Weekly reading – 16th Jan 2021

What I wrote last week

The Costco Model

Business

The latest memo from Howard Marks, just like his previous, doesn’t disappoint. He mentioned all the common senses in his memo which a lot of analysts and investors don’t seem to remember, myself included.

An informative interview by Patrick on an expert in the food industry

Neil struck it again with a sensible post on Apple’s share buyback

Visa’s new study on worldwide contactless payments after Covid

Bill Gates: America’s Top Farmland Owner

Second Measure looked at retention rate for different cohorts of Disney+ subscribers. I have quite a few questions here. How much of the bundle base came from the 3-year subscriptions sold at D23? Does the Prime Video include Prime Subscription which automatically includes Video?

Technology

You will soon be able to unlock your BMW with an iPhone in your pocket

Apple’s M1 chip can help you train models faster

DuckDuckGo is hovering around 100 million users/a day now

What I found interesting

What it’s like to go through a dramatic career change

If you are a left-wing protester, you’re 3x more likely to be forcefully confronted by the police in the US. My guess is that except from the aggressive looters, left-wing protesters are peaceful and give an impression to the police that they can use force against the protesters. Right-wing protesters appear more aggressive and intimidating. Plus, I wonder if the results are skewed because there are more states with the GOP-controlled local authorities than those with Dems-controlled authorities.

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves

European Union gave citizens the “right to repair

This video clip is about how much Swedes trust their government and believe that their high taxes are in their benefits through free healthcare, education, great infrastructure and a great living standard. It can’t be more different from the US. Here, every time social benefits are mentioned, a lot of people can’t call them “socialists” or “communists” fast enough. It’s super fascinating to see people increasingly pay more taxes (as %) compared to billionaires and are convinced that a little bit of saving on taxes every month is worth having a low living standard and paying a lot of money for everything else. There is a natural and inherent distrust in the government that is the root of so many problems around here

Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.

When that violence comes, the breakers will have to react. If they embrace it, they become the fascist faction. The Republican Party will be divided, at least for a time. One can of course imagine a dismal reunification: A breaker candidate loses a narrow presidential election in November 2024 and cries fraud, the Republicans win both houses of Congress and rioters in the street, educated by four years of the big lie, demand what they see as justice. Would the gamers stand on principle if those were the circumstances of Jan. 6, 2025?

Source: The New York Times

Weekly reading – 9th January 2021

What I wrote last week

My review of the NYTimes as a business

If you haven’t heard of MDSave, read about my experience with it and how it can save you money

I talked about why I thought Apple’s Services have just only begun

Business

In the Face of Lockdown, China’s E-Commerce Giants Deliver

Consumer spending on the App Store reached $72 billion, compared to almost $39 billion generated on Google Play

A merchant detailed his dealing with Amazon. It’s mind-blowing to see how much Amazon charges merchants for being on their site and how much these merchants rely on the behemoth for revenue. While the total commission is high, that’s the price to pay when you don’t own the customer relationship.

Autodesk's sales growth after its SaaS transition
Source: Polen Capital

Technology

EV vehicles’ market share in France hit 19%, up 6x YoY

South Korea has 11 million 5G subscribers

Facebook published usage stats of their apps on New Year’s Eve. More than 1.4 billion voice and video calls were made on Whatsapp on New Year’s Eve

What I found interesting

The Eerie Beauty Of The Apple Watch Solar Face, And The Anatomy Of Nightfall

Hawaii beaches face the threat of erosion

Impressive as it is, Apple’s Services is still in the early days

Long known as an iPhone company, Apple has transformed itself in recent years to become less dependent on the iconic consumer gadget. I doubt the transformation stemmed from a desire to get rid of the association. Rather, the transformation is to respond to the consumers’ tendency to hold on to their devices longer and to keep the ecosystem strong as well as the products sticky. In FY 2014, Services was responsible for only 10% of Apple’s revenue. In FY2020, the figure doubled to 20%. It may not sound much, but it is given that we’re talking about a company of Apple’s size, stature and $250+ billion in annual revenue.

The growth of their Services is also reflected by the steadily expanding number of paid subscribers. In Q4 FY2020, Apple announced that they had 585 million paid subscribers and were well on track to finish the calendar year 2020 with 600 million subscribers. Only two years ago, the subscriber base stood 330 million as of Q4 FY2018.

Two days ago, Apple provided a few data points with regard to their services:

  • Developers have earned $200 billion through the App Store since 2008
  • Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2020, consumers spent $1.8 billion on digital goods and services on the App Store, with $540 million alone on New Year’s Day
  • Apple Music added 52 new territories and now has 70 million songs and 250,000 exclusive radio episodes
  • Apple TV App is “1 billion screens in over 100 countries and regions”
  • Apple Pay is available in 90% of stores in the US, 85% in UK and 99% in Australia
  • Apple Books has 90 million monthly active users
  • Apple Podcast is available in over 175 countries with programming in more than 100 languages
  • “More than 85 percent of iCloud users are protected with two-factor authentication”

I wish there would be more context for us to judge these numbers, but two data points specifically stand out for me. First of all, developers earned more during the Holiday Week between 24th Dec and 1st Jan in 2020 than they did in 2019. The App Store’s spending in 2020 went over $72 billion, easily dwarfing the $39 billion that Google Play had to offer. When consumers spend more on the App Store year after year, developers have more incentives to produce apps which, in turn, make the App Store even more vibrant. Plus, even though Android is on more devices than iOS, the App Store still generated more consumer spending, confirming the long observation on the market that Apple users are a more lucrative clientele for developers. If resources are constrained, why not focusing on where the money is?

Second, 85% of iCloud users enable two-factor authentication. Personally I only turn on the two-factor authentication for important accounts like my bank accounts, Gmail and iCloud. The figure provided by Apple indicates to me how iCloud users think about their account, implying a high degree of attachment and stickiness.

When it comes to Apple’s Services, I don’t consider them user-acquisition tools. Acquiring users is more like the job of the company’s legendary brand, marketing and hardware. I don’t think anyone switches from Android to iOS simply because they want to use either Apply Pay, Apply Books or Apple Podcast. Rather, Services keep users engaged and locked into the ecosystem. So far, these Services have done wonders for Apple and there is so much room to grow. Some s such as Apple Card, Apple TV+, Apple Fitness+ or Apple One are very new and limited to only a few markets. They are still in the development stage. Once they are further developed and introduced to more markets, Apple’s Services pie will grow bigger and their “overseas” customers will be even more locked in.

And then there are areas where Apple can potentially make inroads. The company has a knack for making small, incremental yet meaningful changes in complicated matters. It will not surprise me if they find a way to make our lives easier in areas such as our job, education or insurance. These offer plenty of opportunities for improvement and they are very personal; which is what Apple is all about. The company doesn’t even need to come up with paid services to generate more revenue. Even free services that can keep customers happy and locked in would already be valuable. Once customers are happy and locked in, the money will come later.

I heard and saw criticisms about Apple’s Services such as Apple TV+ or News+ or Fitness+. While some of those criticisms were warranted, it’s worth remembering that it’s rare to get something perfect at first try. Apple launched great and disappointing products before. Yet, the company is still here and among the top 5 richest companies in the world. The company is in the early days to grow their Services portfolio, trying, tweaking and expanding as they go along.

Disclaimer: I own Apple’s stocks in my portfolio

Weekly reading – 2nd January 2021

What I wrote last week

I reviewed two books: Operaatio Elop and Turning The Flywheel

I wrote about an important lesson I will take with me into 2021

Business

How Domino’s Pizza Drove a 90x Increase in Stock Value

How to use Pinterest for Marketing

The fear of missing out seems to fuel venture capitalists and investors to value startups many many times over its revenue

How to build tech products for a diverse user base

WordPress has 40% market share

Restaurants complain about not making money with Instacart. If you outsource the relationship with your customers and accept the behind-the-scene role, you cede control as well as any profitability to Instacart.

Airlines are making it really hard for customers to use credits. All airlines try to make customers use credits, rather than get reimbursed with cash. But some, like United Airlines, are exceptionally terrible. It’s rich to claim you are about serving your customers when claiming flight credits because of Covid-19 is difficult.

Inside the deal between Google and Facebook that drew antitrust attention

The App Store and Google Play notched more than $400 million in spending on Christmas 2020, up 35% YoY

An interview with Strip Co-Founder. Stripe’s revenue in EMEA is reportedly almost $530 million in 2018.

Covid-19 has been good for streamers so far

A horrifying account of working at Apple by an international student

Oyo Chain Hotel is facing great challenges amidst Covid-19

Technology

How Apple’s rivals plan to catch up with the mighty M1 chip

EU Signs €145bn Declaration to Develop Next Gen Processors and 2nm Technology

What I found interesting

She Noticed $200 Million Missing, Then She Was Fired

What the Dunning-Kruger effect is and isn’t

Chinese Demography

China’s Empire of Concrete

Abortion, Once Unthinkable in Argentina, Becomes Legal

How ‘Feierabend’ helps Germans disconnect from the workday

A long read about the US’ response to Covid-19. I don’t know how anyone can read this report and say anything other than: there is blood on those who are supposed to be in charge, but fail their duty miserably.

A great read on why Trump supports connect with him. It’s not about policies or principles. It’s feelings. It’s about long held frustration.

Amazon’s bully tactics and my thoughts on antitrust issues

WSJ ran a piece analyzing Amazon’s tactics in defeating businesses that were first partners, but became rivals standing in the way of Amazon’s private labels. It got me to think about when behavior from big and established companies became unlawful and unacceptable and when the behavior just stemmed from the drive to be more competitive. To me, there are three different aspects to this issue: the launch of competitive products or services against smaller businesses, the price undercut and the downright bullying. Let’s look at them one by one

Big techs’ launch of services and products against smaller businesses

Critics of big techs often accuse them of antitrust behavior when the companies launch a feature similar to what other smaller businesses offer. As these big tech firms usually own the customer relationship and hence important distribution, they have a clear advantage in promoting and selling the feature than smaller competitors do with their main products. To be clear, I am NOT against giants taking advantage of the data generated from their popular platforms for several reasons:

  • If a company wants to launch something new that is a response to a market threat and can potentially benefit the end users, why should it not be allowed to?
  • Yes, platforms like Amazon or Apple have a huge advantage at their disposal: data on consumer behavior. But how is that different from getting marketing intelligence from somewhere else? The difference here is that these platforms own the data, but first they have to WORK to build these platforms and maintain them
  • Retailers have their own private labels all the time. It’s hardly a surprise that they observe brands that rent spaces on their premises and subsequently launch their own labels
  • Copying others is what almost every business does to some degree

For these reasons, I don’t think the launch of services like Apple Music itself is an antitrust behavior by Apple. Clearly, the advantages over Spotify are 1/ the app is pre-loaded and 2/ Apple owns the operating systems and customer relationship. Plus, it’s not like consumers can’t download Spotify on Apple’s devices. There is a bit more friction involved compared to the effortless experience with Apple Music, but that’s the price you have to pay for when relying on others. I wrote about Slack’s lawsuit against Microsoft before. In that piece, I argued that Microsoft, in all their Microsoft365 offerings, has at least one option that doesn’t bundle Teams. Moreover, as in the case of Apple against Spotify, companies are free to add Slack to their stack besides Office365. Surely, Slack has a lot more convincing to do as it has to persuade companies that the additional expense each month is worth the extra utility from Slack compared to Teams. Nonetheless, that’s the nature of the competition and I do think Microsoft is within its rights to bundle Teams the way it does.

In this sense, if Amazon wants to introduce a private label in a certain category, based on their data, they are within their rights. Plus, consumers have one more option at their disposal. I personally don’t see a problem with that. If I were Jeff Bezos, I would do the same and you would be hard-pressed to say you’d do it differently.

Zappos, the online shoe marketplace, and its late CEO Tony Hsieh, successfully outmaneuvered Amazon and beat them into submission in the form of an acquisition that allowed Tony and his company a degree of autonomy from the parent company. In the book “The Innovation Stack“, the founder of Square talked about the pressure from Amazon in Square’s early days. Although much smaller than the Seattle-based company, Square managed to beat Amazon with their superior products and services. Why am I mentioning these examples? They serve as a reminder that small businesses can defeat much bigger resource-rich competitors.

Predatory Pricing

From the WSJ piece:

In a June 2010 email chain that included Mr. Bezos, a senior executive laid out tactics, saying “We have already initiated a more aggressive ‘plan to win’ against diapers.com in the diaper/baby space,” a plan that included doubling Amazon’s discounts on diapers and baby wipes to 30% off, and a free Prime program for new moms.

When Amazon cut diaper prices by 30%, Quidsi executives were shocked and ran an analysis that determined Amazon was losing $7 for every box of diapers, former Quidsi board members said. Senior Quidsi executives were even more surprised when, the day of the price cuts, Jeff Blackburn, a top lieutenant to Mr. Bezos, approached a Quidsi board member saying the company should sell itself to Amazon, said a person familiar with the matter. At that point, Quidsi wasn’t for sale and had big growth plans.

Quidsi started to unravel after Amazon’s price cuts, said Leonard Lodish, a Quidsi board member at the time, missing its internal monthly projections for the first time since 2005. The company felt it had no choice but to sell itself because it couldn’t compete with what Amazon was doing and survive. Amazon bought Quidsi in 2010 for about $500 million. It shut down Diapers.com in 2017, saying it was unprofitable.

“What Amazon did was against the law. They were selling diapers for below cost,” said Mr. Lodish. “But what were we going to do? Sue Amazon for antitrust? It would take years and tens of millions of dollars and we’d be bankrupt by then.”

Source: WSJ

When it comes to predatory pricing, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, to many consumers, a giant like Amazon bullying a smaller rival like Diapers.com looks very distasteful, but to the FTC, it may not necessarily be illegal. Here is what the FTC currently says about predatory pricing

Source: FTC

Pricing below your competitors isn’t unique. What could get Amazon into legal trouble is whether it is establishing a monopoly in, as in this case, the diapers market and harming the consumers by raising the prices after eliminating competitors. Apparently, that hasn’t been the case. Last time I checked, there are more than one diaper brand on Amazon’s website and on the market in general. Plus, pricing is just one part of the value propositions a company can offer to consumers. Most car companies in the world will have a lower price than Ferrari, but the Italian company is still one of the most luxurious brands in the world and its customers still crave for its cars every year. It’s true that in some categories, prices are the dominant feature, but it’s NOT the only reason why consumers make the purchase decision.

Furthermore, one can argue that Apple Music, because it is owned by Apple, isn’t subject to the 15%/30% commission that 3rd-party app like Spotify is. Said another way, Spotify has to raise its prices to maintain its margin and as a result, make itself less competitive than Apple Music. That may be true, but once again, because there are alternatives to Apple Music on Apple devices such as YouTube, Amazon, SoundCloud and Spotify itself and because Apple Music isn’t the cheapest of all, in the eyes of the FTC, it is not illegal.

Where it gets unacceptable

Again, from the WSJ article:

At its height about a decade ago, Pirate Trading LLC was selling more than $3.5 million a year of its Ravelli-brand camera tripods—one of its bestselling products—on Amazon, said owner Dalen Thomas.

In 2011, Amazon began launching its own versions of six of Pirate Trading’s top-selling tripods under its AmazonBasics label, he said. Mr. Thomas ordered one of the Amazon tripods and found it had the same components and shared Pirate Trading’s design. For its AmazonBasics products, Amazon used the same manufacturer that Pirate Trading had used.

Amazon priced one of its clone tripods below what Mr. Thomas paid his manufacturer to have Pirate Trading’s version made, he said. He determined it would be cheaper to buy Amazon’s versions, repackage and resell them than to buy and sell them on the terms he had been getting; he decided not to do that.

Amazon suspended Pirate Trading camera tripod models that competed with the AmazonBasics versions repeatedly, Mr. Thomas said, alleging his tripods had authenticity issues. Amazon rarely suspended the tripod models that didn’t compete with AmazonBasics versions, he said. In 2015, Amazon fully suspended all Ravelli products, he said, and his company’s tripod business is now a fraction of the size it was. Mr. Thomas said he found being a seller on Amazon too risky and has largely pivoted to real-estate investing.

Several Amazon sellers said they have received notifications from Amazon, which has been battling fraud and fake goods on its platform, that say their products are used or counterfeit. Amazon suspends their selling accounts until they can prove that the products are legitimate, which can cause big sellers to lose tens of thousands of dollars each day, they said.

To turn their accounts back on, Amazon often requests that the sellers provide details on who manufactures their product along with invoices from the manufacturer so that Amazon can verify authenticity. Several sellers told the Journal they provided those details to Amazon to get their accounts reinstated, only for Amazon to introduce its own version of their products using the same manufacturer.

Source: WSJ

This is an example of under-handed and antitrust behavior that I think should be outlawed and punished. Here, Amazon used its authority and position to extract crucial information from other sellers and in turn, took advantage of the information to launch competing products. It’s one thing for Amazon to find out where sellers source their products on their own. It’s another for Amazon to leverage its position to do so. Worse, it disrupted Pirate Trading’s business repeatedly for unclear reasons and allegedly benefited its competing private label. This type of bullying behavior should be condemned and regulated.

In that sense, I don’t think it will be right for the likes of Apple to do the following to 3rd-party apps:

  • Make it hard for them to publish updates and features
  • Prevent them from being on the App Store without just cause
  • Extract proprietary information and use it against the 3rd-party apps

In short, it’s complicated and nuanced to determine whether a behavior from an established form should be punished and outlawed or whether it’s just the nature of business. My observation is that people usually jump into accusations and judgements too quickly, as well as collapse multiple issues into one. Regulations regarding antitrust in the future need to balance between letting companies, regardless of size, compete out of merits and making sure that bullying behavior is punished accordingly. That’s no small feat. That’s hard as you can by now imagine. But our society only advances when we make difficult accomplishments, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I own Apple, Microsoft, Spotify and Amazon stocks in my portfolio

Weekly reading – 19th December 2020

What I wrote last week

Adobe’s impressive performance and Disney’s true unveiling of Disney+

My thought on Apple vs Facebook and some data on iOS14 adoption

Business

Reviews of Apple Fitness+

Amazon is planning to offer a telehealth service to companies

A very interesting interview with the founder and CEO of Shopify on how to manage time.

A great letter from Brian Chesky on Ron Conway and his impact on AirBnb

Technology

This founder dodged a huge bullet after unintentionally racking up a Google Cloud Platform bill worth more than $70k+. Something to watch out for.

An interesting post that compares the new and old versions of Apple Map in Canada

What I found interesting

A new species of whales was discovered in Mexico. I kinda had mixed feelings after reading this. On one hand, I was glad we made this discovery. On the other, there may be some ignorant and greedy people trying to hunt them down for food or just an ego booster.

Reuters ran a piece on how the Coronavirus has evolved

A piece of good news. The Amazon seems to grow back

An inside story on how Pfizer achieved a miraculous feat in the race to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

Apple vs Facebook and its iOS adoption

Apple vs Facebook

In October, Apple announced a new feature in iOS14 called App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Essentially, this feature requires advertisers to seek user consent if they are looking to collect user data that helps with ads personalization and delivery. Although Apple delayed the introduction of ATT once already, starting next year, if apps want to be in the App Store, they will have to implement this feature. As the announcement came out, of course, those who make a living from ads aren’t happy. Facebook predicted that ATT would lead to a significant drop in its revenue while others threatened to sue Apple for anti-trust behavior.

This week, Facebook ran a PR campaign targeting Apple, saying that ATT would harm small businesses whose survival depends on running ads. Here are the ads:

Source: The Verge and The Verge

Essentially, both are standing up for their customers. Apple is acting true to their corporate values and out of the interests of their end users. I don’t think any end users will be displeased with ATT. On the other hand, Facebook, whose main source of revenue is small businesses, is allegedly standing up for them. After Facebook ads were aired, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, tweeted this response

Image
Source: Tim Cook

As you can see from Tim’s tweet, all ATT does is to force advertisers to seek users’ authorization to collect user data. It DOES NOT take away their ability to track. Plus, Facebook can customize the prompt message and convince users why it is in the user best interest to let Facebook collect their data. It is true that a prompt like that is pretty much similar to a NO, but at the end of the day, doesn’t it make sense to let users have a say in how their data is collected? Furthermore, Apple’s operating systems are its intellectual property. If Facebook wants to reach users on Apple’s devices and OSes, then Facebook has to comply with the rules that Apple sets. If the shoe were on the other foot, as in if a vendor was complaining about the rules Facebook sets on its platform, what would Zuck and his co. say then?

I saw some folks say that a move like ATT is Apple’s abusing its power and harming small businesses

With regard to the harm to small businesses, my perspective is that when the interests of the end users and advertisers/publishers collide, Apple rightfully takes the side of the former. Because the end users, not advertisers/publishers pay Apple for their products and services. I am sure that nobody can fault a company for catering to its own paying customers. To succeed in a world that is increasingly more conscious of privacy, the burden to succeed is on publishers and advertisers, not on Apple helping them. While I can see the difficulties that await those who are affected by ATT, as an end user, I appreciate what Apple is doing here. I mean, just look at this long list of data that Facebook collects from users and tell me if you think advertisers should get our data without our explicit consent

As to whether Apple is abusing its power, the answer is a bit more tricky. Apple is not dictating how the Internet works. Yes, it has one of the two largest mobile operating systems in the world and millions of devices, but there is also Android. What Apple does is just on its platform and how is that different from Target requiring all merchants to abide by its rules on its premises? Or any company exerting power on its platform?

However, Apple does have its own advertising business and it also uses some of the data generated by users to deliver ads. In its Advertising & Privacy section, Apple says that it doesn’t send user-specific data to advertisers. It tracks information such as device information (language preference, device, OS version, mobile carrier), device location (if enabled for the App Store, who doesn’t?) and segments which represent groups of people with similar characteristics. While it seems Apple doesn’t track users individually per se, the default option on iOS14.3, which I am on now, is that you give the company consent to collect some of your data, as mentioned above, and deliver personalized ads to you. While it’s much less grotesque than what FB does, I can see why some people accuse Apple of hypocrisy.

81% of iPhones launched in the last 4 years are on iOS14

According to 9to5Mac, here is what Apple told developers on the adoption of iOS14 and iOS13

Source: 9to5Mac

It’s worth noting that iOS13 and iOS14 are only compatible with iPhone 6S and models that come after it. iOS 13 was launched on 9/19/2019, almost at the same time as iPhone 11. Based on these pieces of information, what we can be sure is that 10% of iPhone installed base worldwide are iPhone 6/6S or older. If there are around 1 billion iPhones in circulation, it means that Apple can look at 100 million phones that are primed for an update, whether it’s a brand new iPhone12 or a refurbished older model.

If we take the period between September 2016 and now as the four-year span that Apple referred to, what we can be sure, based on the compatibility and the launch of iOS, is that at least 2% of the phones introduced in the last 4 years were made up of iPhone 7, 7+, 8, 8+, X, XS and XR.

Even though people hold on to their phones longer, the adoption of iOS14 indicates an increasing engagement with Apple’s latest iOS; which is a good sign if you want to increase Services revenue and keep customers loyal. Almost a year ago on 01/27/2020, Apple revealed the similar figures for iOS13 and they were lower than what was just announced this week

iPhone iPad iOS 13 adoption
Source: 9to5Mac

Disclaimer: I hold Facebook and Apple stocks in my personal portfolio.

Weekly reading – 5th December 2020

What I wrote last week

The three changes I made to my lifestyle during Covid

Business

Shopify’s Black Friday sales in 2020 exceeded $2.4 billion, a 75% growth year over year

Reddit now has 52 million daily active users, up by 44% YoY

An excellent piece on the longevity of some amazing small businesses in Japan. A mochi shop that has been around for more than 1,000 years? You read that right. 1,000 years, not 10, not 100, not 500. 1000! And many of them maintain enough in reserve to continue operations for 2 years in case there is an economic downturn.

Some great statistics on Spotify’s podcast ecosystem

Apple officially launched their new App Store Small Business Program. An important detail to note is that the $1million threshold is after Apple takes its cut, not before. Hence, it will give many developers more breathing room.

How Apple approached its retail stores during Covid

Technology

A deep dive into why M1 is so fast

What I found interesting

A Russian female chess player beat known male players in the 1920s and 1930s, apparently the inspiration for the series “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix

A horrifying account of how hospitals are struggling to keep up with the rising number of Covid-19 patients. It’s unfathomably insane to read, like a fictional story, not what actually is transpiring.

100 powerful pictures of 2020 by Reuters

The Sistine Chapel of South America. It looks utterly amazing

Derek Thomson of the Atlantic wrote about Democrats’ problems and what is wrong with the Electoral College. Read the excerpt below. If you support the GOP, then it’s good news. But if the shoe is on the other foot, as in the case for Democratic voters, saying that it is unfair is a massive understatement

The GOP currently holds both Senate seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Those 11 states have 22 senators who collectively represent fewer people than the population of California, which has two Senate seats.

In the 2018 midterms, Democratic Senate candidates won 18 million more votes than Republicans nationwide, and the party still lost two net Senate seats.

One analysis of Census Bureau data projected that by 2040, roughly half of the population will be represented by 16 senators; the other, more rural half will have 84 senators at their disposal.

Source: The Atlantic

As contactless payments become more popular in the US, card issuers should beware of Apple Card

Costs and benefits of a credit card from an issuer perspective

Issuing a credit card is a business and hence, it comes with risks, expenses, revenue and hopefully profits. A credit card issuer’s revenue comes from three main sources: interchange, fees and finance charge. Finance charge is essentially interest income or the interest on outstanding balance that users have unpaid at the end of a cycle. Fees include late fees, cash advance fees or annual fees, just to name a few. Interchange is what an issuer receives from merchants on a transaction basis, according to a rate agreed in advance and usually dictated by networks such as Visa or Mastercard. There are a lot of factors that go into determining what an interchange rate should be, but for a consumer card, it should not be higher than 3% of a transaction’s value.

As an issuer thinks about which credit card product to issue, it needs to balance between the benefits of the card, the expenses and the profitability. For instance, nobody would be $100 in annual fee for a credit card that has a standard 1.5% cash back without any other special benefits. That product wouldn’t sell. Likewise, an issuer would flush money down the toilet if it issued a card with a lot of benefits such as a Chase Sapphire without a mechanism to make money on the other side, like an annual fee. The art of issuing a credit card is to make sure that there is something to hook the users with and a way to make money.

The dynamic between a brand and an issuer in a Cobranded credit card agreement

In addition to having cash back or rewards on generic categories such as Dining, Grocery or Gas, an issuer can appeal to a specific user segment by having a special benefit dedicated to a brand. That’s why you see a Co-branded credit card from Walmart, Southwest, Costco or Scheels. These brands work with an issuer to slap their brand on a credit card. What do the parties in this type of partnership get in return?

From the Brand perspective, it offers to an issuer Marketing Assistance and an exclusive feature to appeal to credit card users. To the fans of Costco, a Costco credit card with 5% cash back; which should be very unique, is an enticing product to consider. Why saying no to extra money when you already shop there every week without it already? Moreover, a Brand can also be responsible for rewards at or outside their properties. For instance, Costco can pay for rewards at Costco stores or on Costco website or purchase outside Costco or the combination of all. It varies from one agreement to another.

From the Issuer perspective, it has to compensate the Brand in the form of Finder Fee, which is a small fee whenever there is a new acquired account or a renewal, and a percentage of purchase volume; which you can consider it a tax. The issuer, of course, has to take care of all the operations related to a credit card such as issuing, marketing, customer service, security, regulatory compliance, fraud, you name it. In return, issuers have an exclusive benefit to appeal to credit card prospects. They will also receive all the revenue, net the compensation to the Brand, as I described in the first section. Therefore, the longer a customer stays with an issuer and the more he or she uses the card, preferably revolves as well, the more profitable it is for the issuer.

BrandIssuer
What to offer– Marketing Assistance & brand appeal
– Rewards
– Finder fee (a fixed fee for every new account and/or a lower fee for every renewal
– In some cases, issuers fund rewards as well
– All operational needs related to a credit card
– A percentage of purchase volume
What to gain– Finder fees
– A tactic to increase customer loyalty
– A percentage of purchase volume from the issuer
– An exclusive feature to appeal to credit card users
– Revenue, net all the compensation to the Brand

Typical credit cards

Based on my observations, there are three main credit card types on the market which I assign names for easier reference further in this article:

  • The Ordinary: cards that have no annual fees, but modest benefits such as 1% or 1.5% cash back on everything. These cards are usually unbranded
  • The Branded: these cards are Co-Branded credit cards that are issued by a bank, but carry a brand of a company. These cards can come with or without an annual fee, but they reward most generously for purchase at the company’s properties, such as 3-5x on every purchase. Then, there is another reward scheme for a generic category such as 2-3x on dining/gas/grocery/travel. Finally, there is a 1x on everything else
  • The Premier: these cards are often accompanied by a high annual fee. To make it worthwhile for users, the issuers of these Cards hand out generous benefits and/or signing bonus. For instance, a Chase Sapphire user can get 60,000 points after spending $4,000 the first 90 days.

All the three types usually work well with mobile wallets and have a delay on when rewards are posted (usually it takes a cycle). This delay isn’t particularly enticing to users because when it comes to benefits, who would want to wait?

Apple Card

Apple Card is a credit card issued by Goldman Sachs and marketed by Apple. The card has no fees whatsoever, but comes with some special features:

  • An expedited application process right from the Wallet app on iPhones
  • Instant cash back in Apple Cash – no delay
  • Native integration with Apple Pay
  • 3% cash back on all Apple purchases
  • 12-month 0% interest payment plan for select Apple products
  • 2% on non-Apple purchases through Apple Pay
  • 1% on non-Apple physical transactions through a chip reader or a swipe

Without the 2% cash back with Apply Pay, Apple Card would very much be for Apple purchases only. But because there is such a feature and Apple Pay is increasingly popular, I think Apple Card should be something that issuers need to beware. Let me explain why

With the increasing popularity of Apple Pay, Apple Card should not be taken light

Last month, the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google. Interestingly, the lawsuit said that 60% of mobile devices in the US were iPhones. That says much about how popular Apple’s flagship product is. With the easy application process and the native integration into iPhone and Apple Pay, Apple Card has a direct line to consumers. Once a consumer contemplates buying an Apple product, it’s impossible not to think about getting an Apple Card and reaping all the benefits that come with it. With the existing iPhone users, the extensive media coverage and the marketing prowess of Apple will surely make them aware of Apple Card. Therefore, other issuers are on a back foot when it comes to acquiring customers from iPhone user base. However, most people have multiple cards, so one can argue that this advantage may not mean much. To that, I’ll say: fair enough. Let’s look at other aspects.

If you compare Apple Card to the Ordinary above, Apple Card clearly has an advantage. In addition to the 3% cash back on Apple purchases, there is also 2% cash back on other purchases through Apple Pay, higher than the 1.5% offered by the Ordinary. Granted, Apple Pay’s presence is a requirement, but as more and more merchants and websites use Apple Pay, it’s no longer relevant. It almost becomes a given and this advantage Apple Card has becomes more permanent. Besides, Apple Card has no fees and can issue cash back immediately after transactions are approved, compared to a host of fees and a delay in rewards from the Ordinary.

Between Apple Card and the Branded, it’s harder to tell which has the advantage. It depends on the use cases. For on-partner purchase (purchase on the brand’s properties), Apple Card has no chance here as the reward rate from the Branded is much higher: 3-5x compared to 2x from Apple Card. However, things get trickier when it comes to non on-partner purchase. If a non-on-partner purchase warrants only 1x reward from the Branded, Apple Card has an advantage here as it can offer 2x rewards with Apple Pay. If a non-on-partner purchase warrants 2x reward from the Branded, the question of which card consumers should favor more rests on these factors:

  • How much do consumers care about receiving immediate cash back?
  • Can the transaction in question be paid via Apple Pay?
  • How much are consumers willing to go back and forth in their Apple Pay’s setting?

Between Apple Card and the Premier, the comparison depends on which time frame to look at. Within the first year on book, the Premier should have an advantage. No one should pay $95 for a card and does not have a purchase plan in mind to get the coveted signing bonus. In other words, savvy users should plan a big purchase within the first 90 days to receive thousands of points. In this particular use case, the Premier clearly is the better card. However, it gets trickier after the first year on book. Without a signing bonus, users now have to determine whether it’s worth paying an annual fee any more. The usual benefits from the Premier should be better than Apple Card’s, but the high annual fee and the delay in rewards may tip the cost-benefit analysis scale to a tie or a bit in favor of Apple Card.

Given my arguments above, you can see how Apple Card, provided that Apple Pay becomes mainstream, can become a formidable competitor to issuers. Apple Card may not affect the acquisition much, but it may very well affect the purchase volume and usage of other issuers’ cards, and by extension, profitability because, as I mentioned above, issuers’ revenue come partly from interchange. In other words, Apple Card should not be taken lightly as a gimmick or a toy feature at all.

How popular is Apple Pay?

In Q1 FY 2020, Tim Cook revealed that Apple Pay transactions doubled year over year and reached a run-rate of 15 billion transactions a year. Loup Venture estimated that 95% of the US top retailers and 85% of US retail locations adopted Apple Pay.

According to a research by Pulse, in the US in 2019, there was around $1.3 billion worth of debit transactions through mobile wallet, $1.1 billion of which came through Apple Pay. This level of popularity will leave retailers and merchants with no choice, but to have Apple Pay-enabled readers; which in turn will gradually benefit Apple Card.

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Source: Pulse

Disclaimer: I own Apple stocks in my personal portfolio

Raving reviews of M1 – Apple continues to deepen its moat

A couple of weeks ago, Apple announced their new Macbook Air and Macbook Pro with their own designed chip M1. The chip is touted to be much more powerful and power-efficient than all previous Intel chips or many chips on the market. Due to the new chip, the new Macbook Airs won’t have an active cooling system because they will not consume energy aggressively and the battery will last significantly longer, to the tune that, Apple alleged, you may get by the whole day without a charge. The same goes for Macbook Pro, except that the Pros will have an active cooling system. Since the products were available, there have been raving reviews on the Macs with M1, despite some shortcoming such as iOS apps running on the Mac, the touch bar or the quality of the camera (which nobody ever likes). Here are a few excerpts that I found really interesting

Apple’s new Macs based on the M1 system on a chip, the first Macs based on Apple Silicon, are that sort of mind-bending better. To acknowledge how good they are — and I am here to tell you they are astonishingly good — you must acknowledge that certain longstanding assumptions about how computers should be designed, about what makes a better computer better, about what good computers need, are wrong.

Some people will remain in denial about what Apple has accomplished here for years. That’s how it goes.

The M1 Macs are such better machines than their Intel-based predecessors it’s hard to believe. Apple’s battery life braggadocio is warranted. The battery just lasts and lasts and lasts. I’ve been using this MacBook Pro almost exclusively on battery power all week, doing both all my normal work and running benchmarks and performance-stressing tasks, and I can’t come close to depleting it in a full day of work. It never gets hot. In normal use, it doesn’t even get warm. Maybe, sort of, when running a fully-taxing test like the Cinebench multi-core CPU benchmark, it heats up to just past room temperature above the Touch Bar, but it bears no resemblance thermally to a taxed Intel-based MacBook Pro.

As I type this paragraph I’ve been working for just over three hours, nonstop, with the MacBook Pro unplugged the whole time, and the display as bright as I want it to be. The battery is at 80 percent. To say that it offers merely “all day battery life” would require me to work very long days.

Source: Daring Fireball

Intel and AMD have to talk about gigahertz and power because they are component providers and can only charge more by offering higher specifications. “We are a product company, and we built a beautiful product that has the tight integration of software and silicon,” Srouji boasted. “It’s not about the gigahertz and megahertz, but about what the customers are getting out of it.” 

At a human level, all of this means that you will see your system as soon as you start to flip open the screen. Your computer won’t burn your lap when doing zoom calls. And the battery doesn’t run out in the middle of a call with mom. It’s amazing what goes into making these small-seeming changes that, without many of us even realizing it, will transform our lives.

Source: Om.co

Or this hilarious and awesome review by Joanna Stern

The tech review is fair in giving credit and crap where credit and crap are due. This is to say that so far the new Macs with chip M1 look very good, true to a large extent of what Apple claimed them to be.

This brings me to my main point: with the new chip, Apple is deepening its competitive moats.

Think about it this way, here is what a competitor would need to do to compete with and usurp Apple:

  • Manufacture a slew of different hardware products like a phone, personal computers, a tablet, wireless earphones and a smart watch
  • Own the operating systems that power those physical products
  • Manage a tight integration
  • Create an ecosystem that features developers and consumers
  • Offer valuable services such as iMessage, Apple Pay, Health, Apple Pay, iBooks etc…
  • Stick to the enduring philosophy of offering incremental progress that makes consumers’ life better, instead of achieving meaningless technical numbers
  • Have a strategy and stick to it
  • Possess a world-class brand and a boatload of money
  • Run a sophisticated supply chain that spans across the globe
  • Design a great chip
  • Achieve many, if not all, listed above at the same time

Besides delivering values that customers deem worth paying for, the key to succeed in business is to do certain things better than your competition. The more things a company excels at and the more intertwined those things are, the better the outlook for that company is. In the case of Apple, it’s already hard enough to create just a phone to compete with them. Ask Samsung. It’s much harder to keep being competitive at it and try to fight other battles as well. When I look at Apple’s competitors, I don’t see the tight integration between hardware and software that Apple excels at. Google owns Android, but it is not a hardware company. Samsung can produce hardware, but it doesn’t own Android. Apple produces its hardware and owns the operating systems. It already has the coveted software-hardware integration. With the new chip, Apple takes the integration to another level. Now, the chip, the software and the hardware are tightly integrated and we can see earlier on the results of such an effort above. Granted, there are still shortcomings that Apple needs to fix, but that should be expected. There is no perfect roll-out. The next generations of products with Apple’s own chips will be even better; which should be exciting for users, but scary for its competition.

In addition to the tangible aspect, there is also an intangible element here in the mix as well. A company that wishes to emulate what Apple does needs to study how Apple is internally set up and how the long established culture is influencing its operations. You can’t go and ask Ferrari to produce a low cost car while keeping their style. On the other hand, it would be highly challenging to ask Aldi to have a store like Whole Foods. It’s not in their DNA. To be clear, the Apple way isn’t the only way to succeed in the business they are in. Depending on how you define success, there should be more than one way to achieve it, but to achieve the success at the scale that Apple has, their way is the only way so far.

For a company that wants to emulate Apple’s success, it needs to either recreate the Apple way which poses a significant challenge or to have a groundbreaking and completely different idea whose outcome is far from certain. Apple is far from perfect. I find it annoying that they ship buggy software more frequently. They tell you new operating systems work with older Macs. Trust me when I say this: they don’t always do. I had my Mac’s hard drive wiped out so that I could get rid of Catalina. I am still on Mojave because if I upgrade, I may as well buy a new computer. My friends don’t dare to upgrade their MacOS to Big Sur and the only one that did regrets it immensely. I also don’t like their pricey rip-off accessories such as a Mac cord or a wireless mouse. There are other reasons why folks are legitimately annoyed by the company. But all of their shortcomings (who among us doesn’t have one?) shouldn’t dispute the fact that Apple is one of the best run companies out there and their competitive advantages are not only already daunting to overcome, but getting bigger and bigger.

Nothing lasts forever. While I do think we should keep a powerful company like Apple honest all the time, as a business student (I am no longer in school, but never stop learning), I think we should appreciate an extraordinary achievement of a group of people who, despite all the success and $2 trillion+ valuation, keep moving forward. This is a company that is under intense scrutiny constantly and subject to standards higher than what is expected from many other businesses. They aren’t a cheat that scams investors or consumers, and I am using the word “scam” as in promising the moon but delivering nothing. No matter how one may think about it, Apple has delivered products, services and financial performance that few companies can every year since 2007. I learned a lot from this company, let’s just say, both goods and bads. Luckily, the former far outweigh the latter.

Disclaimer: I own Apple’s stocks in my portfolio.