Mixed Feelings from Netflix’s Earnings Report

Netflix released its earnings yesterday. There are causes for optimism and concern from what I have seen.

Important metrics improved YoY significantly

This quarter, Netflix added 517,000 domestic paid subscribers and more than 6.2 million international paid members, bringing the total subscriber count domestically and internationally to more than 60.6 million and 97.7 million approximately.

Contribution margin for domestic and international streaming is 41% and 20% respectively, resulting in the margin for streaming to be around 30%. Contribution margin of Domestic DVD is around 61%. Contribution margin represents what is left of revenue after all the variable costs to pay for fixed costs and to generate profit.

On a year over year basis, revenue, operating income and paid memberships saw remarkable growth for a company this size

Cause for concerns

Even though domestic paid memberships increased, Netflix missed its own expectation by almost 300,000, making it the second consecutive quarter that it did so. The company blamed the miss on the higher pricing elasticity than expected

That’s really on the back of the price increase. There is a little more sensitivity. We’re starting to see the – a little touch of that. What we have to do is just really focus on the service quality, make us must-have. I mean we’re incredibly low priced compared to cable. We’re winning more and more viewings. And we think we have a lot of room there.

But this year, that’s what’s hit us. And we’ll just stay focused on just providing amazing value to our members in the U.S. And I think that gives us a real shot at continuing to grow net — long-term net adds on an annual basis. But we’re going to be a little cautious on that guidance and feel our way through here.

CEO – Reed Hasting in Earnings Call (Per Seeking Alpha)

I saw a sentiment floating around on Twitter a while back that argued that Apple TV+ and Disney+ aren’t really competitors to Netflix. I mean, to some extent, they may differ a bit from Netflix, but if we want to talk about competing for viewers’ attention, time and disposable income, how can they not be? Sure, boats move different from trains, but if patrons can choose either to go from point A to point B, how can they not compete with each other? Now Reed Hasting admitted the challenge from other streamers, especially Disney+

From when we began in streaming, Hulu and YouTube and Amazon Prime back in 2007, 2008, we’re all in the market. All 4 of us have been competing heavily, including with linear TV for the last 12 years. So fundamentally, there’s not a big change here. It is interesting that we see both Apple and Disney launching basically in the same week after 12 years of not being in the market. And I was being a little playful with a whole new world in the sense of the drama of it coming. But fundamentally, it’s more of the same, and Disney is going to be a great competitor. Apple is just beginning, but they’ll probably have some great shows, too.

But again, all of us are competing with linear TV. We’re all relatively small to linear TV. So just like in the letter we put about the multiple cable networks over the last 30 years not really competing with each other fundamentally but competing with broadcast, I think it’s the same kind of dynamic here.

Source: Seeking Alpha

Chief Product Officer Gregory Peters made an important point below

I would say our job and then what we think our pricing for a long-term perspective is continue to take the revenue that we have that our subscribers give us every month, judiciously and smartly invest it into increasing variety and diversity of content where we really want to be best-in-class across every single genre.

And if we do that and we’re successful in making those investments smartly, we’ll be able to continue to deliver more value to our members. And that really will enable us to, from time to time, ask for more revenues so that we can continue that virtuous cycle going

Source: Seeking Alpha

Quite an important “if” condition there. In short, Netflix borrows capital to invest in content to the tune of billions of dollars every year and hopes that their subscriber base growth and revenue will keep enabling them to do so. In essence, every streamer will do that. Every single one of them needs to churn out quality content to convince viewers to choose their service. Failure to produce quality content to justify expensive investments will be costly for these streamers.

For Netflix, the stakes seem to higher. Other competitors have additional revenue streams apart from their streaming service. Netflix essentially relies on their subscription revenue. As this quarter shows, the price elasticity already has some negative effect, and it’s BEFORE other heavy-marketed competitors such as Apple TV+ and Disney+ debut in 2-4 weeks. The new challengers price their services at much lower points than Netflix. The room to increase price to recoup their investments faster is getting smaller. I do think a price hike will negatively affect Netflix.

Some may say: oh Amazon kept investing heavily in their early days as well and Netflix can be the same. They are not, as I wrote here. Their free cash flow continues to be in the red while Amazon was in the black for years.

The expensive bidding war for content may play into Netflix’s favor. Their huge subscriber base enables them to spread the cost much better than competitors, especially new ones that have to acquire subscribers from scratch. Hence, it can be argued that Netflix will be one of the only few standing after the dust settles. It does make sense to think about the streaming war’s future that way. As does it make sense to think that there is a possibility that the game Netflix is playing may not work out for them, given the intense competition, the decreased price inelasticity, the huge debt they have incurred and the continuous negative free cash flow.

I think that we will have more clues around the next earning call or two as we’ll see how Netflix will fare after the arrival of Apple TV+ and Disney+. Even then, we won’t know definitively who will win in the end. Fascinating times ahead.

Do host countries really benefit from F1 races?

Vietnam is going to hose our first ever F1 race in April 2020. It will be a historic moment for my home country since as far as I can remember, we never have an international sporting event. As an F1 fanatic, I am excited about my fellow Vietnamese getting to know the sport I love. However, do host countries usually benefit from hosting an F1 event? Let’s take a look at a few cases

The bull case

In 2017, Singapore Tourism Board announced its plan to retain the race through 2021. STB outlined its rational below:

The announcement comes against the background of a year-to-date 19% increase in ticket sales, with the weekend sales still to be included. In its first decade, the race has yielded significant economic benefits, attracting over 450,000 international visitors to Singapore and about S$1.4 billion in tourism receipts[1]. With more than 90% of the race organisation sub-contracted annually to Singapore-based companies, the race also contributes to the local economy, over and above the tourism outcomes. This event has also showcased Singapore as a beautiful, vibrant and attractive destination to over 780 million international broadcast viewers.

Source: Singapore Tourism Board

If you watch F1 often enough like I do, drivers love to come to Singapore and it’s one of the most anticipated races on the calendar. In 2018, the race attracted the second biggest crowd, only behind the inaugural race in 2008. Hence, it is safe to say that Singapore benefits from having an F1 race.

Bahrain became the first country in the Middle East to host an F1 race in 2004. Since then, it has become one of the favorite tracks of drivers and fans. According to an E&Y audit report in 2015, the race generated a net gain of $95 million for the country and added multiple jobs directly. It was also reported that the race ignited some aspects of the country’s economy. As a result, Bahrain is a beneficiary of F1’s draw.

I didn’t know much about Azerbaijan or its capital Baku until 2016 when it first joined the F1 calendar. Since then, Baku has been responsible for some of the most exciting races. In 2018, a PwC report claimed that “more than $270 million has been added to the local economy as a result of the race, $164 million of which is “direct spend” or money spent by visitors and participants”. the 2018 race attracted 94,000 attendees and was watched by millions of viewers around the world.

The bear case

  • Indian GP ran only for three years and was discontinued after 2013 due to the lack of attendance
  • Korean GP was cancelled after three years as well after failing to generate interest and money
  • Malaysian GP was stopped after almost 20 years of hosting a race since the “numbers don’t add up any more”

It is telling that two new Asian races were discontinued after 3 years due to financial infeasibility. Whether Vietnam will follow the footsteps of Singapore or become another example of the bear case category above remains to be seen. A lot will depend on the execution and whether the races will be good. For the sake of my country, I hope that we will strive to emulate the success that Singapore has had.

Philosophical approaches in ethical decisions

The first course I took in my MBA was Business Ethics. One of the biggest lessons that I took from the course is that there are essentially three philosophies in ethical decisions

  1. Focus on Consequences (Consequentialist Theories): With this approach, decision makers focus more on the possible consequences. In other words, the ends matter more than the means
  2. Focus on Principles, Duties (Deontological Theories): with this approach, principles and abstract values matter the most in decision making. The question of “what is the right thing to do here?” is a major consideration
  3. Focus on Integrity (Virtue ethics): this approach focuses on the person trying to be a good person more than the act

Recently, there have been an increasing number of disputes between China and American businesses. American companies have to cave to pressure from the Chinese government when it comes to sensitive issues related to their sovereignty and politics. For instance, Apple hides the Taiwanese flag when users are in Hong Kong or Macau, and pulls the app that supports the protest in Hong Kong from App Store, even though it originally approved the app.

China is a huge market for Apple and houses the majority of its supply chain. In the beginning, they tried to do the right thing. Eventually, Tim Cook and the management team prioritized the consequences of his decision, thinking about the impact on the company’s financials, shareholders and to some extent his own bonus, I think.

I don’t think it’s clear cut to say an approach is right or wrong. It varies from one person to another, from one system of values to another. Personally, I would prefer seeing Apple keep the app on the App Store, but I understand the decision as well as I understand the decisions taken by other companies under China’s pressure.

Disclaimer: I own Apple’s stocks in my portfolio

Apple Card raised the bar for easy and smooth credit card application & activation

I got my Apple Card this weekend. While I don’t have intention to use the physical card itself due to its low cash back (1% compared to the standard 2%), I am happy with the how easy the application and activation of the card is.

To apply for the card, you only need to have an eligible phone (iPhone 6 and later I believe), open the wallet application, fill in some basic information, take a photo of a valid ID such as State ID or Driver License and be done with it. The application is processed within seconds. When I applied for other credit cards, the process was a bit more tedious. Online forms and sending physical proof of identity are usually required. With Apple Card, everything is done via the Wallet app, right on the phone.

To activate an Apple Card is even easier. The screenshot below shows all you have to do to activate it

Connect your phone to Wifi, hold it close to the package Apple sends and that’s it. Your card will be activated.

With Apple’s appeal, marketing prowess and a sleek design, I think there will be a lot of activations. Yet, I doubt the physical card will be used much. The benefits are inferior to what the market offers. I won’t be surprised if Apple and Goldman Sachs work together to give users a reason to use the physical card more often. Nonetheless, I am pretty pleased with how I came to receive the card.

Disclaimer: I own Apple stocks in my portfolio

Costco – An amazing business

Charlie Munger said that the only real threat to Amazon in retail in his opinion was Costco. I think he has a point. Costco has a remarkable business model.

This part in the 2018 annual report summarizes the business pretty well

We operate membership warehouses based on the concept that offering our members low prices on a limited selection of nationally branded and private-label products in a wide range of categories will produce high sales volumes and rapid inventory turnover. When combined with the operating efficiencies achieved by volume purchasing, efficient distribution and reduced handling of merchandise in no-frills, self-service warehouse facilities, these volumes and turnover enable us to operate profitably at significantly lower gross margins (net sales less merchandise costs) than most other retailers. We generally sell inventory before we are required to pay for it, even while taking advantage of early payment discounts.

We buy most of our merchandise directly from manufacturers and route it to cross-docking consolidation points (depots) or directly to our warehouses. Our depots receive large shipments from manufacturers and quickly ship these goods to warehouses. This process creates freight volume and handling efficiencies, lowering costs associated with traditional multiple-step distribution channels

The model can be illustrated as below

Costco’s customer base enables the retailer to buy goods in bulk and at discount from suppliers. The lower prices make Costco appealing to customers. The cycle keeps going on. Costco has every reason to keep the margin low so that the cycle is robust and going strong. To solve the margin issue, Costco resorts to membership fees which are mostly purely profit.

Source: Costco Q4 earnings

The graph above shows that the membership fees make up the most of the net income. It’s not unreasonable to think that the SG&A expense for memberships is minimal.

The membership fees give Costco breathing room in a cut-throat business. There is only so much that a retailer can do on a margin side given a litany of fearsome competitors. Plus, there are so many foreseen and unforeseen factors that can put Costco’s margin at risk. If Costco removed the membership fees and raised the margin, they would become less competitive.

Being able to convince shoppers to pay an annual fee is a competitive advantage. So is the freedom to laser-focus on keeping the costs low. An additional advantage of a membership fee is that Costco can have more cash for their operations. Operating in a business in which a lot of goods are moved around every day and plenty of capital is required for upgrade, openings and renovation, Costco benefits greatly from the instant dose of cash the members bring in.

Charles Schwab removed US stocks, ETF and options commissions

Yesterday, Charles Schwab announced on their website the move to lower commissions for US stocks, ETF and options down to zero. The fine print is below

Beginning October 7, 2019, the company will reduce U.S. stock, ETF and options online trade commissions from $4.95 to zero. And with no minimum account size3 to open a full featured Schwab brokerage account, every investor, no matter how large or small, can benefit from the expertise and support of a firm that has been entrusted with more than $3.7 trillion in client assets. Every Schwab client using our web and mobile channels automatically qualifies for the new pricing, without opening a new account, making a new deposit or maintaining a minimum balance of any type.

Source: Charles Schwab

I have been a Robinhood user for more than two years. What drew me to Robinhood is the ease of making trades. Instant, straightforward and especially free of commissions. If a trade incurs a fee, whether it’s a buy or sell, your return will take quite a hit, particularly when you take into account the compounding interest. Without the free-commission feature, I wouldn’t use Robinhood and I am confident that it wouldn’t have taken off among millennials without it.

Charles Schwab’s move is to lure the retail millennial customers to their platform. I see it as a win for consumers who now have options to make free stock trades.

As for Robinhood, the startup has received a lot of accolade for its disruption. But now it will have a fierce competitor who aims to take away the appeal of its biggest selling point (no commission). Neither the current user experience nor the brand awareness guarantees a competitive advantage in the long term. To get traders’ business, these brokers have to somehow offer more values and do it on a consistent and regular basis.

In short, the competition is on now

Book: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

Admittedly, before reading this book, I already had vested interest in Disney. I am fascinated by the transformation that the company has been going through and I own its stock in my humble portfolio. Nonetheless, it is one of those books that I have read with more focus than I have others.

The book offers interesting insights into the transformation Disney had to go through to revive its Animations and fend off the disruption in the Entertainment industry. Through the words of Bob Iger, the delicacy of M&A negotiations is put on display, including prices paid for companies, the process to get the sellers to sell and the politics that come with acquisitions. To a fan of business strategies and technology, it’s fascinating to read.

One of the things I like about the book is the relationship between Bob Iger and the late great Steve Jobs. Bob repeatedly mentioned his admiration and love for Steve, even long after the late co-founder of Apple died. If you live your live so well that people fondly remember you long after you die and that you change lives while you live, it’s a life magnificently lived. Almost 10 years since his death, Steve is still an inspiration to me.

Bob’s account is an example of how patience and hard work can be rewarding in the long run. He used to be a guy grabbing coffee for Frank Sinatra. In his 50s and 60s, he ran one of the most iconic and influential companies in the world. He also gives away his leadership lessons which I will quote below.

All in all, if you are looking for an easy and good read, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

Decades after I stopped working for Roone, I watched a documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a master sushi chef from Tokyo named Jiro Ono, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars and is one of the most sought-after reservations in the world. In the film, he is his late eighties and still trying to perfect his art. He is described by some as being the living embodiment of the Japanese word shokunin, which is “the endless pursuit of perfection for some greater good”

When Iron Man 2 came out, Steve took his son to see it and called me the next day. “I took Reed to see Iron Man 2 last night” he said “It sucked”

“Well thank you. It’s done about $75 million in business. It’s going to do a huge number this weekend. I don’t take your criticism lightly, Steve, but it’s a success and you’re not the audience” (I knew Iron Man 2 was nobody’s ida of an Oscar winner, but I just couldn’t let him feel he was right all of the time

Later, after we’d closed the deal, Ike told me that he’d still had his doubts and the call from Steve made a big difference to him. “He said you were true to your word” Ike said. I was grateful that Steve was willing to do it as a friend, really, more than as the most influential member of our board. Every one in a while, I would say to him, “I have to ask you this, you’re our largest shareholder” and he would always respond, “You can’t think of me as that. That’s insulting. I’m just a good friend”

After the funeral, Laurene came up to me and said, “I’ve never told my side of that story.” She described Steve coming home that night. “We had dinner and then the kids left the dinner table, and I said to Steve, ‘So did you tell him?’ ‘I told him’. And I said, ‘Can we trust him?’ ” we were standing there with Steve’s grave behind us, and Laurene, who’d just buried her husband, gave me a gift that I’ve thought about nearly every day since. I’ve certainly thought of Steve every day. “I asked him if we could trust you” Laurene said. “And Steve said, ‘I love that guy’ “

No matter who become or what we accomplish, we still feel that we’re essentially the kid we were at some simpler time long ago. Somehow that’s the trick of leadership, too, I think, to hold on to that awareness of yourself even as the world tells you how powerful and important you are. The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way. That may be the hardest but also the most necessary lesson to keep in mind, that wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person you’ve always been

Value ability more than experience, and put people in roles that require more of them than they know they have in them

“Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year!” He was telling me not to invest in small projects that would sap my and the company’s resources and not give much back.

At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes – giving them access to your own decision-making, identifying the skills they need to develop and helping them improve, and sometimes being honest with them about why they’re not ready for the next step up

Technological advancements will eventually make older business models obsolete. You can either bemoan that and try with all your might to protect the status quo, or you can work hard to understand and embrace it with more enthusiasm and creativity than your competitors.