Review – Nintendo Magic

Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars

by Osamu Inoue, published 2009, 2010 (translated from Japanese)

Two Nintendo legends no one seems to know about

The original Nintendo started out as a manufacturer of playing cards and other toys, games and trinkets near the end of the Shogunate era in Japan, but the modern company we know today which gave the world the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Game Boy, the Wii and characters like Mario & Luigi and Pokemon, was primarily shaped by four men: former president Hiroshi Yamauchi, lead designer Gunpei Yokoi, the firm’s first software designer Shigeru Miyamoto and the first “outside hire” executive and former software developer, Satoru Iwata.

A family member of the then privately-held Nintendo, Yamauchi took the presidency in 1949 when his grandfather passed away. He tried adding a number of different businesses (taxis, foodstuffs, copiers) to Nintendo in true conglomerate fashion, managing in one 12 year period to grow sales by a factor of 27 and operating profits by a factor of 37.

But his most influential mark on Nintendo’s business came with his fortuitous hiring of Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer, who would head up hardware development for Nintendo’s game division. It was this strategic decision to concentrate Nintendo’s efforts on game development that would lead to the modern purveyor of hardware and software known around the world today.

Hardware engineer Gunpei Yokoi is not a well-known name outside the world of hardcore Nintendo fandom, which is not altogether surprising because most Nintendo fans alive today were not users of some of his first toy gadgets such as the “Love Detector” and the “Game & Watch” handheld mini-game consoles. On the other hand, it’s a shock that the man’s reputation is not larger than it is because he essentially single-handedly created the company’s hardware development philosophy in the 1960s which has remained with it today and continues to influence Nintendo’s strategic vision within the video game industry.

That hardware philosophy was summed up by Nintendo’s first head of its hardware development section as “Lateral thinking with seasoned technology”. In concrete terms, it is the idea of using widely available, off-the-shelf technology that is unrelated to gaming in new and exciting ways of play, for example:

  • Yokoi’s “Love Detector” game, which used simple circuitry and electrical sensors to create an instrument that could supposedly detect romantic chemistry between two users when they held hands and held the machine
  • A blaster rifle toy that used common light-sensing equipment to deliver accuracy readings of the users target shots to the rifle, registering hits and points
  • More recently, the Nintendo “Wiimote” concept, which was simply the idea of repurposing the common household TV remote into a tool for play

Yokoi’s lasting impact on the hardware (and software) philosophy at Nintendo is best captured by current president Satoru Iwata who once said,

It’s not a matter of whether or not the tech is cutting egde, but whether or not people think it’s fun

Similarly, this focus on repurposing existing technology for fun rather than investing in brand new technology helps to explain why many of Nintendo’s systems have been knocked for their not-so-hardcore hardware (think non-HD Wii vs. HD-enabled Sony PS3 and Microsoft Xbox 360) but nonetheless became massive consumer hits– the focus was on fun, not flash.

The Wii particularly was the response to the failure of two systems which preceded it (Gamecube and N64), which were extremely technologically advanced for their era and which departed as swiftly from Yokoi’s philosophy as they posed monumental development challenges for software developers due to their complex, proprietary nature. Instead of creating yet another whizbang console, Nintendo decided that if Wii’s costs were kept down and developers were free to focus on things like a new, intuitive controller and built-in connectivity functions, fun and market success would follow.

Essentially, the game hardware is a commodity with zero barriers to entry. Anyone can have the latest, greatest technology if they’re willing to pay for it. There is no way to establish a competitive advantage on the basis for hardware sophistication alone. It must come from design, or, as Yokoi put it,

In videogames, these is always an easy way out if you don’t have any good ideas. That’s what the CPU competition and color competition are about

Nintendo’s two leading lights: Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto

Rounding out the Fantastic Four are Satoru Iwata, the company’s current president, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the star software developer.

Iwata came from relative privilege and studied computer programming in school. He had a passion for making and playing games from an early age. He joined a software developer, HAL Laboratory, early on. He successfully turned around the flagging HAL Lab before it was acquired by Nintendo.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto first came to fame through development of his Donkey Kong arcade game, which introduced the characters Donkey Kong and Mario and which was originally based off of Popeye until the IP could not be acquired for licensing. As a small boy he spent hours running around the hills, forests and mountains outside his home, which inspired many of his later game creations such as Pikmin, Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, etc. He was the first designer Nintendo had ever hired. Miyamoto often utilizes his “Wife-o-meter” to help him understand how to make games that are more broadly appealing.

Miyamoto’s design ethic is best synthesized as populist-perfectionist:

When creating a game, Miyamoto will occasionally find employees from, say, general affairs who aren’t gamers and put a controller in their hands, looking over their shoulder and watching them play without saying anything

He creates game characters, game designs and immersive environments that appeal to everyone, not just the archetypical “hardcore gamer.” But this desire to serve a mass, unsophisticated audience does not mean that Miyamoto considers quality as an afterthought. Miyamoto will “polish [an idea] for years, if he has to, until it satisfies him” and “shelving an idea does not mean throwing it away. Those huge storehouses are full of precious treasure that will someday see the light of day.”

This is part of the value of Nintendo– they have many unrealized ideas waiting to be turned into hardware and games and the only thing preventing them from seeing the light of day is someone like Miyamoto who wants to make sure that when they eventually emerge into the light, they don’t just shine but sparkle.

And this thinking carries over to the company’s hardware efforts, as well. According to a lead engineer, the DS

had to work consistently after being dropped ten times from a height of 1.5 meters, higher than an adult’s breast pocket

Nintendo is “obsessed about the durability of their systems due to an overriding fear that a customer who gets upset over a broken system might never give them another chance.”

“Nintendo-ness”: how Nintendo competes by not competing

In 1999, then-president Yamauchi saw a crisis brewing for video game developers:

If we continue to pursue this kind of large-scale software development, costs will pile up and it will no longer be a viable business. The true nature of the videogame business is developing new kinds of fun and constantly working to achieve perfection

The solution was to adhere ever more closely to “Nintendo-ness”. Nintendo picks people with a “software orientation.”

“Nintendo-ness” is the company’s DNA, once someone has grasped Nintendo-ness, it is rare for them to leave the company. That tendency protects and strengthens the company’s lineage and makes employees feel at home

Manufacturing companies create hardware which are daily necessities, which compete based on being better, cheaper products. Nintendo is in an industry of fun and games, software, where polished content is the goal. Compare this to rival Sony, where hardware specs are key and the software is to follow.

According to Iwata,

Do something different from the other guy is deeply engrained in our DNA

Similarly, Nintendo-ness means delighting customers through creation of new experiences because

if you’re always following a mission statement, your customers are going to get bored with you

This way of thinking goes back to Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo for 50 years, according to Iwata:

He couldn’t stand making the same kind of toy the other guy was making, so whatever you showed him, you knew he was going to ask, ‘How is this different from what everybody else is doing?’

For some reason, Nintendo observers and critics don’t get this– why isn’t the company doing what everyone else is doing? Why are they making a console with a TV remote instead of HD graphics (the Wii)?

To Nintendo, the risk is in not trying these things and trying to do what everyone else does. Iwata sums it up nicely:

Creators only improve themselves by taking risks

Of course, not all risks are worth taking. Iwata as a representative of Nintendo’s strategic mind makes it clear that the company is keenly aware of its strategic and financial risks:

The things Nintendo does should be limited to the areas where we can display our greatest strengths. It’s because we’re good at throwing things away that we can fight these large battles using so few people. We can’t afford to diversify. We have overwhelmingly more ideas than we have people to implement them

For example, Nintendo considers the manufacturing of game consoles to be outside its purview, a “fabless” company.

Then there’s the reason for the huge amount of cash on the balance sheet:

The game platform business runs on momentum. When you fail, you can take serious damage. The risks are very high. And in that domain, Nintendo is making products that are totally unprecedented. Nobody can guarantee they won’t fail. One big failure and boom– you’re out two hundred, three hundred billion yen. In a business where a single flop can bankrupt you, you don’t want to be set up like that… To be completely honest, I don’t think that even now we have enough [savings]… That’s why IBM, or NEC, or any number of other companies are willing to go along with us. We’d never be able to do what we do without being cash-rich

That being said, Iwata has not been shy about his policy toward dividends and acquisitions. He has stated that assuming Nintendo’s savings continue to accumulate, passing 1.5T or 2T yen, a large merger or acquisition may become a possibility. Otherwise, excess capital will be distributed as dividends.

The next level

Nintendo’s philosophy is to avoid competition. It sees the hardware arms race as an irrelevant dead-end. The key is to create new ways to interact with game consoles and software that keeps game players on their toes and brings smiles to their faces. According to Iwata,

We’d like to avoid having players think they’ve gotten a game completely figured out

Thus, for Nintendo the next level logically is integration of  User-Generated Content into their software environments, which would have inexhaustible longevity. First they sought to increase the gaming population, now they’re looking at how to increase the game-creating population.

The company’s true enemy is boredom. Whatever surprise you create today becomes your enemy tomorrow.

In the end, Iwata says,

Our goal is always to make our customers glad. We’re a manufacturer of smiles

This is what the company calls “amusement fundamentalism” and it’s what sets them apart from their perceived competition, especially comparisons or criticisms aimed at the company in terms of how it stacks up against a company like Apple. To Iwata, this just doesn’t make sense:

We’re an amusement company and Apple’s a tech company

Another Battle In The Long War: The Solitron Shareholders Meeting

Something that has been impressed upon me over the years as I learn more about business and investing has been the invaluable role that bullshit-detection plays in money dealings. The jungle is everywhere and while man may have found a way to tame his baser desires and impulses enough to enjoy a broad civilization, individual men will always tease the edges of appropriateness by attempting force by other means, namely deceit, misdirection, opacity, feigned confusion, intentional blundering, etc. If you can’t smell bullshit and if you have no means to fight back against a bullshit-peddler, he will run you over and probably try to take you for all you’re worth along the way.

Some people say, “That’s just business!” but that’s been invalidated by numerous contrary, personal experiences where no bullshit occurred and business occurred nonetheless, and more efficiently and for more wealth for both parties, overall. Bullshit is just a grey-area form of aggression, a remnant of the jungle from which we can never fully emerge.

My attendance at the first annual Solitron Devices shareholders’ meeting in nearly 20 years was a descent into that jungle. Here I and several other shareholders came face-to-face with Shevach Saraf, President, Chairman of the Board, CEO, CFO and, among many other titles and distinguishments I should say, a highly intelligent, sophisticated bullshitter.

My personal predisposition is to assume a person is trustworthy until they demonstrate they clearly are not. This is a little different than treating a person as trustworthy– I maintain skepticism and try to be alert at all times, but I don’t start a person at 0 and then work up to 100 on a “trustworthiness” scale, but rather the opposite. As a result, in dealing with Saraf and other representatives of the company in the past, I tried to explain various indiscretions, unkindness and general belligerency displayed by these parties in terms of misjudgments, misperceptions and a potentially historical apprehensiveness, rather than some kind of malintent.

At this point, the veil has been lifted for me and I believe I can confidently state that the bullshit is a calculated tactic and it is laid on, thick, with due purpose.

In the particular case of the shareholders’ meeting, the bullshit started with the “rules for the meeting”, which restricted each participant to a maximum of two questions no longer than one minute in length, with a twenty minute maximum duration. As with most bullshit, this was done in the name of “giving everyone a chance to speak”, but was really a rather naked attempt to intimidate shareholders and prevent them from stating their minds and engaging in significant follow-up questioning. No shareholder present (all 9 of us!) ever demonstrated any concern about domination of the Q&A period by any other shareholder. At the end of the Q&A, Saraf attempted to enforce the twenty minute maximum but was ultimately stymied by a shareholder who requested a longer, informal, follow-up Q&A period, which after 5 minutes of deliberation outside the room with counsel, was ultimately granted.

The second strand of bullshit is woven through the scandalous insinuations that Saraf made of his shareholder base. He deemed it fit to specially remind the gathered investors that he had no plans to do anything illegal and so he would not offer any insider info during the meeting. This is a strawman Saraf seems to trot out often– ask the man anything about the company at all, no matter how innocent and legally-sanctioned it may be, and he proceeds to launch into accusations of villainy aimed at getting an illegal upper hand while putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy. He also made a warning about supposed shadowy elements that were spreading false rumors and lies about the company on the internet, but he did not think to mention who was doing this or what specific claims were made which he could clarify as to their falsity. The impression one is left with is that there are no false rumors or lies being spread and this is yet another attempt to intimidate via bullshit.

Then we had to wade through Saraf’s numerous self-contradictions and general evasiveness in answering questions, most of which began with the expression, “Let me put it this way…”, which in my experience has always preceded a barely-obscured threat, as in, “Let me put it this way, if you don’t do what I am asking you to do, someone might get hurt.” The infamous EPA liabilities which have left the company hamstrung to do anything with the company’s excess capital and which according to regulatory filings earlier in the year seemed to have been extinguished, or due to be extinguished completely, by or around March or April of 2013, were suddenly at one point 30, another point 60 and another time some 72 days away from being resolved.

More bullshit: Solitron has a “sunset technology”, but there’s also the possibility they spend $5M+ of the company’s cash stockpile retooling their factory for new silicon wafer standards; the sequestration has been bad for business, but the company has also gobbled up marketshare from competitors who have gone out of business; the company is at 50% of plant utilization, but wars in Syria and elsewhere are good for business because it means equipment will need to be replaced that Solitron services; the company has struggled with rising inputs costs, but they build everything on spec and have a guaranteed profit-margin built in by the Pentagon; shareholders are now “welcome to contact any board member and ask them questions about the company” but in the past “PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT ALL INVESTOR COMMUNICATIONS SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF SOLITRON DEVICES, INC.”; Chinese and COTS parts have created huge price competition for the firm, but the firm’s buyers actually require specially-tested, high quality parts only Solitron can produce, and new DNA-marking of chips prevents the use/substitution of foreign knockoff parts, etc. etc.

I could go on and on. The point is it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

And Saraf isn’t the only one peddling it. His vaunted board showed their own knack. Saraf was asked, as a large shareholder, if he was concerned about the price of the company in the open market hovering around cash value. Not only did he evade the question and not answer it, but his new appointee, Mr. Kopperl, piped in with the pithy “Does anyone really know what moves stock prices?” When asked how he makes his investment decisions, Mr. Kopperl said, “Sometimes I buy value, sometimes growth.” But if no one really know whats moves stock prices and you’re philosophically agnostic as to what kind of decisions a company could make that would be good or bad from a valuation standpoint, how could you even invest?

And how would this bolster the company’s claim that the current composition of the board represents people capable of maximizing shareholder value?

It was suggested to Saraf that more disclosures from the company about its business would help the market better understand the company and its prospects and arrive at a fairer valuation. Saraf did not acknowledge whether this transparency would be beneficial to shareholders interested in seeing the marketplace better assess the company’s prospects, but he did say that he wasn’t interested in putting out a press release every time the company got a new certification or secured a contract. Bullshit!

The most puzzling event of the day was the withholding of votes for Schlig and Davis (and their subsequent dismissal with no replacement nominees named), and the approval-by-vote of the two new directors, Gerrity and Kopperl. These guys are black boxes as far as I am concerned. They sound like country club buddies and there was no explanation as to why they were qualified to represent SHAREHOLDER interests though, Saraf was quite clear, their industry experience made them qualified in his mind to represent company interests, which essentially means Saraf’s interests as things have been run so far.

Large shareholders seem to be more confident. They’re convinced Saraf is more cooperative than he seems and that he will do the right thing when it’s the right time to do so. I think the laws of the SEC are a legal cover for bullshitmongers. From where I stand, it’s an almost impenetrable fog. But maybe when you own 5% or more, you have other methods of cutting through the bullshit.

It is indeed going to be a Long War without them.

If you want more, here’s Nate Tobik’s take at

Progress Requires Innovation, Innovation Requires Freedom; No Freedom, No Progress, That’s Government

Joe Quirk on seasteading:

Benjamin Franklin participated in several major innovations in his day. He helped discover and control electricity, and he helped design the US Constitution. The control of electricity set off a cascade of innovations, driving almost every modern technology we can name. Yet the instrument of government he helped invent has not progressed.

Consider that Franklin’s many inventions have advanced beyond his wildest imagination: the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, refrigeration, the flexible urinary catheter (my favorite). Yet, the methods of government he helped invent have not evolved. And why?

Because inventors and entrepreneurs had the freedom to experiment with Franklin’s technological ideas, but not his political ideas. More importantly, as Patri [Friedman] says, customers had power to choose amongst gadgets competing to please them, while citizens are captive to the political system they inherit.

One day, people will laugh at the idea of government (legitimized, institutional theft and murder) just as today people laugh at the idea of monarchy as a system of government.

Government is a technology– it is a means for achieving particular ends. What people don’t understand right now is that

  1. government is a means, not an end and
  2. government is an inappropriate and contradictory means for the end of “living in a harmonious, civilized and prosperous human society”

Government reduces human relationships to the Laws of the Jungle, the very thing we all claim to be striving so mightily to avoid.

As Allen Thornton wrote in the early 1980s,

And just what is this government? It’s a man-made invention. It’s not some natural phenomenon or a special creation of God. Government’s an invention, just like the light bulb or the radio.

The state was invented for me, to make me happier, but a funny thing has happened: If I don’t want this invention, people are outraged. No one calls me unpatriotic for refusing to buy a light bulb. If I don’t choose to spend my money on a radio, no one says that I’m immoral. Why should anarchy upset everyone?

Anarchists are ahead of their time, even though the truth they speak is itself timeless– conservatively, probably 200-300 years ahead of their time. The gradual evolution of the “human collective social consciousness” over time has been away from absolutism and toward individualism, with various depressing but ultimately temporary and regional setbacks along the way. Most visionaries DO look like kooks to their neighbors and countrymen before their vision is realized.

But it is the “market purists” who will have the last laugh, and ultimately deliver every one into the closest thing to a perfect society that one can get while still remaining firmly in the grips of reality in this universe.

They’ll be naysayed and boohooed and shouted at quite a bit along the way, though. Good thing most of us are of stout heart and strong mind.

Review – More Money Than God

More Money Than God: Hedge Funds And The Making Of A New Elite

by Sebastian Mallaby, published 2010

A veritable pantheon of masters of the universe

Mallaby’s book is not just an attempt at explaining and defending the beginning, rise and modern state of the hedge fund industry (the US-focused part of it, anyway), but is also a compendium of all of the hedge fund world’s “Greatest Hits.” If you’re looking for information on what hedge funds are, where they come from, what they attempt to do, why they’re called what they are and how they should be regulated (SURPRISE! Mallaby initially revels in the success “unregulated” funds have had and feints as if he’s going to suggest they not be regulated but, it being a CFR book and he being a captured sycophant, he does an about-face right at the last second and ends up suggesting, well, umm, maybe SOME of the hedge funds SHOULD be regulated, after all) this is a decent place to start.

And if you want to gag and gog and salivate and hard-to-fathom paydays and multiple standard deviations away from norm profits, there are many here.

But that wasn’t my real interest in reading the book. I read it because I wanted to get some summary profiles of some of the most well known hedgies of our time — the Soroses and Tudor Joneses and such — and understand what their basic strategies were, where their capital came from, how it grew and ultimately, how they ended up. Not, “What’s a hedge fund?” but “What is this hedge fund?” As a result, the rest of this review will be a collection of profile notes on all the BSDs covered by the book.

Alfred Winslow Jones – “Big Daddy”

  • started out as a political leftist in Europe, may have been involved in U.S. intelligence operations
  • 1949, launches first hedge fund with $60,000 from four friends and $40,000 from his own savings
  • By 1968, cumulative returns were 5,000%, rivaling Warren Buffett
  • Jones, like predecessors, was levered and his strategy was obsessed with balancing volatilities, alpha (stock-picking returns) and beta (passive market exposure)
  • Jones pioneered the 20% performance fee, an idea he derived from Phoenician merchants who kept one fifth of the profits of successful voyages; no mgmt fee
  • Jones attempted market timing as a strategy, losing money in 1953, 1956 and 1957 on bad market calls; similarly, he never turned a profit following charts even though his fund’s strategy was premised on chartism
  • Jones true break through was harvesting ideas through a network of stock brokers and other researchers, paying for successful ideas and thereby incentivizing those who had an edge to bring him their best investments
  • Jones had information asymetry in an era when the investment course at Harvard was called “Darkness at Noon” (lights were off and everyone slept through the class) and investors waited for filings to arrive in the mail rather than walk down the street to the exchange and get them when they were fresh

Michael Steinhardt – “The Block Trader”

  • Background: between end of 1968 and September 30, 1970, the 28 largest hedge funds lost 2/3 of their capital; January 1970, approx. 150 hedge funds, down from 200-500 one year earlier; crash of 1973-74 wiped out most of the remainders
  • Steinhardt, a former broker, launches his fund in 1967, gained 12% and 28% net of fees in 1973, 74
  • One of Steinhardt’s traders, Cilluffo, who possessed a superstitious eating habit (refused to change what he ate for lunch when the firm was making money), came up with the idea of tracking monetary data, giving them an informational edge in an era where most of those in the trade had grown up with inflation never being higher than 2% which meant they ignored monetary statistics
  • One of Steinhardt’s other edges was providing liquidity to distressed institutional sellers; until the 1960s, stock market was dominated by individual investors but the 1960s saw the rise of institutional money managers; Steinhardt could make a quick decision on a large trade to assist an institution in a pinch, and then turn around and resell their position at a premium
  • Steinhardt’s block trading benefited from “network effects” as the more liquidity he provided, the more he came to be trusted as a reliable liquidity provider, creating a barrier to entry for his strategy
  • Steinhardt also received material non-public information: “I was being told things that other accounts were not being told.”
  • In December 1993, Steinhardt made $100M in one day, “I can’t believe I’m making this much money and I’m sitting on the beach” to which his lieutenants replied “Michael, this is how things are meant to be” (delusional)
  • As the Fed lowered rates in the early 90s, Steinhardt became a “shadowbank”, borrowing short and lending long like a bank
  • Steinhardt’s fund charged 1% mgmt fee and 20% performance fee
  • Anecdote: in the bloodbath of Japan and Canada currency markets in the early 90s, the Canadian CB’s traders called Steinhardt to check on his trading (why do private traders have communications with public institutions like CBs?)

Paul Samuelson & Commodities Corporation – “Fiendish Hypocrite Jackass” (my label)

  • Paul Samuelson is one of history’s great hypocrites, in 1974 he wrote, “Most portfolio decision makers should go out of business– take up plumbing, teach Greek, or help produce the annual GNP by serving corporate executives. Even if this advice to drop dead is good advice, it obviously is not counsel that will be eagerly followed.”
  • Meanwhile, in 1970 he had become the founding backer of Commodities Corporation and also investing in Warren Buffett; he funded his investment in part with money from his Nobel Prize awarded in the same year
  • Samuelson paid $125,000 for his stake; total start-up capital was $2.5M
  • Management of fund resembled AW Jones– each trader was treated as an independent profit center and was allocated capital based on previous performance
  • Part of their strategy was built on investor psychology: “People form opinions at their own pace and in their own way”; complete rejection of EMH, of which Samuelson was publicly an adherent
  • Capital eventually swelled to $30M through a strategy of primarily trend-surfing on different commodity prices; in 1980 profits were $42M so that even net of $13M in trader bonuses the firm outearned 58 of the Fortune 500
  • Trader Bruce Kovner on informational asymetries from chart reading: “If a market is behaving normally, ticking up and down within a narrow band, a sudden breakout in the absence of any discernible reason is an opportunity to jump: it means that some insider somewhere knows information that the market has yet to understand, and if you follow that insider you will get in there before the information becomes public”

George Soros – “The Alchemist”

  • Soros had an investment theory called “reflexivity”: that a trend could feedback into itself and magnify until it became unavoidable, usually ending in a crash of some sort
  • Soros launched his fund in 1973, his motto was “Invest first, investigate later”
  • Soros quotes: “I stood back and looked at myself with awe: I saw a perfectly honed machine”; “I fancied myself as some kind of god or an economic reformer like Keynes”
  • Soros was superstitious, he often suffered from back pains and would “defer to these physical signs and sell out his positions”
  • Soros believed in generalism: know a little about a lot of things so you could spot places where big waves were coming
  • Soros had a “a web of political contacts in Washington, Tokyo and Europe”
  • Soros hired the technical trader Stan Druckenmiller, who sometimes read charts and “sensed a panic rising in his gut”
  • As Soros’s fund increased in size he found it harder and harder to jump in and out of positions without moving the markets against himself
  • Soros rejected EMH, which had not coincidentally developed in the 1950s and 1960s in “the most stable enclaves within the most stable country in the most stable era in memory”
  • Soros was deeply connected to CB policy makers– he had a one on one with Bundesbank president Schlesinger in 1992 following a speech he gave in Basel which informed Quantum fund’s Deutschemark trade
  • “Soros was known as the only private citizen to have his own foreign policy”; Soros once off-handedly offered Druckenmiller a conversation with Kissinger who, he claimed, “does know things”
  • Soros hired Arminio Fraga, former deputy governor of Brazil’s central bank, to run one of his funds; Fraga milked connections to other CB officials around the world to find trade ideas, including the number two official at the IMF, Stanley Fischer, and a high-ranking official at the central bank of Hong Kong
  • Soros was a regular attendee at meetings of the World Bank and IMF
  • Soros met Indonesian finance minister Mar’ie Muhammed at the New York Plaza hotel during the Indonesian financial crisis
  • Soros traveled to South Korea in 1998 as the guest of president-elect Kim Dae-jung
  • In June 1997, Soros received a “secret request” for emergency funding from the Russian government, which resulted in him lending the Russian government several hundred million dollars
  • Soros also had the ear of David Lipton, the top international man at the US Treasury, and Larry Summers, number 2 at the Treasury, and Robert Rubin, the Treasury secretary, as well as Mitch McConnell, a Republican Senator

Julian Robertson – “Top Cat”

  • Managed a portfolio of money managers, “Tigers”
  • Used fundamental and value analysis
  • Once made a mental note to never buy the stock of an executive’s company after watching him nudge a ball into a better position on the golf green
  • Robertson was obsessed with relative performance to Soros’s Quantum Fund
  • Called charts “hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo bullshit”
  • Robertson didn’t like hedging, “Why, that just means that if I’m right I’m going to make less money”
  • High turnover amongst analysts, many fired within a year of hiring
  • Tiger started with $8.5M in 1980
  • A 1998 “powwow” for Tiger advisers saw Margaret Thatcher and US Senator Bob Dole in attendance
  • Tiger assets peaked in August 1998 at $21B and dropped to $9.5B a year later, $5B of which was due to redemptions (Robertson refused to invest in the tech bubble)

Paul Tudor Jones – “Rock-And-Roll Cowboy”

  • Jones started out as a commodity trader on the floor of the New York Cotton Exchange; started Tudor Investment Corporation in 1983, in part with an investment of $35,000 from Commodities Corporation
  • “He approached trading as a game of psychology and high-speed bluff”
  • Superstition: “These tennis shoes, the future of this country hangs on them. They’ve been good for a point rally in bonds and about a thirty-dollar rally in stocks every time I put them on.”
  • Jones was a notorious chart reader and built up his theory of the 1987 crash by lining up recent market charts with the 1929 chart until the lines approximately fit
  • Jones was interested in Kondratiev wave theory and Elliott wave theory
  • “When you take an initial position, you have no idea if you are right”but rather you “write a script for the market” and then if the market plays out according to your script you know you’re on the right track
  • Jones made $80-100M for Tudor Investment Corp on Black Monday; “The Big Three” (Soros, Steinhardt and Robinson) all lost heavily in the crash
  • Jones, like Steinhardt, focused on “institutional distortions” where the person on the other side of the trade was a forced seller due to institutional constraints
  • Jones once became the catalyst for his own “script” with an oil trade where he pushed other traders around until they panicked and played out just as he had predicted
  • PTJ never claimed to understand the fundamental value of anything he traded
  • PTJ hired Sushil Wadhwani in 1995, a professor of economics and statistics at the LSE and a monetary policy committee member at the Bank of England
  • PTJ’s emerging market funds lost 2/3rd of their value in the aftermath of the Lehman collapse

Stanley Druckenmiller – “The Linebacker” (my title)

  • Druckenmiller joined Soros in 1988; while Soros enjoyed philosophy, Druckenmiller enjoyed the Steelers
  • He began as an equity analyst at Pittsburgh National Bank but due to his rapid rise through the ranks he was “prevented from mastering the tools most stock experts take for granted” (in other words, he managed to get promoted despite himself, oddly)
  • Survived crash of 1987 and made money in the days afterward
  • Under Druckenmiller, Quantum AUM leaped from $1.8B to $5B to $8.3B by the end of 1993
  • Druckenmiller stayed in touch with company executives
  • Druckenmiller relied on Robert Johnson, a currency expert at Bankers Trust, whose wife was an official at the New York Fed, for currency trade ideas; Johnson himself had once worked on the Senate banking committee and he was connected to the staff director of House Financial Services Committee member Henry Gonzalez
  • Druckenmiller was also friends with David Smick, a financial consultant with a relationship with Eddie George, the number 2 at the Bank of England during Soros and Druckenmiller’s famous shorting of the pound
  • Druckenmiller first avoided the Dot Com Bubble, then jumped aboard at the last minute, investing in “all this radioactive shit that I don’t know how to spell”; he kept jumping in and out until the bubble popped and he was left with egg on his face, ironic because part of his motivation in joining in was to avoid losing face; Druckenmiller had been under a lot of stress and Mallaby speculates that “Druckenmiller had only been able to free himself by blowing up the fund”

David Swensen & Tom Steyer – “The Yale Men”

  • Swensen is celebrated for generating $7.8B of the $14B Yale endowment fund
  • Steyer and his Farallon fund were products of Robert Rubin’s arbitrage group at Goldman Sachs; coincidence that Rubin proteges rose to prominence during the time Rubin was in the Clinton administration playing the role of Treasury secretary?
  • Between 1990 and 1997 there was not a single month in which Steyer’s fund lost money (miraculous)
  • Farallon somehow got access to a government contact in Indonesia who advised Bank Central Asia would be reprivatized soon and Farallon might be able to bid for it
  • Some rumors claimed Farallon was a front for the US government, or a Trojan horse for Liem Sioe Liong (a disgraced Indonesian business man); it is curious that Yale is connected to the CIA, Farrallon is connected to Yale

Jim Simons & Renaissance Capital – “The Codebreakers”

  • Between the end of 1989 and 2006, the flagship Medallion fund returned 39% per annum on average (the fund was named in honor of the medals Simons and James Ax had won for their work in geometry and number theory– named in honor of an honor, in other words)
  • Jim Simons had worked at the Pentagon’s secretive Institute for Defense Analyses (another possible US intelligence operative turned hedgie?)
  • Simons strategy was a computer-managed trend following system which had to be continually reconfigured due to “Commodities Corporation wannabes” crowding the trades by trending the trends
  • Simons looked to hire people who “would approach the markets as a mathematical puzzle, unconnected to the flesh and blood and bricks and mortar of a real economy” (this is distinctly different than the Graham/Buffett approach, and one wonders how this activity is actually economically valuable in a free market)
  • “The signals that we have been trading without interruption for fifteen years make no sense. Otherwise someone else would have found them.”
  • Renaissance treated employee NDAs like a wing of the CIA– anyone who joined could never work elsewhere in the financial industry afterward, and for this reason they specifically avoided hiring from Wall St in the first place; they were required to invest a fifth of their pay in the Medallion Fund and was locked up as bail payment for four years after they departed (money hostage)

David Shaw & D.E. Shaw

  • Began trading in 1988, the same year as the Medallion fund
  • Shaw was originally hired by MoStan in 1986 into their Analytical Proprietary Trading unit which aimed at beating Steinhardt at his block-trading game using predictive computer technology
  • In 1994, Shaw’s 135-member firm accounted for 5% of the daily turnover on the NYSE
  • Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, was originally a DE Shaw employee
  • The strategy was heavily reliant on pair-trade “arbitrage”, looking for securities in similar industries which were temporarily misaligned in price/multiple
  • Circle of competence: in 1995 the firm launched the ISP Juno Online, as well as FarSight, an online bank and brokerage venture

Ken Griffin & Citadel

  • Created in 1990, grew to $15B AUM and 1400 employees by 2008
  • Griffin’s goal was to develop an investment bank model that could compete with traditional, regulated ibanks, but which was actually a hedge fund
  • Flagship funds were down 55% at the end of 2008, losing $9B (the equivalent of two LTCMs)

John Paulson

  • Paulson graduated from HBS in 1980 and went to work for Bear Stearns; he launched his hedge fund in 1994 with initial capital of $2M which grew to $600M by 2003; by 2005 he was managing $4B
  • Paulson’s main strategy was capital-structure arbitrage
  • He looked for “capitalism’s weak spot”, the thing that would blow up the loudest and fastest if the economy slowed even a little; cyclical industries, too much debt, debt sliced into senior and junior tranches, risk concentrated
  • Paulson spent $2M on research related to the US mortgage industry, assembling a proprietary database of mortgage figures and statistics
  • Many of Paulson’s investors doubted him and threatened to pull capital in 2006
  • Paulson enlarged his bets against the mortgage market through derivative swaps on the ABX (a new mortgage index) and eventually acquired over $7.2B worth of swaps; a 1% decline in the ABX earned Paulson a $250M profit, in a single morning he once netted $1.25B
  • By 2007, he was up 700% net of fees, $15B in profits and made himself $3-4B


I’m actually even more bored with this book having finished typing out my notes than I was when I finished the book the first time I read it. The book actually has some great quotes in it, from the insane delusions of grandeur of government officials and central bank functionaries, to wild facts and figures about the statistical trends of the hedge fund and financial industries over the last 60 years. I am too exhausted to go back and type some of it out right here even though I kind of wish I had some of the info here even without an idea of what I’d use it for anytime soon.

My biggest takeaway from MMTG is that most of these masters of the universe have such huge paydays because they use leverage, not necessarily because they’re really good at what they do. Many of their strategies actually involve teasing out extremely small anomalies between asset prices which aren’t meaningful without leverage. And they’re almost uniformly without a meaningful and logically consistent understanding of what risk is– though many are skeptics of EMH, they seem to all see risk as volatility because volatility implies margin calls for levered traders.

There were so many displays of childish superstition. Many of these guys are chart readers. The government intelligence backgrounds of many was creepy. And it was amazing how many relied on informational asymmetries which are 100% illegal for the average investor. These people really travel in an elite, secretive world where everyone is scratching each other’s backs. How many one on one conversations have you had with central bank presidents? How many trips to foreign countries have you been on where you were the invited guest of the head dignitary of the country? Are you starting to put the picture together like I am?

Overall, it seems so arbitrary. The best word that comes to mind to describe these titans and their success is– “marginalism”. We have lived in an inflationary economy for the last 60+ years and these players all seem to excel in such an environment. But inflationism promotes marginalism; the widespread malinvestment of perpetual inflation confuses people looking to engage in real, productive economic activity, and paper shuffling necessarily becomes a high value business.

The author himself is incredibly ignorant of economic fundamentals and the role monetary intervention plays in the economy. All of the various crises these hedgies profited from seem to come out of nowhere according to his narrative. The incredible growth in volumes of money managed by the hedge fund industry over time goes without notice, as if it was just a simple, unexceptional fact of life. Shouldn’t that be interesting? WHY ARE THERE HUNDREDS OF FIRMS MANAGING TENS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS EACH? Where did all this money come from?!

That makes the book pretty worthless as it’s key.

One thing that does strike me is that many of the most successful, most levered trades of Soros, Druckenmiller and others were related to currencies. These guys are all Keynesians but they probably don’t fully believe their own economic theories. However, they do understand them well enough to make huge plays against the dope money managers who DO put all their credence into what they learned at university. I should think an Austrian econ-informed large cap macro fund would have quite a time of it playing against not only the dopes, but the Soroses of the world– they’ll get their final comeuppance as this system of artificial fiat exchange finally unwinds over the next decade.

And, little surprise, the guy with the nearly perfect trading record for almost a decade (Farrallon) was involved in arbitrage trades.

Trend following is for slaves. It may have proven to be a profitable strategy (with gobs of leverage) for the contemporary crop of hedgies but I feel fairly confident in saying most of these guys will get hauled out behind the woodshed in due time if they keep it up, to the extent their strategies truly are reliant on mystic chart reading and nothing more.

Bon voyage!

Monopoly In Nutritional Advice

Monopoly can not exist in a free market without government intervention (the government being, itself, a monopoly of legal force). Witness how the American Dietetics Association is attempting to gain a government-granted monopoly over nutritional advice counseling by applying for government certification protection through the US Patent Office, courtesy of a Forbes columnist:

The Association document linked above minces no words about its purpose. It opens: “This Backgrounder highlights the significant competitive threat Registered Dietitians. . . face in the provision of various dietetic and nutrition services. . . . We must be aware that existing legal and regulatory constraints on practice are unlikely to prevent robust, broad competition in these growth areas.” [Emphasis added.]

A conspiracy to prevent you from accessing alternative viewpoints on nutrition in the name of preventing competition and artificially raising prices. In other words, the ADA /AND is trying to keep you fat to keep its members’ wallets fat.

Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business

by Clayton M. Christensen, published 1997

Technological innovation always means change, but which kind?

In the world of business technology, innovation can be thought of as coming in two distinct flavors:

  • sustaining, which are new technologies that improve a product or service in a way that is valuable to existing customers or markets
  • disruptive, which are new technologies that are uncompetitive along traditional performance metrics, which are unusable or undesirable to existing customers or markets but which nonetheless can eventually come to replace the traditional market over time

Throughout history, it is the best-in-class businesses which have the most difficult time with disruptive technologies to the point that disruptive technologies are usually the death knell for the leading businesses at the time. But this raises a question: if they’re such good businesses and they’re so well-managed, how come they can’t manage their way around disruptive technology in their industry?

The answer lies at the heart of what the author refers to as the “innovator’s dilemma”:

the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership

Why do good management teams and competent decision-making processes miss disruptive technologies? Disruptive technologies:

  1. are normally simpler and cheaper, promising lower margins, not greater profits
  2. typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. are usually unwanted and unusable to leading firms’ most profitable customers

But good management teams with excellent decision-making processes are fine-tuned to search out:

  1. higher margin opportunities at best, and opportunities with minimum margin requirements based upon their existing cost structure
  2. opportunities that market research and querying of leading customers show there is a present demand for
  3. markets and growth opportunities which can have a significant impact on their business relative to their current scale

In short, every successful firm has a unique “value network” DNA that allows them to be especially dominant within a certain set of competitive circumstances.

the value network — the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures inputs, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit

But disruptive technologies present a paradigm shift of a market into a completely different “value network” that the firm has not been evolved to survive in which results in, similar to biology, an extinction event for firms with the wrong type of value network DNA.

Crafting a response to disruptive technology

But the reality of disruptive technology is not entirely depressing for successful firms, and they can develop successful strategies for coping with disruptive technologies if they first make themselves aware of the five principles of disruptive innovation:

  1. Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
  2. Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
  3. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
  4. An organizations capabilities define its disabilities
  5. Technology supply may not equal market demand

Each of these principles holds within it a potential misstep for successful firms within their traditional value networks trying to respond to a disruptive technology. Because firms depend on their customers (primarily their leading, most profitable customers) and investors for their resources, they are often incentivized to ignore the low margin disruptive technology because their customers initially don’t want it. And because disruptive technologies start in emerging or insignificant markets, successful firms often ignore them in favor of better growth opportunities. Meanwhile, firms that DO try to take disruptive technologies seriously often commit themselves to particular investment and marketing patterns based off of market research for a market that is dynamic and prone to sudden and rapid change. At the same time, that which makes a company excellent at doing A simultaneously makes the company horrible at doing B (where B is the opposite of A), and often disruptive technologies require B responses when successful firms are honed to operate at A. The final frustration for these successful firms occurs when they attempt to enter a disruptive market with a solution that technologically exceeds the needs of its current users, causing them to withdraw in defeat only to watch the market then take off anyway!

An ironic twist

As hinted at above, it is ironic that the very strengths of leading firms in adapting their business to sustaining technologies (improvements in performance in relevant metrics that their best customers demand) are the exact things that cause them to fail to respond to disruptive technologies in a profitable, dominant way. And to make a bad story worse, it is these strengths-as-weaknesses that allow entrants in disruptive technological markets to capture important first-mover advantages for themselves, constructing barriers to entry which are later often insurmountable for established firms.

To a dominant firm, disruptive technology looks like low-margin, small market business that neither their customers nor anyone else seems to be interested in. But for entrants in the disruptive market, with radically different cost structures than dominant firms and with organizational sizes and resources better matched to the opportunities presented, disruptive markets are a wild playground full of unchallenged opportunity.

And while the dominant firms look down at lower-margin, smaller market business and shake their heads dismissively, entrant firms look up above at higher-margin, huge market opportunity and lick their chops. Every business ultimately looks upstream for higher-margin opportunities than the ones they have at present.

Is it any wonder why dominant firms are continually defeated by surprise attacks from below?

How dominant firms can successfully respond to disruptive technology

The position of the dominant firm in the face of disruptive emerging technology is not hopeless. For every yin, there is a yang. By inverting the five principles of disruptive innovation outlined earlier, dominant firms can find five guidelines for successfully responding to disruptive technology:

  1. Give responsibility for disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them
  2. Match the size of the organization to the size of the market
  3. Discover new and emerging markets through a flexible commitment to “plans for learning” rather than plans for implementation
  4. Create organizational capabilities and strengths which are complementary to the unique demands of the disruptive market place
  5. Resist the temptation to approach the disruptive technology with the goal of turning it into something existing customers can use, rather than serving the customers unique to the market and searching out new markets entirely


This book was published 15 years ago. The subtitle is, “The revolutionary book that will change the way you do business.” I don’t know if 15 years is long enough in the business world for the ideas of a book like this to be fully adapted into the mainstream but I would guess it is not. I am no business expert but this material was completely uncharted territory for me.

Frankly, I never thought I’d enjoy reading something written by a Harvard business school professor as much as I did with this book. Whereas case studies, quirky charts and statistical evidence usually bore me to the point that I often skip over them, this book was something of a page-turner for me and I found myself eager to find out “what happens next” in each subsequent chapter.

As faddish as it has become as of late to hype the increasingly rapid change of markets and business practices in general, the reality is that most markets don’t change that quickly and most business practices are timeless themselves. But for those unlucky enough to find themselves, suddenly or otherwise, in a market or business that is changing due to disruptive technology, this book could be a lifesaver at a minimum and a handbook for profiting immensely from that change at best.

You can get the essential points of the book entirely from reading my review, or skim-reading the introduction and final chapters of the book (which present a comprehensive summary of the ideas outlined above). But the case studies are invaluable in driving the point home and there are numerous nuances to Christensen’s argument that are worth savoring and considering on their own. Because of this, I unequivocally recommend that every interested reader purchase their own copy and read it in full, and thereby grant themselves an invaluable competitive advantage in the market place, whichever value network they might happen to be competing within.

Review – Value Investing: From Graham To Buffett And Beyond

Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond

by Bruce Greenwald, Judd Kahn, Paul Sonkin and Michael van Biena, published 2001

Three valuation approaches

In the world of value investing, there are three essential ways to value a business: studying the balance sheet (asset values), studying the income statement (earnings power) or studying the value of growth.

Greenwald and company recommend using each approach contingent upon the type of company being analyzed.

The asset value (balance sheet) approach

The virtue of balance sheet analysis is that it requires little extrapolation and anticipation of future values as the balance sheet ostensibly represents values which exist today. (Note: technically, for balance sheet values to be accurate they must have a meaningful connection to future cash flows and earnings which can be generated from them, but that is beside the present point.) Additionally, the balance sheet is arranged in such a way that the items at the top are items whose present value as stated on the balance sheet is more certain because they are closer to being converted into cash (or requiring immediate cash payment), whereas those toward the bottom are less certain. The implication here is that companies trading closer to the value of net assets nearer to the top of the balance sheet are more likely undervalued than those trading closer to the value of net assets nearer to the bottom of the balance sheet.

Putting these principles into practice, when using the balance sheet method, companies which are not economically viable or are experiencing terminal decline should be valued on a liquidation basis, looking at net current asset values and severely discounting long-term fixed assets (and perhaps completely writing off the accounting value of goodwill and certain intangible items). On the other hand, companies whose viability as going concerns is fairly certain should be valued on a reproduction cost basis when using the balance sheet method, meaning calculating a value for replacing the present assets using current technology and efficiencies.

In an industry with free-entry, a company trading for substantially more than $1 per $1 of asset reproduction costs will invite competition until the market value of that company falls. Similarly, a company trading for substantially less than $1 per $1 of asset reproduction costs will find competitors exiting the industry until the market value of the company rises back to the reproduction cost of the assets. Without barriers to entry which protect the profitability of these assets, the assets are essentially worth reproduction cost as they deserve no earnings power premium.

For these firms, the intrinsic value is the asset value.

The earnings power (income statement) approach

Whereas the asset value approach relies more strongly on present market values, the earnings power valuation approach begins to introduce more estimation of the relationship between present and future earnings, as well as the cost of capital. These are decidedly less certain valuations than the asset value method as they rest on more assumption of future phenomena.

The primary assumptions are that,

  1. current earnings, properly adjusted, correspond to sustainable levels of distributable cash flow, and,
  2. that this earnings level will remain approximately constant into the indefinite future.

Based upon those assumptions, the general equation for calculating earnings power value (EPV) is:

EPV = Adjusted Earnings x 1/R

Where “R” is the current cost of capital.

Earnings adjustments, where necessary, should be made on the following basis:

  1. rectifying accounting misrepresentations; the ratio of average recurring “one-time charges” to unadjusted reported earnings should be used to make a proportional adjustment to current earnings
  2. depreciation and amortization adjustments; reported earnings need to be adjusted by the difference between stated D&A charges and what the firm actually requires to restore its assets at the end of the year to the same level they were at at the beginning of the year
  3. business cycle adjustments; companies in the trough of their business cycle should have an addition to earnings in the amount of the difference between present earnings and average earnings, while companies at the peak of their cycle should have earnings adjusted by the difference between average earnings and present earnings (a negative number)

There is a connection between the EPV of a firm and its competitive position. In consideration of economically viable industries:

  1. EPV < asset reproduction cost; management is not fully utilizing the economic potential of its assets and the solution is for management to change what it’s doing, or for management to be replaced if it refuses to do so or proves incapable of doing so
  2. EPV = asset reproduction cost; this is the norm for firms in industries with no competitive advantage, and the proximity of these two values to one another reinforces our confidence that they have been properly calculated
  3. EPV > asset reproduction cost; this is a sign of an industry with high barriers to entry, with firms inside the barriers earning more on their assets than firms outside of them. For EPV to hold up, the barriers to entry must be sustainable into the indefinite future

The difference between the EPV and the asset value of the firm in question in the third scenario is the value of the franchise of the firm with barriers to entry. In other words, the firm’s intrinsic value should equal the value of its assets plus the value of its franchise.

Similarly, in the second scenario, no premium is granted for the value of growth because with no competitive advantages, growth has no value (the cost of growth will inevitably fully consume all additional earnings power created by growth in an industry characterized by free-entry competition).

The value of growth

The value of growth is the hardest to estimate because it relies the most on assumptions and projections about the future, which is highly uncertain.

Additionally, growth has little value outside the context of competitive advantage. Growing sales typically need to be supported by growing assets: more receivables, more inventory, more plant and equipment. Those assets not offset by greater spontaneous liabilities (accounts payable, etc.) must be funded somehow, through retained earnings, larger borrowings or the sale of additional shares, reducing the amount of distributable cash and therefore lowering the value of the firm.

For firms operating at a competitive disadvantage, growth actually destroys value. Otherwise, growth only creates value within the confines of a competitive advantage. This uncertainty of growth and the competitive context of it leads the value investor to be least willing to pay for it in consideration of the other potential sources of value (assets and EPV).

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 5

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Looking for competitive advantages through industry analysis

One way to approach competitive analysis is by critically examining two key measures of performance:

  • operating margins; most useful when comparing firms within an industry
  • return on invested capital; useful for comparing between industries and within

These ratios are both driven by operating profit so they should track one another; when they do not, changes in how the business is financed may be the cause.

As the authors state,

Though the entries on the income statement are the consequences, not the cause, of the differences in operations, they tell us where to look for explanations of superior performance.

Learning by example: the Wal-Mart (WMT) case study

The explanations for Wal-Mart’s success have been numerous and diverse:

  1. WMT was tough on its vendors
  2. WMT monopolized business in small towns
  3. WMT had superior management and business systems
  4. WMT operated in “cheaper” territories in the Southern US
  5. WMT obtained advantages through regional dominance

Let’s examine these claims in order.

The first explanation fails the sniff test because WMT in fact had a higher Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) than it’s competitors. Additionally, its gross profit margins did not increase as it grew larger, implying it was not getting better and better economies of scale with suppliers by buying in bulk.

And while Wal-Mart did manage to generate additional income from higher prices charged in monopoly markets, this advantage was more than offset by its policy of “everyday low prices” in more diverse markets where WMT did higher volumes.

Technologically, WMT was a buyer of logistics and distribution technologies, not a developer of them. Anything it used, its competitors could use as well. Managerially, WMT appeared to have no advantage when it expanded its retailing into hardware, drug and arts and crafts stores. Why would WMT’s superior management be effective at discount general merchandise retailing but not add additional value in these markets?

The fourth explanation fails because Wal-Mart’s opportunities for expansion in the home markets of the South were not very large. Much of Wal-Mart’s growth and success took place in larger markets outside the South.

Wal-Mart’s secret sauce was regional dominance

Competitive advantages occur in numerous, often complementary ways. In the case of WMT, the initial competitive advantage was centered around a concentrated, regional dominance. Though smaller than its competitor Kmart, by focusing on one local region WMT was able to create a number of other competitive advantages for itself, including local economies of scale, that were not available to its competitor:

  • lower inbound logistics due to density of Wal-Mart stores, distribution facilities and vendor warehouses
  • lower advertising costs due to concentration of stores and customer base in target markets
  • concentrated territories which allowed managers to spend more time visiting stores rather than traveling to and from

Looking at Wal-Mart’s activities within the relevant boundaries in which it competed, it was far larger than its competition.

Eventually, economic law won out and growth took its toll on WMT’s great business,

it was unable to replicate the most significant competitive advantage it enjoyed in these early years: local economies of scale combined with enough customer loyalty to make it difficult for competitors to cut into this base.

WMT’s margins and return on capital both began to fall during the 1980s as it began its aggressive growth into the national market. Until then, WMT enjoyed the absence of established competitors.

What could WMT have done if it wanted to grow but maintain its competitive advantages?

If it had wanted to replicate its early experience, Wal-Mart might have targeted a foreign country that was in the process of economic development but that had not yet attracted much attention from established retailers.

Lessons learned from the WMT case study

The WMT case study leaves several general impressions:

  1. Efficiency always matters
  2. Competitive advantages matter more
  3. Competitive advantages can enhance good management
  4. Competitive advantages need to be defended
Learning by example: the Coors case study

From 1945 to 1985, the brewing industry experienced significant consolidation due to the following factors:

  • demographic trends, as home beer consumption rose at the expense of tavern consumption
  • technological disruption, as the size of an efficient plant grew from 100,000 bbl/y to 5M bbl/y, leaving many smaller brewers in a position where they could not afford to keep up
  • advertising trends, as the advent of television meant national brewers could spread fixed advertising costs over a larger revenue base
  • growth in brands, the market segmentation of which did not lead to growth in consumption but did result in larger advertising burdens for smaller brewers
The organization of Coors business

Coors’ business operations were characterized by a few fundamental structures:

  1. vertical integration, Coors produced its own strain of barley, designed its own cans, had its own bottle supplier and even had its own source of water, none of which produced a meaningful cost advantage
  2. operated a single brewery, which required it to transport all its product to national markets at great cost rather than producing within each market and shortening transportation routes
  3. non-pasteurization, which led to shorter shelf life than its rivals, adding to spoilage costs
  4. a celebrity aura, which, like most product differentiation strategies, did not result in a meaningful premium charged for a barrel of Coors compared to its rivals
For Coors, geographic expansion brought with it higher costs and reduced competitive advantage as these business organization decisions interacted with the wider distribution network in unforeseen ways:
  • longer shipping distances from the central plant in Golden, CO, resulted in higher costs that could not be passed on to consumers
  • the smaller share of new local markets it expanded to meant it had to work with weaker wholesalers
  • higher marketing expenses were incurred as Coors tried to establish itself in new markets and then keep up with the efforts of AB and Miller
The net result was that Coors was “spending more to accomplish less.”

Why Coors expansion was so costly

First, although Anheuscher-Busch, the dominant firm in the brewing industry, spent almost three times as much in total on advertising compared to Coors, it spent $4/bbl less due an economy of scale derived from larger total beer output.

Second, Coors experienced higher distribution costs because distribution has a fixed regional component which allows firms with a larger local share of the market to drive shorter truck routes and utilize warehouse space more intensively.

Third, advertising costs are fixed on a regional basis. Again, the larger your share of the market in a given region, the lower your advertising costs per unit. Coors never held substantial market share in any of the national markets it expanded into.

If Coors had “gone local” (or rather, stayed local), all of its competitive disadvantages could’ve been turned into competitive advantages. Advertising expenses would’ve been concentrated on dominant markets instead of being spread across the country. Freight costs would’ve been considerably lower as it would not have been transporting product so many thousands of miles away from its central plant. With a larger share of the market it could’ve used stronger wholesalers who might have been willing to carry Coors exclusively because it was so popular in local markets.

Additionally, Coors sold its beer for less in its home regions, allowing it to win customers from its competitors by lowering prices, offering promotions and advertising more heavily. Expansion, when and if it occurred, should’ve worked from the periphery outward.

The Internet and competitive advantages

Greenwald and Kahn are skeptical of the virtues of combining the Internet with traditional competitive advantages:

The main sources of competitive advantages are customer captivity, production advantages and economies of scale, especially on a local level. None of them is readily compatible with Internet commerce, except in special circumstances. [emphasis added]

With the Internet,

competition is a click away,

and furthermore,

economies of scale entail substantial fixed costs that can then be spread over a large customer base

a state of affairs which often doesn’t exist with virtual, e-businesses.

The Internet is great for customers, but its value to businesses as a promoter of profits is questionable. The Internet doesn’t provide a strong barrier to entry because it is relatively inexpensive to set up an e-commerce subsidiary. Additionally, there are no easily discernible local boundaries to limit the territory  in which a firm competes which is another essential element of the economies of scale advantage.

In other words,

the information superhighway provided myriad on-ramps for anyone who wanted access.

Questions from the reading

  1. Greenwald and Kahn argue that management time is the scarcest resource any company has. Is this true? Why can’t companies solve this simply by hiring more managers and increasing the manager-employee ratio?
  2. In the case study with WMT, why couldn’t Kmart at least match WMT’s efforts in establishing critical infrastructure organization and technology and compete on that basis?
  3. What were the sources of WMT’s customer loyalty?
  4. Which publicly-listed firms have regional dominance as a specific strategy they follow? Do these companies’ financial performance seem to suggest they derive a competitive advantage from this strategy?
  5. In the case study with Coors, what were the industry conditions in beer brewing that made national competition more efficient than local competition?
  6. Standard Oil, another producer and distributor of “valuable liquids” was vertically integrated. Why was vertical integration beneficial in the oil industry but not in the brewing industry for Coors?

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 2

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Differentiation is not a competitive advantage

The tired old story that many companies tell their investors (and many managers tell themselves) is that they can avoid the commoditization of their product through “differentiation”. Convince your customers that your limestone is not generic limestone but “Jeff’s Best limestone”, for instance, and they’re sure to pay a premium price!

The trouble with this strategy is not the gullibility of the consumer, but the mutual ability of the competitor to adopt it for himself.

The reality of the competitive market is that high profits attract competition and without real, sustainable barriers to entry, high profits will be eroded by market fragmentation and declining margins. Product differentiation may allow a firm to charge a “premium” for their product, but it will not protect their market share and as market share falls, the effects of fixed-costs on margins will rise.

Firms producing differentiated goods and services will still face the economics of commodity markets, namely, if they can not produce at a cost at or below the price established in the market, they will fail. This is because differentiated products require additional investments in advertising, marketing, sales and service, product distribution, etc., to make the differentiated claims credible, and these higher costs ultimately lower returns.

Barriers to entry = competitive advantages

As the authors note,

Systems can be replicated, talent hired away, managerial quality upgraded

The only way to obtain real, sustainable competitive advantages is through barriers to entry: obstacles and costs that competitors can not overcome or do not have the resources to cover. These barriers to entry apply only to incumbents, as entrant competitive advantages are essentially available to everyone and therefore are available to no one in the long run, being of limited and transitory value (once you establish yourself in a market, you’re now and incumbent and have lost your competitive advantage).

There are three basic, authentic types of competitive advantage:

  1. supply advantages
  2. demand advantages
  3. a combination of the two

The authors specifically note that,

Measured by potency and durability, production advantages are the weakest barrier to entry; economies of scale, when combined with some customer captivity, are the strongest.

Supply advantages

Supply advantages essentially translate to lower cost structures, which provides the firm with two benefits:

  1. higher profitability through wider margins
  2. ability to strategically lower prices to resist potential entrants or other competitors while maintaining profitability

These lower cost structures normally come from:

  1. lower input costs (special access to a supply that can’t be replicated by the competition at the same cost)
  2. economies of scale
  3. proprietary technology, normally protected by patents/intellectual property laws (any government grant of monopoly would similarly apply as it has the same effect)

Rapid technological change in supply methods can create entrant advantages as pre-existing incumbents find their out-dated technology confers a cost dis-advantage. Conversely, as the pace of technological change in an industry slows, any incumbent advantage due to technological advances can be eroded as rival firms acquire learned efficiencies of their own.

Many strategic analysts cite the role of “innovation” in imbuing certain firms with competitive advantages but these advantages are only sustainable if these innovations can’t be learned, “stolen” or otherwise acquired by competitors over time. In other words,

Innovations that are common to all confer competitive advantages on none.

Meanwhile, privileged access to raw materials is normally only useful in markets which are local in terms of geography or product space.

Demand advantages

Access to customers that rivals can not match translate to demand advantages. Customer captivity is a result of one of three dynamics:

  1. habit – typically applies to one product, not a firm’s portfolio of products, and is a result of frequent and automatic purchases
  2. switching costs – reinforced by network effects, ie, selecting a technology system that becomes common and popular economy-wide
  3. search costs – common when products or services are complex, customized and crucial
Demand side advantages are typically more durable. However, because they rely on the customer for their power they’re susceptible to customers moving, growing old (developing new preferences and needs) and dying. New customers entering the market are uncommitted and can potentially be captured by anyone.

The strongest possible demand advantage, then, would be one which generates an intergenerational transfer of habit.

Questions from the reading

  1. The authors state on pg. 31 that United’s advantageous geographical position at Chicago O’Hare can not be extended to other airports; is this true? Why or why not? Ultimately, what is the source for United’s supply advantage at Chicago O’Hare?
  2. Many of the supply advantages stem from government interference in the market through patent, copyright and other “intellectual property” laws. How might the strategic/competitive landscape change in a “free intellectual market”?

Notes – Competition Demystified: Preface, Chapter 1

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn.

What is strategy?

Strategy is the art of making business decisions with respect to the actions and responses of competitors. Strategy revolves around creating, protecting and exploiting competitive advantages.

Strategy and competitive advantage go hand in hand; where there is no possibility to develop a competitive advantage, there can be no strategic decisions. Markets where competitors have similar access to customers, technology and other cost advantages are not strategic but tactical markets where the only strategy possible is to outrun the competition through operational efficiency– most competitors will be about the same size and none will manage to make or maintain an outsize profit margin as the lack of competitive advantages will drive economic profits toward average cost.

What are the differences between strategy and tactics?

The easiest way to think about the difference between strategy and tactics is to understand that strategic decisions are focused on competitors, while tactical decisions are focused on operations. In other words, strategy is external, tactics are internal in nature.

This helpful table from Competition Demystified may also convey the differences:

  • Strategic Decisions
    • Management level –> top management, board of directors
    • Resources –> corporate
    • Time frame –> long-term
    • Risk –> success or survival
    • Questions: “What business do we want to be in?”, “What critical competencies must we develop?”, “How are we going to deal with competitors?”
  • Tactical Decisions
    • Management level –> midlevel, functional, local
    • Resources –> divisional, departmental
    • Time frame –> yearly, quarterly, monthly
    • Risk –> limited
    • Questions: “How do we improve delivery times?”, “How big a promotional discount do we offer?”, “What is the best career path for our sales representatives?”

Additionally, there are two major strategic issues every business faces:

  1. the arena of competition – which external characters will affect the firm’s economic future?
  2. the management of competition – how do you anticipate and, if possible, control, the actions of these external agents?

Porter’s “Five Forces” and the Greenwald/Kahn “One Ring” that binds them

Michael Porter, author of [amazon text=Competitive Strategy&asin=0684841487] (1980), identified “Five Forces” critical to the competitive environment:

  • Substitutes
  • Suppliers
  • Potential Entrants
  • Buyers
  • Competitors Within the Industry

Greenwald and Kahn focus on one as being the dominant force, potential entrants, specifically from the viewpoint of barriers to entry.

Either the existing firms within the market are protected by barriers to entry (or to expansion), or they are not.

Barriers to entry are critical for maintaining stable businesses and above average profit margins as without them the market will be flooded with competitors whose existence serves to drive down average industry profitability.

As more firms enter, demand is fragmented among them. Costs per unit rise as fixed costs are spread over fewer units sold, prices fall, and the high profits that attracted the new entrants disappear.

The end result is all firms are placed on the operational efficiency treadmill where no firm ever reaches the goal of above average profitability and everyone must run as fast as they can simply to stay in place.

Operational effectiveness might be thought of as a strategy, indeed, as the only strategy appropriate in markets without barriers to entry.

How to conduct a strategic analysis

Ask yourself, in the market in which the firm currently competes or is considering an entrance:

  1. do any competitive advantages exist? And, if so,
  2. what kind of advantages are they?

Exploring competitive advantage

There are only three types of genuine competitive advantage:

  1. supply – a company can produce or deliver its products or services more cheaply than competitors
  2. demand – a company has access to market demand that competitors can not match, usually based upon…
    1. habit
    2. switching costs
    3. search costs
  3. economies of scale – an incumbent firm operating at large scale will enjoy lower costs than its competitors

Companies which manage to grow yet maintain profitability usually achieve this one of three ways:

  • replicate their local advantage in multiple markets
  • continue to focus on their product space as that space becomes larger
  • gradually expand their activities outward from the edges of their dominant market position

Elephants versus ants

Markets which offer competitive advantages are typically characterized by one or two large firms which possess the competitive advantage, elephants, and several smaller, less profitable “competitors”, the ants.

A firm which finds itself in a market where it is the ant should consider getting out of the market as painlessly as possible. A firm which is considering entering a market where an elephant already resides should reconsider the decision as the only real hope for competing in that market is if the elephant creates an opportunity by making a mistake.

With a competitive advantage in place, an elephant can enjoy the outsized profits of his competitive position. Still, developing strategic awareness about its competitive advantages will allow it to:

  • reinforce and protect existing advantages
  • identify areas of growth (geographic and product line-related) that are likely to yield high returns
  • develop policies that extract maximum profitability from the firm’s competitive circumstances
  • identify threats that are likely to develop
Strategic planning

In other words, strategic planning concerns itself with the different areas of business decision-making that competitors can respond to, such as:

  • pricing policies
  • new product lines
  • geographic expansions
  • capacity additions

Questions from the reading

  1. With regards to the elephant vs. ant paradigm, why do ants exist at all, that is, why don’t more firms exit markets where they are ants?
  2. What are common ways in which elephants misstep and allow competition from the ants?