theorems. The “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem” states a randomly selected collection of problem solvers almost always outperforms a collection of the best individual problem solvers. The “Diversity Prediction Theorem” states the collective error is the average individual error less prediction diversity (read: diversity doesn’t just add marginal value, but matters as much as individual ability).
Social Capital (4/14/19)
The concept of social capital has always been pretty fascinating to me and I came across an interesting piece that looks at social media through the lens of social capital as a “Status as a Service” business. It’s a hefty read, but if you’ve got some time, I’d recommend giving it a try – it’s quite thought-provoking. The entire piece is based around the two principles that people are status-seeking monkeys (I think this is true of the majority but not all people), and people seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital. The analysis of the success of social media as it relates to formation of social capital goes something like this –
- Social media must have a strong network effect so as more users come onboard, the network realizes compounding incremental value (this point is fairly obvious).
- ROI is thought of as the number of likes/comments/shares on any post – and social networks have to devote resources to ensure users feel they’re receiving sufficient return on their work by putting the content in front of the appropriate audience (think of how Facebook starts personalizing your feed based on your prior actions/clicks).
- The piece then goes on to analyze social capital through inflation, deflation, rate hikes, devaluation risk, accumulation, storage, and arbitrage.
Up Up & Away (4/7/19)
Remember how Warren Buffet has turned $1 into $5,288 over the last 77 years? The stock market is the best wealth creator but frequently we forget to explain the reasoning behind why markets go up like this. I came across a fairly simple article that lays out the three drivers of growth (in order of magnitude) –
- Dividends – these are paid to shareholders who can then reinvest this capital into companies with higher growth, thereby compounding returns at a higher rate.
- Earnings growth – this is the most straight-forward economic explanation – and it’s driven by inflation, productivity, and demographics.
- Inflation occurs when demand exceeds supply (deflation occurs when the opposite is true, and it’s not great).
- Productivity gains occur when we are able to either produce more with the same amount of input (think industrial revolution) or create something totally new (think the internet). Inflation and productivity are closely interconnected, as inflation occurs and costs increase, it forces innovation for the sake of efficiency.
- Demographics – labor is the most expensive part of production and makes up 60% of the value of output. Growing populations lead to growing labor forces that earn wages that get put back into the economy in the form of the consumption of goods and services.
- Valuation multiples – this is the least straight-forward component of growth – it’s effectively the price per share investors are willing to pay for a dollar of earnings per share. And it’s driven by how an investor currently values the company’s future growth (assuming the company will still be around in the future).
The punchline – we can count on components of this market growth (i.e. productivity gains and demographics that largely contribute to earnings growth) with a decent amount of certainty and they should continue to push markets higher for the foreseeable future.
What’s an Inverted Yield Curve? (3/31/19)
A yield curve shows interest rates for different durations – it’s generally cheaper to borrow money for shorter term than to borrow money for longer term so a normal yield curve is upward sloping. In a situation where the opposite is true, the yield curve slopes downward and is referred to as an “inverted” yield curve. This yield curve inversion, especially between the 3-month and 10-year Treasury yields, has preceded the last seven US recessions and is the most reliable indicator of a potential recession according to the San Francisco Fed. Fun fact, the yield curve inverted a week ago – it remained inverted all week, closing out Friday essentially flat.
Data shows that if the yield curve remains inverted for at least ten straight days, a recession generally follows in about a year, so all eyes are on the 3-month and 10-year Treasury yields. It’s difficult to predict when the stock market peaks in relation to the yield curve inversion and the actual recession, as this hasn’t followed any standard pattern in the past. While the yield curve flattened out by the end of the week, there are still many other technical warning signs – breadth and momentum recently slowing and the very crowded long (read: stocks seem to be overbought) tech position continuing. Additionally, other general economic indicators, like manufacturing and GDP, have shown weakness. Meanwhile, the labor market is still strong, and lower interest rates generally encourage borrowing, which then boosts consumption. Then, take into consideration what the Fed might do in response to an extended yield curve inversion – to normalize the yield curve (lower the short-term interest rates below the long-term interest rates), they would have to start cutting interest rates, which could lead to a whole different set of considerations regarding the state of the economy. At the end of the day, this recent yield curve inversion isn’t a clear indicator on the impending state of the economy yet but it’s something to watch closely and its sure to drive sentiment in the market.
The Dropout (3/24/19)
A few years ago, Elizabeth Holmes was arguably viewed as a role model for entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs. She was recognized as the youngest female self-made billionaire. She was glorified as the “next Steve Jobs” and a “revolutionary” who was going to change medicine as we know it through the company she started when she dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19, Theranos. This company intended to create machines that could run hundreds of blood tests using just a single drop of blood. As high as she soared, she fell – further and faster – once she was exposed as a fraud by The Wall Street Journal in 2015. I had known of her demise but didn’t realize the extent of the deceit until I listened to a podcast serializing the story.
The criminal proceedings against Elizabeth Holmes aren’t complete, so we’ll see whether she is found guilty. The biggest catch here is that prosecutors have to prove not only did Elizabeth commit fraud, but she intended to commit fraud. At the end of this six-episode podcast, it’s interesting to think about whether she was just a bad person or so delusional in her vision that she didn’t realize what she was doing. It honestly might be a little bit of both, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Below are some tidbits I found particularly interesting:
- When asked as a young girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was “a billionaire.”
- She vehemently dismissed any criticism. As a student at Stanford, as a CEO, if anyone questioned her ideas or methods, they were gone. The turnover at all levels in Theranos was unbelievable.
- Her obsession with Steve Jobs seems really unhealthy (speaking obviously with no subject matter expertise). She started dressing like him. She started speaking in a deeper voice that wasn’t her natural voice. She poached talent from Apple. As soon as these people started working at Theranos and realized the company was built on lies, they were gone – most resigned of their own volition. See point above on rate of turnover at Theranos. It’s good to know most people still have a moral compass that largely points north.
- What got me the most in this entire podcast – stories from patients who were misdiagnosed by Theranos, Theranos employees who were emotionally abused to the point of suicide, and the lack of responsibility from Elizabeth Holmes toward the entire situation.
“Starving the Watchdog” (3/16/19)
Who has a subscription to a local newspaper? *crickets* I don’t think I’ve ever had a subscription to a local newspaper. I believe my neighbors have a subscription just for the coupons featured in the Sunday paper. Today, news (or fake news) just gets delivered to our fingertips, and millions of Americans have decided they don’t need to pay for a subscription to the local newspaper anymore. If nobody is reading the paper, businesses aren’t going to pay for advertisements in the paper. Without advertisements in the paper, local newspaper revenues plummet and the business has to downsize by cutting staff or shut down all together. I didn’t really think about this much, but came across a podcast that was really informative about the broader effects of the decline of local journalism as Americans move away from print media.
Local newspapers provide the stories cited by so many other aggregators, like news channels or even the more popular online news sources. In John Oliver’s words, “it’s pretty obvious, without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around.” LOL. On top of that, local newspapers act like local police departments by standing up to corruption in local government and business (have you seen Spotlight!? If not, highly recommend.). In fact, new research shows that there’s a price to be paid by taxpayers when these local watchdogs shutter down. Following a newspaper closure, municipal borrowing costs increase by .05-.11%, which roughly translates to $650k for every issuance. The rise in corruption causes municipalities to become riskier in the eyes of lenders, which raises their cost of borrowing money, which falls on the shoulders of the taxpayers that have stopped subscribing to local newspapers.
The Laffer Curve (3/9/19)
It seems almost impossible to tune into the news these days and not pick up on taxes in some way – whether it’s about raising taxes on the wealthy or about the impact of tax reform on tax returns (or lack thereof). And at this point in the political cycle, this is bound to be a politicized topic of conversation. At the end of the day, taxes are meant to generate revenue to fund the government, so the question becomes – at what point is the tax system most efficient at raising revenues while stimulating economic growth? Here, I find Art Laffer’s views interesting. He first explained the concept of his famous Laffer Curve on the back of a napkin in the early 1970s and it’s meant to demonstrate the relationship between tax rates and the amount of tax revenue collected by the government.
The Laffer Curve shows that as taxes increase from 0%, tax revenue generated for the government also increases. However, increasing taxes beyond a certain threshold diminishes the incentive to work or produce more, at which point continuing to increase taxes actually reduces output, and therefore, the amount of tax revenue. And when you tax a person or a company at 100%, they’re going to just stop working and producing, which means they are now generating no income on which to actually pay taxes, so the government’s tax revenues are also 0. Hence, tax revenues as a function of the tax rate follow a curve – they start at 0, increase until you reach that threshold tax rate, and then decrease back to 0. Yes, this concept is potentially too simplistic, but it provides a basic framework when thinking about the effectiveness of tax policies.
From the Oracle of Omaha (3/2/19)
A few years ago, I read The Essays of Warren Buffett, a book that compiles excerpts from Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders. Since then, I’ve made it a habit to read the annual letters – they’re never too long and always prove to be witty and informative in true Warren Buffett style. This year’s letter was published earlier this week and these are my favorite points:
- “Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: ‘If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?’ and then answered his own query: ‘Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.’ Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.” First of all, I laughed out loud. Second of all, I couldn’t agree more – this is in the part of the letter titled “Focus on the Forest – Forget the Trees” and the example Warren uses here is fitting – companies not considering stock-based compensation as an expense – “What else could it be? A gift from shareholders?” So many companies and Wall Street analysts try to cloud the view of the forest by manipulating the minutia of the trees – always step back and look at the big picture when analyzing investments. When you invest in a company, you’re investing in its management team and a management team that calls a tail a leg is usually not one to trust in.
- Viewing the US government as a shareholder at an ownership percentage based on the tax rate. YAAASS!!! Of course when you say it, it makes total sense, but I hadn’t ever really thought of it in this way specifically! If lawmakers would view themselves as 21% owners (based on the new corporate tax rate) in companies, and educate themselves on how capital markets actually work, there would be no talk about eliminating or limiting share buybacks. That’s a whole another topic (read: rant) for another week.
- “The American Tailwind” – This country, in a truly bipartisan way (under the leadership of 7 Democratic and 7 Republican Presidents), has seen the stock market turn $1 into $5,288 over the last 77 years since Warren Buffett made his first investment. Warren Buffett attributes a lot of his success on this country that started with a “small band of ambitious people…aimed at turning their dream into reality. Today, the Federal Reserve estimates our household wealth at $108 trillion, an amount almost impossible to comprehend.” Cue USA chant. I can’t wait to be part of the next 77 years of American growth.
“Capitalism, at its core, is fairly straightforward: create shareholder value by providing customers with access to something scarce.” But software and the internet have decimated so many barriers to scarcity in industry after industry (retail, content, etc.) that we’re entering a new world of abundance – where the friction involved in consumption decisions starts to disappear. This week I came across Alex Danco’s thoughts on industry structures and competitive behavior and how they’re changing as we shift from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance.
If you’re willing to spend some time on it, I’d highly recommend reading the essays in their entirety but here are his punchlines:
- Friction (scarcity) allows for return on capital while the lack of friction (abundance) allows for compounding growth – great businesses harness both.
- Technology changes where the friction is located – as scarce resources become abstracted and turn abundant, scarcity appears elsewhere.
- Scarcity motivates us to act for the long term by solving hard problems but when it’s unclear what is scare, short-term thinking takes over, which makes us greedy when we should be fearful and fearful when we should be greedy.
Closing the Loop (2/16/19)
An interesting concept called a “circular economic model” came across my reads this week. I found many different definitions of this concept, but essentially it’s an industrial system that’s regenerative by design – it is intended to eliminate waste as products are designed to be reused and the energy consumed throughout the industrial process is renewable by nature. For example, Rothys makes shoes from recycled water bottles and offers customers free shipping to return used shoes that can be recycled into yoga mats, soles, or even new shoes. A recent survey from ING indicated that 16% of US companies are already adopting circular economies while another 62% of US companies are moving toward a circular economy as part of their future business strategy.
Rewind and Rewrite (2/9/19)
Ever think about something that happened in your life and then think of a thousand different things you could have said or done differently to generate a different outcome? I learned this week that this kind of thinking actually has a technical name – it’s called a counterfactual and is triggered by four elements of the specific memory –
- It is clearly a bad outcome
- It is out of the ordinary
- You can see how you or somebody else had a central role in the outcome
- You can draw a direct cause and effect relationship between what you or somebody else did (#3) and the clearly bad outcome (#1).
Counterfactuals are useful because they can help us see what we can do differently next time and help us feel like we can have more control over future outcomes – they can affect behavioral changes. An interesting podcast I heard this week analyzed why the lack of these triggers might explain apathetic behavior toward climate change.
Results of climate change (think receding glaciers or slowly rising water temperatures) are not seen by many as “end of the world” issues, so they don’t think of them as clearly bad outcomes, and for a lot of people, they aren’t anything out of the ordinary. Additionally, it can be difficult to pinpoint how any one action by an individual directly impacts climate change given it happens at a pace that’s not easily observable. Therefore, it’s difficult to directly observe a cause and effect relationship. The outcome – it doesn’t result in behavioral changes. If you’re passionate about climate change, here’s some food for thought – how can you create these triggers to actually influence others’ behaviors?
The Learning Curve (2/2/19)
You may or may not have gathered how fascinated I am by technological innovation, which, by definition, is brand new territory and therefore difficult to truly evaluate from a financial perspective. Investors determine the attractiveness of an investment based on its underlying value – how do you even think about assigning value to something that hasn’t existed before or is expected to see massive technological disruption? Enter Wright’s Law.
First published in 1936 in the Journal of Aeronautical Sciences, Wright’s Law tries to explain the rate of technological progress and basically tells us that we learn by doing (shocker, I know – fool me once…) and predicts that every percentage increase in the cumulative production results in a fixed percentage improvement in the production efficiency, or the unit cost. A study by MIT and the Santa Fe Institute actually found Wright’s Law to be the best model to forecast technological progress (out of a few that are out there) in various different industries from aircraft production to beer manufacturing. So apparently, to predict how the cost of a product is going to change through technological innovation (which is very useful in creating cash flow forecasts and valuing investments), I just have to figure out the historical rate at which technology has allowed things to get cheaper in that industry (for example, computers) and apply that same rate going forward. Magic.
Life Tips (1/26/19)
This week goes out to one of my favorite books – it resonates with me in ways few others ever have – The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In the broadest sense, the book is about the ability of small changes to make huge differences. It explores social epidemics – when ideas, products, messages, or other behaviors in general – become popular suddenly and unexpectedly, and almost seem to happen overnight. The moment at which a social epidemic goes from being invisible to inevitable is called the “tipping point” (based on the diffusion of innovation, remember this concept from a few weeks ago?) and this book explores how these social epidemics happen and whether it’s actually possible to start and control them.
The book explores social epidemics via three concepts – the people who cause them, the actual content of the epidemics, and the environment in which they occur:
- Law of the Few: A small number of people have a disproportionate amount of power. Social epidemics reach a tipping point when Mavens (those who love to accumulate knowledge and therefore discover the trend) tell Connectors (those with massive networks with the ability and propensity to spread information they feel important), who end up telling the Salesmen (those who can persuade people to change their behaviors).
- Stickiness: Unless the idea or product or behavior is “sticky” – memorable enough to make people take action. The example – Sesame Street. The amount of research that went into making the show is fascinating.
- Context: human behavior is largely driven by the physical environment in which we live. This seems super intuitive, but the book uses poignant examples like the broken windows theory and Dunbar’s number to explain human behavioral changes in the face of changing contexts in a really impactful way.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read this book, but every time I walk away wanting to be part of bringing a social epidemic to its tipping point. It’s an easy read and 110% worth every minute of the four hours (at most) it would take to get through it. Highly recommend. We can geek out about it after you’re done.
I Can Transform Ya (1/19/19)
Something that I absolutely love following in the market is disruptive innovation – products or services that will transform how we live and work. It provides a look into what the future holds, which helps me understand what companies out there will be long-term winners and losers of these transformations. Some of the most interesting disruptive innovation is happening in artificial intelligence, especially deep learning, which has the ability to transform every industry. Think of deep learning as a form of artificial intelligence inspired by a human brain – using deep learning, machines don’t need a programmer to tell them what to do, they use data to train themselves.
We’re already using products and services that are powered by deep learning – Facebook and Netflix leverage this to select custom content for users, the Apple Watch leverages this to predict arterial fibrillation, Tesla’s Model 3 autopilot uses this to drive on highways, Google Translate uses this to translate more than 100 billion words per day. Deep learning reaches into every industry and according to Ark Invest, could create 3x the value of the internet aka add $30 trillion to the global equity markets. This growth is powered by an unfathomable amount of data – and processing that much data creates a huge demand for computing hardware like AI chips and semiconductors. Stay tuned for some stock picks in this space, but this week I looked at AI-enabled cyber security platform provider Palo Alto Networks.
A Chess Master’s Views on Finance (1/12/19)
Thanks to one of our readers, Ryan DuBiel, for this week’s interesting find – a podcast featuring Adam Robinson – author, educator, hedge fund advisor, co-founder of The Princeton Review, a rated chess master with an undergrad degree from Wharton and a law degree from Oxford. TLDR, this dude’s really smart and I found two points he made to be really interesting:
First, in the world of finance, we talk about trends all the time. But how do we actually define that term? Adam defines it as the spread of ideas. He also references the diffusion of innovation as the method in which ideas spread (aka how trends appear) even within the stock market. I can discuss the diffusion of innovation for days, I’ll save that topic for another week.
Second, there are five groups of traders who express their views of the future in the way they trade – equity, currency, bond, metal, and energy traders – and below are Adam’s most interesting observations –
When bond traders and equity traders disagree about the economy, bond traders are usually right and early.
Bond traders’ views on the economy are expressed by the yield spread between corporate bonds and 10-year treasuries. Corporate bonds should have a higher yield than US treasuries – the smaller the spread, the stronger the economy. In the stock market, the higher the stock prices, the stronger the economy. So when you see a divergence in the views of the economy expressed by bonds and stocks, Adam says that 99% of the time, the views expressed by bonds are correct and early. My two cents – a bond investor’s method for analyzing a company is much more of a science than that of a stock investor’s just given the different risk/reward characteristics of bonds and stocks. Therefore, by default (pun intended), the bond investor’s method for analyzing a company should yield fewer errors that are introduced by various different biases in a stock investor’s method.
Metal traders are better than bond traders at predicting the direction of interest rates.
Metal traders view the economy in terms of how much copper is being sold – higher the copper sales, stronger the economy. Their effective interest rate is the price of copper divided by the price of gold. When we see this effective interest rate moving in the opposite direction of actual interest rates measured by 10-year treasuries, the interest rate directionality predicted by the metal traders’ effective interest rate has not been incorrect in this century. In August, the effective interest rate as shown by metal traders was at a one-year low, indicating interest rates should move down, while 10-year treasuries were indicating interest rates were at five-year highs above 3%. Since then, interest rates on 10-year treasuries have come down to about 2.7% and metal traders’ effective interest rates have maintained their perfect batting average.
The Essentials (1/5/19)
One of my absolute favorite books on investing is One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch. Peter Lynch managed the Magellan Fund at Fidelity Investments between 1977 and 1990. He averaged a 29.2% annual return (which is jaw-dropping awesome btw), more than doubling the S&P 500 market index consistently, and was largely regarded as the best mutual fund manager in the world.
For those of you who are really interested, I’d highly recommend reading the book in its entirety – it’s about 280 pages and filled with great lessons for the average investor and plenty of LOL moments. I read this book at least once a year and learn something new every time. Here are some of the biggest takeaways:
- Invest with a long-term view. These lessons are probably my favorite.
- Once you buy the stock, sell it once your reason to own the stock changes, not just because of price reactions in the market. Be patient and let the reason you bought the stock actually play out.
- Buy when everyone is selling (aka when the stock price drops) – take advantage of your stock being on sale! But at the same time, don’t buy a company just because it seems cheap, you should believe in the company and not just blindly follow the numbers.
“If you can’t convince yourself ‘When I’m down 25 percent, I’m a buyer’ and banish forever the fatal thought ‘When I’m down 25 percent, I’m a seller,’ then you’ll never make a decent profit in stocks.”
- Study and notice companies that you come across in your daily life – it’s the best way to identify good stocks, and usually before that information makes it to Wall Street.
- Know what kind of investor you are before you invest in stocks. Know how you’re going to react when the market goes down 25%. And don’t invest with money that you can’t stomach losing.