A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

A Bitcoin Is Worth $4,000–Why You Probably Should Not Own One

Even though most people don’t even know what they are, Bitcoins increased in value from about $570 to more than $4,300 — an astounding 750% — in just the last year.  Because of this huge return, more people, hoping to make a fast fortune, are becoming interested in possibly owning some Bitcoins.  That would be very risky.

Bitcoins are a crypto-currency.  That means they can be used like a currency, but don’t physically exist likeBitcoin dollar bills.  They are an online currency which can be used to buy things.  They are digital cash that exist as bits on people’s computers.  You can’t put them in a drawer, like dollar bills or gold Krugerrands.  Bitcoins are used to complete transactions – just like any currency.  Even though they are virtual, rather than physical, they are used like cash when transferred between people through the web.

Being virtual is not inherently a bad thing.  The dollars on our financial institution statement, viewed online, are considered real money, even though those are just digital dollars.  The fact that Bitcoins aren’t available in physical form is not really a downside, any more than the numbers on your financial statement are not available as physical currency either. Just like we use credit cards or debit cards to transfer value, Bitcoins can be spent in many locations, just like dollars.

What makes Bitcoins unique, versus other currencies, is that there is no financial system, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, managing their existence and value.  Instead Bitcoins are managed by a bunch of users who track them via blockchain technology.  And blockchain technology itself is not inherently a problem; there are folks figuring out all kinds of uses, like accounting, using blockchain.  It is the fact that no central bank controls Bitcoin production that makes them a unique currency.  Independent people watch who buys and sells, and owns, Bitcoins, and in some general fashion make a market in Bitcoins.  This makes Bitcoins very different from dollars, euros or rupees.  There is no “good faith and credit” of the government standing behind the currency.

Why are currencies different from everything else?

Currencies are sort of magical things.  If we didn’t have them we would have to do all transactions by barter.  Want some gasoline?  Without currency you would have to give the seller a chicken or something else the seller wants.  That is less than convenient.  So currencies were created to represent the value of things.  Instead of saying a gallon of gas is worth one chicken, we can say it is worth $2.50.  And the chicken can be worth $2.50.  So currency represents the value of everything.  The dollar, itself, is a small piece of paper that is worth nothing.  But it represents buying power.  Thus, it is stored value.  We hold dollars so we can use the value they represent to obtain the things we want.

Currencies are not the only form of stored value.  People buy gold and lock it in a safe because they believe the demand for gold will rise, increasing its value, and thus the gold is stored value.  People buy collectible art or rare coins because they believe that as time passes the demand for such artifacts will increase, and thus their value will increase.  The art becomes a stored value.  Some people buy real estate not just to live on, but because they think the demand for that real estate will grow, and thus the real estate is stored value.

But these forms of stored value are risky, because the stored value can disappear.  If new mines suddenly produce vast new quantities of gold, its value will decline.  If the art is a fake, its value will be lost.  If demand for an artist or for ancient coins cools, its value can fall.  The stored value is dependent on someone else, beyond the current owner, determining what that person will pay for the item.

Assets held as stored value can crash

Tulip photo with value lineIn the 1630s, people in Holland thought of tulip bulbs as stored value.  Tulips were desired, giving tulip bulbs value.  But over time, people acquired tulip bulbs not to plant but rather for the stored value they represented.  As more people bought bulbs, and put them in a drawer, the price was driven higher, until one tulip bulb was worth 10 times the typical annual salary of a Dutch worker — and worth more than entire houses.  People thought the value of tulip bulbs would  go up forever.

But there were no controls on tulip bulb production.  Eventually it became clear that more tulip bulbs were being created, and the value was much, much greater than one could ever get for the tulips once planted and flowered.  Even though it took many months for the value of tulip bulbs to become so high, their value crashed in a matter of two months.  When tulip bulb holders realized there was nobody guaranteeing the value of their tulip bulbs, everyone wanted to sell them as fast as possible, causing a complete loss of all value.  What people thought was stored value evaporated, leaving the tulip bulb holders with worthless bulbs.

While a complete collapse is unlikely, people should approach owning Bitcoins with great caution. There are other risks. Someone could hack the exchange you are using to trade or store Bitcoins. Also, cryptocurrencies are subject to wild swings of volatility, so large purchases or sales of Bitcoin can move prices 30% or more in a single day.

Be an investor, not a speculator, and avoid Bitcoins

There are speculators and traders who make markets in things like Bitcoins.  They don’t care about the underlying value of anything.  All they care about is the value right now, and the momentum of the pricing.  If something looks like it is going up they buy it, simply on the hope they can sell it for more than they paid and take a profit on the trade.  They don’t see the things they trade as having stored value because they intend to spin the transaction very quickly in order to make a fast buck.  Even if value falls they sell, taking a loss.  That’s why they are speculators.

Most of us work hard to put a few dollars, euros, pounds, rupees or other currencies into our bank accounts. Most of those dollars we spend on consumption, buying food, utilities, entertainment and everything else we enjoy.   If we have extra money and want the value to grow we invest that money in assets that have an underlying value, like real estate or machinery or companies that put assets to work making things people want.  We expect our investment to grow because the assets yield a return.  We invest our money for the long-term, hoping to create a nest egg for future consumption.

Unless you are a professional trader, or you simply want to gamble, stay away from Bitcoins.  They have no inherent value, because they are a currency which represents value rather than having value themselves.  The Bitcoin currency is not managed by any government agency, nor is it backed by any government.  Bitcoin values are purely dependent upon holders having faith they will continue to have value.  Right now the market looks a lot more like tulip mania than careful investing.

For Independence Day – Why The USA Could Lose World Dominance – Demographic Trends

For Independence Day – Why The USA Could Lose World Dominance – Demographic Trends

Tuesday American celebrates Independence Day, and the decision to break away as a colony from England.  Since then America has been on quite a growth journey, and today most Americans cannot imagine a world where the USA is not the dominant power.  They were born post World War II and simply believe that America was once the great world power, and always will be.  Like it is some God-given immutable right.

But it’s not.

most populous nations in 2050

Statista, UN Division

 

From the early 1800s well into the middle 1900s America had one of the fastest population growth rates in the world.  “Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is on the Statue of Liberty for no small reason – America accepted floods of immigrants from around the world as westward expansion and the industrial age created huge opportunity for everyone.  People flooded America, and many people had very large families.  Well into the 1900s it was not uncommon for people to have 6, 8 or 10 siblings.

  1. Boomers were raised being told “eat your dinner, there’s a starving child in India who would love to have that. India struggled to  build its own economy after Ghandi evicted the English. And in the 1950s and 1960s it was a remarkably poor country. But today, India is a thriving, growing advanced society. Yes, there are still many poor in India. But it is no longer a country to be pooh-poohed as an also ran. It has a flourishing economy, advanced home developed technology and a sophisticated military. Today about 15% of Indians are Muslim; so about 175M people. But the Muslim population is the fastest growing, and by 2050 there will be 310M Indian Muslims, or a population about 80% the size of the entire United States.
  2. American’s treat Africa as the home of former slaves. Far too many Americans simply ignore the continent and its issues of civil wars and genocide entirely – as if it is unimportant. However, by 2050 there will be more people in Nigeria than America. Today about half of Nigerians are Muslim.  By 2050 that will grow to 60%, or 245M, which will be almost 2/3 the entire U.S. population.  Additionally, Nigeria is an oil rich country that is a major player in energy markets.  And a strong trading partner with China.
  3.  Americans think of countries like Indonesia and Pakistan as small and remote.  But by 2050 these two countries will have 630M people, which will be 50% more than the USA.  And their populations are almost entirely Muslim.  Additionally, Indonesia is an oil rich country that is also a major player in energy markets.
  4. Americans’ ignorance of Africa will be forced to change, as other African countries continue to grow.  Areas Americans think of as barren, poverty-stricken wastelands in the Congo and Ethiopia will grow to over 300M people.  The famine and bloodshed from internal strife will expand, creating ongoing refugee problems and spreading of global diseases.
  5. While China’s population is shrinking, the country’s emergence from the draconian times of Chairman Mao and his infamous Gang of Four is long gone.  China is no longer a backwater country lacking infrastructure, technology or an advanced military.  China now has nuclear capability, and has an active space program.  The Chinese have demonstrated they can move resources very fast on everything from infrastructure projects to technology, and China is a very active investor in projects across Africa and Latin America.  As American policy has retrenched from these areas, the Chinese are actively stepping in with money, one-upping the USA in using capitalism to win hearts, minds and foreign policy partners.

When the boomers were born America was rich in natural resources, had a growing economy, and had avoided the devastation that was left behind in Japan, Europe parts of southeast Asia and north Africa.  India was an emerging country, finding its way after refuting colonialism.  And China was off the world stage due to the inwardly focused leadership.  So Americans  have lived a very long time thinking that the world will always be a Christian, capitalist, democratic place where the USA’s domination could not be challenged.

But many things have changed dramatically, and many more changes are coming soon enough.  In a few short years population growth will make America a relatively far smaller country.  And both technology skill development and understanding how to use capitalism have unleashed dramatic growth in what were formerly derisively referred to as “emerging” countries.  “Emerging” implying that America had nothing to concern itself as regards these countries.

Zulu were some of the most feared warriors in Africa.  But, they had a practice of being inwardly focused.  As they looked inward they did not fear external enemies, but only those who came into their inner circle.  Approaching their internal circle could invite attack, and demolition.  But, eventually the external enemies became too many, and too far reaching, and the inwardly focused Zulu were attacked on multiple fronts from a growing host of enemies.  The Zulu lost their domination as Africa’s military leaders.

Americans must address their inclination for inwardly focusing on “what’s good for America.” It is naively affixing self-blinders to think policy decisions can be made independently of the world community, and without harmful retribution.  There are a lot more “of them” than their are “of us.”  And the majority of “them” have nuclear weapons just as powerful as “ours.”  And “their” economies are just as strong as “ours.”  In many cases actually a lot stronger. These countries can stand on their own without U.S. support, and they can implement policies which can be very destructive to U.S. economic interests globally.  And they can form their own coalitions to avoid working with America.

As other countries grow, those that choose to ignore immigration and the global movement of people will be big losers.  Today Japan is struggling, losing economic power annually, because it refuses to endorse a robust immigration policy.  Unfortunately, the same thing cold happen to America as its population growth rate falls, and its economic growth falls with it.  Outlawing sanctuary cities that help immigrants merge into American society is a misbegotten policy based on false assumptions about America’s lack of need for immigrants to remain globally competitive.

If America chooses to start all-out trade wars to protect its economy, America could be isolated and likely lose more than it gains. Where once American resources and technology were essential, that is far less true today.  European countries have every bit the technology and investment skills of Americans, as do the Chinese and many other countries.  Just look at how many of your beloved products, such as mobile phones, computers, TVs, and game consoles, are not made in America at all.  There are ample trade opportunities between all countries to supply each other with goods and products, including commodities such as wheat, coal, oil, lumber and gold, that could bypass America entirely.

If America starts a shooting war it is far from clear that it will be as untouched as WWII.  And far from clear who will “win,” especially if nuclear war ensues.

And while it is tempting to think that God is on the side of Christians, ignoring the growth of Islam is as foolish as the Romans attempting to ignore the growth of Christianity.  Thinking that the growth of Islam is a “Middle Eastern problem” is a dramatic understatement of the situation.  Population growth rates of Muslims are far greater globally than other religions.  It is ridiculous to think that Islam will not be a major part of the world religious landscape.  Thinking that Islam is a problem is hyperbole.  Thinking America can isolate itself from Islam is simply an hallucination.

Demographic trends are powerful forecasters.  They are very easy to predict, and almost always correct.  And they foretell a lot about how we will live and work in the future.  The key to good policy making is understanding these trends and working to take advantage of them for growth.  Ignoring them is a perilous journey that always ends very badly.  Since many of the trends are obvious, isn’t it time to plan for them effectively?

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

Like The Best Tech Companies, Publicis Launches A Great Strategic Pivot

People like to discuss “strategic pivots” in tech companies.  The term refers to changing a company’s strategy dramatically in reaction to market shifts. Like when Apple pivoted in 2000 from being the Mac company to its focus on mobile, which lead to the iPod, iPhone, and other mobile products.  But everyone needs to know how to pivot, and some of the most important pivots haven’t even been in tech.

Take for example Netflix.  Netflix won the war in video distribution, annihilating Blockbuster.  But then, when it seemed Netflix owned video distribution, CEO Reed Hastings pivoted from distribution to streaming.  He cut investment in distribution assets, and raised prices.  Then he spent the money learning how to become a tech company that could lead the world in streaming services.  It was a big bet that cannibalized the old business in order to position Netflix for future success.

Analysts hated the idea, and the stock price sank.  But CEO Hastings was proven right.  By investing heavily in the next wave of technology and market growth Netflix soared toward far greater success than had it kept spending money in lower cost distribution of cassettes and DVDs.

(From L to R) Philippe Dauman, US actress and singer Selena Gomez, MTV President Stephen Friedman and US director Jon Chu attend a Viacom seminar during the 59th International Festival of Creativity – Cannes Lions 2012, on June 21, 2012 in Cannes, southeastern France. The Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, running from June 17 to 23, is a world’s meeting place for professionals in the communications industry.  (VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages)

This week Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of the world’s third largest advertising agency (Publicis) announced he was betting on a strategic pivot.  And most in the industry questioned if he made a good decision.

Simply put, CEO Sadoun announced at the largest ad agency awards conference, the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, that Publicis would no longer participate in Cannes.  Nor would it participate in several other conferences including the very large South by Southwest (SXSW) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES.)  Instead, he would save those costs to invest in AR (artificial or augmented reality.)

In an industry long dominated by highly creative people who love mixing with other agency folks and clients, this was an enormous shock.  These conferences were where award winners marketed their creative capability, showing off how much they were admired by peers.  And they wined and dined clients seeking to build on awards to gain new business.  No one would expect any major agency to drop out, and most especially not an agency as large as Publicis.

In changing markets strategic pivots make sense.

And strategically this pivot makes a lot of sense.  The ad industry was once dominated by ads placed in newspaper, magazines and on TV.  But today print journalism is almost dead.  The demand for print ads is a fraction of 20 years ago.  And TV is no longer as prevalent as before.  Today, people spend more time looking at their smartphone than they do their TV.  The days of thinking high creativity would lead to high sales are in the past.  Fewer and fewer big advertisers care about who wins awards, and fewer are going to these conferences to decide who they would like to hire.

Today advertising is going “programmatic.”  Increasingly ads are placed by computers, on web and mobile sites.  Advertising is about finding the right eyeballs, at the right time, next to the right content in order to find a buyer.  Advertisers no longer spend money lavishly on mass media hoping for good results.  Instead ads are targeted, measured for response and evaluated for ROI based on media, location, user and a raft of other metrics.

And the industry has changed.  There still is an advertising agency business.  But it is under attack from tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snap that promote to advertisers their ability to target the right clients for high returns on money spent.  The content is important, but today almost everyone in the industry will tell you success depends on your budget and how you spend it, not the creative.  And that is a lot more about understanding how we’re all interconnected, knowing how to measure device usage, profiling user behavior and programming the computers to put those ads in the right place, at the right time.

To pivot you must stop doing the old to start doing the new

Publicis has something like $10B in revenue.  Thus, dropping $20M on filing award applications at events like Cannes, and sending a contingent of employees to receive awards, meet people and have fun doesn’t sound like a lot.  But multiple that across the year and the total amount could well come to $100M-$200M.  That’s still only 2% of revenues – at most.  It would seem like not that much money given what has been a core part of historical marketing.

But, if Publicis is to compete in the future with the tech leaders, and emerging digital-oriented agencies, it has to develop technology that will make it a leader.  Publicis can’t invent money out of thin air, so it has to stop doing something to create the funds for investing in what’s coming next.  And stopping investing in something as “old school” as Cannes actually sounds really smart.  As boomer ad execs retire the newer generation is not going to conventions to find agencies, they are looking under the hood at the technology engines these companies provide.

In new strategic areas a little money can go a long way

And while $100M to $200M may not sound like a lot, it is enough money to make a difference in creating a tech team that can work on future-oriented technology like AI.  If spent wisely, that could truly move the needle.  If Publicis could demonstrate an ability to use proprietary AI technology to better place ads and manage the budget for higher returns it can survive, and perhaps thrive, in a digitally dominated ad industry future.  At the very least it can find its place next to Facebook and Google.

WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic should take serious notice.  Will they succeed in 2025 if they keep marketing the way they did in 1985?  Will this spending grow revenues if customers really don’t care about creative awards?  Will they remain relevant if  they lack their own technology to develop ads, campaigns and demonstrate positive rates of return on ad dollars spent?

CEO Sadoun’s approach to make the announcement without a lot of preliminary employee discussion shocked a lot of folks.  And it shocked the festival owners who now have to wonder what the future of their business will be.  But strategic pivots are shocking.  They demonstrate a dramatic shift in how resources are deployed to position a company for the future, rather than simply trying to defend and extend the past.

It’s a lot smarter to try what you don’t know than hope everything will stay the same.

Will this work?  There is no way to know if the Publicis leadership team can maneuver through the technology maze toward something great.  But, at least they are trying.  And that alone gives them a lot better shot at longevity than if they simply decided to do in 2018 what  they have always done.  Is your company ready to reassess its preparation for the future and address your strategy like you’re a tech company?  Are you spending money on market shifts, or simply doing the same thing you’ve always done?

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

The 9 Reasons Why Amazon Buying Whole Foods Is A Good Idea

Whole Food flagship store in Austin, Texas.

Amazon announced it was paying $13.7B to buy Whole Foods.  While not without risks, there are a lot of reasons this is a great idea:

1 – It makes Amazon a national grocery competitor overnight

Building any retail chain takes a long time.  Due to the intensity of competition, and low margins, building a grocery chain takes even longer.  Amazon would have spent decades trying to create its own chain.  Now it won’t lose all that time, and it won’t give competitors more time to figure out their strategies.

2- Now Amazon can get the necessary “deal dollars” to compete in groceries

Few people realize that no grocer makes money selling groceries. Revenues do not cover the costs of inventory, buildings and labor. On its own, selling groceries loses money.  Grocers survive on manufacturer “deal dollars.”

Companies like P&G, Nabisco, etc. pay grocers slotting fees to obtain shelf space, they pay premiums for eye level shelves and end caps, they pay new product fees to have grocers stock new items, they pay inventory fees to have grocers keep inventory on shelf and in back, they pay advertising fees to have signs in the stores and products in circulars, and they pay volume rebates for meeting, and exceeding, volume goals.  It is these manufacturer “deal dollars” that cover the losses on the store operations and create a profit for investors.

One reason Whole Foods prices are so high is they stock less of the mass market goods and thus receive fewer deal dollars.  Now Amazon can use Whole Foods to increase its volume in all products and dramatically increase its deal dollar inflow.  Something that Amazon sorely missed as a “delivery only” grocer.

3 – Amazon obtains a grocery distribution system

Grocery distribution is unique.  For decades grocers have worked with manufacturers, cooperatives, growers and other suppliers to create the shortest, most efficient distribution of food with the lowest inventory. In many instances replenishment quantities are shipped based on manufacturer access to real grocer sales data. Amazon is the best at what it does, but to compete in groceries it needed a grocery distribution system – and with Whole Foods it obtains one at scale without having to create it.

Additionally Amazon will obtain the corporate infrastructure of a grocer, without having to build one on its own.  All those buyers, merchandisers, real estate professionals, local ad buyers, etc. are there and ready to execute – something building would be very hard to do.

4 – Amazon obtains great locations

Whole Foods has 460 stores, and almost all are in great locations. Whole Foods focused on upscale, growing and often urban or suburban locations – all great for Amazon to grow its distribution footprint.  And hard sites to find.

These can be used to sell other products, such as other grocery items, or some selection of Amazon products if that makes sense.  Or these can be used to augment Amazon’s distribution system for local delivery – or as neighborhood drop-off locations for people who don’t want at-home delivery to pick up Amazon-purchased products. Or they can be sold/leased at very attractive prices.

5 – Amazon can change the Whole Foods brand in important, positive ways

“Whole Paycheck” has long been the knock on Whole Foods.  As mentioned before, the lack of mass market items meant their products lacked deal dollars and thus had to be priced higher. And their stores are large, and not the best use of space. The result has been a lot of trouble keeping customers, and one of the lowest sales per square foot in the grocery industry.

Amazon can easily use its low-price position to alter the Whole Foods brand concept to include things like Pepsi, Coke, Bounty, Gain – a slew of branded consumer goods previously eschewed by Whole Foods.  Adding these products could make the stores more useful to more customers, and greatly lower the average cost of a cart full of goods.  On its own, this brand transition has been impossible for Whole Foods.  As part of Amazon remaking the brand will be vastly easier.

6 – Amazon can personalize grocery shopping like it did general merchandise

If you shopped Amazon you know they really figure out your needs, and help you find what you want.  Amazon keeps track of your searches and purchases, and makes recommendations that often help the shopping experience and delight us as customers.

But today all that information on grocery shopping is un-mined.  Despite using a loyalty card, traditional grocers (and WalMart) have been unable to actually mine that information for better marketing. Now Whole Foods will be able to use Amazon’s incredible technology skills, including big data mining and artificial (or augmented) intelligence to actually help us make the grocery shopping experience better – less time intensive, and most likely less costly while still allowing us to fill our carts with what we need and what makes us happy.

7 – The deal is cheap

$13.7B is only 65% of the cash Amazon had on hand end of last quarter.  And Amazon has only $7.7B in long-term debt.  With a $460B market cap Amazon could easily take on more debt without adding significant financial risk.

But even more important, Amazon has the amazingly cheap currency that is Amazon stock.  Even at the offering price, Whole Foods trades at 34x earnings.  Amazon trades at 185x earnings.  Thus by swapping Amazon shares for Whole Foods shares Amazon lowers the price 80%!  Amazon isn’t spending real dollars, it is using its stock – which is an incredibly valuable move for its shareholders.

8 – This is a serious attack on WalMart

For the last several years WalMart’s general merchandise sales have been declining due to the Amazon Effect and growing on-line competitor sales.  For the last 3 years overall revenues have not grown at all.  To maintain revenue Walmart has shifted increasingly to groceries – which account for well over half of all WalMart revenues. By purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon takes direct aim at the only part of WalMart’s “core” business that it has not attacked.

Walmart’s net profit before taxes is ~4%. If Amazon can use Whole Foods to combine stores and on-line sales to take just 3% of WalMart’s grocery business away it could remove from Walmart ($485B revenues * 60% grocery * 3% market share loss) a net revenue decline of ~$9B.  Given that the cost of grocery goods sold is about 50% – that would mean a net loss in contribution of $4.5B – which would cut almost 25% out of Amazon’s $20B pre-tax income.  Raise the share taken to 5% and Amazon could cut WalMart’s pre-tax income by $7.25B, or ~35%.

The negative impact of declining store sales on the fixed costs of WalMart is atrocious. Even small revenue drops mean cutting staff, cutting inventory, cutting store size and eventually closing stores.  Look at how fast Sears and Kmart fell apart when sales started declining.  Like dominoes falling, declining sales sets off a series of bad events that dooms almost all retailers – as the quickened pace of retail bankruptcy filings has proven.

9 – This could be a huge win for Amazon shareholders

The above analysis, taking 3-5% out of Walmart’s grocery sales, say over 3 years, would be a huge gain attributed to the creation of a new Whole Foods combined with Amazon’s e-commerce.  Growing grocery revenues by $9-$14B would mean practically a doubling of Whole Foods.  Which sounds enormous – and most likely impossible for Whole Foods to do on its own, even if it did launch some kind of e-commerce initiative.

But this is not so unlikely given Amazon’s track record.  Amazon has been growing at over 25%/year, adding between $20-$25B of new revenues annually. In 3 years between 2013 and 2016 Amazon doubled its revenues.  So it is not that unlikely to expect Amazon puts forward an extremely ambitious push to turn around Whole Foods, increase store sales and use the combined entities to grow delivery sales of groceries and other general merchandise.

Is there risk in this acquisition?  Of course.  Combining any two companies is fraught with peril – combining IT systems, distribution systems, customer systems and cultures leaves enormous opportunities for missteps and disaster.  But the upsides are enormous.  Overall, this is a bet Amazon investors should be glad leadership is making – and it is a great benefit for Whole Foods investors.

As Immelt Leaves GE, Investors And Employees Have Little To Cheer

As Immelt Leaves GE, Investors And Employees Have Little To Cheer

GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt walks off stage after being interviewed during the Washington Ideas Forum at the Harmon Center for the Arts September 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. A proud Republican, Immelt said it would hurt the United States and cripple President Barack Obama — and the next president of the U.S. — not to agree to trade deals like theTrans Pacific Partnership (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Readers of this column know I’m not a fan of General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.  In May, 2012 I listed CEO Immelt as the 4th worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company.  Unfortunately, his continued tenure since then did nothing to help make GE a stronger, or more valuable company.  GE’s lead director says this is the culmination of a transition plan first developed in 2011.  One can only wonder why it took the board so incredibly long to replace the feckless CEO, and why they allowed GE’s leadership to continue destroying shareholder value.

The longer back you look, the worse Immelt’s performance appears.

Few company analysts can say they’ve followed a company for 3 years. Fewer yet can say 5 years.  Nearly none can say a decade.  Yet, CEO Immelt was in his job for 16 years – much longer than almost all business analysts or writers have followed GE.  Therefore, their lack of long-term memory often leaves them unable to give a proper overview of the company’s fortunes under the long-lived CEO.

I have followed GE closely for almost 35 years.  Ever since I graduated from HBS class of 1982 along with Mr. Immelt. Several fellow alumni worked at GE, and a large number of my BCG (Boston Consulting Group) colleagues joined GE in senior positions during the mid-1980s as GE grew exponentially. I have followed several of these alumni as the years passed allowing me to take the “long view” on GE’s performance, during Welch’s leadership and more recently since Mr. Immelt took the top job.

I was very pleased to include a positive case study of GE’s business practices in my book “Create Marketplace Distruption – How to Stay Ahead of the Competition” (Financial Times Press, 2007.)  CEO Welch used a number of internal processes to help GE leaders identify disruptive opportunities to change industries – whether markets where GE already competed or new markets.  He relentlessly encouraged entering new businesses where GE could bring something new to the game, and he put GE’s money to good use growing revenues, and market cap, enormously.  No other CEO in American history made as much value for shareholders as Jack Welch.  His leadership pushed GE to the top position in most industries, and his relentless focus on growth helped even rank-and-file employees build million dollar IRAs to go with well funded pension and retiree benefit plans.

GE’s performance could not have changed more dramatically than it has under Mr. Immelt. But there are now a number of apologists who would say GE’s smaller size, and lower valuation, are due to market conditions which were out of Mr. Immelt’s control.  They contend CEO Immelt was a good steward of the company during difficult market conditions, and the results of his tenure – notably lower revenues, lower valuation, fewer markets, fewer employees and lower community involvement – are not his fault.  They argue he did a good job, all things considered.

Balderdash. Immelt was a terrible CEO

There is an overall reluctance to say bad things about any huge American icon, and its CEO. After all, columnists and analysts who are non-congratulatory don’t usually get called by the company to be consultants, or advisors.  Or to be on the board.  And publishers of columnists who say negative things about big companies and their execs risk having ad dollars moved to more favorable journals, and often unfriendly relationships with their ad departments and agencies.  So it is far easier, and more acceptable, to sugar coat bad strategy, bad leadership and bad results.

But we should move beyond that bias. Mr. Immelt was the CEO of the ONLY company on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) to have been on that list since it was created.  He inherited the most successful company at creating shareholder value during the 1980s and 1990s.  He surely should be held to the highest of comparative bars.

Those who say CEO Immelt was “set up to fail” are somehow making the case that Immelt would have been more successful if he had inherited a company with a bad brand image, weak history, and inadequate performance.  They are rewriting history to say Jack Welch was not a good CEO, and his outsized gains destined GE to do poorly under his successor.  That simply defies the facts – and logic.

Looking at the last 16 years of “difficult times,” when GE has struggled under Immelt’s leadership, one should ask “why did so many other companies do so well?”  After all, the DJIA has more than doubled.  The S&P 500 has almost doubled.  The Russell 2000 has almost tripled. Overall, far more companies have gone up in value than down.  Why were Immelt’s circumstances so difficult that all of those CEOs did so much better?  They dealt with the same financial meltdown, same Great Recession, same increase in regulations, same federal reserve, same government administration – yet they were able to adapt their companies, grow and increase value.

Yes, GE was huge in financial services when Immelt took the reigns, and financial services saw a major crash. But look at the performance of JPMorganChase under CEO Jamie Dimon (also a classmate of Mr. Immelt.)  JPM is stronger today than ever, growing and gaining market share and increasing its value to shareholders.  Prior to the crash, in spring 2007, GE was trading at $41/share, and now it is $29 – a decline of ~30%. Back then JPM was trading at $53, and now it is $93 – a gain of ~75%.  There obviously was a strategy to adapt to market conditions and do well.  Just not at GE.

Immelt reacted to market events, poorly, rather than having a prepared, proactive strategy

Let’s not rewrite history.  Prior to the banking crash CEO Immelt was more than happy for GE to be in the “easy money” world of finance.  Welch had created GE Capital, and Immelt had furthered its growth when lending was easy and profitable.  And he supported the enormous growth in GE’s real estate division.  When this industry faced the crash, GE faced a near-bankruptcy not because of Welch, but because of Immelt’s leadership during the over 6 years he had been CEO.  If there were risks in the system CEO Immelt had ample time to re-arrange the portfolio, reduce lending, offload financial assets and reduce exposure to real estate and mortgages.  But Immelt did not do those things.  He did not prepare for a reversal in the markets, and he did not prepare the balance sheet for a significant change of events.  It was his leadership that left GE exposed.

As GE shares fell to $7  Immelt made a famous deal with Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO Warren Buffet to increase GE’s capital base in order to stave off demise. And this deal saved GE.  But this was an extremely sweet deal for Buffett, giving Berkshire very good interest (10%) on the preferred shares and warrants allowing Buffett to buy future shares of GE at a fixed price.  Berkshire made a profit, over and above the interest, of $260M on the deal, and overall at least $1.2B.  By being prepared Buffett saved GE and made a lot of money. GE’s investors paid the price for a CEO that was unprepared.

But the changes brought about by the crash, and Dodd-Frank, were more than CEO Immelt could manage.  Thus GE exited the business selling many assets at fire sale prices.  This “turn tale and run” strategy was sold to the public as a way for GE to “focus” on its “core manufacturing business.”  Rather, it was a failure of leadership to understand how to manage this business to future success in changed markets.  Where Welch’s GE had grasped for disruption as opportunity, Immelt’s GE gasped at disruption and fled, destroying billions in GE value.

Immelt could not grow GE’s businesses, so he divested GE of many.

GE was to be the “industrial internet giant.”  GE was to be a leader in the internet-of-things (IoT) where sensors, the cloud and remote devices created greater productivity.  And, to be sure, companies like Apple,  Google and Samsung have made huge gains in this market.  Even small companies, like Nest, were able to jump on this technology shift with new products for the residential market.  But name one market where GE is the dominant IoT player.  During 16 years the internet and remote services markets have exploded, yet GE is not the market leader.  Rather it is barely recognized.

Rather than growing GE with disruptive innovations and visionary products in emerging technology markets, Immelt’s GE was primarily shrinking via divestitures. In dismantling GE Capital he eliminated the lending and real estate operations.  After decades as a leader in appliances, that division was sold. Welch built the extremely successful entertainment division around NBC/Universal, which Immelt sold.

The water business that was to be a world leader under Immelt’s vision, likewise sold – and largely to make sure GE could close the deal on selling its oil & gas unit.  Even the famed electrical distribution business, going back to the start of GE, is now close to being sold.

And what happened to all this money?  Well, about $50B went into share buybacks – which ostensibly would help shareholders.  Only it didn’t, because GE is still worth less than when buybacks started. So the money just disappeared.  At least Immelt could have paid it to shareholders as a dividend – but then that would not have boosted his bonuses.

GE’s website says Mr. Immelt wanted to create a “simpler, more valuable industrial company.”  Mr. Immelt is definitely leaving behind a simpler, much smaller and weaker company.  The brand is gone from consumer products, and severely tarnished in commercial products.  GE lacks a great product pipeline, and even a strong development pipeline due to the rampant divestitures.  When Mr. Flannery takes over as CEO he will not inherit a powerhouse company.  He will inherit a company that is shrinking and rudderless, and disconnected from most growth markets with almost no product, technology or brand advantages.  And he will report to the Chairman that created this mess, Mr. Immelt.

The most likely outcome is that Mr. Peltz and his firm, Trian Partners, will buy more GE shares and seek directorships on the board.  Then, in a move not unlike the deaths of DuPont and Dow, there will be a massive cost cutting effort to bring expenses in-line with the shrunken GE business.  R&D will be discontinued, as will product development.  Support groups will be shredded.  Customer service will be downsized.  Then the remaining pieces will be sold off to buyers, or taken public, leaving GE a dismantled piece of history.

While that may work for the capital markets, and some short-term investors will share in the higher valuation, what about the people?  People who dedicated their careers to GE, and are pensioners or current employees?  What about cities and counties where GE has been a major employer, and civic contributor?  What about customers that bought GE industrial products, only to see those products dropped due to low profitability, or little growth opportunity?  What about suppliers that invested in developing new technologies or products for GE to take to market?  What will happen to the people who once relied on GE as America’s largest diversified industrial company?

These people all have an ax to grind with the very wealthy, and now departing, CEO Immelt.  He inherited what may well have been the most successful company on earth.  He leaves behind a far weaker company that may not survive.

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Why the ‘Amazon Effect’ Is So Huge In The USA, And Not In Other Countries

Originally posted: May 31, 2017

On the day after Memorial Day Amazon stock hit $1,000/share — a new record high. Amazon is up about 40% the last year. It’s market capitalization doubles Wal-mart. And the vast majority of investment analysts expect Amazon to rise further.

The Amazon logo is displayed at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York’s Times Square, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Online retail giant Amazon.com traded above $1,000 a share for the first time. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Amazon competes in dozens of international markets, as do many on-line retailers, yet the ‘Amazon Effect’ is far greater in the USA than anywhere else. And there’s a good reason — America is vastly over-served when it comes to traditional retail.

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

Chart courtesy of Felix Richter, Statista.com https://www.statista.com/chart/9454/retail-space-per-1000-people/

Retail space of various countries adjusted for population

America is enormously over-built with retail space

Looking at square feet of retail space per 1,000 people, this infographic shows that, adjusted for population size, the USA has 8x the retail of Spain, 9x the retail of Italy, 11x the retail of Germany, 22x the retail of Mexico, 51x the retail of China and 400x the retail of India! Overall, this is remarkable. I’ve been to all of these countries, and in none did I feel that I was unable to buy things I needed. Clearly, the USA has had such a robust retail sector that it has dramatically over-expanded – with individual stores, suburban strip malls, elaborate horizontal malls, vertical urban malls and multi-floor urban retail complexes far outpacing the needs of American shoppers.

All these stores created a very competitive retail environment. This competition, and the lack of any sort of national value added tax (VAT,) kept prices for most things in America among the lowest in the world. Simultaneously according to the Department of Labor, Retail is the third largest employer in America. Couple that with the enormous wholesale distribution networks of warehouses and truck fleets — and selling things becomes the country’s largest employer — even bigger than the sum total of all federal, state and local government employees .

Additionally, retail has produced the largest local taxes of any industry, combining local sales taxes with property taxes, which has funded schools and public works projects for decades. And this retail space has helped drive demand for all kinds of support services from utilities to maintenance.

U.S. retail consumers are tremendously over-served, and the market is set to collapse

But now retail is wildly overbuilt. Organic demand for all retail grows about equal to population growth, so about 3%/year.  But retail real estate grew far faster since World War II as developers kept building more malls, and large retailers like Sears, KMart, Walmart, Target, Lowe’s and Home Depot built more stores. Now demand for products through traditional retail is declining. People are simply ordering on-line.

Net/net, America’s consumers are now over-served by retailers. There is too much space, and inventory. And now that store-to-home distribution has faded as a problem, with multiple carriers offering overnight service, people are increasingly happy to avoid stores altogether, greatly exacerbating the overcapacity problem. Thus, the ‘Amazon Effect’ has emerged, where stores are closing at a rapid rate and many retailers are failing altogether leaving vast amounts of empty retail space.

Foreign markets are under-served, and benefit from Amazon’s entry

Contrarily, in other countries consumers were to some extent under-served. They actually dealt with local stock-outs on desirable items. And frequently lived in a world with a lot less product choice. And, generally, international consumers expected to travel farther to shop at the few larger stores, malls and urban shopping centers with greater selections.

In those countries local economies became far less dependent on retail real estate for jobs — and for taxes. Most have little or no property taxes as deployed in the USA. Additionally, rather than adding a local sales tax to the price of goods, most countries use some sort of national VAT to collect the tax during distribution. When Amazon starts distributing in these markets it is seen as a good thing! Consumers have more choice, less hassle and often better service. Also, Amazon collects the VAT so no taxes are lost.

Contrarily, American communities could never stop adding retail space. Whenever Walmart or Best Buy wanted a new store, no community leaders turned down the potential local economic gains. But it led to too much space being built for a healthy sector, and certainly far too much given the market shift to on-line retail. Now retail is a classic over-served market, sort of like the need for stagecoaches and livery barns after the railroads were built.

Expect 50-67% of retail space to go vacant within a decade

How much retail space could go vacant in the USA?  Just invert the multiples from above. For the USA to have the same retail space as Spain implies an 87.5% reduction, Italy -89%, Germany -91%, Mexico -95.5%. Thus it is not hard to imagine a full 50-67% of America’s retail space to be empty in just 5 or 10 years. Americans would still have 2-3 times the retail space of other developed markets.

There is no doubt Amazon is a good employer, and on-line sales growth will employ hundreds of thousands at Amazon, and millions across the marketplace. Further, most of those jobs will pay a lot better than traditional retail jobs. But there is no sugar-coating the huge impact the ‘Amazon Effect’ will have on local economies and jobs. America is vastly overbuilt and over-supplied by retailers. There will be a huge shake-out, with dozens of retail failures. And there will be enormous amounts of vacant property sitting around, looking for some kind of alternative use. And local communities will find it difficult to meet constituent needs as sales tax and property tax receipts fall dramatically.

As I wrote in my column on February 28, this is going to be an enormous shift. Far bigger than the offshoring of manufacturing. The ‘Amazon Effect’ is automating retailing in ways never imagined by those who built all that retail space. As people keep buying on-line there will be a collapse of retail space pricing, and a collapse of industry participants.  Industry players always greatly under-estimate these shifts, so they aren’t projecting retail armaggedon. But in short order the need for retail will be like the need for dedicated, raised-floor computer centers to house mainframes, and later network hubs. It’s just going to go away.

Are The Cloud And IoT Making PCs, Laptops And Tablets Irrelevant?

Are The Cloud And IoT Making PCs, Laptops And Tablets Irrelevant?

Last week Microsoft announced its new Surface Pro 5 tablet would be available June 15.  Did you miss it?  Do you care?

Do you remember when it was a big deal that a major tech company released a new, or upgraded, device?  Does it seem like increasingly nobody cares?

Non-phone device sales are declining, while smartphone sales accelerate

This chart compares IDC sales data, and forecasts, with adjustments to the forecast made by the author. The adjustments offer a fix to IDC’s historical underestimates of PC and tablet sales declines, while simultaneously underestimating sales growth in smartphones.

Since 2010 people are buying fewer desktops and laptops.  And after tablet sales ramped up through 2013, tablet purchases have declined precipitously as well. Meanwhile, since 2014 sales of smartphones have doubled, or more, sales of all non-phone devices. And it’s also pretty clear that these trends show no signs of changing.

Why such a stark market shift? After all desktop and laptop sales grew consistently for some 3 decades. Why are they in such decline? And why did  the tablet market make such a rapid up, then down movement? It seems pretty clear that people have determined they no longer need large internal hard drives to work locally, nor big keyboards and big screens of non-phone devices. Instead, they can do so much with a phone that this device is becoming the only one they need.

Today a new desktop starts at $350-$400. Laptops start as low as $180, and pretty powerful ones can be had for $500-$700. Tablets also start at about$180, and the newest Microsoft Surface 5 costs $800. Smartphones too start at about $150, and top of the line are $600-$800. So the purchase decision today is not based on price. All devices are more-or-less affordable, and with a range of capabilities that makes price not the determining factor.

Smartphones let most people do most of what they need to do

Every month the Internet-of-Things (IoT) is putting more data in the cloud. And developers are figuring out how to access that data from a smartphone. And smartphone apps are making it increasingly easy to find data, and interact with it, without doing a lot of typing. And without doing a lot of local processing like was commonplace on PCs. Instead, people access the data – whether it is financial information, customer sales and order data, inventory, delivery schedules, plant performance, equipment performance, maintenance specs, throughput, other operating data, web-based news, weather, etc. — via their phone. And they are able to analyze the data with apps they either buy, or that their companies have built or purchased, that don’t rely on an office suite.

Additionally, people are eschewing the old forms of connecting — like email, which benefits from a keyboard — for a combination of texting and social media sites. Why type a lot of words when a picture and a couple of emojis can do the trick?

And nobody listens to CD-based, or watches DVD-based, entertainment any longer. They either stream it live from an app like Pandora, Spotify, StreamUp, Ustream, GoGo or Facebook Live, or they download it from the cloud onto their phone.

To obtain additional insight into just how prevalent this shift to smartphones has become look beyond the USA. According to IDC there are about 1.8 billion smartphone users globally.  China has nearly 600M users, and India has over 300 million users — so they account for at least half the market today. And those markets are growing by far the fastest, increasing purchases every quarter in the range of 15-25% more than previous years.

Chinese manufacturers are rapidly catching up to Apple and Samsung – there will be losers

Clayton Christensen often discusses how technology developers “overshoot” user needs. Early market leaders keep developing enhancements long after their products do all people want, producing upgrades that offer little user benefit.  And that has happened with PCs and most tablets. They simply do more than people need today, due to the capabilities of the cloud, IoT and apps. Thus, in markets like China and India we see the rapid uptake of smartphones, while demand for PCs, laptops and tablets languish. People just don’t need those capabilities when the smartphone does what they want — and provides greater levels of portability and 24x7 access, which are benefits greatly treasured.

And that is why companies like Microsoft, Dell and HP really have to worry. Their “core” products such as Windows, Office, PCs, laptops and tablets are getting smaller. And these companies are barely marginal competitors in the high growth sales of smartphones and apps. As the market shifts, where will their revenues originate? Cloud services, versus Amazon AWS?  Game consoles?

Even Apple and Samsung have reasons to worry. In China Apple has 8.4% market share, while Samsung has 6%. But the Chinese suppliers Oppo, Vivo, Huawei and Xiaomi have 58.4%. And as 2016 ended Chinese manufacturers, including Lenovo, OnePlus and Gionee, were grabbing over 50% of the Indian market, while Samsung has about 20% and Apple is yet to participate. How long will Apple and Samsung dominate the global market as these Chinese manufacturers grow, and increase product development?

When looking at trends it’s easy to lose track of the forest while focusing on individual trees. Don’t become mired in the differences, and specs, comparing laptops, hybrids, tablets and smartphones. Recognize the big shift is away from all devices other than smartphones, which are constantly increasing their capabilities as cloud services and IoT grows. So buy what suits your, and your company’s, needs — without “overbuying” because capabilities just keep improving. And keep your eyes on new, emerging competitors because they have Apple and Samsung in their sites.

Why Demographic Trends Tell Us Aging and Immigration Are Crucial for Success

Why Demographic Trends Tell Us Aging and Immigration Are Crucial for Success

I write about trends. Technology trends are exciting, because they can come and go fast – making big winners of some companies (Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Amazon) and big losers out of others (Blackberry, Motorola, Saab, Sears.) Leaders that predict technology trends can make lots of money, in a hurry, while those who miss these trends can fail faster than anyone expected.

But unlike technology, one of the most important trends is also the most predictable trend. That is demographics. Quite simply, it is easy to predict the population of most countries, and most states. And predict the demographic composition of countries by age, gender, ancestry, even religion. And while demographic trends are remarkably easy to predict very accurately, it is amazing how few people actually plan for them. Yet, increasingly, ignoring demographic trends is a bad idea.

Take for example the aging world population. Quite simply, in most of the world there have not been enough births to keep up with those who ar\e getting older. Fewer babies, across decades, and you end up with a population that is skewed to older age. And, eventually, a population decline. And that has a lot of implications, almost all of which are bad.

Look at Japan. Every September 19 the Japanese honor Respect for the Aged Day by awarding silver sake dishes to those who are 100 or older. In 1966, they gave out a few hundred. But after 46 straight years of adding centenarians to the population, including adding 32,000 in just the last year, there are over 65,000 people in Japan over 100 years old. While this is a small percentage, it is a marker for serious economic problems.

Over 25% of all Japanese are over 65. For decades Japan has had only 1.4 births per woman, a full third less than the necessary 2.1 to keep a population from shrinking. That means today there are only 3 people in Japan for every “retiree.” So a very large percentage of the population are no longer economically productive. They no longer are creating income, spending and growing the economy. With only 3 people to maintain every retiree, the national cost to maintain the ageds’ health and well being soon starts becoming an enormous tax, and economic strain.

What’s worse, by 2060 demographers expect that 40% of Japanese will be 65+. Think about that – there will be almost as many over 65 as under 65. Who will cover the costs of maintaining this population? The country’s infrastructure? Japan’s defense from potentially being overtaken by neighbors, such as China? How does an economy grow when every citizen is supporting a retiree in addition to themselves?

aging-populationGovernment policies had a lot to do with creating this aging trend. For example in China there was a 1 child per family policy from 1978 to 2015 – 37 years. The result is a massive population of people born prior to 1978 (their own “baby boom”) who are ready to retire. But there are now far fewer people available to replace this workforce. Worse, the 1 child policy also caused young families to abort – or even kill – baby girls, thus causing the population to skew heavily male, and reduce the available women to reproduce.

This means that China’s aging population problem will not recover for several more decades. Today there are 5 workers for every retiree in China. But there are already more people exiting China’s workforce than entering it each year. We can easily predict there will be both an aging, and a declining, population in China for another 40 years. Thus, by 2040 (just 24 years away) there will be only 1.6 workers for each retiree. The median age will shift from 30 to 46, making China one of the planet’s oldest populations. There will be more people over age 65 in China than the entire populations of Germany, Japan, France and Britain combined!

While it is popular to discuss an emerging Chinese middle class, that phenomenon will be short-lived as the country faces questions like – who will take care of these aging people? Who will be available to work, and grow the economy? To cover health care costs? Continued infrastructure investment? Lacking immigration, how will China maintain its own population?

“OK,” American readers are asking, “that’s them, but what about us?” In 1970 there were about 20M age 65+ in the USA. Today, 50M. By 2050, 90M. In 1980 this was 11% of the population. But 2040 it will be over 20% (stats from Population Reference Bureau.)

While this is a worrisome trend, one could ask why the U.S. problem isn’t as bad as other countries? The answer is simply immigration. While Japan and China have almost no immigration, the U.S. immigrant population is adding younger people who maintain the workforce, and add new babies. If it were not for immigration, the U.S. statistics would look far more like Asian countries.

Think about that the next time it seems appealing to reduce the number of existing immigrants, or slow the number of entering immigrants. Without immigrants the U.S. would be unable to care for its own aging population, and simultaneously unable to maintain sufficient economic growth to maintain a competitive lead globally. While the impact is a big shift in the population from European ancestry toward Latino, Indian and Asian, without a flood of immigrants America would crush (like Japan and China) under the weight of its own aging demographics.

Like many issues, what looks obvious in the short-term can be completely at odds with a long-term solution. In this case, the desire to remove and restrict immigration sounds like a good idea to improve employment and wages for American citizens. And shutting down trade with China sounds like a positive step toward the same goals. But if we look at trends, it is clear that demographic shifts indicate that the countries that maximize their immigration will actually do better for their indigenous population, while improving international competitiveness.

Demographic trends are incredibly accurately predictable. And they have enormous implications for not only countries (and their policies,) but companies. Do your forward looking plans use demographic trends to plan for:

  • maintaining a trained workforce?
  • sourcing products from a stable, competitive country?
  • having a workplace conducive to employees who speak English as a second language?
  • a workplace conducive to religions beyond Christianity?
  • investing in more capital to produce more with fewer workers?
  • products that appeal to people not born in the USA?
  • selling products in countries with growing populations, and economies?
  • paying higher costs for more retirees who live longer?

Most planning systems, unfortunately, are backward-looking. They bring forward lots of data about what happened yesterday, but precious few projections about trends. Yet, we live in an ever changing world where trends create important, large shifts – often faster than anticipated. And these trends can have significant implications. To prepare everyone should use trends in their planning, and you can start with the basics. No trend is more basic than understanding demographics.

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

In early August Tesla announced it would be buying SolarCity. The New York Times discussed how this combination would help CEO Elon Musk move toward his aspirations for greater clean energy use. But the Los Angeles Times took the companies to task for merging in the face of tremendous capital needs at both, while Tesla was far short of hitting its goals for auto and battery production.

Since then the press has been almost wholly negative on the merger. Marketwatch’s Barry Randall wrote that the deal makes no sense. He argues the companies are in two very different businesses that are not synergistic – and he analogizes this deal to GM buying Chevron. He also makes the case that SolarCity will likely go bankrupt, so there is no good reason for Tesla shareholders to “bail out” the company. And he argues that the capital requirements of the combined entities are unlikely to be fundable, even for its visionary CEO.

musk-tesla-solarcityFortune quotes legendary short seller Jim Chanos as saying the deal is “crazy.” He argues that SolarCity has an uneconomic business model based on his analysis of historical financial statements. And now Fortune is reporting that shareholder lawsuits to block the deal could delay, or kill, the merger.

But short-sellers are clearly not long-term investors. And there is a lot more ability for this deal to succeed and produce tremendous investor returns than anyone could ever glean from studying historical financial statements of both companies.

GM buying Chevron is entirely the wrong analogy to compare with Tesla buying SolarCity. Instead, compare this deal to what happened in the creation of television after General Sarnoff, who ran RCA, bought what he renamed NBC.

The world already had radio (just as we already have combustion powered cars.) The conundrum was that nobody needed a TV, especially when there were no TV programs. But nobody would create TV programs if there were no consumers with TVs. General Sarnoff realized that both had to happen simultaneously – the creation of both demand, and supply. It would only be by the creation, and promotion, of both that television could be a success. And it was General Sarnoff who used this experience to launch the first color televisions at the same time as NBC launched the first color programming – which fairly quickly pushed the industry into color.

Skeptics think Mr. Musk and his companies are in over their heads, because there are manufacturing issues for the batteries and the cars, and the solar panel business has yet to be profitable. Yet, the older among us can recall all the troubles with launching TV.

Early sets were not only expensive, they were often problematic, with frequent component failures causing owners to take the TV to a repairman. Often reception was poor, as people relied on poor antennas and weak network signals. It was common to turn on a set and have “snow” as we called it – images that were far from clear. And there was often that still image on the screen with the words “Technical Difficulties,” meaning that viewers just waited to see when programming would return. And programming was far from 24×7 – and quality could be sketchy. But all these problems have been overcome by innovation across the industry.

Yes, the evolution of electric cars will involve a lot of ongoing innovation. So judging its likely success on the basis of recent history would be foolhardy. Today Tesla sells 100% of its cars, with no discounts. The market has said it really, really wants its vehicles. And everybody who is offered electric panels with (a) the opportunity to sell excess power back to the grid and (b) financing, takes the offer. People enjoy the low cost, sustainable electricity, and want it to grow. But lacking a good storage device, or the inability to sell excess power, their personal economics are more difficult.

Electricity production, electricity storage (batteries) and electricity consumption are tightly linked technologies. Nobody will build charging stations if there are no electric cars. Nobody will build electric cars if there are not good batteries. Nobody will make better batteries if there are no electric cars. Nobody will install solar panels if they can’t use all the electricity, or store what they don’t immediately need (or sell it.)

This is not a world of an established marketplace, where GM and Chevron can stand alone. To grow the business requires a vision, business strategy and technical capability to put it all together. To make this work someone has to make progress in all the core technologies simultaneously – which will continue to improve the storage capability, quality and safety of the electric consuming automobiles, and the electric generating solar panels, as well as the storage capabilities associated with those panels and the creation of a new grid for distribution.

This is why Mr. Musk says that combining Tesla and SolarCity is obvious. Yes, he will have to raise huge sums of money. So did such early pioneers as Vanderbilt (railways,) Rockefeller (oil,) Ford (autos,) and Watson (computers.) More recently, Steve Jobs of Apple became heroic for figuring out how to simultaneously create an iPhone, get a network to support the phone (his much maligned exclusive deal with AT&T,) getting developers to write enough apps for the phone to make it valuable, and creating the retail store to distribute those apps (iTunes.) Without all those pieces, the ubiquitous iPhone would have been as successful as the Microsoft Zune.

It is fair for investors to worry if Tesla can raise enough money to pull this off. But, we don’t know how creative Mr. Musk may become in organizing the resources and identifying investors. So far, Tesla has beaten all the skeptics who predicted failure based on price of the cars (Tesla has sold 100% of its production,) lack of range (now up to nearly 300 miles,) lack of charging network (Tesla built one itself) and charging time (now only 20 minutes.) It would be shortsighted to think that the creativity which has made Tesla a success so far will suddenly disappear. And thus remarkably thoughtless to base an analysis on the industry as it exists today, rather than how it might well look in 3, 5 and 10 years.

The combination of Tesla and SolarCity allows Tesla to have all the components to pursue greater future success. Investors with sufficient risk appetite are justified in supporting this merger because they will be positioned to receive the future rewards of this pioneering change in the auto and electric utility industries.

Trump vs. Clinton – Which Party Is Better for the Economy?

Trump vs. Clinton – Which Party Is Better for the Economy?

Donald Trump has been campaigning on how poorly America’s economy is doing. Yet, the headlines don’t seem to align with that position. Today we learned that U.S. household net worth climbed by over $1trillion in the second quarter. Rising stock values and rising real estate values made up most of the gain. And owners’ equity in their homes grew to 57.1%, highest in over a decade. Simultaneously this week we learned that middle-class earnings rose for the first time since the Great Recession, and the poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points.

Gallup reminded us this month that the percentage of Americans who perceive they are “thriving” has increased consistently the last 8 years, from 48.9% to 55.4%. And Pew informed us that across the globe, respect for Americans has risen the last 8 years, doubling in many countries such as Britain, Germany and France – and reaching as high as 84% favorability in Isreal.

successful-presidencyMeanwhile Oxford Economics projected that a Republican/Trump Presidency would knock $1trillion out of America’s economy, and lower the GDP by 5%, mostly due to trade and tax policies. These would be far-reaching globally, likely not only creating a deep recession in America, but quite possibly the first global recession. But a Clinton Presidency should maintain a 1.5%-2.3% annual GDP growth rate.

I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the author of “Bulls, Bears and the Ballot Box,” Bob Deitrick. Bob contributed to my 2012 article on Democrats actually being better for the economy than Republicans, despite popular wisdom to the contrary.

AH – Bob, there are a lot of people saying that the Obama Presidency was bad for the economy. Is that true?

Deitrick – To the contrary Adam, the Obama Presidency has economically been one of the best in modern history. Let’s start by comparing stock market performance, an indicator of investor sentiment about the economy using average annual compounded growth rates:
DJIA S&P 500 NASDAQ
Obama 11.1% 13.2% 17.7%
Bush -3.1% -5.6% -7.1%
Clinton 16.0% 15.1% 18.8%
Bush 4.8% 5.3% 7.5%
Reagan 11.0% 10.0% 8.8%

As you can see, Democrats have significantly outperformed Republicans. If you had $10,000 in an IRA, during the 16 years of Democratic administrations it would have grown to $72,539. During the 16 years of Republican administrations it would have grown to only $14,986. That is almost a 5x better performance by Democrats.

Obama’s administration has recovered all losses from the Bush crash, and gained more. Looking back further, we can see this is a common pattern. All 6 of the major market crashes happened under Republicans – Hoover (1), Nixon (2), Reagan (1) and Bush (2). The worst crash ever was the 58% decline which happened in 17 months of 2007-2009, during the Bush administration. But we’ve had one of the longest bull market runs in Presidential history under Obama. Consistency, stability and predictability have been recent Democratic administration hallmarks, keeping investors enthusiastic.

AH – But what about corporate profits?

Deitrick – During the 8 years of Reagan’s administration, the best for a Republican, corporate profits grew 26.82%. During the last 8 years corporate profits grew 55.79%. It’s hard to see how Mr. Trump identifies poor business conditions in America during Obama’s administration.

AH – What about jobs?

Deitrick – Since the recession ended in September, 2010 America has created 14,226,00 new jobs. All in, including the last 2 years of the Great Recession, Obama had a net increase in jobs of 10,545,000. Compare this to the 8 years of George W. Bush, who created 1,348,000 jobs and you can see which set of policies performed best.

AH – What about the wonkish stuff, like debt creation? Many people are very upset at the large amount of debt added the last 8 years.

Deitrick – All debt has to be compared to the size of the base. Take for example a mortgage. Is a $1million mortgage big? To many it seems huge. But if that mortgage is on a $5million house, it is only 20% of the asset, so not that large. Likewise, if the homeowner makes $500,000 a year it is far less of an issue (2x income) than if the homeowner made $50,000/year (20x income.)

The Reagan administration really started the big debt run-up. During his administration national debt tripled – increased 300%. This was an astounding increase in debt. And the economy was much smaller then than today, so the debt as a percent of GDP doubled – from 31.1% to 62.2%%. This was the greatest peacetime debt increase in American history.

During the Obama administration total debt outstanding increased by 63.5% – which is just 20% of the debt growth created during the Reagan administration. As a percent of GDP the debt has grown by 28% – just about a quarter of the 100% increase during Reagan’s era. Today we have an $18.5trillion economy, 4 to 6 times larger than the $3-$5trillion economy of the 1980s. Thus, the debt number may appear large, but it is nothing at all as important, or an economic drag, as the debt added by Republican Reagan.

Digging into the details of the Obama debt increase (for the wonks,) out of a total of $8.5trillion added 70% was created by 2 policies implemented by Republican Bush. Ongoing costs of the Afghanistan war has accumulated to $3.6trillion, and $2.9trillion came from the Bush tax cuts which continued into 2003. Had these 2 Republican originated policies not added drastically to the country’s operating costs, debt increases would have been paltry compared to the size of the GDP. So it hasn’t been Democratic policies, like ACA (Affordable Care Act), or even the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act which has led to home values returning to pre-crisis levels, that created recent debt, but leftover activities tied to Republican Bush’s foray into Afghanistan and Republican policies of cutting taxes (mostly for the wealthy.)

Since Reagan left office the U.S. economy has grown by $13.5trillion. 2/3 of that (67%) happened during Clinton and Obama (Democrats) with only 1/3 happening during Bush and Bush (Republicans.)

AH – What about public sentiment? Listening to candidate Trump one would think Americans are extremely unhappy with President Obama.

Deitrick – The U.S. Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index was at a record high 118.9 when Democrat Clinton left office. Eight years later, ending Republican Bush’s administration, that index was at a record low 26.8. Today that index is at 101.1. Perhaps candidate Trump should be reminded of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Candidate Trump’s rhetoric makes it sound like Americans live in a crime-filled world – all due to Democrats. But FBI data shows that violent crime has decreased steadily since 1990 – from 750 incidents per 100,000 people to about 390 today. Despite the rhetoric, Americans are much safer today than in the past. Interestingly, however, violent crime declined 10.2% in the second Bush’s 8 year term. But during the Clinton years violent crime dropped 34%, and during the Obama administration violent crime has dropped 17.8%. Democratic policies of adding federal money to states and local communities has definitely made a difference in crime.

Despite the blistering negativity toward ACA, 20million Americans are insured today that weren’t insured previously. That’s almost 6.25% of the population now with health care coverage – a cost that was previously born by taxpayers at hospital emergency rooms.

AH – Final thoughts?

Deitrick – We predicted that the Obama administration would be a great boon for Americans, and it has. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who obtain media coverage due to antics, loud voices, and access obtained via wealth that have spewed false information. When one looks at the facts, and not just opinions, it is clear that like all administrations the last 90 years Democrats have continued to be far better economic stewards than Republicans.

It is important people know the facts. For example, it would have kept an investor in this great bull market – rather than selling early on misplaced fear. It would have helped people to understand that real estate would regain its lost value. And understand that the added debt is not a great economic burden, especially at the lowest interest rates in American history.

[Author’s note: Bob Deitrick is CEO of Polaris Financial Partners, a private investment firm in suburban Columbus, Ohio. His firm uses economic and political tracking as part of its analysis to determine the best investments for his customers – and is proud to say they have remained long in the stock market throughout the Obama administration gains. For more on their analysis and forecasts contact PolarsFinancial.net]