Posts from economics

What Didn’t Happen

Last year, I ended 2014 with What Just Happened and started 2015 with What Is Going To Happen.

I’ll do the same tomorrow and friday, but today I’d like to talk about What Didn’t Happen, specifically which of my predictions in What Is Going To Happen did not come to be.

  1. I said that the big companies that were started in the second half of the last decade (Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc) would start going public in 2015. That did not happen. Not one of them has even filed confidentially (to my knowledge). This is personally disappointing to me. I realize that every company should decide how and when and if they want to go public. But I believe the entire startup sector would benefit a lot from seeing where these big companies will trade as public companies. The VC backed companies that were started in the latter half of that last decade that did go public in 2015, like Square, Box, and Etsy (where I am on the board) trade at 2.5x to 5x revenues, a far cry from what companies get financed at in the late stage private markets. As long as the biggest venture backed companies stay private, this dichotomy in valuations may well persist and that’s unfortunate in my view.
  2. I said that we would see the big Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi come to the US. That also did not happen, although Xiaomi has expanded its business outside of China and I think they will enter the US at some point. I have a Xiaomi TV in my home office and it is a really good product.
  3. I predicted that asian messengers like WeChat and Line would make strong gains in the US messenger market. That most certainly did not happen. The only third party messengers (not texting apps) that seem to have taken off in the US are Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and our portfolio company Kik. top social apps year end 2015Here’s a shot of the app store a couple days after the kids got new phones for Christmas.
  4. I said that the Republicans and Democrats would find common ground on challenging issues that impact the tech/startup sector like immigration and net neutrality. That most certainly did not happen and the two parties are as far apart as ever and now we are in an election year where nothing will get done.

So I got four out of eleven dead wrong.

Here’s what I got right:

  1. VR has hit headwinds. Oculus still has not shipped the Rift (which I predicted) and I think we will see less consumer adoption than many think when it does ship. I’m not long term bearish on VR but I think the early implementations will disappoint.
  2. The Apple Watch was a flop. This is the one I took the most heat on. So I feel a bit vindicated on this point. Interestingly another device you wear on your wrist, the Fitbit, was the real story in wearables in 2015. In full disclosure own a lot of Fitbit stock via my friends at Foundry.
  3. Enterprise and Security were hot in 2015. They will continue to be hot in 2016 and as far as this eye can see.
  4. There was a flight to safety in 2015 and big tech (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are the new blue chips. Amazon was up ~125% in 2015. Google (which I own a lot of) was up ~50% in 2015. Facebook was up ~30% in 2015.  Only Apple among the big four was down in 2015 and barely so. Oil on the other hand, was down something like 30% in 2015 and gold was down something like 15-20% in 2015.

Here’s what is less clear:

  1. Bitcoin had a big comeback in 2015. If you look at the price of Bitcoin as one measure, it was up almost 40% in 2015. However, we still have not see the “real decentralized applications” of Bitcoin and its blockchain emerge, as I predicted a year ago, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. And to make matters worse, we now seem to be in a phase where investors believe you can have blockchain without Bitcoin, which to my mind is nonsense.
  2. Healthcare is, slowly, emerging as the next big sector to be disrupted by tech. The “trifecta” I predict will usher in an entirely new healthcare system (smartphone becomes the EMR, p2p medicine, and a market economy in healthcare) has not yet arrived in full force. But it will. It’s only a matter and question of when.

So, I feel like I hit .500 for the year. Not bad, but not particularly impressive either. But when you are investing, batting .500 is great because you can double down on your winners and stop out your losers. That’s why it is important to have a point of view, ideally one that is not shared by others, and to put money where your mouth is.

Some Thoughts On Labor On Labor Day

When one looks back over the history of the development of the modern economy from the agricultural age, to the industrial age, to the information age, the development of a strong labor movement has to be one of the signature events. Capitalism, taken to its excesses, does not allocate economic value fairly to all participants in the economic system. The workers, slaving away to build the railroad, the skyscraper, etc, provide real and substantial value to the overall system and yet, because they are commodified and interchangeable parts, they don’t always get their fair share of the economic value they help to create. So the labor movement provides the market power that each worker individually cannot provide.

The emergence of the middle class in the developed world in the 19th and 20th centuries has as much to do with the emergence of a labor movement as it has to do with anything. And a growing middle class in turn drove economic development as the obtained earning power was spent on needs like homes, cars, education, etc.

I am a fan of the idea that labor needs a mechanism to obtain market power as a counterbalance to the excesses of markets and capitalism. I think we can look back and see all the good that has come from a strong labor movement in the US over the past 150 years.

However, like all bureaucratic institutions, the “Union” mechanism appears anachronistic sitting here in the second decade of the 21st century. We are witnessing the sustained unwinding of 19th and 20th century institutions that were built at a time when transaction and communications costs were high and the overhead of bureaucracy and institutional inertia were costs that were unavoidable.

One has to think “if I were constructing a labor movement from scratch in 2015, how would I do it?”  My colleague Nick Grossman coined the term “Union 2.0” inside our firm to talk about all the organizing tools coming to market to assist workers in the “gig economy.” But I think Union 2.0 is way bigger than the gig economy. The NY Times has a piece today on workers in a carwash in Santa Fe organizing outside of the traditional union system. One can imagine leveraging technology, communications, and marketplaces to allow such a thing on a much larger scale.

I don’t know how much the traditional union system taxes workers to provide the market power they need. But if its like any other hierarchical system that we are seeing replaced by networks and markets, the take rates are in the 20-40% range and could be lowered to sub 5% with technology.

That’s a big deal. And I suspect we will see just that happen in my lifetime. I sure hope so.

A Glimpse Into The Future

Justin Fox has an excellent blog post up on Bloomberg.com talking about some changes he is seeing in the global economy.

In the post Justin observes that the global economic slowdown we are in the midst of may well be more about the accelerating change from a goods based economy to a services based economy than the traditional business cycle playing out.

There are a ton of good charts in the post and I would strongly suggest everyone go read it.

Here’s the final paragraph which sort of nails the argument, as good final paragraphs do:

Finally, consider the things that people do want to spend their money on. The defining consumer product of our age is the smartphone. A smartphone is a good, and it takes resources to make and transport it. Still, it takes a lot less resources than, say, a car. Most of its value is in the software that is loaded onto it and the people, information and entertainment you can connect to with it. That’s a different sort of value creation than 20th-century resource-based value creation. If that’s the direction the global economy is headed in, the connections between growth, trade and resource consumption aren’t going to be the same as they have been. That is probably a good thing.

The Bull Case For Solar

My partner Albert blogged about solar yesterday and posted this chart:

solar cost trends

I’d like to add another chart to this conversation, mortgage rates over the past thirty years:

mortgage rates 1980-2013

The bear case for solar has been that the payback times are too long. But with cost declines (Albert’s chart) and carrying cost declines (my chart), solar makes more sense today than ever.

The other chart worth looking at is home energy prices over time. Your payback on solar depends a lot on how much you are paying for alternative sources of energy.

This part of the analysis is not as easy. It depends on what kind of energy you are consuming (coal, natural gas, oil) and where you live.

But my view is that the long term price of carbon energy will not decline as fast as the long term price of solar. Particularly if carrying costs (which are dominated by interest rates) continue to be low.

Cap rates (the yield an investor gets in real estate) are in the 5-6% range around the US these days. That means an investor is willing to wait for 15-20 years to get their money back on a real estate investment.

Solar payback times are half of that and going down fast.

The Gotham Gal and I are putting solar onto every building and home we construct these days. We are believers and bullish on solar.

Deflation

Last week my friend Tom Evslin left this comment here at AVC:

Trial investment thesis: deflation is here to stay, get used to it. Of course we’re used to that in high tech and communication because of Moore’s Law. we don’t model price increases in our business plans. But the rest of the modern economy and the goals of various central banks assume inflation is normal and desirable.

I’ll leave aside whether it’s desirable because I’m positing that deflation is going to happen (except in terms of certain debased currencies).

Energy prices are going relentlessly down. They drive costs, of course, through the economy. Moore’s law has had an effect on these prices both in the more efficient use of energy and more effective ways to extract or even generate it it and manage it in grids. But historically, if you measure by manhours required to generate a BTU, energy costs HAVE gone way down since the first fire was intentionally lit in dry sticks.

Moore’s law will eventually even drive the price of health care down (see Andy Kessler).

Food costs are arguable but energy has much effect here as does genetic engineering and computerized farming.

Currency devaluation as an instrument of national financing becomes more difficult with globalization and perhaps nation-independent currencies.

Obvious losers from deflation are the current banking system (built for inflation), debtors with non-productive assets, and governments both because they are debtors and because they lose the taxes on inflationary portion of interest is there is not interest.

The winners are? That’s the investment question I’m thinking about.

I did not reply to Tom’s comment but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I had a long conversation last night at dinner with another friend about it. What if we have seen peak energy prices on our lifetime? What if we won’t see long term rates in the US of 10% again in our lifetime? What if deflation is what we are managing instead of inflation?

We’ve been in a low rate and deflationary cycle since the financial crisis of 2008, but the assumption has always been that we will someday come out of that and we will return to economic conditions that existed prior to that event. What if that is not the case and we are in the new normal and it is here to stay?

I am writing this post because I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this means. If the global economy is going to have a deflationary bias for the foreseeable future, what should we all be doing and what should we not be doing? That’s the question and I’m looking for a discussion and some answers. Which I hope we will all find in the comments.