Silicon Valley backlash?

I think we may be at a watershed moment in terms of the acceptability of the corporate behavior of tech/internet-related companies.

Up until now, it has been enough for investors that Silicon Valley produce increasing profits.  Institutionalized poor behavior on the part of the firms’ managements–whether that be violation of some employees’ civil rights or less-than-ethical treatment of customers or shareholders–has made little difference to their stocks’ performance.

Uber is perhaps the poster child for this phenomenon, which has also been, aptly, I think, characterized as “fratboy” behavior.  But now Uber appears to be losing its license to operate in London, which holds 5% of the worldwide active users of the taxi service, because of its not being a “fit and proper” operator.

The case of Facebook (FB) is just as interesting.  Founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans last year to give a large amount of his stock in FB to a charitable trust that he and his wife would run.  In order to preserve his majority control of FB despite divesting a large chunk of his shares, he proposed that each A share, the ones with super voting power that insiders like him hold, be “split” into one A + two C shares, the ones with no voting rights.  Zuckerberg could then give away the C shares, representing about 2/3 of his wealth, without any decrease in his 53% voting control of FB.

The board of FB appointed one of its members, Marc Andreessen, a developer of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers, to represent third-party shareholders in this matter–to ensure that this restructuring would be fair to them.

Institutional investors sued.  During discovery, they found among other things, emails between Andreessen and Zuckerberg in which, far from defending third-party holders,  Andreessen appears to be coaching Zuckerberg on how to present his proposal to the board in the most favorable light for him.

Today, FB announced it’s dropping the restructuring plan.

 

If I’m correct about a fundamental change in investor sentiment, what does this mean for us as investors?

At the very least, I think it means that the business-is-what-you-can-get-away-with attitude (borrowing from Andy Warhol) of many tech companies will be penalized with a discount valuation.  It may also prevent some early stage firms from being able to list–preventing employees from cashing in on what they’ve built.  On tech/internet’s notorious anti-woman bias, I’m not sure.  After all, the investment business isn’t that far ahead of tech in eliminating this form of prejudice.

 

 

21st century retailing: my trip to Home Depot

This is another mountain-out-of-a molehill thing.

We have Toto toilets in our house.  Toto is the leading brand in Asia and has been making significant inroads in the US over close to two decades.  Yes, they’re the toilets that play music, heat the seat, double as a bidet and make fake urinating noises (a Japanese must)–but we just have plain old toilets.

The other day, I went to the local Home Depot, which, by the way, sells Toto toilets, to get a replacement part for one of ours.  A friendly employee showed me where the replacement parts were–all aftermarket brands, not Toto, but that was ok with me–and which was the right one. The replacement didn’t look much like the broken part, but the employee assured me that it would work.

It didn’t.  And, in fact, in looking back on my trip, the HD employee may, strictly speaking, have only told me that that was all they had.  If so, kind of embarrassing for me, since for most of my working life I was on the alert for verbal gymnastics aimed at papering over problems.

Rather than launch a telephone search for a plumbing supply store in the neighborhood that might carry the part I needed, I found it on Amazon.

 

Around the same time, I found I needed a replacement part for a Weber grill.  Same story.  HD sells Weber grills, but not replacement parts.  So, after a wasted trip to the local HD store, I ordered from AMZN.

 

What’s interesting about this?

In the early days of the internet, there was lots of speculation about the “long tail,” meaning that e-retailers like AMZN would make most of their money from selling obscure items that potential buyers couldn’t find in bricks-and-mortar stores.

A great story   …just not the case back then.  Just like bam, online exhibited the “heavy half” phenomenon, i.e., 80% of the business came from 20% of the items.

 

But maybe the long tail is beginning to come true.  It’s not because weird stuff that no one really wants has suddenly come into vogue.  Instead, I think computer-driven inventory control programs that eliminate slow-moving items from a store’s offerings may have gone too far.  Yes, carrying fewer items has the beneficial effect of requiring fewer employees and less floor space.  But at some point, the process begins to have negative consequences, as well.

For instance, it’s training me not to go to a physical DIY store, so I’m not passing by enticing end cap displays or being tempted by the sparkly high-margin junk arrayed along the checkout line.

 

My experience as an analyst has been that any cost-control measures always seem to go too far.  They work for a while, but the continual application of the same process somehow eventually ends up creating the opposite of the intended effect (yes, experience has made me a Hegelian, after all).  This may be what is starting to happen with inventory control programs that retailers use.

If I’m correct, this is another plus for AMZN.

 

21st century retail: my trip to Rite-Aid

I went to Rite-Aid the other day to get some Aleve.  I was away from home, in a rural area more than 100 miles from the nearest Costco, and not at a place where I could get same-day delivery from Amazon (270 Aleve tablets for $18 ($0.07 each).

I had several choices:

–100 generic (naproxen sodium) tablets for $9 ($.09 ea.),

–200 generic for $14 ($.07 ea.)

–100 Aleve for $11  ($.11 ea.),

–200 Aleve for $20 ($0.10 ea.), or

–270 generic for $14.50 ($0.05 ea.).

I took the 270.

What really struck me was the fact that I got the final 70 tablets for a total of $0.50.  That’s $0.007 each.  Assuming that Rite-Aid wasn’t paying me to cart them away, the most it could have paid for the tablets was $0.007 apiece.  Multiply by 270 and you get about $1.90.

Doing the analysts’s mountain-out-of-a-molehill thing, and assuming Rite-Aid buys from the manufacturer, I conclude that $1.90 is the most it could have paid for the container of tablets I bought.

The $12.60 that remains is the cost of packaging, distribution, promotion …plus profit.  (Overall, Rite-Aid isn’t making money, even though it has a positive gross margin of about 22%.  SG&A pushes it into loss, so delete “profit” from the packaging… list.)

That Rite-Aid can’t make money despite a 600%+ markup says a lot about the company.  But it also says something about bricks-and-mortar retail, the way Rite-Aid gets its products in front of customers.

This is the AMZN success story in a nutshell:  all it has to do is deliver a $2 item to a customer and spend less than $12.60 to do it.

 

My trip to Home Depot tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sprint and the cable companies

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Sprint, Comcast and Charter Communications are discussing an agreement for mutual support in providing a discount mobile telephone service.

Sprint is controlled by the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, whose chairman, Masayoshi Son, made his first mark in that country by launching a successful deep-discount mobile phone service that resulted in much lower prices for consumers there.  Mr. Son has already tried once to repeat this move in the US.  To gain the requisite size to offer a similar disruptive service in the US, he agreed to combine with T-Mobile.  This would have formed a third big mobile telecom group, after Verizon and ATT.  But the federal government ruled against his plan, on the grounds that joining Sprint and T-Mobile would reduce the number of big telecom companies in the US from four to three (violating an anti-trust rule of thumb that frowns on market shares above 25%).  The fact that Mr. Son wanted to provide more competition, not less, made no apparent difference to the regulators.

Hence, I think, Mr. Son’s very visible support for Mr. Trump, as a businessman who might see through regulatory clutter.

I’m not sure what will develop from talks among the three parties.  I don’t think this is simply a way for Son to extract himself from an investment gone wrong in Sprint, however.  My guess (as someone with too-high cellphone bills, my hope?) is that a viable mobile service with adequate national coverage will emerge from the talks.

If so, while this may/may not be good news for the companies involved, it is definitely bad news for both Verizon and ATT.

Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

I was a big proponent of WFM in its early days but haven’t owned it for a long time.

My quick look at the company’s financials this morning tells me it’s an odd duck among food distributors.  Successful distribution is all about low margins + rapid inventory turnover + shrewd working capital management + rising sales leading to strong profit growth.  WFM exhibits only one of these characteristics:  rapid inventory turnover.  The number I get from the annual report, which I find almost too good to believe, says that WFM’s annual sales are 30x its average inventory.  This compares with 10x for AMZN and 15x for Kroger (KR).

On the other hand, WFM’s operating margin is more than 50% higher than KR’s and nearly triple AMZN’s.  The excess of payables (what a firm owes to suppliers) over receivables (what customers owe the merchant)–and a key measure of operating strength–is about 1% of sales for WFM, while 3.6% for KR and about 15% for AMZN.  In addition, WFM is no longer growing–the main reason, I think, the company’s PE has been cut in half over the past couple of years from about 40x to 20x (pre-AMZN bid).

WFM’s problem isn’t simply that its margins are too high to induce people to buy more than they do of what the company has to offer.  Nor is it the assertion by some that WFM is very inefficient and should be making a higher margin than it actually does.

Rather, it’s that the current market situation is highly unstable, on several fronts:

–WFM-like offerings are increasingly available from less expensive chains like Trader Joe’s or even regular supermarkets

–having severely damaged the profits of incumbent grocers in the UK, deep food discounters from Germany–Aldi and Lidl–have both announced that their next target is the US.  Even if the two are unsuccessful, increased competition is bound to mean lower prices

–AMZN has decided that the time for online food delivery on a large scale in the US has come.  It’s also possible that it too is worried about the potential effect that Aldi and Lidl may have and has sped up its food distribution plans.

 

how will the takeover work out?

It’s hard to know.  WFM’s management hasn’t covered itself in glory over the past decade.  It needed to be bailed out from operating difficulties by Green Equity Investors in late 2008.  And it doesn’t seem to have responded well to increased competition since.  On the other hand, AMZN’s experiments in food delivery have had indifferent success so far. At the very least, though, AMZN brings a strong record in controlling distribution operations, expertise which WFM seems to me to need; WFM brings a brand name and the grocery equivalent of Amazon lockers.

My thoughts:  the one thing I’m confident of is that food prices will generally be lower for consumers in a couple of years than they are now.  I’d prefer to look for places where extra discretionary income can be spent than to try to play food directly.

 

Masayoshi Son and Donald Trump

Masayoshi Son is the visionary entrepreneur who controls Softbank, an innovative Japanese communications and internet giant.  Several years ago, Softbank gained control of the US wireless company Sprint.  Mr. Son’s intention was to buy T-Mobile and merge the two, creating a third large national wireless company able to compete with ATT and Verizon.

The Obama administration vetoed the combination on antitrust grounds.  On the surface, this made sense, since the number of competitors in the US market would be reduced from four to three.  On the other hand, the relative market shares of #3 and #4 ares small enough that they have not made much difference in how the two giants operate.  Also, Mr. Son entered the Japanese wireless market in the same fashion, piecing together a national network out of smaller firms. Then he disrupted the existing oligopoly through very aggressive, consumer-friendly, price competition.  He created competition–and much lower wireless bills–where there had been none before.

His intention is to do the same in the US market.  From where I sit, government disapproval of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile stifled competition rather than promoting it.

My guess is that Mr. Son will have better success explaining his motives to the Trump administration.  A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would likely be good for us as consumers of wireless services, but bad for the incumbents, ATT and Verizon.

the changing nature of competition

Happy Halloween!!

This is the continuation of my post from last Friday.

A generation ago, establishing a competitive edge in a business was about having plant and equipment, operating that physical capital efficiently and, for consumer-facing firms, advertising to create and maintain a brand image.

First mover advantage was often key, since it might allow the initial entrant to achieve economies of scale (lower unit costs) in manufacturing or marketing that would discourage potential rivals  by making their path to profits prohibitively long and expensive.

The Internet, and the rise of China as a low-cost contract manufacturing hub, changed all that.  Supply chain management software did allow vertically integrated companies to coordinate actions much more efficiently.  But it also gave smaller, more focused firms the power to create virtual integration using third-party supply chain partners.

 

Today’s competition, particularly in the consumer arena, is as much about services as physical products.  The development of internet-based social media has made it much easier for a fledgling niche product to find a voice without spending heavily on traditional advertising.

Knowledge and relationships have replaced plant and cumulative advertising expense as “moats” that protect a firm from competition.

 

These developments present two problems for stock market investors:

–the first one is straightforward.  Comparing a stock price with the per share value of tangible balance sheet assets (Benjamin Graham) may no longer provide relevant buy/sell signals.  Nor will supplementing this analysis by including intangibles (Warren Buffett), using, say, the sum of the past ten years’ advertising expense.

A very successful value investor friend of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses, there are only bad managements   …and bad managements will invariably be replaced.  In an overly simple form, he thought that so long as he could see large and growing revenue, everything else would take care of itself.  Broken companies were actually better investments, since their stock prices would leap as new managements created turnarounds.

As I see it, in today’s world this traditional approach to valuation is less and less effective–because assets no longer have the enduring worth they formerly did.

–first mover advantage is probably more important today than in the past.  But while network effects are readily apparent, a company’s development stage, where the network is growing but the source of eventual profits is unclear, can be very long.  And it may be difficult in the early days to separate a Fecebook from a Twitter.

 

So while we can all dream of finding a profit-spinning machine that has high turnover and negative working capital, today’s versions are inherently more vulnerable than those of a generation ago.  They may also come to market in their infancy, when what kind of adults they’ll tun into is harder to imagine or predict.