Weekly reading – 1st January 2022

Happy New Year! No matter where you are in the world, if you come across this little blog of mine, I wish you and yours a great year ahead with lots of health, luck and happiness. Also, with Covid finally behind us! Welcome to my first post in 2022!

What I wrote last week

Review of my 2021

Super Apps

Business

Thanks to podcasts, Spotify is the fastest-growing music service in the US, according to Morgan Stanley survey. “From 2019 to 2021, the streaming giant’s share of the average American’s listening hours increased from 7 per cent to 10 per cent, well behind AM/FM radio and YouTube, but strong among younger consumers who will make up the bulk of listeners over the next decade.”

American Airlines, Saddled With Debt and Growing Pains, Turns to New CEO. “Among airline executives, Mr. Isom is known for drilling down into details. A metric known as d-zero—when flights push back from the gate exactly on time or early—became a rallying cry under Mr. Isom, though it is something American has struggled with at times. Kerry Philipovitch, who worked for Mr. Isom at American until 2019, recalled Mr. Parker and CFO Derek Kerr marveling at how early Mr. Isom arrived at a company event, pointing out his prime parking spot. Ms. Philipovitch said: “That’s Robert. He works really hard. He’s going to get there early.”

Here’s What Happened to Biotech This Year. “Below is the harsh reality laid out in a chart. While the total return of the S&P 500 Index is up 29.4% year-to-date through December 27 (as represented by the SPY ETF that tracks it), the S&P Biotechnology Select Industry Index is down -18.2% over the same period (as represented by the XBI ETF that tracks it). In fact, biotech is the worst performing of any of the 11 S&P 500 sectors this year (note: XBI is equal weighted. Within the biotech community, it is generally believed to represent the performance of typical mid-to-small cap biotech stocks)”

The Super League Debacle Forced Manchester United’s American Owners to Listen to Fans. Football or soccer as it is called in the U.S is a business in which a drought of titles and a period of mediocrity can have major implications. When a club goes without a trophy for a while, great players don’t want to spend precious years at the club. Worse, they go to the competitors to help them win more titles and inflict more pain. The vicious cycle is very hard to break. Manchester United has been in that cycle since 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. The club hasn’t won a major trophy and it has lost its mojo. Prominent players don’t consider the club in the same breadth as the elite any more. It’s all down to the American club owners who don’t have the right management skill or the football culture in them. Everything is commercial. I am extremely sad to see how the club falls from grace

Apple ditched Intel, and it paid off. Taking control of an important technology stack such as the chips is a strategic masterpiece from Apple. They no longer have to rely on a dinosaur such as Intel while deepening their moat. Who else can compete with Apple in combining one of the most iconic brands in history, hardware expertise, the total control of operating systems, the network of retail stores, the world-class capability in supply chain and now an amazingly efficient chip?

Google and Tech Rivals Tap Cash Reserves to Realize Cloud Ambitions. While Amazon relies on AWS for margin, Google and Microsoft have no shortage of profitable segments to help their cloud departments catch up with a formidable rival. If you are not a first market mover, you gotta use the tools available to you.

Facebook’s Pushback: Stem the Leaks, Spin the Politics, Don’t Say Sorry. Facebook deploying the “divide and conquer” strategy with our lawmakers successfully is just surreal.

A Look Back at Q3 ’21 Public Cloud Software Earnings. A very informative post on public cloud software companies. Have a read if it’s your cup of tea

Other stuff I find interesting

Oscars: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Team Plans Best Picture Push, Tom Holland Open to Hosting. I am glad that Tom Holland, Kevin Feige and co fought for their work and the work of their colleagues in making these Marvel movies because I find it weird that some don’t consider them “art”. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a great movie. The box office and the online reviews say the same thing. Now that it’s likely a potential for Oscar nominations, would anybody come out and say it’s still not art?

New York City bans natural gas in new buildings. It all sounds well and good on paper for environmentalists as new buildings are banned from using natural gas. However, there are second-order effects as “New York’s move to all-electric buildings could mean a higher price tag for consumers using electricity for heat than those relying on gas. This winter, the average household in the U.S. Northeast is expected to pay $1,538 to heat their home with electricity, compared with gas at about $865. Almost half of the power generated in New York State so far this year came from burning fossil fuels (45% from gas and 4% from oil), with another 24% from nuclear and 22% from hydropower, according to federal energy data.”

In Hamburg, Surviving Climate Change Means Living With Water

Japan’s Paper Culture. “Old, traditional ways of using paper are still prevalent, from the gohei (a paper offering made to gods) in shrines, to the shūgi-bukuro (money envelopes) given at celebrations, and New Year’s cards. In more modern uses, purchases are typically made with cash; important documents are faxed rather than emailed; and nearly everyone uses hanko, a personalized stamp used in lieu of a signature.”

Stats

No new homes in November 2021 were under $200,000

37% of the world’s population have never used the Internet

Holiday spending in the U.S in 2021 increased by 8.5% compared to the same period last year. eCommerce retail spending rose by 11%

54% of adults in the United States have prose literacy below the 6th-grade level“. Prose literacy level refers to the ability to read and comprehend materials such as news stories or manuals.

Walmart drew one in four dollars spent on click and collect — with room to grow in 2022

Defining challenges for airlines and stock buybacks

The next few weeks or likely months will be rough for airlines. Major airlines in the US have announced major cuts to their flights, domestically and internationally.

Major airlines in the US already asked for assistance and bailouts from the government. When you are in a bind and employ thousands of folks, it’s understandable to request for help for the greater good, right? Or is it?

Bloomberg reported that in the last decade, biggest US airlines spend almost 90% of its free cash flow on stocks repurchases. In other words, instead of saving cash for a rainy day like what we are going through now or investing in back to the business more than what they already had or paying employees more, airlines repurchased their stocks to please shareholders and increase stock prices (likely).

Source: Bloomberg

Am I opposed completely stock buybacks? Absolutely not! Stock buybacks is definitely a legitimate use case of free cash flow at the disposal of executive teams whose fiduciary duty is to shareholders. If the folks who monitor the business on a daily basis decide that stock repurchase is the best course of action, who are we to argue?

However, the current pandemic and the criss that is engulfing airlines put things in perspective. The public has all the right in the world to question why airlines deserve a bailout after years of spending a boatload of money on stock repurchases. On an individual level, we are all advised to save up money for emergencies. Why should airlines receive a bailout? Especially when a recession was always a likely scenario after a decade of bull market.

Airlines have a lot to answer for after this crisis blows over. There should be some measures put in place to prevent this phenomenon from happening again. Nonetheless, I, by no means, advocate for a complete ban of stock buybacks. Truth be told, it’s a fairly complicated matter. But it’s how the government officials earn their paychecks. Mark Cuban already offers some sound advice

Baggage fees by airlines for domestic flights in the US

I came across this piece of news from Skift

JetBlue Airways is raising fees for checking bags again by $5 — to $35 for the first one and $40 for the second — on flights within the United States.

Baggage fees in the US have become a significant source of revenue for airlines in the US. In 2018, baggage fees brought more than $4.5 billion in revenue for major airlines in the US, compared to $1.1 billion in 2008. Throughout the first three quarters of 2019, the figures are well on their way to surpass the 2018 ones. Though I understand the monetary perspective through which many look at this issue, I find it annoying that airlines seemingly take advantage of customers this way. We often travel with luggage and for some certain routes, there are very few options as only one or two carriers operate on the routes. Customers have little freedom to choose.

I compiled the baggage policy of major US airlines below, as well as some information on their baggage revenue and how much of the total revenue it makes up.

Source: Bureau of Transportation and official airlines’ websites

“Low price” airlines such as Frontier and Spirit have a significant portion of their revenue from baggage fees. The low prices are often misleading as we rarely travel without a carry on. Only an addition of carry-on fees will reveal the whole cost of a flight ticket with the low price airlines. Among the bigger carriers, as far as I know, only United Airlines (not shocked at all) charges customers for carry-on in certain cases.

The stark difference in how airlines display their purchase policies

During a purchase process of a flight ticket, interested buyers like you and myself care a lot about the policies such as those on baggage, change, rewards redemption, cancellation or refund. The longer and more expensive a flight is, the more we want to know about the policies of such a flight. Let’s look at how some of the popular airlines display their policies

Cathay Pacific – Great

It’s easy to see the important policies on Cathay’s flights.

Emirates – Great

You can see the difference in policies across tiers. It gives the audience a chance to compare the options and select what works best for them.

Eva Airways – Good

Eva Airways opts for a text-based presentation of policies instead of bullet points and icons like Emirates and Cathay. Even though the information can be read easily enough, there is room for improvement

Delta – Acceptable

Delta spells out whether a flight can be changed or refunded, but the UI is not as user-friendly as other airlines that we have seen above

Singapore Airlines – Great

Similar to Emirates or Cathay, Singapore Airlines makes it easy for travellers to see what they are paying for

Korean Air – Good

Even though the comparison is easy to spot, the information leaves something to be desired.

American Airlines – Below average

The airline displays some basic information, but you’ll have to click on the baggage and optional fees on the bottom left corner to have more details. Even then, it’s not really easy to digest their complex policies

United Airlines – The absolute worst

Look at these chunks of text. The airline doesn’t seem to want their customers to know what they are paying for. The use of text instead of visuals is bad enough. They manage to make it worse by using capitalized fonts which are not user-friendly AT ALL.

Customers do buy services or products deemed good value for their money. Subtly and implicitly scamming customers doesn’t generate much trust or goodwill. In a cut-throat industry, trust and goodwill can be the difference between prosperity and struggles.