Carl Icahn: Capitalist Kingpin

Carl Icahn is one of my favorite capitalists. For all his flaws, his glory days were epic. He shook up the corporate aristocracy, and created massive value for his early financial backers. The economy has benefited from the disruption of complacency led by corporate raiders like Icahn.

Carl Icahn’s bio covers the evolution of his takeover style and thought process.  It pairs well with Tobias Carlisle’s work, including The Acquirer’s Multiple,  and Deep Value.

Below  are some of my notes from Icahn’s bio:

The importance of philosophy

Icahn studied philosophy in college. This proved useful in understanding markets and navigating high stakes situations. He focused on the concept of empiricism.

Empiricism says knowledge is based on observation and experience, not feelings,” Icahn said. “In a funny way, studying twentieth-century philosophy trains your mind for takeovers. “. . There’s a strategy behind everything. Everything fits. Thinking this way taught me to compete in many things, not only takeovers but chess and arbitrage.

It seems to me that the quest for an explication of the empiricist meaning criterion, as it has progressed, may be likened to the tale of the city that suddenly finds itself in possession of a great homogeneous mixture of gold and sand. If the gold could be separated from the sand it would prove a great deal more valuable to the inhabitants. The wise men of the city diligently search for a method of separation. By so doing they not only vastly increase their insight into the nature of gold, sand, homogeneous mixtures, etc., but also produce a series of increasingly potent methods of separating the chaff from the gold, the meaningless from the significant.”

Waiting for the right opportunity to pounce

He waits until someone is so stretched out and in need of a deal that he can come in and buy under the most favorable terms.

From the PPM/pitchbook for Icahn’s first fund:

It is our opinion that the elements in today’s economic environment have combined in a unique way to create large profit-making opportunities with relatively little risk. Our nation’s huge need for energy has resulted in a massive flow of dollars abroad. This, coupled with huge deficit spending and decreasing productivity, has caused a high inflation rate and a sharply declining dollar. As a result, the value of gold and goods in general has skyrocketed. An obvious corollary to this is that the real or liquidating value of many American companies has increased markedly in the last few years; however, interestingly, this has not at all been reflected in the market value of their common stocks. Thus we are faced with a unique set of circumstances that, if dealt with correctly, can lead to large profits…

Non linear thinking

Like most great investors, Icahn is a non-linear thinker.

In part, his success is based on an intellectual skill that enables him to plot dozens of moves in advance. While his adversaries are thinking in linear fashion—”If I can get from A to B, then I’ll proceed to C”—Icahn sees dozens of possibilities on a single screen. The mental agility that enables him to zigzag from C to F to Z and back to R, leaves his opponents so thoroughly confused and frustrated they are on the verge of shorting out. “In trying to beat Carl, and failing to do so, people come away baffled,” said Brain Freeman. “But I can tell them why they fail. Because they think they know what Carl’s goal is when in fact he has no fixed goal.

Expanding options

Presented with an ultimatum in which he is told to choose between evil A or lesser evil B, Icahn moves into intellectual overdrive, expanding the range of options. In this way, he turns the tables on his adversaries, who find themselves facing a more ominous threat than they hurled at the raider.

Limitations of Icahn’s approach

Icahn was a great liquidator, a great investor in asset intensive businesses, but sticking too closely to his methods would cause a modern investor to miss great opportunities to invest in rapidly growing businesses. Additionally, based on the performance of IEP, its possible that he has failed to adapt to recent technological disruption, and the age of asset lite businesses.

Carl is a smart Neanderthal,” said Marty Whitman. “He’s a Neanderthal because he doesn’t listen. He has fixed ideas. He doesn’t see that you can’t make money by investing in a business. He only wants to cash out—to get cash flow. He doesn’t understand that most of the great businesses built in this country were cash consumers. They used public markets and consumed cash to build fabulous wealth for their owners. But Carl just wants the cash-out approach.

As with most corporate titans, sometimes his ego gets the best of him. He nearly went bankrupt messing around with airlines, for example. Nonetheless his story is valuable and entertaining, and he wrote the playbook for many situations faced by investors today.

See also:

The Next Level of Shareholder Activism

The Icahn Manifesto

Insecurity Analysis


Department of unintended consequences

To: Democrats, Republicans

CC: Anarchists, Communists, Independents

Re: Department of Unintended Consequences

I don’t talk politics around here much but…

One thing the government needs is a “Department of Unintended Consequences” , or Unintended Consequences Ministry. This department will be in charge of analyzing the potential unintended consequence of any proposed policy put forth by any government department.   I suggest that it hire the best computer engineers to help build simulations using the most advanced AI /game techniques. Perhaps this Unintended Consequences Ministry will help the broader government avert misguided actions, avoid long term consequences, and identify prudent courses of action.

This critical department will start it out with a small budget. But funds are tight, so other departments may have to make a few small cuts.

This department may rise in importance to be come a fourth component of the balance of power in the American system.  I volunteer to be head of this department, and will accept a market compensation package.


Paul C Wonk

Sam Zell: Poet laureate of contrarians and dumpster divers

Sam Zell is the patron saint  of contrarians and poet laureate of dumpster divers.  He has one of the best track records of any real estate or distressed asset investor, and helped pioneer the use of REITs, NOLs, and other key strategies and structures.  His excellent autobiography is a valuable lens from which to understand the last 50 years of economic history.

Although he built up his reputation in off the beaten path markets, his sense of macro timing is also surreal.  He loaded up on multifamily properties at the bottom of the market in the 1970s. He sold out of a large portion of his holdings near the top of the market in 2007(although that story was a bit more nuanced than I realized prior to reading the book).

Here are my notes and highlights from the book:

A full throttle opportunist

This isn’t a dress rehearsal. I try to live full throttle. I believe I was put on this earth to make a difference, and to do that I have to test my limits. I look for ways to do that every day. After all, I think it was Confucius who said, “The definition of a schmuck is someone who’s reached his goals.” It’s up to me to keep moving the end zone, and go for greatness.

….At some point the guy I was sitting next to turned to me and asked, “So what do you do?” I replied, “I’m a professional opportunist.” And that has been my response to that question ever since.


Zell’s Jewish parents were on one of the last trains out of Poland, just hours before the Nazi’s bombed the train tracks and took over.   Many of his ancestors perished in concentration camps.  His parents reminded him of this, and it appears to have had a significant impact on his world view

Did you ever wonder how the Jews allowed the Nazis to come into Poland without taking action? I asked my father that when I was little, and I’ll never forget what he said. The Jewish community in Poland at the time was extraordinarily myopic—it had little idea what was going on in the world. And it cost most of them the ultimate price. In contrast, my father’s macro understanding of world events and the conviction to act saved the lives of my family. I apply the same strategy on a much less life-and-death scale. I rely on a macro perspective to identify opportunities and make better decisions, both in my investment activity and in leading my portfolio companies. I am always questioning, always calculating the implications of broader events. How will worldwide depressed currencies affect capital flows and world trade? Does it create opportunity for international expansion among multinational companies? What real estate needs will they have? How can we get a first-mover advantage into new markets? And on and on.

Avoiding the crowd

Zell was clearly unafraid of career risk.  Several times in his career he safely sat out major bubbles, and pounced later when it all burst.

The industry has a long history of overbuilding when there’s easy money, without regard for who will occupy those spaces once they’re built. At the same time that construction cranes were dotting the horizon of every major city, the country was just starting to tip into a recession. Supply was going up and prospects for demand were not good. I was certain that we were headed toward a massive oversupply and a crash was coming. That’s when I just said, “Stop.” I was done. I stopped buying assets, started accumulating capital, and got ready for what I was sure would be the greatest buying opportunity of my career thus far. My thesis was that over the next five years, we would have the opportunity to make a fortune by acquiring distressed real estate. So I established a property management firm, First Property Management Company (FPM), to focus on distressed assets. Everyone thought I was nuts. After all, occupancies were still over 90 percent. Absorption was high. Companies were hiring. It was one of many times I would hear people tell me that I just didn’t understand.

I didn’t listen. I just stepped aside while the music was still playing. It was the biggest risk I had taken to date in my career. After all, I had a stable of investors by then. What would they think if I bowed out and the end didn’t come? That would mean I was forgoing a lot of upside for them. It was a true test of my conviction. But I had to follow the logic of supply and demand. Turns out I was right. Less than one year later, in 1974, the market crashed. Hard.

Overnight, we were buying assets at 50 cents on the dollar. At the time, financial institutions did not have to mark to market. In other words, they didn’t have to adjust the book value of their assets to the current market value those assets could actually sell for. If you were an insurance company, instead of marking to market, you could avoid taking a hit

Avoiding competition

By being  contrarian, Zell avoided competition.

In 1980, Bob and I sat down and listed the reasons we didn’t like where the real estate market was headed. First, the key to our prior success had been an inefficient market. The real estate industry had always been fragmented, with valuations and projections that often varied widely. That started changing rapidly with the debut of Hewlett-Packard’s financial calculator. All of a sudden, any owner could hire an MBA with an HP-12C to run ten years of cash flows, none of which considered recessions or rent dips, and make an elaborate and sophisticated case for investment—and a bunch of eager investors would show up to check out the property.


That was not an arena we wanted to compete in. Second, up until then, lenders made long-term, fixed-rate, nonrecourse loans. But as a result of inflation in the 1970s, they got scared and switched to short-term, floating-rate loans. We believed the real money in real estate came from borrowing long-term, fixed-rate debt in an inflationary scenario that ultimately depreciated the value of the loan and increased the position of the borrower. Finally, we had always looked at the tax benefits of real estate as what you got for the lack of liquidity. All of a sudden, sellers were including a value for tax benefits in their asset pricing. So we said, “If we’ve been as successful in real estate as we have been, aren’t we really just good businessmen? And if we’re good businessmen, then why wouldn’t the same principles that apply to buying real estate apply to buying anything else?” We checked the boxes—supply and demand, barriers to entry, tax considerations—all of the criteria that governed our decisions in real estate, and didn’t see any differences. So we set a goal that we would diversify our investment portfolio to be 50 percent real estate and 50 percent non–real estate by 1990.


We narrowed our universe by targeting good asset-intensive companies with bad balance sheets, a thesis similar to real estate. We liked asset-intensive investments because if the world ended, there would be something to liquidate. The low-tech manufacturing and agricultural chemical industries were perfect fits for us—the former driven by Bob with his expertise in engineering and passion for anything mechanical.


I’ve spent my career trying to avoid its destructive consequences. Competition skews people’s assessments; as buyers get competitive, the demand for assets inflates pricing, often beyond reason. I jokingly tell people that competition is great—for you. Me, I’d rather have a natural monopoly, and if I can’t get that, I’ll take an oligopoly. Not long after we got involved with GAMI,

Micro Opportunities in Macro Events

As an investor,  Zell has a unique way of combining macro insights with bottom up research.Several examples in the book highlight this. He was “all about seeing micro opportunities in macro events.  For example:

 In this case, the macro event was legislation similar to the impact of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 on NOLs. But I find implications for opportunity everywhere—in world events, economic news, and conversations. I’ve always been on the lookout for big-picture influencers and anomalies that will direct the course of industries and companies. But first-mover advantage requires conviction. While the rest of the radio industry was deliberating about what the telecom bill meant and how it would be implemented and whether it was a good change or a bad change, we moved and bought up

Zell’s abiliy to see the big picture gave him an edge in international investing.  He was the first gringo in town buying real estate in a lot of the bigger emerging market stories of the past few decades:

This is our primary premise in international investing—the transformation of businesses into institutional platforms. We started in Mexico, then went to Brazil. Then to Colombia, India, and China. So far we’ve brought about thirty companies in fifteen countries along for the ride, with four IPOs. I’m drawn to emerging markets because of their built-in demand. I’ve always believed in buying into in-place demand rather than trying to create it. To me, international investing is largely a story of demography. Just look at population growth. Most of the developed countries (e.g., U.K., France, Japan, Spain, Italy) have aging populations and are ending each year with flat or negative population growth rates. For instance, we don’t spend much time looking at Western Europe. It’s Disneyland. It’s great for wine and castles and cheese, but there’s no growth there. Further, Europe has the largest population of pensioners in the world. The number of retirees who don’t work is close to double what we have in the U.S. and most of those European countries fund each year’s pensions from taxes. It begs the question, with a shrinking workforce where will that money come from? In contrast, most of the emerging markets (e.g., India, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Brazil) have younger populations and higher growth rates. And while growth rates across the board have fallen off a cliff opportunity there as well. In particular, we are drawn to Mexico. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in Japan in 2011, nearly every multinational executive I talked to was bemoaning the cost of delays and availabilities in exports coming out of Asia. I couldn’t help but think that companies would not want to get caught in that type of scenario again, so they would be looking for an alternative manufacturing option closer to home. The only logical place was Mexico. Also, Chinese labor costs were steadily rising and eroding the margin for U.S. companies to manufacture there. So we invested in a Mexican warehouse and logistics company to support what I believed to be a pretty good bet on future growth. Sure enough, within four years, Mexico was in a manufacturing boom with a double-digit increase in exports from Mexican factories. We continue to view opportunity on a global scale. I see international investing as a challenge of connecting multiple dots to reach a conclusion. My job has always been to identify the dots we should pay attention to as well as the incentives that will connect them—all to get maximum possible results

See also:

Biology and risk taking

Cleaning more book notes out of my Google Drive files…

Hour Between Dog and Wolf is a useful complement to Misbehaving and Thinking Fast and Slow. The author started out as a derivatives trader, then changed their career to neuroscience bringing unique personal perspective to the well worn path of studying how humans can act irrationality in financial markets and life.

Thinking Fast and Slow is a somewhat pendantic and rambling summary of groundbreaking research.  Misbehaving is a humorous summary of the development of behavioral economics.  Hour Between Dog and Wolf is a more personal story, with emphasis on dealing with risk and stress.  All three are worth reading.


Written on the temple of Delphi was the maxim “know thyself” and today that increasingly knowing your biochemistry.

Brain-Body Connection

Probably the most valuable part of the book is a discussion of mind-body connection in the context of dealing with risk.

Category divide between body and mind, runs deep in western philosophy.  This idea:

originated with Pythagoras, who needed the idea of immortal soul for his doctrine of reincarnation, but the idea of a mind-body split awas cast in its most durable form by Plato, who claimed that within our decaying flesh there flickers a spark of divinity, being an eternal and rational soul. The idea was subsequently taken up by St. Paul and enthroned as Christian dogma. It was a very edict also enthroned as a philosophical conundrum later known as the mind-body problem; and physicists such as Rene Descartes, a devout Catholic and committed scientist, wrestled with the problem of how this disembodied mind could interact with the physical body, eventually coming up with the memorable image of a ghost in a machine, watching and giving orders.

Today Platonic dualism as the doctrine is called is widely disputed within philosophy and mostly ignored in neuroscience, but there is one unlikely place where a vision of the rational mind and pure as anything contemplated by Plato or Descartes still lingers- and that is in economics.

Author argues that this platonic dualism has impaired ability to understand financial markets. Need to study how people react to volatile markets. For too long people have ignored brain body feedback.

Book goes on to discuss crazy behavior of traders, bankers, and the idiotic decision they made. Not original, but well worth reading, and the author puts a unique spin on it.

A couple other related ideas:

  • Neocortex gave us reading, writing philosophy. Making tools throwing spears etc.
  • Another brain region outgrew neocortex- cerebellum like a separate brain acting as operating system for rest of brain.

We may be gifted with considerable rational powers, but to solve a problem with them we must first be able to narrow down the potentially limitless amount of information, options and consequences. We face a tricky problem of limiting our search and to solve it we rely on emotions and gut feelings.

See also- Cialdini’s Law of Data Smog.

“Somatic Market Hypothesis”

Each event we store in memory comes bookmarked with the bodily sensations…. Called somatic markets we felt at time of living through it at our first time, and these help us decide what to do when we find ourselves in similar situations. These bookmarkers basically help us sort through options. Somatic markers help rational brain function.

Moving towards stress adaptation

Some scientists study stress and response too it. Chronic stress leads to illness, learned helplessness. Short lived bursts of stress, in contrast, cause people to emerge hardier. Can be verified with lab rats. Well known for anyone building muscle mass or aerobic capacity.

Humans are built to move, so we should. The more research emerges on physical exercise, the more we find that its benefits extend far beyond our muscles and cardiovascular systems. Exercise expands the productive capacity of our amine-producing cells, helping to inoculate us against anxiety, stress, depression and learned helplessness.It also floods our brains with what are called growth factors, and these keep existing neurons young and new neurons growing – some scientists call these growth factor brain fertilizer- so our brains are strengthened against stress and aging. A well -designed regime of physical exercise can be a boot camp for the brain.

Fatigue and focus

I once had a coach who told me “rest is a part of training. ”  Similarly, one of the top performing hedge fund managers I know sleeps 9 hours a night, and is obsessed with importance of rest. 

A recently developed model in neurosciences provides an alternative explanation of fatigue. According to this model, fatigue should be understood as a signal our body and brain use to inform us that than expected return from our current activity has dropped below its metabolic cost. The brain quietly searches for the optimal allocation of attentional and metabolic resources and fatigue is one way it communicates its results. If we are engaged in some form of search and have not turned up any results, our brain, through the languages o fatigue and distractibility tells us we are wasting our time and encourages us to look elsewhere. The cure for fatigues, according to this account, is not rest, it is a fresh task. Support form this idea comes from data showing that overtime work in itself does not in itself lead to work-related illness such as hypertension and heart disease, these occur mainly if workers have no control over allocation of their attention. Applying such a model could benefit workers and management alike, for more flexibility in choosing what to work on, and when, could reduce worker fatigues, while management might be delighted to find that workers may be just as refreshed by a new assignment as by a vacation. This model of fatigue provides a good example of how understanding a bodily signal can alter the way we deal with it.

Only complaint about Hour Between Dog and Wolf  is it probably could have been a long form article- I suspect the book publisher wanted to fill it out. Still worth taking a look though. Hour Between Dog and Wolf provides a useful framework for anyone who has a high stakes job that requires stamina.

See also:

Askeladden Capital on Sleep/Rest/Chronotypes Mental Model 

Askeladden Capital’s review of Misbehaving


Jack Ma’s Iron Triangle

I was cleaning out some files and came across notes from Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built. 

The Iron Triangle

According to this book, Ali Baba’s rise has been the result of a combination of three strengths : E-commerce, logistics and finance. The author refers to these as the “Iron Triangle”
E-commerce, logistics, finance.

Ali Bababa’s e-commerce sites offer an unparalleled variety of goods to consumers. Its logistics offering ensures those goods are delivered quickly and reliably. Finance subsidiary ensures that Alibaba can get paid via a process is easy and worry free.

One can’t help but notice that there are many companies that have one or two parts of the iron triangle, but few that have all three. Of course there were several unique characteristics of China that Jack Ma has profitably exploited. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds in bringing this model abroad to other emerging markets, and to developed markets.


China’s retail market is highly fragmented and inefficient.

“Key factor in success of e-commerce in China is the burden of real estate on traditional retailers. Land is expensive in China because it is a crucial source of income for the government. Land sales account for one-quarter of the government’s fiscal revenues. At the local government level they account for more than one-third. A prominent e-commerce executive summed it up “ because of the way our economy is structured, the government has a lot of resources. The Government decides the price of land…. The government relies too heavily on the taxes and fees associated with selling land. That almost destroyed the retail business in China, and pushed a lot of demand online. They deprived offline retailers of the opportunity to benefit from rising consumer demand- which they effectively channeled to e-commerce players. “

As a consequence, there has been far less investment in marketing, customer service, human resources or logistics in China’s traditional retail sector in the West. The result? China’s retail market is highly fragmented and inefficient. In the United States, the top 3 grocery chains account for 37% of all sales, In China they account for just 7 percent.

Despite all the shopping malls, offline retail penetration is quite low. In China there is six square feet of retail space per person, less than ¼ the amount in the US. Nature abhors a vacuum, and online retail filled in the gap left by inefficiencies.

“China’s e commerce market differs in important ways from the US and other western economies, the legacy of decades of state planning and important role played by state-owned enterprises. Alibaba has sought out and exploited inefficiencies these have creates, first in e-commerce, now in media and finance. “

Yiwu wholesale market was the template for first e-commerce operations. E commerce had started out with non-standardized products for mom and pop businesses.Lack of national supply chains removed barriers to entry that exist in west, making it possible for individuals to make a money.

Now China has greater e-commerce penetration than the US. Its always fascinating to see the leapfrogging phenomenon in action.


China post laughed at Jack Ma’s attempt to enter logistics.

Zhejiang, where Ali Baba is headquartered is now home to most of China’s largst curior companies: Shentong(STO Express), Tuantong (YTO Express), Zhongtong ZTO Express, Yunda. This small cluster, referred to as the “Tonglu Gang” delivers 50% of all packages

Note that Wells Fargo had its own parcel delivery service in California gold rush.


Having its own financial services arm, Alipay diffuses trust throughout e-commerce empire. The rise of the smartphone was huge for Ali Baba’s financial services segment. Many financial innovations happened in nearby Wenzhou.

Ali Baba exploited inefficiencies in the financial services market, just like it did with online retail. State owned banks paid little heed to needs of individuals and small businesses. Alibaba has access to entire trading history of business customers, much better position to assess credit risk than traditional banks.

The Beginnings

Jack Ma’s story is quite inspiring for entrepreneurs.

In 1978, only 728 foreign tourists visit Hangzhou. Jack Ma went to the one hotel where foreigners went and read an English book, starting at 5 am. Every . Single. Day. He’d give free tours of West Lake to foreign tourists in exchange for English practice . He did this day for 9 years.

Long before Ali Baba, Jack Ma had an online directory business called China Pages. When he launched China Pages hardly any one in China had the internet.

Instead Jack came up with an alternative approach. First, he spread the word through friends and contact about what the Internet could do for their business. He then asked those interested to send him marketing materials to introduce their companies and products.

Then he mailed them to Seattle, had a company put them online. Then he printed out screenshots of websites and mailed them to friends.

People treated him like a con man, because he would get people to pay him $2,400(in RMB at the the then exchange rate), to design and host a website, even though the clientele couldn’t see the internet. That was a lot of money in China back then. He must have been a great salesman if he could get customers to pay that much for something they couldn’t see

Key lessons from Jack Ma’s early internet businesses

“It is difficult for an elephant to trample an ant to death as long as you can dodge well. “

More tech entrepreneurs began to emerge as China invested in telecom infrastructure. But internet bubble came and went. How did Jack Ma navigate this?

“ for Jack, the bursting of the bubble represented a great opportunity for Alibaba “ I made a call to our Hangzhou team and said “Have you heard the exciting news about the Nasdaq? … I’d like to have had a champagne on hand. This is healthy for the market, healthy for companies like us

He felt confident that now the IPO gate had closed, venture capital would stop funding Alibaba’s competitors. “In the next three months, more than sixty percent of the internet companies in China will close their doors, he said, adding that Alibaba had spent only $5 million of the $25 million it had raised. “ We haven’t touched our second round funding. “ We have lots of gasoline in our tank.”

Once the bubble burst, Alibaba started using the cash it had built up. Jack started hiring foreign talent and travelling around to tradeshows.

Tao Bao’s Iron Triangle Crushes E-Bay

Two key lessons from Ebay’s failure in China:

Ebay in China was led by foreigners and foreign educated with little knowledge of local amret. They tried to force feed American website standards.

Ebay’s arrogant disaster in China is a valuable business lesson. They continued to represent to investors that they were winning in China, but they lost disastrously. Alibaba had a faster product development cycle(ie OODA loop), and it adapted more quickly to local needs than eBay. eBay burned a lot of money. In the process, E Bay made everything look great on powerpoints and conference calls , but at odds with situation on ground.

Corporate headquarters demoralized local talent, (they ran a site called EachNet in China)

“This gap was reflected in the design of the two rivals’ websites. eBay moved quickly to align the EachNet site with its global site, revamping how products were categorized and altering the design and functionality of the website. This not not only confused customers, but also alienated a number of important merchants who saw their previously valuable China account names had been deleted. This invalidated their trading history and forced them to reapply for new names on an unfamiliar global platform. Worse still, the Chinese websites lacked a customer service telephone number. Ebay’s China site, modeled closely on eBay in the States looked foreign to local users, who found it “empty” when compared to local sites.

In website design, culture matters.

Taobao structured like local bazaar. Edge in e-commerce(see iron triangle above). Better understanding of country’s merchants. Let them do initial listings for free. Eachnet gave into short term shareholder pressure to charge for simply listing products online.

“Ebay just wouldn’t take Alibaba seriously, questioning the reliability of mounting data that showed Taobao was selling more goods than eBay in China. Taobao now had more listings, but eBay convinced itself that because these listings were free, they must be inferior. Jack vigorously rejected that thesis: “The survival and growth of Taobao are not because of the free service. 1Pao[the joint venture of Yahoo and Sina] is also free but it is nowhere close to Taobaol. Taobao is more eBay than eBay China [because] Taobao pays more attention to user experiences.”

Sensing it was over Alan Tien concluded, “Taobao’s product development cycle is much faster. Jack Ma’s right. We cannot fight on his terms.”

Jack Ma’s Iron Triangle had won.

Beyond headline numbers

Everybody has access to Bloomberg and Google. Every global macro investor closely follows macro data out of every country. To gain an an edge, one must look beyond headline numbers, and find underutilized datasets.

This applies when finding countries, industries, and individual companies in which to invest. Any time you want to combine top down and bottom up insights, you need to get creative with finding the right data.

Schumpeter and Perez

Joseph Schumpeter pointed out  that aggregate figures “conceal more than they reveal”.

Relations between aggregates are

“entirely inadequate to teach us anything about the nature of the processes which shape their variations, aggregative theories of the business cycle must be inadequate too…”

In Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, ( Carlota Perez emphasizes that new technological paradigms can only be analyzed by looking closely at inner workings of an economy. Within the same country, or industry some subsectors will grow at astonishingly high rates, while others decline. Perez’s framework is valuable to analyzing times of great technological change, which is basically anytime. Examples she uses include the first British Industrial Revolution( the age of Steam and Railways, the Age of steel, electricity, and heavy engineering, age of oil, automobile and mass production.

Global Macro Cycles

Top line numbers such as GDP or earnings could deceive an analyst, especially when looking at a new market.

Valuation and pricing

“People living through the period of paradigm transition experience real uncertainty as to the ‘right’ price of things(including that of stocks, of course).”

Extreme jumps in productivity change relative price structures in the economy. “The change in relative price structure is radical and centrifugal. Money buying electronics and telecommunications today does not have the same value as money buying furniture or automobiles.” Therefore, looking at inflation or deflation in aggregate is deceptive. Many years after Perez’ book, this now exacerbated by the Amazon effect. To some effect this may impact valuation in some industries.

Research methods

Long term aggregate data, spanning multiple periods of technological change are senseless. This goes for GDP, corporate earnings etc. Yet disaggregated stats are rarely available(except during more stable phases), as Perez points out.

The internet has provided more opportunities to find disaggregated, unique, underutilized datasets. Often this means poking around on weird regulatory websites, and following up on footnotes to academic papers.

This process might be about to get a lot easier.

Google launched a new dataset search engine. I’m excited to see how its impact snowballs as more datasets are added. Although intended for journalists, it is likely to be a valuable tool for investors seeking differentiated alpha.

Of course that means today’s edge, will be tomorrow’s table stakes.

See also:  The hard thing about finding easy things

Fistful of Lira

While packing for my redeye flight to Istanbul tonight, I remembered the last time I had travelled to Turkey around 6 years ago. After getting sort of stranded in Kazakhstan for a day, I ended up wandering back alleys of Istanbul talking to questionable people in the non-bank financial service sector.

A planning error left me with no choice but to run an experiment on the fringes of the global forex market.

At the time, I was working at an investment bank in China, but I got a week off for a some sort of Communist Party workers holiday in October. My then girlfriend now wife was a grad student in the US. We decided to meet in Turkey for a little getaway.

As I prepared for the trip I was flush with RMB(Chinese yuan), but short on dollars and Euros(1). None of the banks in Beijing I went to would directly change RMB to Turkish Lira. Plus all them had silly wide bid-ask spreads on RMB/USD or RMB/EUR transactions. No point in changing here I thought, I’ll just change once when I get to Turkey. Turns out that was a rookie mistake.

I was on the Air Astana flight from Beijing to Istanbul with a layover in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Checking in was a bit of a debacle. I  had to wait in a long line behind migrant laborers who had absurdly large quantities of luggage to check, much of it in non-traditional suitcases (ie barely sealed cardboard boxes).

The guy in front of me in the line to check in  was about 6 foot 4, bald, big boned, with the look of a football referee who let himself go. After some sort of commotion at the front of the line , he turned around, smiled and said in a baritone, probably Russian Accent: “Almaty airlines ,this always happens. “

The flight was delayed a few hours but it ultimately did take off. However we were late enough that I missed my connecting flight. I had a day to wait for the next flight to Istanbul.

Almaty airport wasn’t fancy, but it was no worse than many of the small airports I’ve been to around the globe. I went to a cafe to get some food.

Turns out they wouldn’t accept RMB. No problem I thought, and I walked over to the one moneychanger accessible from the terminal I was at.

Turns out they wouldn’t change RMB at all.

I went to the ATM, and it wouldn’t accept my card for some reason.

For amusement I tested if any of the shops there would take RMB. None would.

At least I got a lot of reading done passing the time with no money to entertain myself in the airport for a day. I don’t remember what the meal was on the next leg of the flight, but I remember it was quite delicious.

When I got to Istanbul, and ran into identical forex issues with shops, moneychangers, and ATMs.(2)

So I wandered the streets going into moneychangers asking to change money. Even banks with China origins wouldn’t do it. Finally one money changer looked surprised, and asked “how much,” as he motioned me over towards the other end of the counter.

I answered him, then he took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper, and started to draw a map.

It was a long journey. As I recall, I had to go to the far end of one of the subway lines, then walk for about 15 minutes. Finally I found a shop that would change RMB. But their rate was horrible so I said I’d be right back.

I finally found another one a block over with a much better rate. I was relieved to at last clutch a fistful of Lira.

The rest of the trip went smoothly. Of course those days were before Erdogan, um “changed” (3).

This time I’m going back to Istanbul, with a mix of USD and Euro I’m excited to enjoy deeply discounted falafel, and drink coffee while working from a deck on the Asia side of the bosphorus, with a perfect view of the river, and Europe on the other side. I won’t have time to explore the far ends of the subway lines since I’ll only be in Istanbul for a day. After that I’ll be going to Sofia Bulgaria and working there for a week.

(1)When if ever will the RMB be a global currency? I don’t know. My general view on currencies is I never make pure directional bets. I just try to avoid getting killed by sudden changes. This basically means cautious sizing of any position that is exposed to fringe markets. Smart operational decisions have real alpha implications in these areas as well I guess you can say I learned this on the streets, the hard way.

Anyways, while there is now a surplus of superficial media coverage of China’s One Belt One Road policy,few people are talking about the capital markets implications. China is basically throwing money at every country to its west all the way to Europe, with a potentially huge impact of the smaller countries. What I find interesting is that most of it is going to be financed with yuan denominated debt, not dollar denominated debt. Combined with a yuan denominated oil futures contract hitting the market, One Belt One Road will result in a lot more financial market activity in yuan rather than dollars. I would still consider yuan internationalization(and a decline in the dollars status) a bit of a long shot near term, but these recent changes make it a lot more plausible over the next decade. At the very least there will soon be a lot more funky securities denominated in yuan(many probably, ahem, distressed and deeply discounted), so it makes sense to get comfortable with custody and banking issues involving the currency.

(2) My ATM card ended up getting flagged with a security alert for suspected fraud, which I was later able to resolve.

(3) Much as been said about his more populist tendencies. I also find it amusing how non-populist policies have had unintended consequences contributing to the current crisis. For example, the government incentivized small and medium sized companies to borrow in non-Lira currencies, by loosening restrictions on loans over a threshold(IIRC, $5 million). This part of the economy is seriously hurting now. Alas there will be some fun picking in the distressed debt space before too long.

The future of non-traded REITs

“All under heaven is in utter chaos.  The situation is excellent.”

Mao Zedong (1)

Non-traded REITs, in most incarnations, have been reprehensible financial products sold by the unscrupulous to the naive. Nevertheless, they persisted. The 7% commission was just irresistible to brokers while it lasted.

Now the mess of legacy products is left for vulture investors to cleanup. Technologically advanced secondary markets will make the process a little smoother than last time. While the traditional group of Sponsors and brokers struggle to raise capital, institutional players such as Blackstone and Oaktree are launching new non-traded REITs, and finding no shortage of demand. The next generation of non-traded REITs are a major improvement over the previous generation,although the bar isn’t exactly that high.

New entrants distributing newly improved product to new distribution channels will define the future of non-traded REITs. Several large “brand name” asset managers have recently launched non-traded REITs.  They are selling via wirehouses, which have generally avoided non-traded REITs for over 20 years.  They’re also selling via registered investment advisers, who, as fiduciaries, previously avoided non-traded REITs. Furthermore several well known real estate firms are launching non-traded REITs or other products and selling directly to investors online, a phenomenon completely unheard of a decade ago.

Legacy non-traded REITs and secondary market

There is a massive overhang of legacy product that is preventing sales of new non-traded REITs via the independent broker dealer(IBD) channel. Post financial crisis, non-traded REIT Sponsors tried to take non-traded REITs full cycle(either via merger or IPO) after 2-4 years. This allowed financial advisers to collect the 7% commissions over and over again. Constant recycling became a critical source of income for IBDs, and an absolute bonanza for Sponsors However, after the AR Global scandal, fiduciary standard, and FINRA 15-02, the pace of new product slowed down suddenly.

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Big dam frontier market bond offerings, low dam yields

Credit markets are crazy, from US buyouts, to frontier market bond offerings.

Buffett released the annual Berkshire letter this past weekend, and it contained a number of gems as usual, although it was shorter than the typical letter.

Petition’s excellent distressed credit focused newsletter last week  pointed out that Buffett’s concerns about high M&A prices were:

affirmation of a number of macro themes that ought to portend well for distressed players in a few years: (i) excess capital supply, (ii) resultant inflated asset values, (iii) lack of discipline, and (iv) over-leverage.

The big dam indicator

The loose credit has spread to frontier market bond offerings as well. Tajikistan, a country with $7 billion in annual GDP in September raised $500 million of debt at 7.125% for 10 years. Tajikistan had no problem raising this capital.  In fact funds put in $4 billion in bids for the $500 million in paper. Tajikistan will use this capital used for the Rogun barrage project, which involves building the world’s largest hydroelectic dams. Building large buildings tends to correlate with hubris, and bubbles(although the empirical evidence around causality is loose), as many have noted:



More frontier market fun

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FOMO is a hell of a drug

The most dangerous feeling in finance  is “fear of missing out”(FOMO). FOMO causes people to make hasty emotional decisions, generally near to the top of a speculative mania.  FOMO is the force behind ponzi schemes, stock promotions, and simple legit bubbles.  The Stanford Business School has even looked into this 

Fear of Missing Out

The danger of FOMO impacts people regardless of  socieoeconomic status or education. It even impacted Isaac Newton:

FOMO is a hell of a drug

Source: the Vantage, (which has some excellent personal finance tips on avoiding the dangers of FOMO)

Last week things got a bit volatile. Markets corrected all the way to… (wait for it) the price level of a couple months ago. This was the result of a sudden sharp reversal of record retail inflows. Although it wasn’t really an abnormal reversal, the media made it sounded like the beginning of another financial crisis.

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