the Dollar Shave Club and Unilever

Unilever has made a $1 billion offer to buy the Dollar Shave Club, an online razor blade (and other grooming accessories) business started from scratch in 2011.

Media reaction to the deal is that this is a story about the power of the internet   …which it partly is.  The big traditional makers of razors and blades, Gillette and Schick, ignored the possibility of alternate distribution channels despite almost two decades of strong evidence of the “creative destruction” power of the internet.

But that’s not the whole story.  Two other, more traditional factors are involved:

–over the past ten years or more, razors and blades from Gillette and other manufacturers have become more complex and much more expensive.  “New and improved” (read: higher-priced) models have been introduced with greater frequency.  This has also been happening at a time when the overall market is stagnating as fewer men are shaving every day.  I can’t help believing that this behavior is at least in part as a way to justify the $54 billion Procter and Gamble paid to acquire Gillette in 2005.

No matter what the cause, however, the result has been to make the ground-level mistake of creating a pricing umbrella under which an online competitor–which, after all, will have higher unit production and distribution costs–could prosper.

–A fundamental rule of marketing is that self-cannibalization of a product market is always preferable to having an outsider grab market share from you.  Gillette et al. should have responded to the emergence of services like DSC by aggressively creating similar online products.  Yes, this may mean that total profits may end up being only 75% of what they once were.  And it means abandoning the illusion that the prior market structure will magically be restored.  But having the 75 for yourself is better than you having 50 and a new entrant having 25.

Pretended that this new competition doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.  Nevertheless, the sad fact is that the first strategy of the status quo is almost always denial.  In the short term, this protects bonuses and perks.  But allowing new competition to flourish is invariably a long-term disaster.

Amusingly, DSC investor David Pakman’s blog offers this strategy tidbit:

  • Choose categories where the CEOs of the incumbents are professional CEOs, not founders (thus are far less-likely to cannibalize existing businesses and adopt new business models).

That says it all.

Nintendo’s press release on Pokemon Go

Having the information from yesterday’s post, we can take a closer look at what Nintendo said in its press release from last Friday.  (In what follows, I’m assuming that the English version of the release from the Nintendo website is an accurate rendering of the Japanese.)

The heart of the release is this:

“The Company owns 32% of the voting power of The Pokémon Company. The Pokémon Company is the Company’s affiliated company, accounted for by using the equity method. Because of this accounting scheme, the income reflected on the Company’s consolidated business results is limited.

…Taking the current situation into consideration, the Company is not modifying the consolidated financial forecast for now.”

paragraph 1

True as far as it goes.  Because of equity accounting, Pokemon Company results will have, by definition, no impact on Nintendo’s consolidated gross, operating or pre-tax income.  But the paragraph actually says nothing.

In addition, significant information is left out. Nintendo benefits from Pokemon Go in two ways that don’t appear on the income statement at all.

–Nintendo owns about 10% of Creatures, one of its two 32% partners in controlling The Pokemon Company.  That interest, 3.2% of The Pokemon Company, is accounted for using the cost method, so the portion of Pokemon’s profits that this represents appears nowhere in Nintendo’s income statement

–Nintendo owns about 12% of Niantic, the developer and distributor of Pokemon Go.  If we figure that payments to The Pokemon Company represent 25% of Niantic’s profits, then that firm keeps 75%.  12% of that equals 9% of the total.  In other words, if these figures are approximately correct (I think they are), they indicate that Nintendo profits from Pokemon Go through its Niantic holding by about the same amount that it does through its The Pokemon Company interests.  The Niantic interest is accounted for by the cost method, so none of this appears on the Nintendo income statement.

–some analysts maintain that Niantic also makes direct payments to Nintendo for its use of Pokemon characters.  I’m not sure this is correct, particularly since this money would likely appear on Nintendo’s income statement–but is not mentioned in the press release.

paragraph 2

This is simply Nintendo saying, “we haven’t gotten any money in yet, so we’re not going to speculate.”

 

why nothing more elaborate   ….and potentially more useful in the press release?

Two reasons:

–the release is, I think, a report to the public of a formal reply to a stock exchange query, which was something like, “Given the sharp recent rise in your company’s stock, do you have any reason to raise your estimate of March 2017 consolidated profit results?”

Nintendo is simply answering the question, and in its mind avoiding possible future trouble by saying nothing more.

–many companies, and Nintendo is one of them, are intentionally closed-mouthed.  In conversation with someone they don’t know well, they may start out saying something anodyne, or even intentionally misleading.  They want to see if their interviewer has enough professional knowledge, and has studied their company in enough depth, to be able to challenge them.  Only after an analyst has passed one or more of these “tests” will the company begin to answer questions in a fuller way.  If the analyst flunks, the host is insulted and the analyst is written off as a waste of time.   The interview may still last, say, an hour but the conversation will remain on a superficial level.  This press release is part of the same mindset.

three ways to account for associated companies

This post is to lay the groundwork for understanding what Nintendo actually said about Pokemon Go last Friday.

There are three basic ways to account for companies that a firm owns an interest of less than 100% in another firm.

–the cost method.  This is used when the firm whose financial reports we’re talking about has neither influence nor control over the operations of the enterprise held.  A good rule of thumb is that this means a holding of less than 20% of the outstanding shares.

In this situation, the holding is listed on the balance sheet as a long-term investment at acquisition cost.

Under normal circumstances, the income statement contains no accounting of the holding’s financial results.

Two exceptions:  dividends paid are recorded as income; if the asset is impaired, the loss is shown on the income statement.

On the other hand, if the value of the holding increases, there’s no reflection of this in the owner’s financials.  Yes, accounting theory says the holding value should be adjusted periodically for changes in the investment’s fortunes, but as a practical matter this is rarely done.

equity interests.  This is where the holding firm is judged to have influence but not control over the entity held.  Typically, this applies to holdings that fall between 20% and 50% ownership of the investment.

If so, the owner records his share of the financial results of the holding on a single line toward the bottom of the income statement.  This line is called “Equity Interests” or something like that and is an after-tax aggregate of all such equity interests.

The holder also adjusts the balance sheet value for profits (up), losses (down) and dividends received (down).

consolidation.  This is the case where the holding firm exercises influence and control.  The rule of thumb here is that ownership of 50% or higher implies having both.

If the ownership is less than 100%, the consolidating company still reports results–revenues, costs etc.–from operations as if it owned 100%.  But it add correcting, after-tax entries, both in the income statement and on the balance sheet, typically labelled “Minority interests” that subtract out the portion of earnings and assets held by others.  Again, these are aggregate figures and not broken out holding-by-holding.  Minority interests are usually recorded toward the bottom of the income statement, somewhere near the consolidated net income line.

Tomorrow, how this applies to the Nintendo announcement

 

Nintendo (TYO:7974) and Pokemon Go

Nintendo in a nutshell

Nintendo is a non-establishment Japanese company that started out making playing cards but became a worldwide sensation early in the videogame era.  It’s the creator of the Nintendo console and Gameboy handheld machines, plus proprietary games and characters like Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda.

When gaming shifted from consoles to mobile, Nintendo pretty much disappeared.   Its stock has languished since, despite the company’s extensive intellectual property.

That’s the main reason, I think, that the stock took such a huge leap–it came close to doubled in two weeks on 20x normal volume–when Pokemon Go was released.  Not only is that game a smash hit, but its success underlines the continuing relevance and therefore the still enormous profit potential from Nintendo’s extensive intellectual property.  Of course, this potential can most likely only be realized through mobile games, something Nintendo has, in a fashion bewildering to those not familiar with the company or with Japan, so far avoided as a matter of long-term corporate strategy.

 

Friday’s press release

After the close of business in Japan last Friday, Nintendo issued a short press release about Pokemon Go.

The release starts out with stuff anyone could have found out on Wikipedia. Pokemon Go was developed by Niantic, a spinoff from Google, not Nintendo.  Nintendo participates in the game’s success, however, through its 32% ownership in The Pokemon Company (PC).  PC will  receive a licensing fee from Niantic, as well as compensation for continuing collaboration in Pokemon Go’s development.  (Nintendo also owns an undisclosed (12%?) interest in Niantic, which might turn out to be much more valuable than any one game–but that’s not mentioned.)

brass tacks

The heart of the release is in the next-to-last sentence, which reads:

“Taking the current situation into consideration, the Company is not modifying the consolidated financial forecast for now.”

Monday trading

On Monday in Tokyo, short-term traders frightened by the press release quickly pushed Nintendo shares down by the maximum allowable daily amount (that percentage varies for each stock but in Nintendo’s case it’s 18%), where the stock stayed all day.  Today the stock rose slightly.

my thoughts

I don’t view Nintendo’s press release as containing much news at all.  I think it’s a response to an official inquiry from the stock exchange (Tokyo or Osaka) about whether there’s any reason for the unusual trading in Nintendo shares.  The inquiry will have been very specific:  whether Nintendo has any reason to revise up the earnings forecast for the fiscal year ending in March 2017 that it has on file with the exchange. (Note: publicly traded Japanese companies are required to revise their forecasts if/when they know earnings will be +/- 25% from what’s on file.)

Nintendo’s answer:  No, not at this time.

In my experience, this is a very Nintendo-like answer.  It’s also typical of mid-sized Japanese companies in general.  It responds narrowly to the question, and volunteers nothing more.  If a revision is warranted, it will most likely only come in February.  In this case, though, it probably is way too early to tell the significance of the new game.

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elon Musk’s master plan for Tesla (TSLA)

Last week, Elon Musk issued his second master plan for TSLA as a blog post on the company website.

The plan has four parts:

autonomous driving, with the goal of making self-driving cars 10x as safe as those operated by human drivers.  The main issue here is, according to Musk, compiling enough safety date to convince governments to allow autonomous driving on public roads

expanding the product line, to include pickup trucks and compact SUVs, plus heavy trucks and urban buses.

Although what he writes on this topic is not 100% clear, one goal under this heading seems to be to reinvent the auto manufacturing process in a way that the new/improved factory is 5x – 10x as efficient as current ones.  One ambiguity I see is whether this means 10x the efficiency of, say, a Toyota plant, or 10x the efficiency of the current TSLA operation.  I presume he means the former.

Another is exactly what “efficiency” is.  I’m taking it to mean that Musk intends to create factories that, for the same capital investment, will produce 5x – 10x as many cars in a given time as current factories do.  My cursory inspection of auto 10Ks (other than TSLA, I don’t think I’ve owned an auto stock since the 1980s) tells me this won’t mean a huge jump in unit profits for any auto firm, including TSLA, since most of the costs of making a car are in materials and labor, not capital equipment.  Greater efficiency would boost overall profits, however, as well as allow TSLA to dramatically increase its vehicle output.

sharing.  Musk thinks that in an era of autonomous driving, some people won’t own cars themselves anymore.  They’ll simply call for one from a sharing service when they need it.  Other people will own cars but will allow their vehicles to be used in a sharing service when they don’t need them.  TSLA intends to organize sharing services for its vehicles.

This is a much more revolutionary statement than it seems.

The average car is used only 10% – 15% of the day, according to Musk.  If sharing boosted that usage figure to, say, 30% in highly populated areas, then those regions would need only half the cars they do today   …maybe fewer.  At some point, this would mean an implosion in demand for new autos–and the end of the car manufacturing industry as we know it.

merger of TSLA and SolarCity (SCTY).  In his Master Plan, part deux, Musk says he wants to create a “smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app.”

He says this can’t happen while TSLA and SCTY are separate companies, something he describes as “an accident of history.”

I’m not sure I buy this.  I do think that Musk created clear economic superiority of TSLA over SCTY when he decided to place the Gigafactory for solar batteries inside TSLA.  To my mind, that makes SCTY radically dependent on TSLA today.  Merging the two companies would put SCTY back on an even footing.  For TSLA shareholders, arguably the main benefit of the combination is obtaining SCTY at a cheap price.

human capital and the US presidential election

human capital

When we think of sources of capital, we typically imagine bank accounts, IRA/401ks, stocks, bonds, pensions, land/structures we can rent or mortgage…

For most people, though, the largest source of wealth they have is their human capital, a concept economist Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize in 1992 for articulating.

Basically, human capital is the collection of characteristics someone has that allows him to get a job and make money.  The three main ones, according to Becker, are: education, training and health.

The way human capital is generally quantified is by creating a present value of future expected earnings.  One implication of this is that an individual’s human capital gradually diminishes as he ages.  It’s often said that that figure reaches zero when he’s 65, although I think this is more because no one will hire you, rather than that you suddenly lose your skills.

investments and politics

Human capital is an important idea in managing our investments …as well as in politics today.

investments

The investment issue is risk and diversification.

A key employee in a tech startup who owns a house in Silicon Valley and a portfolio stuffed full of tech stocks has no diversification at all.  And, no matter what his faith in his skills, the circumstances that would cause him to lose his job likely also substantially impair the value of his dwelling and his stocks.

In contrast, a tenured professor at a top-10 university probably has a job for life (my philosophy mentor is retiring next year at 82–so much for human capital reaching zero at 65!).  Having a stock portfolio that contains only utilities is probably excessively conservative.

politics

The political issue is jobs.

For some years, China has been facing the problem that economic prosperity has made sewing t-shirts, and other simple, labor-intensive industrial operations, unprofitable there.  Affected companies are closing down and relocating to lower cost places like Bangladesh, creating substantial unemployment.

If all a person in China can do is make t-shirts, his human capital, no matter what his age, is reduced to zero as industry leaves the country.  Economically, this is devastating.

What to do?

The obvious, well-understood answer is for government to help retrain the t-shirt makers for another occupation.  This restores the value of his human capital, most likely to a higher level than before.  It’s good for the country as well as the individual.

Which brings us to the US…

We have a similar problem to China’s, except that we’ve had it for much longer.  Despite this, the US pays very little attention to worker retraining, spending about 1/6 per capita of what the average advanced country does.  If that spending is anything like the VA’s “service” for veterans, the government effort is even weaker than that low figure suggests.

The  deep discontent that this failure has produced is, I think, the nerve that Donald Trump and his scary, crackpot, Ned-Ludd-reads-Mein-Kampf ideas have touched.  Their sole merit is that they make clear the scale of the problem that Washington has brushed under the rug for years.

I was going to end this by comparing Trump to Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who did so much damage to that country’s economy during four terms.  Yes, Berlusconi promised to fix serious problems.  But he made them worse instead.  As I was googling to make sure spelled the name correctly, I found this article from Politico.

 

mutual fund and ETF fund flows

away from active management…

There’s a long-term movement by investors of all stripes away from actively managed mutual funds into index funds and ETFs.  As Morningstar has recently reported, such switching has reached 2008-era levels in recent months.  Surges like this have been the norm during periods of uncertainty.

The mantra of index proponents has long been that investors can’t control performance, but they can control costs.  Therefore, all other things being more or less equal, investors should look for, and buy, the lowest-cost alternative in each category they’re interested in.  That’s virtually always an index fund or an ETF.

Active managers haven’t helped themselves by generally underperforming index products before their (higher) fees.

…but net stock inflows

What I find interesting and encouraging is that stock products overall are receiving net inflows–meaning that the inflows to passive products are higher than the outflows from active ones.

why today is different

Having been an active manager and having generally outperformed, neither of these negative factors for active managers bothered me particularly during my investing career.  One thing has changed in the current environment, though, to the detriment of all active management.

It’s something no one is talking about that I’m aware of.  But it’s a crucial part of the argument in favor of passive investing, in my opinion.

what is an acceptable net return?

It’s the change in investor expectations about what constitutes an acceptable net return.

If we go back to early 2000, the 10-year Treasury bond yield was about 6.5%, and a one-year CD yielded 5.5%.  US stocks had just concluded a second decade of double-digit average annual returns.  So whether your annual net return from bonds was 5.5% or 5.0%, or whether your net return from stocks was 12% or 11%, may not have made that much difference to you.  So you wouldn’t look at costs so critically.

Today, however, the epic decline in interest rates/inflation that fueled a good portion of that strong investment performance is over.  The 10-year Treasury now yields 1.6%.  Expectations for annual stock market returns probably exceed 5%, but are certainly below 10%.  The actual returns on stocks over the past two years have totalled around 12%, or 6% each year.

rising focus on cost control

In the current environment, cost control is a much bigger deal.  If I could have gotten a net return of 6% on an S&P 500 ETF in 2014 and 2015, for example, but have a 4% net from an actively managed mutual fund (half the shortfall due to fees, half to underperformance) that’s a third of my potential return gone.

It seems to me that so long as inflation remains contained–and I can see no reason to think otherwise–we’ll be in the current situation.  Unless/until active managers reduce fees substantially, switching to passive products will likely continue unabated.  And in an environment of falling fees and shrinking assets under management making needed improvements in investment performance will be that much more difficult.