Category Archives: investment

15/11/18: The ‘New Normal’ is a Road to another Tech Sector Bust

The VC land of wonders and waste is awash with cash, thanks to a decade-long loose liquidity pumping across the markets by the Central Banks. Just as in the prior iterations of the same (the Dot.Com Bubble and the pre-GFC assets binge), the outrun will be the same as it was before: a crash.

TechCrunch reports that (

  • Over the last 5 years, the number of 'unicorns' - startups with valuations in excess of USD1 billion - has grown from 39 to 376 - almost a ten-fold increase
  • The rate of 'unicorns' emergence is accelerating: in 11 months through November 1, 2018, we've added 81 new 'unicorns' to the roster, which means there is now a new 'unicorn' company launched every four days
  • Mega-deals for start ups - funding rounds in excess of USD100 million - are also on the rise, with their frequency up ten-fold on five years ago. "Back in 2013, there were only about four mega rounds a month, but now there are forty mega rounds a month based..." Thus, "starting from 2015, public market IPO has for the first time no longer been the major funding source for unicorn size companies."

As the chart above shows, there has been a power-law acceleration in the trend since mid-2017 and it is now clearly topping the asymptote.

Two countries dominate the 'unicorns' league: China (with 149 count) and the U.S. (with 146 count). Which implies two things: 
  • Given the close links between the PBOC policies, Chinese Government investment strategies and supports, and China's counts of 'unicorns', majority of these start ups are heavily dependent on debt, and political good will. They are sitting ducks for ESG risks and are extremely exposed to political and policy uncertainty.
  • The U.S. 'unicorns' are completely dependent on the markets ability to cycle cash from corporate and financial sectors debt and private equity into start ups funding, and M&As. There is zero rational valuation happening in this sub-sector.
A dramatic shift in risks from tangible tangible technologies (including strongly patentable innovation or defensible market shares) of the likes of Apple and Google toward less tangible, highly price and income elastic SaaS types of product offers is reflecting the massive buildup in valuations risks. This too is reflected in the article, albeit the authors fail to spot the implications. TechCrunch conclusion is perhaps even more alarming that the stats they present. "Mega rounds are the new normal; staying private longer is the new normal; and the global composition of the unicorn club is the new normal." We've heard exactly the same arguments at the tail end of the Dot.Com boom about the absurdly over-valued early internet age companies. We've heard exactly the same arguments about the real estate sector prior to 2008. We've heard exactly the same arguments about tulip bulbs in Amsterdam some centuries ago too. 

'The new normal' is the old road to a bust.

2/8/18: M&A Activity: More Concentration Risk Signals

In recent media analysis of the markets, less attention that the rise in shares buybacks has been given to the M&A markets. And there are some interesting observations to be made from the most recent data on these.

Top level (see for details) analysis is that the overall M&A markets activity is remaining at cyclical lows:

As the chart above shows both values and volumes of M&A activities are shrinking. But the numbers of mega deals are rising:

Per chart above, overall transactions in excess of $1 billion are at an all-time historical high. Per FactSet: "the first half of 2018 has reported the second-highest level of deals valued over $1 billion with 200 deals; the highest level was attained in the first half of 2007 with 210 deals. It is also worth noting that the streak of billion-dollar deals started in 2013, and since then there have been over 100 billion-dollar deals in each half-year. Even in the run-up to the financial crisis the streak was only three years (2005 to 2007). And to help complete the pattern, the dot-com boom had a similar three-year streak of 100 billion-dollar deals in each half-year from 1998 to 2000."

In other words, markets reward concentration risk taking. Mega deals generally add value through increased valuation of the acquiring firm, and through synergies on costs side. But they do not generally add value in terms of future growth capacity. Smaller deals usually add the latter value. Divergence between overall M&A activity and the mega-deals activity is consistent with the secular stagnation theses.

2/8/18: Shares Buybacks: the Evil Symptoms of an Ever More Evil Disease

Yesterday, I have posted a quite unusual (for my normal arguments) defense of the shares buybacks. Normally, as the readers of this blog know, I see buybacks as a net negative to organic investment. However, that view needs to be anchored to the economic conditions prevailing on the ground. In other words, buybacks are net negative for investment and organic economic growth, unless buybacks are companies' rational responses to specific economic and policy conditions.

With this in mind, here are my thoughts on the subject of buybacks that have accelerated in recent years:

The proposition that shares buybacks are ‘starving’ (aka slowing) the economy is false. And it is false for a number of reasons, listed below:

Reason 1: Stock buybacks can ONLY slow down economic growth in the conditions when new investment by firms can generate higher economic value added than other uses of funds in the economy (e.g. investment by other agents, than the firm, or increasing aggregate demand by investors recycling gains from buybacks into general consumption, etc). Currently, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, firms are hesitant to invest in the economy even when we control for buybacks. Thus, buybacks are similar to dividends: payouts of dividends and higher buybacks rates may signal lack of profitable investment opportunities for the firms.

Reason 2: Stock buybacks can slow down economic growth if they increase cost of capital for the firms. With equity capital (shares) being made superficially more expensive than debt (QE, tax preferences, demographic shifts in clientele reasons, etc), this is not the case. equity capital is currently more expensive than debt as a funding source for new investment for listed companies. While this situation may reverse in time (which it did only on very rare occasions in the past), companies today can borrow cheaply to retire expensive equity. This might not make sense from the economy point of view (rising degree of financial leverage, increasing risk of destabilising increases in debt carry costs, etc), it might make sense from the company and management point of view.

Reason 3: Stock buybacks can harm economic growth if they reduce returns on productivity (theory of labour productivity being unrewarded via slow wages growth). This too is not the case, because labour productivity and TFP have been collapsing since prior to the increases in shares buybacks. I wrote enough about this on this blog before in the context of the twin secular stagnations theses.

So what does the story of skyrocketing shares buybacks really tell us? The reality, consistent with Reasons 1-3 above, is that stock buybacks are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself. Shares buybacks are driven by secular stagnation: more specifically, primarily by supply-side secular stagnation (S-SSS), and are second-order related to demand-side secular stagnation (D-SSS). How?

S-SSS implies lack of profitable investment opportunities for short and medium-term investments by the firms. With falling TFP & labour productivity, and with demographically-induced slowdown in demand, this is patently so. S-SSS also implies the need for protracted QE and other distortions in capital funding costs that disincentivise equity capital relative to debt funding channels.

D-SSS implies that with demographic, structural shifts in economic activity across generations, etc, aggregate demand side of the economy is getting pressured. Which means, again, 2nd order effects, adverse pressure on supply side.

So shares buybacks are NOT a disaster, nor a disease. The disease is the structure of the economy, with
- Technological & human capital productivity and innovation stalling,
- Adverse demographics undermining future economic capacity,
- Infrastructure investments yielding lower potential growth uplifts,
- Policies (monetary & fiscal) stuck in the 20th century extremes,
- Increasing concentration, monopolisation & oligopolization of the economy and the markets resulting in reduced entrepreneurial activity.

Shares buybacks & resulting wealth inequality or concentration are not orthogonal sets to the political & policy mismanagement that marks the last 25 years of our (Western) history. They are DIRECT outcome of these.

So, go ahead, political punks. Make the markets day. Shut down shares buybacks, so you can keep gerrymandering the economy, manipulating the markets, & bend the society to your desired ends. The longer you do this, the more you do this, the tighter is the lid on the pressure cooker. The more spectacular the blowout to follow.

8/4/18: Tail Risk and Liquidity Risk: What about that Alpha?

An interesting data set that illustrates two key concepts relating to financial returns, covered extensively in my courses:

  1. Liquidity risk factor - inducing added risk premium on lower liquidity assets; and
  2. The importance of large scale corrections in long term data series (geometric vs arithmetic averaging for returns)
Indirectly, the above also indicates the ambiguous nature of returns alpha (also a subject of my class presentations, especially in the Applied Investment & Trading course in MSc Finance, TCD): micro- small- and to a lesser extent mid-cap stocks selections are often used to justify alpha-linked fees by investment advisers. Of course, in all, ranking in liquidity risks helps explain much of geometric returns rankings, while across all, geometric averaging discount over arithmetic averaging returns helps highlight the differentials in tail risks.

Sounds pretty much on the money.

8/4/18: Talent vs Luck: Differentiating Success from Failure

In their paper, "Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure", A. Pluchino. A. E. Biondo, A. Rapisarda (25 Feb 2018: tackle the mythology of the "dominant meritocratic paradigm of highly competitive Western cultures... rooted on the belief that success is due mainly, if not exclusively, to personal qualities such as talent, intelligence, skills, efforts or risk taking".

The authors note that, although "sometimes, we are willing to admit that a certain degree of luck could also play a role in achieving significant material success, is rather common to underestimate the importance of external forces in individual successful stories".

Some priors first: "intelligence or talent exhibit a Gaussian distribution among the population, whereas the distribution of wealth - considered a proxy of success - follows typically a power law (Pareto law). Such a discrepancy between a Normal distribution of inputs, suggests that some hidden ingredient is at work behind the scenes."

The authors show evidence that suggests that "such an [missing] ingredient is just randomness". Or, put differently, a chance.

The authors "show that, if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals."

Two pictures are worth a 1000 words, each:

Figure 5 taken from the paper shows:

  • In panel (a): Total number of lucky events and
  • In panel (b): Total number of unlucky events 

Both are shown as "function of the capital/success of the agents"

Overall, "the plot shows the existence of a strong correlation between success and luck: the most successful individuals are also the luckiest ones, while the less successful are also the unluckiest ones."

Figure 7 shows:
In panel (a): Distribution of the final capital/success for a population with different random initial conditions, that follows a power law.
In panel (b): The final capital of the most successful individuals is "reported as function of their talent".

Overall, "people with a medium-high talent result to be, on average, more successful than people with low or medium-low talent, but very often the most successful individual is a moderately gifted agent and only rarely the most talented one.

Main conclusions on the paper are:

  • "The model shows the importance, very frequently underestimated, of lucky events in determining the final level of individual success." 
  • "Since rewards and resources are usually given to those that have already reached a high level of success, mistakenly considered as a measure of competence/talent, this result is even a more harmful disincentive, causing a lack of opportunities for the most talented ones."

The results are "a warning against the risks of what we call the ”naive meritocracy” which, underestimating the role of randomness among the determinants of success, often fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people."