Dow 10,000 and economic reflexivity

People who criticize Obama’s economic policies forget that, around the beginning of this year, a lot of serious people thought we were entering a second Great Depression.  Here are the Google News mentions of the words “Great Depression” (in blue) and “economic recovery” (in red) over the last three years:

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Moreover, most experts thought we were being led into a Great Depression not by “fundamentals” but by the collapse of the financial system.

Back around when Obama proposed his bank bailout plan (which was mostly an extension of Bush and Bernanke’s plan) he was widely criticized.  The consensus criticism was succinctly summarized by Nobel Laureate Joseph Steiglitz:

Paying fair market values for the assets will not work. Only by overpaying for the assets will the banks be adequately recapitalized. But overpaying for the assets simply shifts the losses to the government. In other words, the Geithner plan works only if and when the taxpayer loses big time.

Around this time, I happened to bump into an old friend who was working at a hedge fund where his full-time job was trading these so-called toxic assets (CDSs, CDOs, etc).  I asked him the trillion dollar question:  what did he think the “fair market value” for these assets was? Were they worth, say, 80 cents on the dollar as the banks were claiming, or 20 cents on the dollar as the bidders in the market were offering.

His answer:  These assets are essentially bets on home mortgages, which in turn are dependent on housing prices, which in turn are dependent on the economy, which in turn is highly dependent on whether the banks stay solvent, which is dependent on what these assets are worth.

This circularity is not unique to these particular assets.  As George Soros has argued for decades, all economic systems are profoundly circular, a property that he calls reflexivity.

The bank bailouts were extremely distasteful in many ways.  Lots of underserving people got rich.  Institutions that should have failed didn’t.  Dangerous “moral hazard” precedents were set. But the fact remains:  by altering perceptions, the Bush/Obama/Bernanke plan seems to have turned the second Great Depression into “merely” a bad recession.

The Dow passed the symbolic milestone of 10,000 recently.  People who say it’s an illusion and doesn’t reflect economic fundamentals don’t understand that in economics, perception and fundamentals are inextricably linked.

What’s the relationship between cost and price?

What’s the relationship between price – the ability to charge for your product – and cost – how much it costs you to produce it?

Price is a function of supply and demand.  Notice the word “cost” doesn’t occur there.  It is true that cost is, over the long term, a lower bound for price – otherwise you’d go out of business.  It is also true that high upfront fixed costs can create barriers to entry and therefore lower supply.

The only case in which price is determined by (variable) costs is in a commoditized market.  A market is commoditized when competing products are effectively interchangeable and therefore customers make decisions based solely on price.  In commoditized markets, price tends to converge toward cost.

In non-commoditized markets, variable costs have no effect on price.  Most information technology companies are not commoditized, therefore variable cost and price are unrelated.  That is why there can exist companies like Google and Microsoft that are so insanely profitable.  If the cost of producing and distributing a copy of Microsoft Office dropped tomorrow, there is no reason to think that would affect their pricing.  The most profitable industry historically has been pharmaceuticals, because they are effectively granted monopolies, via patents, reducing the supply of a given drug to one.

There are two ways people get confused about cost and price – a rudimentary way and a more advanced way.  The rudimentary way is confusing fixed and variable costs.  People who gripe about the price/cost gap of SMS messages seem to not realize the telecom industry is like the movie industry in that they make huge upfront investments but have relatively low marginal costs.   I, for one, have always thought movies are a great deal – they spend $100M making a movie, I pay $12 to see it.  It would be silly to compare how much you pay to see a movie to the variable cost of projecting the movie.

The more advanced way people get confused about cost and price is to think that because costs are dropping, prices will necessarily follow. For example, the cost of distributing newspapers has dropped almost to zero.  This is not the primary cause of the downfall of the newspaper industry.  The downfall of newspapers has been caused by a number of things – losing the classifieds business was huge – but mainly because when newspapers went online and were no longer able to partition the market geographically, supply in each region went up by orders of magnitudes.  Once the majority of newspapers go out of business causing supply to go way down, pricing power should return to the survivors.

Non-linearity of technology adoption

When I was in business school I remember a class where a partner from a big consulting firm was talking about how they had done extensive research and concluded that broadband would never gain significant traction in the US without government subsidies.  His primary evidence was a survey of consumers they had done asking them if they were willing to pay for broadband access at various price points.

Of course the flaw in this reasoning is that, at the time, there weren’t many websites or apps that made good use of broadband.   This was 2002 – before YouTube, Skype, Ajax-enabled web apps and so on.  In the language of economics, broadband and broadband apps are complementary goods – the existence of one makes the other more valuable.  Broadband didn’t have complements yet so it wasn’t that valuable.

Complement effects are one of the main reasons that technology adoption is non-linear. There are other reasons, including network effects, viral product features, and plain old faddishness.

Twitter has network effects – it is more valuable to me when more people use it.  By opening up the API they also gained complement effects – there are tons of interesting Twitter-related products that make it more useful.  Facebook also has network effects and with its app program and Facebook Connect gets complement effects.

You can understand a large portion of technology business strategy by understanding strategies around complements.  One major point:  companies generally try to reduce the price of their products complements (Joel Spolsky has an excellent discussion of the topic here).   If you think of the consumer as having a willingness to pay a fixed N for product A plus complementary product B, then each side is fighting for a bigger piece of the pie. This is why, for example, cable companies and content companies are constantly battling.  It is also why Google wants open source operating systems to win, and for broadband to be cheap and ubiquitous.

Clay Christensen has a really interesting theory about how technology “value chains” evolve over time.  Basically they typically start out with a single company creating the whole thing, or most of it.  (Think of mobile phones or the PC).  This is because early products require tight integration to squeeze out maximum performance and usability.  Over time, standard “APIs” start to develop between layers, and the whole product gains performance/usability to spare.   Thus the chain begins to stratify and adjacent sections start fighting to commoditize one another.   In the early days it’s not at all obvious which segments of the chain will win.  That is why, for example, IBM let Microsoft own DOS.  They bet on the hardware.   One of Christensen’s interesting observations is, in the steady state, you usually end up with alternating commoditized and non-commoditized segments of the chain.

Microsoft Windows & Office was the big non-commoditized winner of the PC. Dell did very well precisely because they saw early on that hardware was becoming commodotized.  In a commoditized market you can still make money but your strategy should be based on lowering costs.

Be wary of analysts and consultants who draw lines to extrapolate technology trends.  You are much better off thinking about complements, network effects, and studying how technology markets have evolved in the past.

Is now a good time to start a company?

Back in 2006, my co-founder at Hunch, Caterina Fake, wrote a blog post called “It’s a bad time to start a company.”  There were no doubt some great consumer internet companies started then (note she was only talking about consumer internet – which is what I’m also talking about), but on average I’m guessing she was probably right.

Now I’m sure Caterina would agree with me that if you want to start a company, you should just go do it immediately, as she herself has done repeatedly, so no one is trying to discourage entrepreneurs.   But the reality is the fate of your company is partially dependent on things you can’t control, including what is happening in the tech market as a whole, which tends to be extremely cyclical.

One way to look at this is from the venture capital side.  VC returns are extremely cyclical.  For example, 1996 funds (or “vintages” as VCs say) returned an average of 95% while 1999 funds returned an average of -3%.  I don’t think this decade had such extreme swings but most people agree 2002-2005 were great times to invest in consumer internet and afterwards probably not as great.

Venture returns are a function of two things:  great opportunities and low valuations.  Low valuations are obviously not good for entrepreneurs from a dilution perspective but they do indicate that investors are fearful, which means we are probably at the down part of the business cycle, which has historically been a great time to start a company.

People are fearful now, and people with a shallow understanding of technology are declaring the internet over.  I’ve been saying for years that the best time to start a company and invest in startups will be when people start declaring Google (and online advertising in general) a “mature” business, which seems to be happening now.  It feels a little like 2003 when people mocked “dot coms” as profitless sock puppets.   In retrospect, 2003 was a great time to start a company.

On the other hand, there were massive amounts of money invested in consumer internet startups over the last few years.  You know when hedge funds and mutual funds start investing in early stage startups, as they were in 2007-8, we’ve reached the peak of the cycle.  It takes a long time for that kind of money to work itself out of the system, so at least for another year or two you are still going to see some crazy money being spent on marketing, salaries etc, making it harder for us mortals to compete.

All that said, I wouldn’t try to over think timing.  It’s pretty much impossible to predict what will happen in the near term.  You should instead focus on solving a big problem and let the chips fall where they may.  Be cautious about falling into starting something around the latest fad, e.g. online video, facebook apps, twitter apps.  I love the audaciousness behind this Andy Grove interview:

What really infuriates him is the concept of the “exit strategy.” That’s when leaders of startup companies make plans to sell out to the highest bidder rather than trying to build important companies over a long period. “Intel never had an exit strategy,” he tells me. “These days, people cobble something together. No capital. No technology. They measure eyeballs and sell advertising. Then they get rid of it. You can’t build an empire out of this kind of concoction. You don’t even try.”

What really infuriates him is the concept of the “exit strategy.” That’s when leaders of startup companies make plans to sell out to the highest bidder rather than trying to build important companies over a long period. “Intel never had an exit strategy,” he tells me. “These days, people cobble something together. No capital. No technology. They measure eyeballs and sell advertising. Then they get rid of it. You can’t build an empire out of this kind of concoction. You don’t even try.”

Benjamin Graham famously said that the stock market is a voting machine in the short run and weighing machine in the long run.  The same is true of startups.  Make something weighty – try to build an empire – and you’ll be far less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the market.

liquidity and short term thinking

Interesting post over at naked capitalism arguing that although most people seem to think more liquidity is good for the financial system, maybe it’s actually the culprit behind problems like overly short-term thinking by public company CEOs:

But in the equity markets, it may be easier to make a case for the hidden costs of perhaps too much ease of trading. The usual scapegoat for Corporate America’s short-termism is options-based executive pay. But another culprit is the lack of long-term shareholders. I should verify this independently, but a McKinsey director told me not long ago that the average NYSE stock is held seven months, down from eleven months around 2000. No wonder CEOs feel they can pay themselves whatever they want to. They truly aren’t beholden to anyone. Transient stockholders deserve no loyalty, but the loyal owners wind up being comparatively few in number (I’d love to see a chart showing the full distribution).

Because public shareholders can sell their shares at anytime, many of those shareholders only care about the short-term price of the stock. Contrast this to private companies such as VC-backed startups where it is standard for all shareholders to have non-transferable, illiquid stock and are therefore in it for the long haul.

Maybe public companies that want long term shareholders should issue shares that have restrictions on selling before a certain time (e.g. 1 year)?