October 30, 2014

In Search of Negative Carry

One working definition of a professional investor is: somebody who needs to care about “carry.” The classic carry trade is the mid-90′s best against the Yen (I’m going to borrow from this Mark Dow writeup, because I am a macro tourist—literally, my main macro trade is that I avoid traveling to Europe when the Euro is strong). The Yen bet: the BOJ intended to keep rates low; rates in the US were high. So a smart person could borrow Yen, invest in USD, and pocket the difference. A smart person with risk tolerance could do this several times over, and make a very nice return indeed.

As it turns out, one risk of carry trades in FX is that they are a pretty good deal most of the time, so lots of hedge funds get involved, so when something else blows up, they unwind their carry trades, too. So at any given time: a) the carry trade is earning a positive return from the interest rate differential, b) the trade also has a tailwind from more people making the trade (ie every new “borrow Yen / short USD” transaction, but c) at any given time, there’s a possibility of a sudden and painful reversal.

Fortunately for anyone involved in such a trade, you earn your 2 and 20 on performance at a specific time, not on the expected contours of future performance. So for someone who wants pretty good odds of a pretty good return, a carry trade is a pretty good bet. Read the rest of this entry »

October 29, 2014

Chicken-and-Egg Disruption: Misunderstanding YouTube, Uber, and AirBNB

AirBNB offers ubiquitous illegal rentals, says New York’s Attorney General. Uber gets shut down or hobbled in new markets around the world. Viacom’s legal department could have wiped out YouTube for ripping off their content.

At one level, you have to ask why somebody would build a business that’s either always illegal or probably going to be used illegally. If you want to be really contrarian, you could try asking that but not rhetorically. Read the rest of this entry »

October 28, 2014

Bitcoin from A to B

One sophisticated bitcoin argument goes like this: buying bitcoin speculatively just makes you a modern-day goldbug who can’t handle the intricacies of the modern global financial system. The really cool thing is bitcoin as a platform—for money transfers, for record-keeping, for contracts, or voting.

That’s a fair argument. Anyone who was reading the news in 2008 knows that nobody can handle the intricacies of the modern global financial system. That people whose full-time job was “Make sure it doesn’t ever break” came within about a week of breaking it.

I don’t buy it. Read the rest of this entry »

February 27, 2011

What Stock Option Pricing Models Tell You about Courting Controversy

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” was surely coined by an otherwise bad publicist. Of course there’s such a thing as bad publicity, if you’re already famous.

If you’re not famous, there’s a tradeoff: at some point, it’s better to piss off most of your audience and impress a few people, rather than having no audience at all.

The Black-Scholes model provides a helpful way to look at this. The Black-Scholes formula allows you to price a stock option knowing only a few data points—the current price of the stock, the strike price and maturity of the option, the risk-free interest rate, and the stock’s volatility. Read the rest of this entry »

February 15, 2011

How to Short the Higher Education Bubble

You know the return on investing in college is low and declining. You know there are better alternatives to college. You know that “college for all” harms students—Harvard says so!

Some day, the education bubble will burst. How can you trade this?

Read the rest of this entry »

February 14, 2011

LinkedIn’s IPO Filing: Analyzing the S-1

Note to readers: my new startup research boutique, Digital Due Diligence, performs in-depth research on dozens of companies, public and private, including LinkedIn and its key competitors. Visit our equity research page for more information.

Last month, LinkedIn filed a prospectus with the SEC. It’s a great case study: LinkedIn is one of the largest social networks, and it may be the most mature of the major social networking businesses. Like Facebook, LinkedIn has turned a profit; unlike Facebook, LinkedIn’s profit is dependent on several known business models.

The filing itself was a better read than most. Among other risks, it cited the possibility that:

[O]ur initial public offering could create disparities of wealth among our employees, which could adversely impact relations among employees and our culture in general.

I guess that’s what you get when your Chairman is an avowed “free-market socialist.”

The hurdle LinkedIn’s IPO faces is that the easy comparisons are completely wrong. LinkedIn shouldn’t be valued like a job board: for a variety of reasons, it’s a much more defensible model; LinkedIn is likely to stomp all over the traditional job boards (not so much traditional recruiters). But it’s not a “social network” that can be valued like Facebook and Twitter. LinkedIn’s business model is already in place, and its potential is a matter of execution, not innovation. Read the rest of this entry »

February 7, 2011

Blogs are Here To Stay—Are Bloggers an Aberration?

It’s hard to say when the “blogger” phenomenon peaked. In the runup to the 2004 election, the media meta-narrative centered around “the blogger”—a possibly psuedonymous individual whose commentary was upending the traditional news cycle.

In the next few years, something strange happened: blogs became ubiquitous. But “the blogger” lost influence; the personalities that originally defined blogging never became as influential as most people expected.

I suspect that three forces sapped the blogging trend of most of its strength:

•Social media sites replaced low-traffic blogs.

•The right economic unit for high-traffic blogs is the blog network or the content farm, not the blogger.

•The only use for a blog qua blog is as an extended résumé or biz-dev pitch. Read the rest of this entry »

November 10, 2010

Will Disaggregation and Outsourcing Destroy the “Apprenticeship” Model?

Lawyers, consultants, and investment bankers follow a fairly similar career path: excessive hours and tedious work at the start of their careers, followed by vastly better compensation and marginally better hours later on.

This makes a certain amount of sense: the fastest way to get a decade of experience is do work double-time for five years.

The system works for people who are already in the industry: they get their grunt-work done. It works for people who are joining the industry: they learn everything they need to know, and the difficulty of the work allows the industry to keep an “up or out” structure along with a steady path for advancement.
Read the rest of this entry »

November 9, 2010

The Illusion of Social Progress

In the last 20 years, smoking has been transformed from something that seemed totally normal into a rather seedy habit: from something movie stars did in publicity shots to something small huddles of addicts do outside the doors of office buildings. A lot of the change was due to legislation, of course, but the legislation couldn’t have happened if customs hadn’t already changed.

—Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addiction

“Whig History” is history rewritten to support a narrative of constant progress. The single best example I’ve found comes from David Brin’s essay on Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkein — Enemy of Progress:

It’s only been 200 years or so — an eye blink — that “scientific enlightenment” began waging its rebellion against the nearly universal pattern called feudalism, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors in every culture that developed both metallurgy and agriculture. Wherever human beings acquired both plows and swords, gangs of large men picked up the latter and took other men’s women and wheat. (Sexist language is meaningfully accurate here; those cultures had no word for “sexism,” it was simply assumed.)

They then proceeded to announce rules and “traditions” ensuring that their sons would inherit everything.

Putting aside cultural superficialities, on every continent society quickly shaped itself into a pyramid with a few well-armed bullies at the top — accompanied by some fast-talking guys with painted faces or spangled cloaks, who curried favor by weaving stories to explain why the bullies should remain on top.

Only something exceptional started happening…

Read the rest of this entry »

September 7, 2010

A Challenge for Net Neutrality Supporters

The great thing about most critiques of Laissez-Faire economics is that they make great business plans. If “the market” can’t provide something, but that something is in demand, it’s a great opportunity!

Read the rest of this entry »