Farnam Street Investments commentary for the month of April 2020, briefly discussing their investment game plan.
"If you are uneasy, welcome to the club.” - Charlie Munger on 2/12/2020, before everything hit the fan
Life comes at you fast. Volatility came roaring back to the markets in an historic fashion. We sent out a Special Update on March 16th explaining the investment game plan. I won’t fully rehash it here, but the short answer is opportunistic gradualism. We’ll slowly accumulate businesses we’ve coveted for years as prices come to us. I’m hesitant to make any bold proclamations, as it feels like we’re still in Act 1 of this particular saga. One-in-a-hundred year pandemics are bleak, yet this too shall pass. Howard Marks has a great line in one of his recent memos: “The investor’s goal should be to make a large number of good buys, not just a few perfect ones.”
After a few years of being closed to new investors, Farnam Street is taking on new clients in anticipation of opportunities. Introduce us to your friends and family who could use a steady financial hand. Despite a recent bounce back in stocks, it’s likely the storm is still brewing. Markets punish complacency. As the sage philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The rest of the letter will feel incongruent with the rapid inundation of developing storylines. Each day brings us new scary headlines of hospitalizations, contagion, unemployment, debt crises, and bailouts. Our species is choosing the best of bad options, as the faultlines of our fragility are laid bare.
Errors originate from blindspots. And emotional thinking is the shortest path to throwing on blinders. It helps to keep calm and focused by engaging what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking. Slow down. Be methodical. Prepare. Follow your game plan. Don’t under- or over-react. Zoom out. Accept reality without bargaining.
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” - John Wooden
How do we know things? Like “Capital-T Truth” know, for certain. It’s scary to stop and think how many of your beliefs and lenses to interpret the world derive from what you were told as a younger self.
The scientific method was developed in the early 17th-century by an English philosopher named Francis Bacon. Before that, the “truth” was generally formed from guesses, mythology, and whatever authorities had to say on the subject. The Enlightenment wasn’t far behind as we gained tremendous insight into the workings of our physical world. And on its heels came the Industrial Revolution as we harnessed science for material improvement.
Theory, experimentation, implementation, commercialization. Rinse and repeat.
One of the key tenants of the scientific method is data collection. Generally, the more data, the better. We need a large and representative sample size (n) if we want to make predictions about a population or phenomena.
When it comes to the world of investing, a tremendous amount of data are generated, but the relevant n is often laughably small. Take market prices. We can look at millions of minute-by-minute squiggles of the ticker. But how big is our n for the major moves which truly matter? There have been sixteen bear markets since 1926 according to Fidelity. Any statistician worth their salt will tell you sixteen data points won’t generally provide much explanatory power. Our millions of daily prices show that all datasets aren’t created equal. So when I tell you these sixteen bear markets have lasted an average of 22 months and claw back an average of -39%, you should maintain a healthy skepticism. We simply can’t say much about any bear market, or bull for that matter. We’re muzzled by small sample sizes.
Keep in mind that facts are like radioactive material--they have a half-life3. Facts decay in a probabilistic fashion based on the domain where they reside. This makes reading widely and continually updating your “facts” of paramount importance. As Goethe said, “He who moves not forward, goes backward.” How tall is Mount Everest? The exact height of the mountain changes by the second based on a balance of plate tectonics pushing up and wind erosion scrubbing off. That “fact” changed since you started reading this letter.
On the other end of the half-life spectrum resides physics. Aristotle had a description of facts about our physical world which persisted for centuries. We had improvements from Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes. Then along came Newton and calculus to change the game. Of course, Einstein’s relativity was next to kick over the apple cart. Who knows what follows and when, but there’s likely something after relativity in this millennium.
If you’re an ardent truth-seeker, where can you look to find a large enough n to give you confidence you’re on robust footing? Where is the real big data?
Here are three possible answers, in order of explanatory power. I’ll frame the familiar concept of reciprocity as viewed through these three prisms, and then provide the takeaways for an investment context.
1. The Inorganic Universe
“Time obliterates the fictions of opinion and confirms the decisions of nature.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero
The best guess is our universe is 13.7 billion years old. That’s what an epistemologist would call an “empirically big-ass dataset.” We can have reasonable confidence that shrewd analogies drawn from physics are likely to provide insights.
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In math, we call it reversion to the mean. Quite literally in astrophysics, what goes around (a planet) comes around. The universe seems to like to keep the score even.
“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” - Richard Feynman
Life has been on earth for roughly 3.7 billion years. The branching and evolving of life has generated an incredible number of interactions to catalog and decipher. It’s our next best data set.
Evidence suggests that the eukaryotic cells that we’re all made of originated when two simple bacteria teamed up together. One may have contributed protection and food with its lipid membrane while the other supplied energy as a mitochondria inside its new friend. It’s notable that the recipe for your mitochondria comes solely from your mother’s lineage.
This biological reciprocity conveyed survival advantages. Both sides were better off by the arrangement. We have a similarly symbiotic relationship with our gut bacteria. Tit-for-tat has been around for billions of years and has proven an evolutionarily stable strategy.
3. Human History
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” - African Proverb
Recorded history goes back roughly 5,000 years to Sumerian cuneiform, however our species is likely ~2 million years old. Most of that time we roamed the savannah as small bands of hunter-gatherers.
A hunter-gatherer lifestyle served up a full helping of random chance. Some days you caught your prey. Some days you were skunked. And some days your prey caught you. Meat from your kill spoiled quickly3. One survival mechanism we evolved was to “store” meat in our fellow human’s stomach. When our hunt came up empty, a friend shared their kill, and vice versa. It was an early instance of insurance and we got good at keeping score. By coordinating our efforts and sharing the results, our cooperation improved our odds of survival. Nature wired reciprocity as genetic instinct.
Hence we hear the timeless wisdom of karma, the golden rule, or “an eye for an eye.” We have a highly evolved sense of when we’re being cheated, and a visceral fear of being ostracized from the tribe (the brain-chemistry cocktail known as “shame”). It was a literal death sentence during our formative years. Drawing inference from three staggeringly large data sets, we can safely say that reciprocity is a solid building block of knowledge.
The investment consequences are profound.
Due to reciprocity, any economic organism, what we’d colloquially call “a business,” is only sustainable if all of its relationships are win-win. A business can take advantage of counterparties for periods of time, but eventually the other side will seek retribution. There are no examples of a business that can permanently cheat stakeholders. Zero.
Management’s job is to recognize how their business interacts with its environment, and then structure win-win relationships with six key counterparties, peeking at their cards to figure out what they seek3:
- Suppliers - stability--if you keep them busy, they’ll keep you price competitive
- Customers - perceived value has to be greater than the price paid
- Employees - financial and non-financial recognition, stability, the opportunity to own a house in a safe neighborhood, provide their kids' an education, and a reasonable retirement
- Owners - investment has to provide superior returns, low risk, and long duration
- Regulators - want to look good and not show up in the newspaper for allowing bad behavior
- Communities - provide jobs, don't pollute their backyards
Win-win keeps other parties from searching for a Plan B. They feel safe to go “all-in” on the relationship. The normal distribution of outcomes of the dog-eat-dog world loses relevance.
Every miracle is an all-in phenomenon. Two simple bacteria Voltron to form complex life. A soldier lays down his life for his platoon. The crackling energy of an early start-up. The 1980 US Hockey team. True love. All-in is the magic ingredient.
It’s a sad reflection of short-term thinking, but most publicly-traded companies routinely violate one of these win-win relationships. Too many managerial actions betray being all-in for their company. In these cases, they’re instead all-in for themselves. Much of the commercial universe is uninvestable for those optimizing for the truly long game. They aren’t sustainable businesses when viewed through our big data prisms. It’s important to remember there are shades of gray whenever humans are involved. We can’t abandon critical thinking; there are no pure angels or demons.
In summary, the big data of physics, biology, and history can provide us intellectual-terra-firm to interpret the diminutive dataset domains of the investment world.
Quick Housekeeping Items
- Part of being a registered investment advisor with the State of California means providing compliance updates and disclosures annually. Here’s where we keep the most up-to-date documents for our clients: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/sp5mqetpcwrjc1b/AABxGZXC6vKI-AFosZam6xita?dl=0
- In March, we added a new team member to Farnam Street. Brian Miller was one of our favorite students from our teaching days at UC Davis’s MBA program. Due to his aptitude and high moral fiber, we kept an eye on him and enjoyed watching his career blossom. Brian was an obvious fit after he expressed interest in joining our little firm. He’ll be coming aboard as an investment advisor and will provide a much needed Bay Area presence. Welcome, Brian!
As always, we’re thankful to have such great partners in this wealth creation journey.
Jake & Lonnie
Ecommerce Stocks Could be Recession Proof as Household Spending Holds Up (AMZN, FBCD, SHOP, EBAY, BABA, PYPL, CVNA, ONLN)
The ecommerce space is a prime example of a new path toward recession-proof non-cyclicality in a world where household savings are robust into the teeth…
The ecommerce space is a prime example of a new path toward recession-proof non-cyclicality in a world where household savings are robust into the teeth of a potential recession. (1)
At this point, Goldman Sachs and other major Wall Street firms are starting to project a strengthening likelihood of a near-term recession as the Fed begins to tighten monetary policy while prices for basic goods, including gas and electricity, are rising. (2)
But, unlike other past recessionary periods, households have savings to tap to stay in the game, helping the most efficient retailers stand their ground as demand shifts. (3)
The ecommerce space could be a beneficiary because it offers greater efficiency in acquiring basic goods such as clothing, household durable goods, and basic daily necessities. When you shop online, you don’t have to use gasoline or time or energy to gain access to the goods you need. Ecommerce cuts out the middle-man. (4)
The pandemic was an exercise in market penetration for ecommerce retailers, converting the previously unconverted, providing everyone with a reason to try 21st century shopping, bringing hundreds of millions of people into the fold of a new way to acquire goods. (5)
For retailers already positioned for this boon, it represents a structural transformation and a tailwind. With that in mind, we take a look at some of the most interesting growth stories in the ecommerce space below.
Shopify Inc. (NYSE:SHOP) operates a cloud-based commerce platform designed for small and medium-sized businesses. Its software is used by merchants to run business across all sales channels, including web, tablet and mobile storefronts, social media storefronts, and brick-and-mortar and pop-up shops.
The firm’s platform provides merchants with a single view of business and customers and enables them to manage products and inventory, process orders and payments, build customer relationships and leverage analytics and reporting. It focuses on merchant and subscription solutions.
Shopify Inc. (NYSE:SHOP) recently announced financial results for the quarter ended March 31, 2022, including total revenue in the first quarter grew 22% to $1.2 billion, which represents a two-year compound annual growth rate of 60%. The first quarter of 2021 marked the highest revenue growth in the company’s history as a public company driven by stimulus and COVID-19 lockdowns. Shopify merchants are emerging from the last two years stronger and better prepared for commerce everywhere. (6)
“While we’ve experienced massive macro shifts since the start of the pandemic, the one mainstay has been that Shopify is the commerce platform of choice for merchants in any environment, with the ability to support commerce on any surface,” said Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s President. “This has earned Shopify significant merchant trust and the ability to help them with more parts of their business, which is why we are eager to bring Deliverr’s team and technology to our merchants.”
Even in light of this news, SHOP has had a rough past week of trading action, with shares sinking something like -8% in that time. That said, chart support is nearby, and we may be in the process of constructing a nice setup for some movement back the other way.
Shopify Inc. (NYSE:SHOP) managed to rope in revenues totaling $1.2B in overall sales during the company’s most recently reported quarterly financial data — a figure that represents a rate of top line growth of 21.7%, as compared to year-ago data in comparable terms. In addition, the company has a strong balance sheet, with cash levels exceeding current liabilities ($7.2B against $681.9M).
FBC Holding Inc. (OTC US:FBCD) is a tiny newcomer in the ecommerce retail fashion space that has started to make some waves, up 150% in the past few days as the company lays its foundation as a brand in the street fashion domain after announcing its intention to land a major influencer brand ambassador and connecting up with Amazon and eBay on the distribution side.
The company’s primary brand is “Formrunner” (https://formrunnerapparel.com/) (7).
FBC Holding Inc. (OTC US:FBCD) announced this week that it has begun selling its Premium High-End Apparel by expanding its E-Commerce presence on eBay.com. The company is thrilled to add sales from eBay as an additional revenue opportunity following its successful launch on Amazon last week.
President & CEO Lisa Nelson states “We are beyond excited to offer our Apparel on eBay! Our clothing will be available with eBay’s “Buy it Now” option and will kick off the launch with free shipping to the entire United States. Customers around the world will now have an additional platform to purchase our clothing with more to come moving forward.” Lisa Nelson also stated, “Over the past two years, Formrunner Apparel Inc. has been continuously expanding the company’s vertical sales channels, and eBay along with Amazon, are two great retail giants that will assist with expansion throughout the United States along with the rest of the world!” (8)
As noted in the release, with 185 million active buyers and nineteen million sellers worldwide, eBay is one of the world’s leading marketplace and eCommerce platforms. eBay serves customers globally. Like every popular site, there are tons of loyal customers who prefer to purchase on eBay. Customers may prefer to purchase from merchants like these than a site that they land on the first time. eBay also offers affiliate programs through multiple affiliate marketers will take your product link and promote your products to receive the affiliate commission. This will help to increase your sales. So, in addition to running your affiliate program, you can also benefit from the eBay affiliates.
The release goes on to note that the apparel market encompasses every kind of clothing, from sportswear to business wear, from value clothing to statement luxury pieces. After difficulties in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when sales across the apparel industry took a hit, the global demand for clothing and shoes is set to rise again. The revenue of the global apparel market was calculated to amount to 1.5 trillion U.S. dollars in 2021 and was predicted to increase to approximately two trillion dollars by 2026. The countries that account for most of this apparel demand are the United States and China, both generating higher revenues than any other country.
FBC Holding Inc. (OTC US:FBCD) has been powering higher over recent days as the crowd starts to take notice. The recent upside momentum comes after a deep bear move well into sub-penny status driven by the company’s reorganization and pivot. But now that we have passed through that phase, shares may have found a more stable bottom in front of emerging catalysts that speak to the company’s new identity and momentum.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. ADR (NYSE:BABA) engages in providing online and mobile marketplaces in retail and wholesale trade. It operates through its Core Commerce, Cloud Computing, Digital Media & Entertainment, and Innovation Initiatives and Others segments.
The Core Commerce segment consists of platforms operating in retail and wholesale. The Cloud Computing segment consists of Alibaba Cloud, which offers a complete suite of cloud services, including elastic computing, database, storage, network virtualization, large scale computing, security, management and application, big data analytics, a machine learning platform, and Internet of Things (IoT) services. The Digital Media & Entertainment segment relates to the Youko Tudou and UC Browser businesses. The Innovation Initiatives and Others segment includes businesses such as AutoNavi, DingTalk, and Tmall Genie
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. ADR (NYSE:BABA) recently announced that it has joined Low Carbon Patent Pledge (LCPP), an international platform that encourages sharing patents for low carbon technologies, to accelerate adoption of green technology and foster collaborative innovation by making nine key patents for green data center technology available for free to external parties. In keeping with its support for green initiatives, Alibaba Cloud, the digital technology and intelligence backbone of Alibaba Group also aims to have its global data centers running entirely on clean energy by 2030, starting with upgrades to five of its hyper-scale data centers in China.
“We believe technology innovation is a key driver in transitioning to the low-carbon circular economy of the future. As a pioneer and global technology leader, we are committed to taking broader social responsibility to use technology to level the playing field and to empower the wider social groups, creating long-term value. We are excited to join the pledge as a way to encourage a collective approach to build a sustainable and inclusive future for the society and environment through open collaboration, joint innovations and mutual inspiration.” said Dr. Chen Long, Vice President of Alibaba Group and Chair of Alibaba’s Sustainability Steering Committee. (9)
Traders will note -6% plucked from share pricing for the stock in the past week. That said, BABA has evidenced sudden upward volatility on many prior occasions. What’s more, the name has seen a growing influx of trading interest.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. ADR (NYSE:BABA) has a significant war chest ($654.4B) of cash on the books, which compares with about $502.2B in total current liabilities. One should also note that debt has been growing over recent quarters. BABA is pulling in trailing 12-month revenues of $1008.6B. In addition, the company is seeing major top-line growth, with y/y quarterly revenues growing at 14.3%.
Other key ecommerce players include Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN), eBay Inc. (Nasdaq:EBAY), PayPal Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq:PYPL), Carvana Co. (NYSE:CVNA), and ProShares Online Retail ETF (NYSEArca:ONLN).
Please make sure to read and completely understand our disclaimer at https://www.wallstreetpr.com/disclaimer. While reading this article one must assume that we may be compensated for posting this content on our website.recession pandemic coronavirus covid-19 stimulus nasdaq stocks monetary policy fed link etf otc recession stimulus ukraine china
US Economy Still On Track For Moderate Rebound In Q2
Despite rising headwinds for the global economy, US output remains set to rebound in the second quarter, based on recent estimates from several sources….
Despite rising headwinds for the global economy, US output remains set to rebound in the second quarter, based on recent estimates from several sources.
Economic growth is expected to recover with a 2.6% increase in GDP (seasonally adjusted annual rate) for the April-through-June period via the median of several Q2 nowcasts compiled by CapitalSpectator.com. The growth rate is unchanged from the previous estimate published last week and marks a robust bounce from the 1.4% contraction reported for Q1.
The projected Q2 rebound aligns with a new forecast released yesterday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which paints a relatively upbeat outlook for the US economy. “In CBO’s projections, the current economic expansion continues, and economic output grows rapidly over the next year. Consumer spending increases, driven by strong gains in spending on services.”
Despite the apparent resilience for the US economy, headwinds are building for global economic activity, warned the head of the World Bank on Wednesday. Speaking at a US business conference, David Malpass says it difficult to “see how we avoid a recession.” He cites several factors, including rising prices for food and fertilizer due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a series of coronavirus lockdowns in China.
In fact, China’s leaders are increasingly worried about the country’s outlook and convened an emergency meeting yesterday to address decelerating growth. The goal, state media reports, is to promote new measures to stabilize the economy.
For the US, recent economic data suggests that recession risk for the immediate future is still low. Nonetheless, some economists are forecasting rising odds of a downturn for 2023.
“A recession is pretty likely” next year, former Federal Reserve vice chair Alan Blinder tells CNBC. “I don’t mean 89% probability, but maybe 50 to 60% probability,” he said, although any downturn will be mild, he advises.
Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, also thinks the US will sidestep a recession this year, but the risks rise for 2023. “The likelihood of recession this year is pretty low,” he predicts, but “it gets dicier in 2023 and 2024.”
How is recession risk evolving? Monitor the outlook with a subscription to:
The US Business Cycle Risk Report
recession coronavirus economic growth economic expansion federal reserve recession gdp consumer spending russia ukraine china
How digital technology can help keep cities green and pleasant
We know cities need green spaces – but what should they look like and where should they go?
Parks, small woodlands and even simple patches of grass not only keep a city attractive, but also help people find a sense of bliss in an otherwise bustling urban environment. With new technologies, we can plan and monitor these urban “green spaces” better than ever before.
As several studies have highlighted, nature within urban settings plays a pivotal role in combating many of the global public health challenges commonly associated with urbanisation. This includes maladies such as depression and high blood pressure. A 2022 study showed that trees actually have the ability to improve urban air quality as leaves and pine needles capture pollutants from the air.
That cities do need green spaces is therefore not a particularly contentious issue. It is, however, an open question as to how much green space a city ought to have. Even here, science can provide some guidelines, as research points to at least 9 square metres of green space per individual, with an ideal value of 50 square metres per capita in a city (for comparison, an average UK car parking space takes up about 12 square metres).
The big question is therefore what kind of green space do we want? A well-kept but human-made park? Or something more natural and unkempt, such as groves, meadows or field-like areas? As we discuss in our forthcoming book, Designing Smart and Resilient Cities for a Post-Pandemic World: Metropandemic Revolution, this is largely contingent on the geographic preconditions of the city in question. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a diversity of different kinds of green areas if possible, yet it is an inescapable fact that some cities are blessed with lush vegetation while others are not.
However, all is not lost for cities without much natural green area, as such environments can be constructed in urban settings that have previously been bereft of naturally growing trees and grass. This “green landscaping” can be undertaken even in areas that would otherwise seem unlikely. One prime example is the High Line in New York City, a 1.45 mile (2.33km) long elevated linear park built on an abandoned railway viaduct. Since it opened in stages about a decade ago, the High Line has become an exemplar of green landscape redesign that seeks to turn obsolete infrastructure into green, vibrant public spaces.
While it is known that greenery has positive effects on mankind at large, it is more difficult to prove the exact causal relationship in exactly how green areas affect our health. In this regard, digital technology can be an essential tool for urban planners to determine where green landscape redesign is best employed.
One concept that is seeing particularly rapid development is “smart urban forests”, which refers to using tree monitors, 3D-imagery and other internet of things-linked technologies to help manage the forest. This “internet of nature” could monitor soil health, measure air pollution or ensure urban forests are adequately hydrated.
Future technology could also enable the use of open data platforms and more public engagement. Planners could collect various perspectives from the general population using an app, for instance, while also using digital technology to map and boost urban biodiversity and to ensure that green areas are placed where they will achieve maximum efficiency.
One example of this is the Treepedia research initiative, which was launched in 2016 by Massachusetts-based MIT Senseable City Lab. Treepedia aspires to raise awareness of urban forests by the use of digital vision techniques based on Google Street View images.
Treepedia focuses on pedestrian street trees found in multiple cities around the world, as opposed to parks. The main reason is that pedestrians are more likely to see street trees without planning to, whereas most people in parks made an active choice to be there. Using an open-source library, Treepedia means the public can calculate the quantities of tree coverage for their own city or region.
If urban planners become more aware of the potential of digital technology, then urban green spaces should have a bright future. However, designing the optimal green space that we want for our cities may also call for a deeper future collaboration between urban planners and engineers.
Anthony Larsson works for the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.
Andreas Hatzigeorgiou is also CEO of the the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, and sits on the board of the Stockholm Senseable Lab, which is a collaboration between MIT and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.depression pandemic uk world health organization
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