Posts from Current Affairs

News Items

This morning I was sitting outside of my coffee shop, sipping on a cortado and reading the news on my phone while the NY Times, which I buy for The Gotham Gal every morning, sat folded up next to me. I gave up on mainstream news media two decades ago and have been relying on the Internet for news for a long time now. By “Internet”, I mean blogs, Twitter, and increasingly, email newsletters.

What I was reading this morning on the bench sipping coffee was News Items, an email newsletter by John Ellis. News Items is a subscriber-only newsletter, as opposed to the free stuff you can get on Axios. But you get what you pay for with John. His newsletter is smarter, edgier, and out in front of most anything else out there. The topics that interest John the most are technology (lots of biotech), geopolitics, and finance.

The way John describes it is:

Three baskets: (1) World in Disarray, (2) Financialization of Everything and (3) Advances in Science and Technology. Bonus basket: Electoral politics in the US and around the world. Six days a week, not Sundays.

I paid $3 for the New York Times at my coffee shop this morning. I pay $99 a year for News Items. And I get things every day from News Items that I never get from the New York Times. And I don’t have to read the nonsense that the New York Times churns out non-stop these days.

If you want more news and less nonsense, you might want to give News Items a try. You can do that here.

You can also listen to John five days a week on our portfolio company Recount’s podcast network. He and his co-host Rebecca Darst cover the same news stories that John puts in his newsletter. Here are the most recent episodes:

#Current Affairs

Funding Friday: The Walk

This public art work speaking to the growing refugee crisis around the world is really great. I backed it earlier this week when I saw my friend Sunny back it.

From July to November 2021, a giant puppet of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl called ‘Little Amal’ will walk from the Syria-Turkey border, across Europe to the UK, travelling 8,000km to focus awareness on the refugee crisis. The Walk is an international arts festival meets endurance event – the length and sheer size of the challenge is capturing imaginations even before our heroine’s first step.

I’ve posted the video into this blog post but if you are reading on Mirror or via email, click here and watch it.

#crowdfunding#Current Affairs

Extra Life

I have read more books written by Steven Johnson than any other author. In addition to being a friend and a USV-funded founder, Steven writes about things that fascinate me. And he is a wonderful writer. That’s a potent combination.

I am about to embark on another journey with Steven. This one is called Extra Life and it is about how mankind doubled our life expectancy over the last hundred years.

But Extra Life is not just a book. It is also a four part TV series airing on PBS that starts tomorrow night at 8pm.

Steven told me that when he started exploring the idea of this book years ago, he thought there might be a nice symmetry to launching the book on the hundred-year anniversary of the end of the flu epidemic of 1918-1919. Well little did he know then that we would have our own 100 year anniversary of that event that has shaken our world to its core over the last year.

This book is about much of what has come to dominate our lives in the last year, public health, vaccines, drug trials, etc, etc. But instead of focusing on the here and now, it zooms out and talks about the result of all of that. Which is a 10x reduction in childhood mortality and a doubling of life expectancy.

I am eager to dive into Extra Life. I’ve wanted something to put a hopeful and optimistic context on the events of the last year and here it is. Thanks Steven!

#Books#Current Affairs

Sending Crypto To India

I saw this tweet in my feed yesterday and I sent some ETH to India this morning.

Sandeep followed with a bunch more wallet addresses to use if you want to send other crypto assets:

With the pandemic easing in the US, thanks to vaccines, we cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening elsewhere, particularly India.

I appreciate the crypto community, which is global, stepping up to do this and I encourage anyone with some crypto to participate.

And we finally found something useful to do with DOGE coins.

#crowdfunding#crypto#Current Affairs#hacking philanthropy

Commercial Real Estate

With new Covid cases down 30% in the last two weeks and partially vaccinated people approaching 50%, NYC seems ready to start getting back to work.

I have been going to the office several days a week for the last two weeks and will be there again today. As my USV colleagues get fully vaccinated, they are joining me and our office is starting to fill up.

But our Flatiron neighborhood still feels empty and there is not one good restaurant open for lunch during the week.

As we head back to work, what will the new normal be?

That is a huge question looming over the commercial real estate sector in NYC and around the country.

According to this NYT piece from last week, the vacancy rate in commercial office space in NYC is almost 20% and that number is north of 15% across the largest cities in the US. And in the face of these historically high vacancy rates, more new office buildings are coming to market increasing the supply of space.

We have surveyed our portfolio companies and we understand that many will reopen their offices this summer and fall, but most will not expect their employees to be back in the office five days a week. Some will not expect their employees to be in the office at all.

I think this Jamie Dimon quote I read in the NYT piece is about right:

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, the largest private-sector employer in New York City, wrote in a letter to shareholders this week that remote work would “significantly reduce our need for real estate.” For every 100 employees, he said, his bank “may need seats for only 60 on average.”

We used to have 10,000 square feet in our old office that we left last month. We moved into 6,000 square feet and it feels like plenty. I think many/most companies will feel that way too.

Many of our portfolio companies let their leases expire during the pandemic, as did we. And they are now thinking about what to do going forward. I have a few suggestions:

1/ Take something temporary for the next year or two. Figure out what the new normal is before entering into a long term lease. This is what USV did. We took a nine month sublet to allow us to figure things out.

2/ Shop around and be aggressive in your offers to sublet or lease space. Many landlords will not engage in your bottom fishing. But some will, particularly in the sublease market.

3/ Avoid expensive office buildouts and focus on spaces that are extremely flexible. We have invested in office and conference pods in our sublet to reduce the need for expensive office buildouts. And the Gotham Gal and I made an entire co-working space in Brooklyn with office pods.

4/ Figure out how to integrate remote workers into your office environment. We have been investing a lot more in our conference rooms/video setups. I even suggested that we put some webcams in our office so our remote colleagues could see who is in the office at any time. I am not sure we will do that. Some feel it is creepy. But I think it’s a good idea.

5/ Offer perks to encourage your employees to be in the office. We have been ordering in great food for everyone in the office the last few weeks and everyone seems to appreciate and enjoy that.

I think occupancy expense will be a smaller percentage of our portfolio companies’ P&Ls in the future and those savings can be invested in our teams instead. That feels like a great trade and one that will lead to better companies and happier employees. And that is a very good thing.

#Current Affairs#management#NYC

Vaccinations At Scale

There was a day in the last week when four million Americans got a Covid vaccine. That’s more than one percent of all citizens of the US. One in every hundred people in the US got vaccinated on the same day. Think about that!

Mayor de Blasio tweeted yesterday that 4.7 million doses of the Covid vaccine have been given out in NYC. Assuming that 2/3 of those have gone into new arms and 1/3 have gone into returning arms, that means almost 40% of adults in NYC have gotten introduced to the Coronavirus via a vaccine.

As an aside, another 20-30% of people in NYC got introduced to this nasty and deadly virus the old fashioned way and that means that we could have two thirds of adults in NYC with Covid antibodies in their systems.

But returning to the point of this post, we are vaccinating at scale in the US now.

One of my favorite Churchill quotes is:

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

That’s not exactly what is going on here but it is not far from it. While the US got a lot wrong in the first year of Covid and way too many people died as a result, we got one thing right. We bet on vaccines and we have now operationalized the delivery of them.

This is not a political point. The last administration should get as much, or more, credit for vaccines as the current one.

This is about me being proud to be an American once again. This mass vaccination is a beautiful thing to behold. It is breathtaking in its scale and it’s efficacy. It fills me with joy.

#Current Affairs

News Moments

There are these news moments that we remember vividly forever. The plane flying into the World Trade Center. The mob breaking into the Capitol. Reagan at the Berlin Wall. Just writing the words, I can see the images in my head.

Our portfolio company Recount Media is all about these moments. Recount captures them quickly and concisely and shares them on social media and other digital platforms so that the world can see what is going on around them.

Today, they are trying an experiment that I am quite interested in. They have taken one of their most-viewed news moments, one they published exactly one year ago today, and they have minted it into a one-of-a-kind digital news moment and are offering anyone the opportunity to own it.

The auction is going on here and I just placed a bid. My goal is not to win this auction, although it is possible that I could. If I do, I will contribute it to a DAO that would allow group ownership.

Recount explains why they are experimenting with NFTs here. I particularly like this line:

So as we approached the one-year anniversary of the Calendar, our first runaway viral video, we thought it would be fun to celebrate that breakthrough in a manner that itself is an expression of our relentless aspiration to rethink how journalism works — its form, function, and economics — in this moment of intense fluidity and flux in digital media.

One of the challenges with digital media is the limited business models available to news organizations. You either sell ads or subscriptions, or both.

Who knows whether minting news moments can help stimulate new business models, but it sure can’t hurt to try. Sticking to the old ways of sharing the news and making a business out of it is not interesting to me. Coming up with new ways of sharing the news and making a business out of it very much is.

#crypto#Current Affairs#digital collectibles#entrepreneurship

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

In my Jan 1st post talking about what I expected to happen this year, I wrote:

I think we will see the end of the Covid Pandemic in the US sometime in the second quarter. I believe the US will work out the challenges we are having getting out of the gate and will be vaccinating at least 40mm people a month in the US in the first quarter. When you add that to the 90mm people in the US that the CDC believes have already been infected, we will have well over 200mm people in the US who have some protection from the virus by the end of March.

Seven weeks later, it seems like that is pretty much what is playing out. I have read that about half of the population of the US now has some protection against the Covid 19 virus, either via having had the disease or by being vaccinated at least once. At the current vaccination rate of 1.8mm a day, the number of people who have at least some protection against the Covid 19 virus will be about 70% by the end of March.

What that means is the virus will spread less, infecting less people, and less folks in the hospital or worse. I believe that means a gradual re-opening of the economy throughout much of the US in the second quarter with schools, stores, restaurants, and nightlife coming back. I am sure that precautions will continue for much, if not all, of 2021 because nobody wants to take this lightly after what we have all been through.

If that is in fact the case, and we don’t know for sure that it is, what does that mean for the economy, businesses, tech, and more?

I wish I knew. But I have some suspicions.

As I have written here quite a few times, I believe that habits that we have formed in the last twelve months will stick with us even when we don’t need to use them anymore. I believe work from home has proven to be very effective for some, possibly even a majority, of knowledge workers. E-commerce has delivered (no pun intended) and the gains it has made against in-store retail will not be given back much, if at all. Remote learning is here to stay. So is telehealth.

I also believe that the things we have not been able to do in the last year; travel, be tourists, see live music, live theater, live sports, and all of that will be in more demand than ever. As Joni Mitchell said, “you don’t know what you got until it is gone.” We want all of that back and I think we will embrace being with others experiencing things in the real world with a passion.

But where all of this lands is anyone’s guess. And there are many businesses whose near-term fortunes depend on how the balance of remote vs in-person lands over the rest of 2021.

I also think a re-opening may not be great for the stock market, which was a major beneficiary of the pandemic. The NASDAQ is basically up 100% since March 20, 2020. I wrote a bit about why I think that might be the case last week. I don’t know how quickly a re-opening will impact the stock market, but I do think it could.

But let’s not get negative here. And end to the Covid pandemic and a re-opening of the economy would be about the best thing that could happen to the US and the world and I am becoming more and more optimistic that it will start happening in the second quarter of 2021.

#Current Affairs#economics#employment#stocks

How This Ends

We are in the middle of one of the great asset bubbles of modern times. It has been brought on by the easy money policies of central banks around the world aimed at weathering the global Covid 19 pandemic. Interest rates are near zero or negative in most developed economies and asset prices have gone way up as a result.

When interest rates are zero or negative, the value of future cash flows is huge and that is how you get PE and EBITDA ratios of over 100 and price/revenue multiples approaching 100.

The big question is how does this end?

I believe it ends when the Covid 19 pandemic is over and the global economy recovers. Those two things won’t necessarily happen at the same time. There is a wide range of recovery scenarios and nobody really knows how long it will take the global economy to recover from the pandemic.

But at some point, economies will recover, central banks will tighten the money supply, and interest rates will rise. We may see price inflation of consumer goods and labor too, although that is less clear.

When economies recover and interest rates rise, the air will come out of the asset price bubbles that have built up and the go go markets will hit the brakes.

When will that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. It could be later this year. It could be in a few years. It could take longer. A lot of damage has been done to the global economy and it is unclear how quickly it can recover.

A good chart to watch is the one year treasury bill.

When the one year treasury yield gets back above 2%, we are leaving the easy money era. We aren’t close to that right now.

#Current Affairs#economics

The Revenge Of Retail

A number of people have been asking me what I think of the Game Stop situation. This is not really my world. I don’t trade stocks, we hold them. I don’t use Robinhood, though I have an account thanks to my friend Howard. I don’t hang out on Reddit, though I visit it from time to time.

So I have not paid enough attention to this one, but it certainly is fascinating. The generational aspect of this is important. Boomer hedgies getting crushed by young folks self-organizing in social media. It feels like a moment where you realize that the power structure has shifted and things won’t be the same.

The financial system in the US, and in other developed countries, is a rigged system and has been for a very long time. Only big institutions can get into hot IPOs. Only rich people can invest in startups. Many of these rules are designed to protect “widows and orphans” but all they really do is make the rich richer and keep those without money out of the game.

Not anymore. Whether it is crypto (Coinbase) or day trading (Robinhood), the retail investor now has the tools to get into the game and win the game.

The new startup investing is buying into the Ethereum crowdsale. Had you done that in the summer of 2014, you would be looking at roughly 1,000 times your money right now. And that crowdsale was launched by a team led by a 20 year old. Though the SEC and others would like to impose the same rules on crypto that protect the rich and keep out everyone else, that has not happened and I pray that it won’t.

The new hedge fund is the Robinhood army self organizing on Reddit. They can move a stock more easily than the largest hedge fund.

There will be calls to regulate this “madness.” But it is the same madness we have always had. It is just a different crowd in charge.

I do worry that this Game Stop short squeeze will end badly and not only the hedge funds will get hurt. Markets can be brutal. But regulating markets to protect the small investor is not the answer. As we can see, the small investor is often a lot smarter than the large investor.

What we need to do is stop printing money to stabilize the economy. And start addressing the real economic issues that exist on main street, not wall street. Monetary policy is not the answer. Fiscal policy is. That won’t stop more Game Stops from happening. They are a by-product of markets. But it will get the money to where it is needed versus where it is just gameplay.

#crypto#Current Affairs#economics#stocks