Tagged: Books

The value of improvisation and informal processes

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed summarizes the key dangers of centrally managed social engineering projects. Its a bit dense, but well worth it. It shows similarities between many seemingly different disasters caused by top-down control and central planning. Case studies include modernist architecture, Soviet collectivization, herding or rural people into villages in Africa,and early errors in scientific agriculture, etc.

Anyone trying to build and manage an organization needs to be aware of the lessons in this book.

One key lesson is that practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability are indispensable.

Formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that alone, it could not create or maintain. The the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for those processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well. “

Radically simplified designs for social organization seem to court the same risks of failure courted by radically simplified designs for natural environments.

It makes the case for resilience of both social and natural diversity, and a strong case for limits about what can be known about complex social order. Avoid reductive social science.

Four elements of centrally planned disasters

According to the book, there four elements necessary for a full fledged disaster to be caused by state initiated social engineering.

  • Administrative ordering of nature and society
  • “High Modernist Ideology” a faith that borrowed the legitimacy of science and technology. Uncritical unskeptical public and therefore unscientific optimism about possibilities for comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. Often with aesthetic terms too.
  • Authoritarian state willing to use the full weight of its coercive power for #2
  • Prostrate civil society lacking capacity to resist these plans.

“By themselves they are unremarkable tools of modern statecraft; they are as vital to the maintenance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would be modern despot. They undergird the concept of citizenship and the provision of social welfare just as they might undergird a policy of rounding up undesirable minorities.”

Overlooking ecology

The discussion of the ecological disasters caused by forestry regulation in 18th and 19th century Germany is instructive:

The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value. The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razor sharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and , above all, the vast array of consequences it had resoloutley bracketed came back to haunt it.

Department of unintended consequences

I like to joke about wanting to start a department of unintended consequences to oversee economic policy. Often central planners fail because they arrograntly fail to foresee unintended consequences of their policies.

“ the door and window tax established in France under the directory and abolished only in 1917 is a striking case in point. Its originator must have reasoned that the number of windows and doors in a dwelling was proportional to the dwelling a size. Thus a tax assessor need not enter the house or measure it but merely count the doors and windows. As a simple, workable formula, it was a brilliant stroke, but it was not without consequences. Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed or renovated with the formula in mind so as to have as few openings as possible. While the fiscal losses could be recouped by raising the tax per opening, the long-term effects on the health of the rural population lasted for more than a century. “

See also: Goodhart’s Law

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

 

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.

History

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.

E-Commerce

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.

Logistics

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.

Finance

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.

History Repeats: The Serpent on the Rock

“History Repeats.  The first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce.”

– Karl Marx(1)

There are amusing parallels between the rise and fall of the real estate private partnership market in the 1980s, the pre financial crisis tenant in common(TIC) syndication market, and  the post financial crisis non-traded REIT market driven by Nick Schorsch and his AR Global empire.

Each episode involved high fee investment products designed to fulfill investor desires for yield, tax efficiency and perceived stability, while creating disproportionate benefits for intermediaries.  Each episode ended badly.  And the cycle repeats, again and again.

First of all, the charts tell parallel stories:

Real Estate Limited Partnerships 1970-1991

Real Estate Limited Partnerships

Source: Obstacles and opportunities in the establishment of a secondary market for real estate limited partnerships  

 

TIC Equity raised 2001-2012:

Tenant In Common Equity

Source: Securities Litigation and Consulting Group

Non-traded REIT Equity Raise 2000-2016:

Source: Stanger Report, author’s calculations based on SEC filings.

Note that the 2015-2016 dropoff would be much sharper if you excluded Blackstone’s REIT, which entered the wirehouse channel in late 2016, and accounted for 50% of total annual NT REIT sales within a few months.  Sales to the independent broker dealer(IBD) channel, which Blackstone largely bypasses, were completely decimated, and the dropoff has accelerated in 2017. (2)

May Day

High fee products are sold, not bought. The commissions on illiquid real estate products have always been higher than other investments available to retail investors.

In Serpent on the Rock Eichenwald traces the original real estate partnership craze back to the May 1, 1975 abandonment of fixed commissions on sale of stocks and bonds. Yes it is viciously ironic that commissions were fixed before 1975. The financial services industry was apparently afraid of capitalist competition and all the wonderful creative destruction it brings. Once they lost large commissions on simple security trades, they went looking through more complex higher fee product.

After May Day:

No longer could brokerage firms subsidize their bloated through fat commissions on securities trades. Firms unable to adjust collapsed by the dozens. The industry had to either dramatically cut back expenses or find new products with higher commissions that could be pumped through the sales force. Suddenly tax shelters, which sold for higher commissions than stocks and bonds didn’t look so unappealing.

The impact of May Day has continued to drive down commissions decades later. This makes sense. After all, transactional costs should approach zero over the long run, because with computers the marginal cost of doing a trade in all but the most illiquid complex markets is effectively zero. Significant scale and technological investment is necessary to run a brokerage business focused on liquid markets.

Consequently, the current IBD ecosystem is highly dependent on non-traded REITs and other high fee direct private placement programs. This is complicated by the fact that IBDs payout a high proportion of commissions to the financial advisers(like 90% in many cases). Many financial advisers built their business on 1031 exchanges, non-traded REITs or other private placements. TICs typically charged 20-30% commissions. Commissions eat up a large portion of offering proceeds for non-traded REITs.  Additionally, non-traded REIT sponsors pay out a due diligence kickback to broker dealer home offices. Many smaller IBDs depend on these kickbacks for survival.

Of course, the commissions were much more egregious the first time around. Old timers fondly remember 20%+ loads on product. up front sales loads have now declined to high single digits and low double digits. Inland has driven down commissions on 1031 exchange product. Plus state securities regulators put out NASAA guidelines to limit loads on registered products. Nonetheless in an age where interactive Brokers charges $1 per side on a trade regardless of size, and few modern brokerages charge more than $7 per trade, even high single digit sales loads on non-traded retail product are absurd.

In Backstage Wall Street Josh Brown outlines his “Iron law of product compensation”:

The higher the commission or selling concession a broker is paid to sell a product, the worse that product will be for his or her clients.

This was the thread that connects the 1980s private partnership craze, with the pre financial crisis TIC explosion and the post financial crisis non-traded REIT market.

Yield Pig Exploitation and the Illusion of Safety

Just like private partnerships in the 1970s and 1980s, brokers sold TICs and Non-traded REITs to unsophisticated yield hungry retirees as safe, stable investments.
Here is one description of the private partnership market:

Many of the public offerings were promoted as a way for the small investor to participate in real estate, widely believed to be an inflation hedge, offering greater return and moderate risk as compared to stocks. The ability for an individual of modest net worth or income to invest in securitized real estate was viewed as a real benefit of public syndications.
The limited partners were sold their investments on the assumption that real estate was a safe, growing investment. Often these investors were unsophisticated in investment matters, and were more often swayed by aggressive brokerage salesmanship. The importance of liquidity became apparent to the investors only after substantial investment had already occurred. Liquidity was never promised for limited partnership securities and the partnership structure itself was designed to constrain liquidity.

Source: Obstacles and opportunities in the establishment of a secondary market for real estate limited partnerships  

In Serpent on the Rock Eichenwald meticulously tracked the juxtaposition between sales materials promising safety and the ultimate collapse in values.Non-traded REITs and TICs are also sold as safe investments that do not have the volatility of the stock market. Of course the stability is an illusion, and investors are still highly dependent on the real estate performance.

 

Due diligence

Eichenwald describes due diligence at Prudentialduring the peak of the private partnership craze:

The due diligence team was not just overwhelmed from the number new deals they had to approve- they also had to keep tabs on the old deals that had already been sold. Darr had negotiated for Bache to be paid a monitoring fee from some tax shelters it sold in exchange for reviewing their financial performance. Supposedly, this was designed to make sure that the general partners managing the deals did things right and took care of their investors. It was a key selling point for Bache brokers: In sales pitches, they painted a picture of top Bache financiers in green eyeshades peering over the shoulders of the General partners, watching everything that was done, The image of financial professionals crunching numbers late into the night to make sure investors were protected was a persuasive marketing tool.

But asset monitoring paid only a small fraction of the fees that Bache received from selling new deals. So the job of keeping an eye on the performance of old shelters quickly became viewed as simply a headache. It was an obligation that slowed down the whole process of churning out deals., without enough juice from fees to make up for the effort. The monitoring assignment became a hot potato, passed from executive to subordinates, and from then on down the line.

Many similar scenes in the book are shockingly familiar to anyone who has worked in the alternative investments space.

In subsequent years, third party due diligence firms serving broker dealers helped drive improvements in deal quality, but there are still many serious gaps. Since IBDs depend on the revenue from commissions and due diligence kickbacks, they are under pressure to find product to approve. This bias leads to cognitive dissonance. As non fiduciary middlemen, they often sell things that they wouldn’t invest in themselves, especially with a full sales load.

In the wake of the bankruptcy of TIC Sponsor DBSI, and the collapse of several tax driven energy deals, Reuters investigated due diligence in the independent broker dealer space. It highlighted a too cozy relationship between sponsors and third party due diligence firms.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the  disconnect between due diligence process and the needs of end investors.

Potentially alarming findings are often obscured in multiple pages of recondite language, with no definitive conclusions. “They’re these long-winded things that bury things that might be important inside boilerplate disclosures,” said Jennifer Johnson, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, who has written extensively about the private-placement business.

Due diligence firms say their reports aren’t designed to be read or understood by investors. Rather, they are meant to help brokers decide whether to recommend private placements to their customers.

Source:Reuters

Same Same, But Different

Although the distorted incentives,exploitation of unsophisticated yield pigs,were almost identical in each of the three historical examples in this post, there are several key differences. Broker dealers primarily sold private partnerships in the 1980s as a way of reducing taxes. An investor can use a TIC structure as part of a 1031 exchange to  delay taxes when selling a property. REITS are a unique IRS creation but the reason for investing in a REIT is mainly income(Excluding situations where someone exchanges via an UPREIT transaction)
The private partnership market collapsed because the tax reform act of 1986 destroyed their entire structure, and basically collapsed the national real estate market. (see: this FDIC report )

The TIC market collapsed when the financial crisis hit the entire real estate market, exposing the problematic underwriting of the TIC Sponsors. However, regulatory issues weren’t the main driver of the collapse. Like the private partnership craze in the 1980s, the modern Non-traded REIT market also collapsed due to regulatory change although the . Finra 15-02, which increased the transparency on client statements, made it harder for advisors to get away with charging the massive sales loads. The fiduciary standard required broker-dealers to act in the best interest of clients, also led many broker-dealers to suspend or slow down the sales of high commission products.

 

The farce of AR Global’s collapse

Although private partnerships and TIC sponsors generally overpaid for properties they purchased, the collapse of their structures happened during a time of across the board real estate declines in the US

In contrast, investors in post financial crisis vintage non-traded REITs have suffered, in spite of a buoyant real estate market.    ARC Hospitality(Now Hospitality Investors Trust) offered shares at $25.00 a share from 2013-2015, and a client statement never would have shown a value below $22.00 until this summer. It  revalued at $13.20.  A PE fund recently offered  $5.53 for the shares.  Likewise ARC Healthcare Trust III sold shares $25.00, and recently marked its value down to $17.64, and is now subject to an affiliated transaction with no liquidity event in site.

Private partnerships and TICs were tragedies, AR Global was a farce.

 

To be continued….


 

(1) This is from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean.
The full translated quote is :Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

(2) Wirehouses generally did not sell non-traded REITs until Blackstone entered the market in 2016 Anyone who carefully read The Serpent on the Rock will note how incredibly ironic it is that wirehouses have started to sell non-traded real estate securities again.  More on his in a future post.

Optimizing An Organized Mind

How can one maximize mental performance? The Organized Mind- Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin is a book that works towards an answer to this question. The book’s ideas on offloading things to external systems and organizational techniques are very similar to David Allen’s , Getting Things Done . However, The Organized Mind, provides much more historical and scientific background an context. Further, An Organized Mind avoids being overly prescriptive, and instead gives the reader ideas on how to best optimize for their own situation.

Some of my highlights on the key themes of the book:

Getting the mind into the right mode

One useful framework that the books develops is hte idea of the mind as functioning in different modes. An important component of high performance is the ability to use the right mode at the right time.

There are four components in the human attention system: the mind-wandering mode, the central executive mode, the attention filter, and the attention switch, which directs neural and metabolic resources among the mind-wandering, stay-on-task, or vigilance modes.

Remember that the mind-wandering mode and the central executive work in opposition and are mutually exclusive states; they’re like the little devil and angel standing on opposite shoulders, each trying to tempt you. While you’re working on one project, the mind-wandering devil starts thinking of all the other things going on in your life and tries to distract you. Such is the power of this task-negative network that those thoughts will churn around in your brain until you deal with them somehow. Writing them down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of the clutter that is interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on. As Allen notes, “Your mind will remind you of all kinds of things when you can do.

The task-negative or mind-wandering mode is responsible for generating much useful information, but so much of it comes at the wrong time.

Creativity involves the skillful integration of this time-stopping daydreaming mode and the time-monitoring central executive mode.

Insights into how human memory works

The book delineates the nuances of human memory by comparing it to systems in the physical world.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.

Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

This feature can lead to either valuable insights or being overwhelmed, depending on how it is controlled:

If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing.

Categorization is key to mental functioning.

This ability to recognize diversity and organize it into categories is a biological reality that is absolutely essential to the organized human mind.”

Shift burdens to external systems

You might say categorizing and externalizing our memory enables us to balance the yin of our wandering thoughts with the yang of our focused execution.

Continue reading

The next level of shareholder activism

…shareholder activism can be put to good use and bad. It challenges inefficient corporations that waste valuable assets, but it can also foster destructive and destabilizing short-term strategic decisions. The key issue in an activist campaign often boils down to who will do a better job running the company—a professional management team and board with little accountability, or a financial investor looking out for his or her own interests.

Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism

Elliott Management is a prominent hedge hedge fund with a succesful 4 decade track record, perhaps most infamous for seizing a  ship from Argentina’s Navy during a debt dispute back in 2012. Elliott has become a most widely known as an activist investor in recent years.  Its impact has also been important because it has shaken up large companies previously thought immune to activists. Furthermore, Elliott has been a successful activist in Europe and Asia, where conventional wisdom once held  that activism didn’t really work.

Elliott’s tactics are extreme, and controversial, but they work. Although sometimes there are unintended consequences- Elliott has indirectly affected regime change in two different sovereign nations.  Fortune’s latest issue has an in depth profile of Elliott Management that is well worth reading.

For more on the history of corporate activism, and its impact on  the history of capitalism,  Dear Chairman is a definitive guide.

Business history teaches us that the pursuit of profit brings out an extreme and obsessive side of people. When we harness it well, we get Wal-Mart, Les Schwab Tires, Southwest Airlines, and Apple. When we don’t, we get salad oil swindles, junk bond manipulations, and Steak ’n Shake funneling its cash to its CEO’s hedge fund. The publicly owned corporation has been a remarkable engine engine for progress and economic gowth because it can place large amounts of capital in the hands of the right people with the right ideas. Without proper oversight, however, public companies can squander unimaginable amounts o money and inflict great harm on everything around them. The emergence of the shareholder as the dominant force in corporate governance has bestowed a tremendous amount of power and responsibility on investors….

Dear Chairman

Riches Among the Ruins

No Economy is too small, no political crisis is too dire, and no country is too bankrupt for a solo operator like me to find riches among the ruins.

-Robert Smith

Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy is an incredibly entertaining bottom up look at frontier market crises over the last 3 decades from the perspective of a travelling distressed debt trader.  Each chapter is dedicated to Robert Smith’s experience in a particular country: El Salvador, Turkey, Russia, Nigeria, Iraq, etc, etc. Each country is unique, but Smith’s weaves several key lessons throughout his memoir.

Anyone who seeks  profits in inefficient markets could benefit from Smith’s experience.

Information vacuums are key for middleman and arbitrageurs

In the mid 1980s no one had any idea what an El Salvador bond was worth- which is to say, they had no idea what value others might attach to it. The ignorance, this information vacuum, was my bliss. The seller’s price was simply a measure of how desperately he wanted to dispose of a paper promise of the government of El Salvador, and the buyer’s measure of how eager he was to convert his local currency into a glimmer of hope and seeing dollars down the road. The spread, my profit, was the difference between the two. In a fledgling market, with no reporting mechanisms and precious little information floating around, the spread can be enormous, and there was no regulatory or legal restrictions on how much you could make on a transaction.

Though my sellers and buyers, usually the representative of foreign companies doing business in El Salvador, often knew each other , played golf together, or broke bread together at American Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, I knew it would take some time before they eventually started to compare notes. At the beginning I doubt any of them even mentioned they were trying to sell or buy El Salvador bonds because the market didn’t exist yet. But until the market matured it was a gold rush, and I developed a monopoly on that most precious of all commodities in any market: information. I found out who wanted to sell, who wanted to buy and their price, and I held that information very tight to the vest.

In some cases buyers and sellers were on different floors in the same office building, or different divisions of the same global corporation.  The biggest challenges for foreign companies doing business in the developing world was converting local currency revenues back into dollars.  One way to get money out was to buy dollar bonds at fixed exchange rate and over time collect principal and interest in dollars.

Creativity and information edge: Struggles over bondholder lists

In almost every country, Smith, goes through difficulty to get the list of people holding the bonds in which he was seeking to make a market. Arbitrageurs and brokers who had access to the list guarded it aggressively, because it gave them an edge in acquiring positions at a discount, or profiting as a middleman. This was a key bit of information, available from connections at the Central Bank or other places.

Continue reading

9 Steps to 10x Thinking

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success is a book about the power of lateral thinking- solving problems through an indirect or creative approach. “Smartcuts” means sustainable success achieved through smart work.  This is different than “shortcuts”, which are rapid, but short term gains. Ultimately the book outlines 9 key ideas, that lead up to the concept of “10x thinking”.

#1 Hacking the Ladder

Find sideways paths, like the warp pipes in Super Mario  that allows someone to beat the game in seconds, not hours.

#2 Train with Masters

Find mentors, and/or study the greats. Shoe designer Dwayne Edwards stole discarded shoes so he could study and draw the designs. This helped him develop the ability to notice tiny design details in shoes.

#3 Rapid Feedback

Rapid feedback accelerates learning. This has been critical to a lot of companies that have a website as their main product. In this book, the example of Upworthy illustrates the point. Turn work into rapid scientific experiments, and depersonalized feedback.

#4 Platforms

Tools and technology that people can buid off of. a platform “amplifies the effort and teaches skills in the process of using it.“ Key example: development of Ruby on Rails as a programming language.

Platforms are how Twitter could build Twitter in mere days while running a separate company. And Platforms are why Finland made all its teachers get a Master’s degrees and its students learn with hands-on tools that made learning better.

See also: Modern Monopolies: What It Takes to Dominate the 21st Century Economy

#5 Catching waves

The world’s best surfers arrive at the beach hours before a competition and stare at the ocean. This is a valuable metaphor for a lot of things in business and life.

“Intuition is the result of nonconscious pattern recognition,” ….. However, research shows, that we can also see patterns just as well by deliberately looking for them. Deliberate pattern spotting can compensate for experience. “but often people don’t even try it”

Budgeted Experimentation helps business avoid being disrupted, by helping them harness waves on which younger competitors might otherwise used to ride past them. Its helped companies like Google, 3M, Flickr, Conde Nast, and NPR remain innovative even as peer companies plateaued. In contrast, companies that are too focused on defending their current business practice and to fearful to experiment often get overtaken.

Key example of what to avoid: Kodak

#6 Superconnecting

Key example: Che Guevera taking control of the radio, using it as a way of promoting Castro’s revolution to a much wider audience than otherwise possible.

#7 Momentum

Build up potential energy, and amplify unexpected opportunities.

#8 Simplicity

The key feature of disruptively innovative products is cost savings(either time or money). But the key ingredient behind the scenes of every disruptive product is simplification.

Examples, email, USB Drives, Cars.(Henry Ford kept complexity under the hood).

Key example: Sherlock Holmes. He focused on what he needed to know, knowing how to figure out what he didn’t know, and forgetting about everything else.

#9 10x thinking

This quote from Astro Teller is key:

Its often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better…. In order to get really big improvements you usually have to start over in one or more ways. You have to break some of the basic assumptions and, of course, you can’t know ahead of time. Its by definition counter intuitive.

This means getting to first principles. 10x thinking forces you to come up with smartcuts.

10x thinking is probably now essential for survival in the modern economy.

Most innovation inside industries and companies today focuses on making faster horses, not automobiles.

This is why the innovator’s dilemma destroy’s so many companies.  What replaces them is something better.  Creative destruction is a beautiful thing.