Index Funds: Good for Corporate Governance & Good for Crypto

On March 8th, Dick Weil, co-CEO of London-based Janus Henderson Investors,wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the SEC should prevent index-funds from voting on shareholder proxies. In it, he argues that index funds “have no interest in the performance of particular companies” and that index funds “lack a strong incentive to cast informed votes.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Weil misses some of the most important incentives that drive long-term equity holders, including index funds. In fact, index funds are likely to be superior to active funds for effecting good long-term corporate governance.

Index Funds Are Long-Term Owners

In October 2017, Jack Bogle gave an interview with Morningstar that addressed this exact issue. His argument, as usual, was clear and compelling:

Benz: How about on the governance front. I know you and I have talked about this over the years, about whether passive products are more limited than active managers from the standpoint of influencing corporate governance of the companies they own. What do you say to that assertion that passive products because they can’t walk away from some of these companies altogether don’t have that ultimate weapon that active managers do have?

Bogle: I’d say traditional index funds are the last, best hope for corporate governance.

Benz: And why is that?

Bogle: That’s because they’re the only true, long-term investors. Corporate governance should be based on long-term factors affecting the corporation, not a bunch of traders who want you to report higher earnings, gonna try and get on your board for a minute, and in a moment … I don’t know how they’re this smart to do it, but realign the entire company and then all will be well. It just doesn’t happen. In fact, the reverse is more likely to happen.

So, I don’t see … The old Wall Street rule was if you don’t like the management, sell the stock. The new index fund rule is if you don’t like the management, fix the management because you can’t sell the stock.

The critique of index funds and corporate governance comes from the mistaken idea that it is only by buying and/or selling a security that you can influence management and the allocation of capital. While there is no doubt that individual actions in the secondary market affect the price of a security, and the price of a security can affect capital allocation decisions, it is a relatively indirect link. Activist shareholders typically use these actions, but as a means to more direct control, either influence or direct membership on the board of directors.

Unfortunately, because discretionary investors have the power to walk away and sell a security, there is a weakness in their commitment to fixing a company. While some of the best activist private equity funds might spend years working to improve the returns of a company, most active investors show no such patience.

Index funds effectively operate as permanent owners of the business, so their incentive is to work to improve the performance of each and every company in proportion to their market capitalization.

Patient Capital Has Value

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of index funds as investors is their reliability as a patient source of capital. There is no doubt that the short-term focus of current capital markets is a problem for public companies looking to optimize their performance for the long term. Very often, significant changes in corporate strategy take years to implement, and can often result in negative short-term performance in exchange for the potential for significant long-term upside. Unfortunately, if most investors hold securities for short periods of time, management can be pushed for making decisions that are optimized for long-term value creation.

In fact, this problem is the focus of Eric Ries’ new startup, the Long-Term Stock Exchange.

For example, as of 2013, the average active mutual fund had a turnover of over 85% (according to Morningstar). This means their average holding period for a stock was barely over one year! They are not long-term investors, and their financial interest is incredibly biased towards short-term performance. They are not going to support any solution to a corporate problem that might hurt short-term performance.

This is not just a problem for active mutual funds. Private equity buyout funds, based on their structure, predominantly look for returns often within a relatively short number of years. Because they often use debt to leverage their buying power and maximize return on capital, their playbook also includes damaging short-term actions like the payoff of significant one-time dividends that can starve a business of long-term capital.

Index funds provide long-term, patient capital that is well aligned with the desire to see companies optimize their corporate governance for maximum shareholder value. The time frames of active investors are just too short to align with management changes and strategic choices that may not pay off for years, if not decades.

This Applies to Crypto, Too

One of the most exciting developments in cryptocurrencies has been credible initiatives around index investing. Bitwise Investments (currently available) and Coinbase (available soon) have both announced crypto index products and platforms. (disclosure: I am a private investor in both.)

Over the past few years, more and more investors are convinced there is an incredible opportunity for blockchain-based products and platforms. Though cryptocurrencies have the same liquidity as public companies, they are based on far younger organizations and will take time to develop. Index funds can act as a stabilizing force amidst the volatility, especially if index funds see continued net-positive inflows like their brethren in equity and debt assets.

Amidst all of the volatility, index funds will likely also have a role to play as aggregators of long-term holders of cryptocurrency. Index funds, given their incredibly long time implicit frames, are aligned to advocate for governance and development that will maximize the long-term value of the ecosystem.

Index funds may not control the marginal price of these assets, but they can provide a structure for a large pool of investors to have a long-term influence on the direction of these platforms. Whether the future belongs to proof-of-work systems, proof-of-stake, or other alternatives, my guess is that we’ll find that, over time, that access to long-term, patient capital is a huge benefit to products and platforms in crypto.

Long-Term Ownership Will Improve Governance

While there is no question that active investors can have a positive impact on the governance of corporations, it would be foolish not to see the additional advantages that index funds bring to the financial ecosystem.

Index funds may actually be the missing form of long-term, patient capital that we’ve needed in corporate governance to better align companies with the creation of long-term value for all of their stakeholders.

Ikigai: How to Find Professional Success

On December 25, 2017, I tweeted out a page from the World Economic Forum about Ikigai and was shocked at how broadly it spread. This post elaborates on the concept.

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Over the last twenty years, I’ve been asked by hundreds of students for advice on how to think about their careers post-graduation. Inevitably, I’ve always responded with a simple framework to help structure their thinking around picking a profession:

  1. What are you exceptional at?
  2. What do you love to do?
  3. What does the world value?

As it turns out, there is a Japanese concept for this framework. Ikigai.

The Reason You Get Up in the Morning

Dan Buettner gave a TED Talk called, “How to Live to Be 100+.” He focuses quite a bit of his lecture on the island of Okinawa and their extraordinary number of centenarians. He identifies several diet and lifestyle habits that seem to correlate with a long and healthy life. Ikigai is one of those concepts. He recently gave an interview in the Telegraph:

They all have an ikigai. “In the Okinawan language,” said Dan, “there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is ‘ikigai’. And, roughly translated, it means ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning.’”

He talked of a 102-year-old karate master who still practised, a 100-year-old fisherman who loved to bring the catch to his family, and a 102-year-old who, asked what her ikigai was, said that holding her great-great-great-granddaughter, a century her junior, felt like “leaping into heaven.”
In Buettner’s framework, Ikigai is not just something you think about when you are picking majors. It’s a form of balance that you seek through your entire life.

What Are You Optimizing For?

When I was in college, my mother constantly reflected on the bad advice she felt students were given as they attempted to pick a career. “Everyone tells students to follow their passion. It’s not that simple. There is a big difference between a hobby and a career.”

My father tended to be more direct. “The world doesn’t owe you a living,” he would often say, “Find something that people value.”

Our popular culture has become saturated with the idea that if you just find your passion, something you love doing, then your career will magically present itself. If only success were so simple. Finding something you love to do is critical, and if you are fortunate, you’ll find several. As it turns out, that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The fact is, you may love something that the world doesn’t value highly. The world may value things that you aren’t very good at. And of course, you may be good at something that you don’t want to do.

The benefit of Ikigai is that it helps separate out the dimensions you can optimize your professional efforts around, in attempt to help you find a combination that will result in professional success and fulfillment.

Four simple questions.

  1. What do you love? Find something that you really enjoy doing. It’s simple to say that the journey is the reward, but when you love to do something, work can be something you look forward to.
  2. What are you good at? We all have different talents and aptitudes. With practice and determination, you can develop mastery in a wide variety of areas. However, if you have a natural (or hard-earned) talent in an area, that’s worth identifying.\
  3. What can you be paid for? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that the other humans around you will value it. Looking for something that the market will reward financially is a critical piece of this puzzle if for no other reason than to set expectations realistically.
  4. What does the world need? Being the unabashed capitalist, I originally assumed that anything the world needed would also be something the world would pay for. Stepping away from the theoretical argument, there is significant value in transparency from separating out this requirement.

Imperfect Combinations of Three

One of the most insightful aspects of Ikigai is the imperfect combinations of three of the four dimensions that are represented in the chart by different colors.

If you find work that you are good at, that you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling comfortable but unfulfilled. In this case, you aren’t working on something you love, but likely being compensated for your work and seeing its valuable impact on others.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that you are being paid for, you may find yourself feeling satisfied but useless. In this case, you aren’t working on something the world needs, but likely being compensated for your work and enjoying what you do.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling delighted but uncompensated. In this case, you aren’t working on something that world pays for, but you enjoy what you do and do it well. Fulfillment without wealth.

If you find work that you love, you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling excited but uncertain. In this case, you aren’t good at what you do, but you are being paid for something useful, and you love it. Purpose without proficiency.

It is not difficult to think of situations and phases in your life where you might not need to optimize for every dimension. For example, after a financially successful career, it is fairly easy to imagine why a person might optimize around work that ignores the need to be paid. For a retiree, the space between passion and mission might look ideal.

Finding Balance

Ikigai might sound like the right way to talk to students or young professionals in your life about their professional focus. But I would argue that no matter where you are in your career, you should take the time to be intentional about your professional choices and ask yourself these four questions.

Ikigai. It might be the key to a long & healthy life.

Stanford CS 007: Personal Finance for Engineers (Reviews & Reflection)

For those looking for the course material, I’ve posted the slides for all 10 sessions on a parallel site: http://cs007.blog

On September 26th, I had the great pleasure of officially kicking off a brand new course at Stanford University, “Personal Finance for Engineers“.  The course was offered through the Computer Science department (CS 007), but was also open to undergraduate & graduate students of any major.

How quickly the quarter went. On December 6th, I gave the 10th and final lecture of the seminar. Grades were submitted by December 18th, and course evaluations were summarized and provided to lecturers by December 20th.

In the interest of learning & transparency, I thought I’d post some of the feedback here, as well as summarize a few of my own reflections on the seminar.

Summary Results: Learning Goals

Out of the 93 students who took the course, it looks like 69% (64) left feedback on the course.  The following charts and material are provided anonymously by Stanford University.

The learning goals for the course were as follows:

  1. Expose students to a wide range of personal finance topics.
  2. Provide students with both practical & theoretical frameworks to make financial decisions.
  3. Build confidence in students on how to approach real life financial decisions.
  4. Provide students with content that will encourage discussions with family and / or friends.

Overall, the student feedback on these four areas were fairly consistent. A majority felt the course achieved these goals “extremely well” (highest ranking), with a large minority giving the course “very well” for these goals.The individual comments left by students seemed to confirm these results. A few samples:

Q: What skills or knowledge did you learn or improve?

“I literally knew nothing about personal finance, but just being exposed to this material helped me ask the right questions to myself and my parents.”

“Everything — I’m a financial manager on the row and a senior, but knew next to nothing about finances. This was super super helpful.”

“I improved on a great deal in this class. From understanding behavioral finance. to deciding whether or not to rent/buy, this class truly taught me about personal finance and more.”

Summary Results: Instruction & Organization

One of the elements I underestimated when proposing this class was the amount of time it would take to prepare an 80 minute lecture every week. Converting what previously had been a 60-minute talk into a 10 seminar course proved to be a significant time commitment (one of the reasons you haven’t seen any posts on this blog since the course started).

As a result, I was particularly concerned about what the feedback would be to the course material, since most of it was new. Fortunately, the results look positive.

Individual Feedback: Student Recommendations

One of the most telling results from teaching a course at Stanford are the individual recommendations that students are asked to give about a course to future students.

Q: What would you like to say about this course to a student who is considering taking [CS 007] in the future?

These reviews confirm how much students want to learn and engage around personal finance topics. The desire is there, the fundamental problem is that few schools offer any curriculum to fulfill it.

If you are wondering, Review #12 is my Mom’s favorite.

Data: What sessions did students value most?

Stanford allows faculty to add supplementary questions to the student feedback form. I asked students specifically to name three sessions that they found most valuable, and to name a session they found least valuable.

The results were interesting. Investing was far away the seminar students found the most valuable, with compensation, real estate and debt following.

Investing 28
Compensation 16
Real Estate 12
Debt 10
Financial Planning & Goals 7
Bonus: Crypto, VC & Derivatives 6
Behavioral Finance 5
Savings & Budgeting 4
Net Worth 2

When students were asked which session was the least valuable, there were far fewer votes to count. Still, it was interesting that despite being one of the favorites, “Real Estate” was also one of the least favorites. Reading the comments, it seems as if some students felt like real estate was too far in the future to be relevant to their current situation. The students who enjoyed it clearly enjoyed the section on how to make the decision between renting & buying.

Real Estate 7
Behavioral Finance 5
Debt 3
Compensation 2
Bonus: Crypto, VC & Derivatives 2
Savings & Budgeting 2
Financial Planning & Goals 1
Net Worth 1
Investing 0

It is worth noting that 8 students actually put down that all of the sessions were valuable, so I think it is fair to say that the content was well received.

Final Thoughts & Reflections

As part of developing this course, I chose to post the slides from every seminar online within a couple of days of teaching the class. My goal was to get as many eyes as possible on the content, to ensure there were no mistakes and to get advice on places to improve it.

There was only one session that received several corrections, and that was the “Real Estate” seminar. A special thank you to those of you on Twitter who helped me improve  & correct this content.

Top requests that I received for the next time I teach the class:

  • PDF versions of the slides
  • Voice over version of the slides
  • Video of the lectures

I likely should have done all of these in 2017, but I was a bit nervous about doing this with a brand new course & course material.

The most important reflection I have on this quarter is a sincere feeling of gratitude to Stanford University for allowing me to teach this course. Mehran Sahami, the Associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science department, sponsored the course, and without him it would not have been possible. A special thank you is also due to Greylock Partners, who supported my efforts to teach this course this year.

I also would like to thank the 93 students who took the course and provided excellent feedback along the way. The course was originally opened to only 50 students, and it was incredibly gratifying to see so many students request an exception to take the class during the Fall Quarter.

If you have additional feedback or thoughts about the course, and how to broaden the reach of financial education, please feel free to reach out with comments on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Stanford CS 007: Personal Finance for Engineers (Kickoff)

Update: For those looking for full course material, I’m posting it on a parallel site:
http://cs007.blog

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of officially kicking off a new course at Stanford University, “Personal Finance for Engineers“.  The course is offered through the Computer Science department (CS 007), but is open to undergraduate & graduate students of any major.

Personal Finance for Engineers

 

It was a packed room, and I was delighted. In fact, I was delighted for three reasons.

First, I love teaching. In an unexpected coincidence, the room my course was assigned, 200-034, is the same room that I taught CS 198 for the CS 106 Section Leaders over 20 years ago as a graduate student. It was the home of CS 198 for many years. To see it filled with students again was wonderful.

Second, the level of student engagement has been outstanding. Originally set for a maximum of 50 students, I expanded the enrollment to 75, and with waitlist interest the total number of students easily went over 100. For a new course without a track record on campus, I was delighted to see so many students interested in the topic.

Third, the topic is incredibly important to me.  Those of you who have been following my efforts around personal finance education know that I care deeply about the topic. Over the past 7 years, I’ve given talks at dozens of companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter & Dropbox, hoping to better educate and inspire employees to learn more about personal finance and make better financial decisions.

I’m hoping this class can amplify those efforts even further.

Making Personal Finance Education Open

I feel grateful to Stanford University and the Computer Science Department for supporting this effort, and I hope that by making the material public, we can help get higher quality education about personal finance to as many students as possible.

My hope is that by circulating this material, more people will engage to give feedback on the content, make suggestions for improvement and continue to improve the material and the class.

After every class, I’ll be posting the slides for the session up on Slideshare. The materials from the first class, “Introduction,” are now available.

As the introductory session, I focused the seminar on three topics:

  1. Why the topic of Personal Finance is worth studying?
  2. Real data from a survey of students enrolled in the class.
  3. Full syllabus for the topics that will be covered during the course.

Student Survey Data

The second topic is based on 10 questions I asked every student in the class to complete before the start of the first session. It is hardly a scientifically representative student survey, but I wanted to ground some of the initial discussion of financial topics with data about their own experiences & expectations.

73 students completed the survey. It’s worth sharing the results of the 10 questions here:

A few data points worth sharing:

Question 1: A little over 50% of the class are either graduating seniors or graduate students. Only 14% are freshman or sophomores.

Question 2: Approximately 3/4 of the class (76%) had a “magic number” in mind when asked about how much wealth would define success for them. While the most common answer fell between $10M-$100M, the range spread from $20,000 to $15B. It was truly a blank field in the survey, so students typed in whatever number came to mind, and it started the process of open & honest discussion on why students picked the number they did.

Question 3: 92% of the students reported that they had either “some” or “quite a bit” of knowledge about the finances of their parents or guardians. Given the selection bias inherent in who signed up for this course (or even what type of students end up at Stanford), it’s hard to assign deep meaning to this result, but this was a class of students who clearly had received some meaningful exposure to financial decisions at home.

Question 6: 92% of students in the class do not expect to be responsible for any student loans after graduation. This was the most surprising result to me, based on both overall market data and my own personal experience .

I have two possible hypotheses to explain the result of Question 6. (1) The selection bias for enrollment in the class might explain part of the result. It is possible that the type of students who are most willing to sign up for a class on personal finance are not burdened by student loans.  (2) It is possible that the financial aid policies of the premier schools, like Stanford, have been highly effective in lowering the number of students requiring loans dramatically. For families with household income below $125,000, tuition is waived, and 71% of families with up to $245,000 receive scholarship assistance. (In fact, 34% of families making over $245,000 also get scholarship assistance.)

Since the syllabus was not shared in advance, Question 10 gave me a clear read of the expectations and hopes students had coming into the class. Not surprisingly, the students were, for the most part, very pragmatic. They are looking for information about compensation & job offers, the stock market, real estate and how to maximize their earning power during their careers.

Feedback

Throughout the next few months, I’ll be posting the course material in the hopes of receiving both corrections and ideas for improvement. If there are topics or material out there worth formalizing into the curriculum, I want to know about them.

Best way to reach me about the course will be through twitter @adamnash

Thank you in advance for your help.

 

Helping People Save is a Job Worth Doing

“Every day stuff happens to us. Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. Some are little jobs, some are big ones. Some jobs surface unpredictably. Other times we know they’re coming. When we realize we have a job to do, we reach out and pull something into our lives to get the job done.” — Clay Christensen

In the summer of 1993, after declaring computer science as my major, I got my first high paying software development internship. Over that summer Hewlett-Packard paid me over $5,000, which seemed like an unbelievable amount at the time.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I was so excited by receiving this windfall that I promptly spent it. By Thanksgiving, I was shocked to find that my bank account was nearly empty. All that money, gone. It literally sickened me.

That was the moment when I decided to learn as much as I could about personal finance and I got religious about saving.

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done

For a lot of people, there is a moment they can recall when they consciously decided that they wanted to start saving.

When I attended Harvard Business School at the end of the dot-com era, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Clay Christensen, who at the time had just recently published the now famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In his class, we studied his new theory of disruption, and how industrial giants filled with smart people would make seemingly smart decisions that would lead to their downfall.

One aspect of his theory, which later went into his book, Competing Against Luck, is the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. Quite simply, Clay believes that companies can go astray by focusing too much on the data about their customers and the features of their product. Instead, he argues they should focus on the end-to-end experience of the job that their product is being hired to do.

In the past few years, I’ve come to believe that saving is a job that a huge number of people want a product to help them do and help them do it well.

Saving Itself is a Goal

Our lives are filled with a large number of small financial decisions and problems, but there are only a few very large financial moments that warrant the creation of an entire companies to support. Spending, borrowing, investing and financial advice all certainly fit that description. I believe that saving belongs on that list as well.

Americans are in a terrible state when it comes to saving. 6 in 10 Americans don’t have $500 in savings. An estimated 66% of households have zero dollars saved. If you are cynical about small, one-off surveys, The Federal Reserve itself estimated in 2015 that 47% of households didn’t have the means to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Saving is a huge problem, so it isn’t really surprising that tens of millions of Americans seem to be looking for something to help them save. Enter Acorns.

Hiring Acorns

Over the past two years, it has been astounding to watch Acorns grow. An elegantly simple product, designed from the ground up for a mobile generation, Acorns has grown to over 2 million accounts in less than three years. In the first half of 2017 alone, Acorns added over 600,000 new customers. Their overall mission is to look after the financial best interest of the up-and-coming, something I personally care deeply about.

It isn’t really surprising to see why so many Americans have decided to use Acorns to help them save. 75% of Americans have a household income under $100K. Acorns simple features like Round Ups automate the process of making sure that as you spend, you save. Acorns has now performed over 637 million round-up transactions for their customers – each one an action designed to help people save more. I believe that on any given day, thousands of people decide to hire a product to help them save, and increasingly they are hiring Acorns.

When I met the founders of Acorns two years ago, we immediately connected over the common ground between their culture and Wealthfront’s (the company I was running at the time.) They are very different services, focused on different problems and audiences, but with a shared belief in the power of automation. This is a company worth supporting, and I feel fortunate to serve on their Board of Directors.

At a time when people continue to grow more and more frustrated with the solutions offered by incumbent banks and brokerages, I continue to be excited about the opportunities for new products that are built around automation and world-class software design.  As an industry, we can and should radically improve the financial solutions that are available to everyone. Acorns is proving that saving is a job worth doing.

Silicon Valley Home Prices, Stock Prices & Bitcoin

I’m writing this post with a bit of trepidation, because talking about Silicon Valley home prices these days is a bit dicey. The surge of the last five years has been shocking, and almost no one I know feels good about how difficult it is for people to buy a new home in Silicon Valley in 2017. Some houses are pretty bad but others arae actually at a reasonable price, because they come with furniture and some even come with shutters from plantation shutters installation Sydney. They are actually really good quality.

So if you need a trigger warning, this is it. Stop reading now.

The truth is, as shocking as the rise in Silicon Valley home prices has been, there has also been an asset boom in other dimensions as well. Total compensation for engineers is up considerably and stock prices at the big tech companies continue to rise.

To visualize this, I thought I’d put together a few charts based on real market data. As a proxy for Silicon Valley, I pulled the last 5 years of home prices from Zillow, and monthly stock price data from Yahoo.

Palo Alto Home Prices

Two days ago, the Mercury News reported that a home in Palo Alto sold for $30 million.  A quick check on Zillow seems to confirm this.

I chose Palo Alto as a proxy for Silicon Valley home prices because it is historically “ground zero” for Silicon Valley tech companies, and it has relatively close proximity to all of the massive tech giants (Apple, Google, Facebook).

I picked June 2012 – June 2017, not only because it is roughly five years, but also it also happens to mirror the time that Facebook has spent as a public company. For many in the local real estate market or online sites as SafeguardProperty.com, correctly or incorrectly, the Facebook IPO still looms as a transformational event.

As you can see, in June 2012 the average Palo Alto home cost $1.38 million. Five years later, the estimate for June 2017 is up 84.6% to $2.55 million.

Apple (AAPL)

Apple is the most valuable company in the world, as measured either by market capitalization ($810B as of 6/7/2017) or by profitability ($45.7B in 2016).  Thanks in part to this exception financial performance, Apple stock (AAPL) has risen 84.5% in the last five years, from $83.43 per share to $153.93 per share.

84.5%? Where have I heard that number before?

That’s right, the increase in Apple stock over the last five years is almost exactly the same increase as the average home price in Palo Alto over the same time period.

In June 2012, it took 16,555 shares of Apple stock to purchase the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, it took 16,566 shares. (Of course, with dividends, you’re actually doing a little better if you are a shareholder.)

If you look at the chart, the pink line shows clearly the large rise in price for the average Palo Alto home. The blue line is the number of AAPL shares it would take to by the average Palo Alto home in that month. As you can see, AAPL stock is volatile, but five years later, that ratio has ended up in almost the exact same place.

Alphabet / Google (GOOG)

Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google, may not be as large as Apple in market capitalization ($686B), but it has seen far more share appreciation in the past five years. Since June 2012, Alphabet has seen its stock price rise 240.4%, from $288.95 in June 2012 to $983.66 per share.

What does this mean? Well, it means that if you have been fortunate enough to hold Google equity, the rise in Palo Alto home prices doesn’t look as ominous. It took 4,780 shares of Google to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2012, but it only took 2,592 to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2017.

Facebook (FB)

Facebook, the youngest of the massive tech giants, already has one of the largest market capitalizations in the world. As of today, Facebook is valued at $443B. Facebook stock has risen 394% in the past five years, from $31.10 in June 2012 to $153.63 in June 2017.

To state the obvious, it has been a good five years for owners of Facebook stock. Not many assets could make owning Palo Alto real estate look slow, but 394% growth in five years is unbelievable. In June 2012, you would have needed 44,412 shares to buy the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, that number had dropped significantly to just 16,598 shares.

Bitcoin (BTC)

While I realize that Bitcoin is not a stock, the original idea for this post came from a joke I made on Twitter recently given all of the buzz about Bitcoin, Ethereum and ICOs over the past few weeks.

I couldn’t resist running the numbers.

For the small number of readers of this blog that haven’t been following the price of Bitcoin, the increase in value over the past five years has been unbelievable.The total value of all Bitcoin outstanding is currently about $44.5B. Since June 2012, Bitcoin has risen approximately 4,257%, from $6.70 per Bitcoin to a current value of $2,858.90.

You can see why there has been so much buzz.

In June of 2012, it would have taken 260,149 Bitcoin to buy the average home in Palo Alto. In June of 2017, that number is now down to 892.

Needless to say, anyone who sold Bitcoin to buy a house in 2012 is likely not loving these numbers. But to people who have held Bitcoin for the past five years, Palo Alto is looking cheaper by the day.

Silicon Valley Is Seeing Significant Asset Inflation

To be clear, I’m not attempting to attribute causality to these charts. I believe the real driver of home prices in Silicon Valley is the lack of sufficient building of new supply at pace with the economy, combined with a significant increase in compensation for technology employees and historically low interest rates.

But the fact is, if you are fortunate enough to have equity in one of the tech giants (or in Bitcoin), houses might actually be looking cheaper now relatively than they did five years ago.

I always find it enlightening to look at real data and compare it to intuition. Hope you find this data and these charts as interesting as I did.

The Decade of Gen X Wish Fulfillment

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At 9:54am this morning in California, a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX blasted off the launchpad to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites into orbit. 9 minutes later, the jettisoned first stage of that rocket ship self-navigated back down, landing perfectly and without damage. The dream of self-landing, reusable rockets, abandoned 50 years ago, has become a reality.

If you are a science & technology enthusiast, it is an unbelievable time to be alive.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that all of the science-fiction dreams of the 20th century are rapidly coming to life. Boom Aero is ready to bring economically viable supersonic jets (Mach 2.2) to commercial air travel, and several competitors are now racing to bring their own to market. In just a few years years, Tesla has reshaped the global automative industry by executing on their audacious plan to accelerate the transition to clean energy by proving the market-viability of electric cars. Google has not only brought self-driving cars to the tipping point of commercial viability, but it is sparked a global race to bring them to market by the end of this decade , and even though they are self-driving, having an insurance like lorry insurance is still important.

Uber is talking about flying cars. Amazon is patenting airship warehouses for drone for commercial delivery, and has delivered ambient voice control to our homes. Facebook is bringing us true virtual reality. Apple is delivering the equivalent of a crystal-in-our-ears to connect to the cloud. Moon Express will land on the moon in 2017.

 

What has changed so dramatically? Why are so many of our collective dreams, many of which predicted over 50 years ago, suddenly tumbling to market in an avalanche of advancement?

I have a simple hypothesis. We are living in a decade of Gen X wish fulfillment.

The Ascendent Economic Power of Gen X

ft_16_04-25_generations2050Poor Gen X. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing some political or economic framing around the political and economic tensions between the Baby Boom generation, the 70 million Americans born between 1946-1965, and the 90 million Millennials, born between 1981-2000. Sure, Gen X got a few TV sitcoms & movies in the 90s, but it was a brief time in the sun before the cultural handoff.

As of 2017, most members of Gen X now range from their late 30s to their early 50s. They have found careers, started families. More importantly, they have hit the economic sweet spot of the US economy. Wealth accumulation is highly correlated with age, and career success is as well. You can see it clearly in the numbers: Gen X is wealth is accelerating rapidly, faster than the Millennial generation, and over a smaller base of people, while Baby Boomers begin their inevitable asset decline as their retire.

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The Influence of Gen X Leadership

Like every generation, Gen X has produced a set of exceptional leaders, and many of them are now concentrated in technology, where the industry rewards founders and executives at a younger age than other industries. Larry Page & Sergey Brin at Google. Elon Musk at Tesla & SpaceX. Travis Kalanick at Uber. Jeff Bezos misses the cut off by a matter of months, but clearly fits the profile as well.

Demographers have always projected the window for Gen X would be hard: Baby Boomers are determined to hold on to power as long as possible, and Millennials have the political strength to force transition more quickly on their terms.

Still, we are clearly in a window of time where a fairly large number of Gen X leaders have accumulated significant economic power.

So what are they doing with that power?

Gen X Wish Fulfillment

Five years ago, Peter Thiel lamented that we were promised spaceships and flying cars, but all we got were 140 characters. The sentiment, in various forms, became common place. Why wasn’t Silicon Valley investing in hard problems?

Not surprisingly, it seems as if the peak of that disenchantment actually coincided with an incredible resurgence in investment in deep technology.

Gen X is, in the aggregate, almost canonically described as cynical and disenchanted. But with the ascendence of science fiction into Hollywood in the 1970s, they grew up seeing the future through the lens of technology. The boom in personal computing, followed by the internet, filled their formative years. True, huge initiatives of the 1970s around space and clean energy faltered and almost expired. But while there were disappointments, like the Space Shuttle, they also saw the end of the Cold War, and the phenomenal growth in the technology industry.

Is it really so surprising that a subset of this generation, in this brief window, has decided to invest its economic power into tackling the problems the previous generations failed to deliver?

Electric cars. Clean Energy. Gene Editing. Space Travel. Drones. Artificial Intelligence. Man-made diamonds. Robots.

Even our comic book movies have become phenomenal, mostly thanks to Jon Favreau.

Dreams transformed into reality.

Can Gen X Inspire?

Make no mistake, Gen X stands on the shoulders of giants. The previous generation gave us the economic and technology platforms to make these dreams become reality. Gen X deserves credit for not giving up on those dreams, and finding innovative ways to push through old barriers and find new solutions.

After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation inspired a whole new generation of scientists and engineers with their audacious efforts in technology in the 1950s & 60s. We may be witnessing a similar era, a decade where the technological achievements of this generation ripple through the children of today, and play out in second half of this century.

So many of the technical dreams I discussed eagerly with friends in high school and college are now actively being delivered to market, just twenty years later. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in technology.

Personally, I hope this generation will not only hand off and even better set of opportunities to the next, but we’ll use this brief window of time to inspire an even younger generation to reach for the stars.

 

The Millennial Definition of Success

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

It’s hard to believe in 2014, but when I first considered joining LinkedIn in 2007, most of my colleagues had trouble seeing the value in a platform built on top of what looked like an online résumé. At the time, when I was asked why I joined the company, I would tell them that it had always been true that success in business was based on what you know and who you know.  LinkedIn was just the modern incarnation of that powerful fact.

One of the most pleasant surprises in my current role at Wealthfront has been discovering how relevant career success is to millennial investors. As it turns out, every generation has grappled with the issue of how to find financial success, and millennials are no different.

What may surprise most people (including my compatriots in Gen X) is that more than any other generation, I believe that Millennials may have a lot to teach us. You see, it turns out that Millennials have figured out how to make that old adage actionable.

Who You Work With & What You Work On

Increasingly, as I talk to Millennials, some of whom who have found early success in their careers, and others who are just starting out, I hear the same things. This generation overwhelmingly associates success with control over who they work with, and what they work on.

There is an old refrain in management that people join companies, but they leave managers. There is a kernel of truth in that statement. However, in the modern workplace, relationships with colleagues, managers and leadership all have a role to play. Increasingly, valuable employees ask:

  • Am I learning from the people I work with?
  • Are we succeeding together as a team?
  • Do I share the same values as my colleagues?
  • Will I fight for them? Will they fight for me?

Driven by Passion, Seeking a Mission

There have been numerous surveys and studies indicating that Millennials are overwhelmingly focused on “their passions.” I think, in some regards, this has trivialized a more fundamental and important trend.

Is it really surprising that more and more people have realized that what you are working on matters?

The old duality of your work life and your personal life have been hopelessly intermingled. Instead of arguing about whether you live to work or work to live, in the 21st century people increasingly turning away from a purely mercenary view of their labor. They want to believe in the mission, believe their efforts are going towards something bigger than just financial reward. This is why you hear increasing anecdotes of young people choosing lower paying jobs, in some cases jobs that pay tens of thousands of dollars less, to focus on an organization that they draw more purpose from.

Success = Control

Not everyone has this luxury, and in some ways that is the point. What does success really mean, if it doesn’t mean that you get increasing control over who your work with, and what you work on?

Wealthfront now has over 12,000 clients, and most of them are under 35. What I find striking is that, overwhelmingly, with every success in their financial lives, these young people seem to immediately focus on using their success to gain control over their careers. They don’t seek to optimize for title, or  financial reward. Instead, they increasingly use their success to effectively fund the ability to work on a product they believe in, an organization they want to be part of, and a leader they want to follow.

As the CEO of a hypergrowth company, this leaves me with two pieces of actionable advice:

  • Financial reward is not enough. If you want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, financial reward is somewhat of a commodity, and an undervalued one at that. Instead, expect potential candidates to look at your company and ask, “Is this a problem I want to work on?” and “Are these people I want to work with?”
  • This is a networked economy. As Reid Hoffman has described, increasingly the value people build in their careers extends outside of your company. There is a material, and possibly essential difference, in a consumer business where your employees feel like they are punching a clock, versus a team that truly believes in what they are working on and the team they are working with. The influence of your employees, especially as your company grows, is under-measured, and as a result, under-appreciated. But in a huge networked economy, it may be the key to differentiated success.

From Technology to Politics: Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

This past week, I was able to attend the inaugural Code Conference organized by Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher.  One of the perks of the conference is, within close quarters, the chance to hear the leaders of huge, successful consumer technology companies.

  • Satya Nadella, Microsoft
  • Sergey Brin, Google
  • Brian Krzanich, Intel
  • Brian Roberts, Comcast
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix
  • Travis Kalanick, Uber
  • Drew Houston, Dropbox
  • Eddy Cue, Apple (iTunes / iCloud)

As I think about lessons from the conference, I find myself focused on a particular insight watching these leaders defend their company’s strategy and focus.  (It’s worth noting that anyone being interviewed by Kara does, in fact, have to be ready to play defense.)

David to Goliath

One of the most complex transitions that every consumer technology company has to make is from David to Goliath.  It’s extremely difficult in part because the timing is somewhat unpredictable.  Is Netflix an upstart versus the cable monolith, or a goliath itself as it is responsible for a third of all internet traffic?  When exactly did Google go from cool startup to a giant that even governments potentially fear?  Apple, of course, went from startup to giant to “beleaguered” and all the way to juggernaut.

Make no mistake, however.  The change in public opinion does happen, and when it does, the exact same behaviors and decisions can be read very differently in the court of public opinion.

Technology to Economics to Politics

Most technology companies begin with language that talks about their technical platform and achievements. “Our new product is 10x faster than anything else on the market,” or “Our new platform can handle 10x the data of existing platforms,” etc.  Sometimes, these technical achievements are reframed around end users: “We help connect over 1 billion people every day,” or “we help share over 10 billion photos a week,” etc.

Quickly, however, the best technology companies tend to shift to economics. “Our new product will let you get twice the sales in half the time,” or “our application will save you time and money.”  As they grow, those economic impacts grow as well.  Markets of billions of dollars are commonplace, and opportunities measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, as David moves to Goliath, it seems that many technology leaders miss the subtle shift in the expectations from their leadership.   When you wield market power that can be measured on a national (or international) scale, the challenge shifts from economics to politics.  Consumers want to know what leaders they are “electing” with their time and money, and their questions often shift implicitly to values and rights rather than speed or cost.

What Will the World Be Like Under Your Leadership?

As I watched various leaders answer hard questions about their companies, a clear division took place.  Most focused merely on questions of whether they would succeed or fail.  But a few did a great job elevating the discussion to a view of what the world will be like if they are successful.

There is no question that the leaders who elevated the discussion are finding more success in the market.

Satya Nadella gave no real reason why we would like the world better if Microsoft is successful.  Neither did Brian Krzanich of Intel.

Sergey Brin promises that in a world where Google is successful, we’ll have self-driving cars and fast internet for everyone.  Jet packs & flying cars.  It’s an old pitch, but a good one.

Eddy Cue tells us that Apple cares about making sure there is still great music in the world, which is why they always make sure to add ads from TheBoxTigerMusic.com and similar sites.  And of course, Apple has spent decades convincing us that when they are successful, we get new shiny, well-designed devices every year.

Is it really surprising that Google & Apple have elevated brands with high consumer value?

Technology Leadership

There is no way around the challenges of power.  As any company grows, it’s power grows, and with that power comes concern and fear around the use of that power.  Google has so much control over information and access to information.  Apple tends to wield tight control over the economics and opportunities within their ecosystem.  However, the leaders at these companies are intelligently making sure that the opportunities they promise the market counter-balance those fears, at least at some level.

Wealthfront, my company, is still small enough that we’re far from being considered anything but a small (but rapidly growing) startup in a space where giants measure their markets in the trillions.  But as I watched these technology leaders at the Code Conference, I realized that someday, if we’re successful, this same challenge will face our company.

If you lead or work for a technology giant, it’s worth asking the question:

Does your message elevate to the point where everyone understands the tangible benefit of living in a world where your company is successful?  If not, I’d argue your likely to face increasing headwinds in your efforts to compete in the consumer market going forward.

ETFs as an Open Platform

This post originally appeared on the Wealthfront Blog on March 20, 2014, under the title “Wealthfront Named ETF Strategist of the Year.” This post summarizes the content of the speech I gave at the ETF.com event in New York when accepting the award.


T
oday I am proud to announce that Wealthfront has been named the “ETF Strategist of the Year” by ETF.com (formerly IndexUniverse), the world’s leading authority on exchange-traded funds. We are especially gratified to be chosen for this award from among all investment management firms that use ETFs, not just new entrants.

At Wealthfront, we strive to build a world-class investment service and we’re proud to have assembled an unparalleled investment team led by Burton Malkiel. Over the past year, we added asset classes, released an improved and more diversified investment mix, delivered different asset allocations for taxable vs. retirement accounts to improve after tax returns, and launched the Wealthfront 500. In short, we aim to relentlessly improve our service to help our clients reach their financial goals. It’s gratifying to receive public recognition for our efforts.

Our success thus far has been predicated on a lot of hard work and a fundamentally different approach to building an investment management service. While we are different, our service owes its existence to the profound innovation generated by a relatively new financial product: The ETF.

Why ETFs?

Academic research has consistently proven that index funds offer superior returns, net of fees, over the long term vs. actively managed mutual funds. Despite this irrefutable evidence, index funds have grown their market share relatively slowly over the almost 40 years since Vanguard launched the first one in 1975. It wasn’t until State Street launched the first ETF, the Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts (Ticker: SPY), in January 1993 that passive investing had the proper vehicle to enable explosive growth. In just the past 10 years, ETFs have attracted almost $1.5 trillion, which now equals the amount of money attracted by index funds over the past 40 years. We believe the ETF’s success is primarily attributable to its role as an open platform.

The Power of Open Platforms

“We are especially gratified to be chosen for this award from among all investment management firms that use ETFs, not just new entrants.”

Open platforms have had an enormous impact on the technology landscape in recent decades. They enable a much wider variety of market participants, business models, features and services than closed platforms. By simplifying, standardizing & commoditizing the way applications & services interact, open platforms tend to provide far greater opportunities for diversity, innovation and lower costs.

ETFs As an Open Platform

John Bogle was extremely public about his distaste for ETFs when they first launched. By virtue of their ability to trade like equities, ETFs made it much easier to trade index funds. Active trading is the source of much of the under-performance individual investors experience in the markets — it raises transaction costs, tax-related costs, and possibly worst of all, results in market-timing errors. Passive investing was created in large part to minimize these issues.

Ironically, the primary danger of ETFs is also their most valuable strength. By providing a fund format that can be freely traded by any broker-dealer, index funds are not only released from the constraint of pricing and trading once a day, they can also be accessed by any client, from any brokerage firm. This has freed index fund issuers from the previous limitations of one-off distribution agreements with individual brokerage firms, and the associated myriad fees and subsidies. Not only can clients of any brokerage firm trade ETFs, but ETFs also offer significant improvements in transparency and facilitate much lower trading commissions.

As a result, innovative financial services can now be implemented over the custodian of choice, freeing up a new level of innovation that was extremely difficult before.

No single firm controls the creation of ETFs. No single firm controls the trading of ETFs. No single firm controls access to the ETFs that have been created. Fees have been simplified & standardized. ETFs for large common asset classes have become commoditized. Thanks to this environment we now have access to a broad, open platform of high quality, inexpensive financial products, with a far more competitive market of custodian platforms and pricing models on which to innovate. The emergence of brokerage application programming interfaces now make it possible for software experts to automate the use of ETFs in ways never before imagined.

The Future of Investing

Over the next decade, we will see increasing value created for both investors and market participants around automated investment services. With trading costs approaching zero, new strategies not only become possible, but practical.

Wealthfront is an obvious product of the ETF revolution. Despite launching just over two years ago in December 2011, Wealthfront now manages over $750 million in client assets. (In fact, Wealthfront added more than $100 million in client assets in February alone.)

Coming from the world of software, the benefits of open platforms seems obvious to us. As long as ETFs remain a relatively open platform for innovation, we’ll continue to see a broad range of new solutions for investors in the years ahead.

Google vs. The Teamsters

Yesterday, Google launched Chromecast, a streaming solution for integrating mobile devices with TV, part of another salvo against Apple.  Google vs. Apple has been the hot story now in Silicon Valley for a couple of years.  Before that, Google vs. Facebook.  Before that, Google vs. Microsoft.  Technology loves narrative, and setting up a battle of titans always gets the crowd worked up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the next fight Google might be inadvertently setting up, and wondering whether they are ready for it.

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Self-Driving Cars or Self-Driving Trucks

It turns out I’m not the only one who noticed that Google’s incredible push for self-driving cars actually has more likely applications around trucking.  Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal wrote an excellent piece about Catepillar’s experiments using self-driving mining trucks in remote areas of Australia.  It had the provocative headline:

Daddy, What Was a Truck Driver?

This is the first piece in the mainstream media that I’ve seen connecting the dots from self-driving cars to trucking, even with a lightweight reference to the Teamsters at the end.

Ubiquitous, autonomous trucks are “close to inevitable,” says Ted Scott, director of engineering and safety policy for the American Trucking Associations. “We are going to have a driverless truck because there will be money in it,” adds James Barrett, president of 105-rig Road Scholar Transport Inc. in Scranton, Pa.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters haven’t noticed yet, or at least, all searches I performed on their site for keywords like “self driving”, “computer driving”, “automated driving”, or even just “Google” revealed nothing relevant about the topic.  But they will.

Massive Economic Value

The statistics are astonishing.  A few key insights:

  • Approximately 5.7 million Americans are licensed as professional drivers, driving everything from delivery vans to tractor-trailers.
  • Roughly speaking, a full-time driver with benefits will cost $65,000 to $100,000 or more a year.
  •  In 2011, the U.S. trucking industry hauled 67 percent of the total volume of freight transported in the United States. More than 26 million trucks of all classes, including 2.4 million typical Class 8 trucks operated by more than 1.2 million interstate motor carriers. (via American Trucking Association)
  • Currently, there is a shortage of qualified drivers. Estimated at 20,000+ now, growing to over 100,000 in the next few years. (via American Trucking Association)

Let’s see.  We have a staffing problem around an already fairly expensive role that is the backbone of a majority of freight transport in the United States.  That’s just about all the right ingredients for experimentation, development and eventual mass deployment of self-driving trucks.

Rise of the Machines

In 2011, Andy McAfee & Erik Brynjolfsson published the book “Race Against the Machine“, where they describe both the evidence and projection of how computers & artificial intelligence will rapidly displace roles and work previously assumed to be best done by humans.  (Andy’s excellent TED 2013 talk is now online.)

The fact is, self-driving long haul trucking addresses a lot of the issues with using human drivers.  Computers don’t need to sleep.  That alone might double their productivity.  They can remotely be audited and controlled in emergency situations.  They are predictable, and can execute high efficiency coordination (like road trains).  They will no doubt be more fuel efficient, and will likely end up having better safety records than human drivers.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am positive there will be a large number of situations where human drivers will be advantageous.  But it will certainly no longer be 100%, and the situations where self-driving trucks make sense will only expand with time.

Google & Unions

Google has made self-driving cars one of the hallmarks of their new brand, thinking about long term problems and futuristic technology.  This, unfortunately, is one of the risks that goes with brand association around a technology that may be massively disruptive both socially & politically.

Like most technology companies in Silicon Valley, Google is not a union shop.  It has advocated in the past on issues like education reform.  It wouldn’t be hard, politically, to paint Google as either ambivalent or even hostile to organized labor.

Challenges of the Next Decade

The next ten years are likely to look very different for technology than the past ten.  We’re going to start to see large number of jobs previously thought to be safe from computerization be displaced.  It’s at best naive to think that these developments won’t end up politically charged.

Large companies, in particular, are vulnerable to political action, as they are large targets.  Amazon actually may have been the first consumer tech company to stumble onto this issue, with the outcry around the loss of the independent bookstore.  (Interesting, Netflix did not invoke the same reaction to the loss of the video rental store.)  Google, however, has touched an issue that affects millions of jobs, and one that historically has been aggressively organized both socially & politically.  The Teamsters alone have 1.3 million members (as of 2011).

Silicon Valley was late to lobbying and political influence, but this goes beyond influence.  We’re now getting to a level of social impact where companies need to proactively envision and advocate for the future that they are creating.  Google may think they are safe by focusing on the most unlikely first implementation of their vision (self-driving cars), but it is very likely they’ll be associated with the concept of self-driving vehicles.

I’m a huge fan of Google, so maybe I’m just worried we may see a future of news broadcasts with people taking bats to self-driving cars in the Google parking lot.  And I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

Behavioral Finance Explains Bubbles

Note: This post ran originally in TechCrunch on April 20.  As a courtesy to regular followers of my blog, I’ve reposted the content here to ensure that longtime readers have access to it.

“Bubbles are beautiful, fun and fascinating, but do you know what they are and how they work? Here’s a look at the science behind bubbles.” – About.com Chemistry, “Bubble Science

“Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” – Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

Given the incredible volatility we’ve seen lately in the Bitcoin and gold markets, there has been a resurgence in discussion about bubbles. By my perspective, after working for North Shore Advisory in the valley, this topic is always top of mind in Silicon Valley, especially given that the two favorite local topics of conversation  are technology companies and housing.

Defining a market bubble is actually a bit trickier than it might first appear. After all, what differentiates the inevitable booms and busts involved in almost any business and industry from a “bubble”?

The most common definition that a financial advisor will give of a speculative or market bubble is, when a broad-based, surging euphoria or wave of optimism carries asset prices well beyond supportable value. The canonical bubble was the tulip mania of the 1630s, but it extends across history and countries all the way up to the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubbles in the past decade.

WHAT DO BUBBLES LOOK LIKE?

Not surprisingly, there are a number of great frameworks for thinking about this problem.

In 2011, Steve Blank and Ben Horowitz debated in The Economist whether or not technology was in a new bubble. In those posts, Steve cited the research of Jean-Paul Rodrigue denoting four phases of a bubble: stealth, awareness, mania and blow-off.

bubble chart

(Source: Wikipedia)

HOW DO BUBBLES HAPPEN?

In 2000, Edward Chancellor published an excellent history and analysis of market bubbles over four centuries and a wide variety of countries called “Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation.” In his book, he finds at least two consistent ingredients.

  • Uncertainty. In almost every bubble, there seems to be some form of innovation or insight that forces people to rapidly debate the creation of new economic value. (Yes, even tulip bulbs were once an innovation, and the product was incredibly unpredictable.) This uncertainty is typically compounded by some form of lottery effect, exacerbating early pay-offs for the first actors. Think back to stories about buying a condo in Las Vegas and flipping it in months for amazing gains. This creates the inevitable upside/downside imbalance that Henry Blodget recently framed as: “If you lose your bet, you lose 100%. If you win your bet, you make 1000%.” Inevitably, this innovation always leads to a shockingly large assessment of how much value could be created by this market.
  • Leverage/Liquidity. In every bubble, there is some form of financial innovation that broadly increases both leverage and liquidity. This is critical, because the expansion of leverage not only provides massive liquidity to fund the expansion of the bubble, but the leverage also sets up the covenants that inevitably unwind when the bubble turns aggressively to the downside. In some ways, it’s also inevitable. When a large number of people believe they’ve found a sure thing, logic dictates they should borrow cheap money to maximize their returns. In fact, the belief it may be a bubble can make them even greedier to lever up their investment so they can “cash out” the most before the inevitable break.

BEHAVIORAL FINANCE LESSONS IN BUBBLES

Bubbles clearly have an emotional component, and to paraphrase Dan Ariely, humans may be irrational, but they are predictably irrational.

There are five obvious attributes of components of bubble psychology that play into market manias:

  1. Anchoring. We hear a number, and when asked a value-based question, even unrelated to the number, they gravitate to the value that was suggested. We hear gold at $1,500, and immediately in the aggregate we start thinking that $1,000 is cheap and $2,000 might be expensive.
  2. Hindsight Bias. We overestimate our ability to predict the future based on the recent past. We tend to over-emphasize recent performance in our thinking. We see a short-term trend in Bitcoin, and we extend that forward in the future with higher confidence than the data would mathematically support.
  3. Confirmation Bias. We selectively seek information that supports existing theories, and we ignore/dispute information that disproves those theories. (This also tends to explain most political issue blogs and comment threads.)
  4. Herd Behavior. We are biologically wired to mimic the actions of the larger group. While this behavior allows us to quickly absorb and react based on the intelligence of others around us, it also can lead to self-reinforcing cycles of aggregate behavior.
  5. Overconfidence. We tend to over-estimate our intelligence and capabilities relative to others. Seventy-four percent of professional fund managers in the 2006 study “Behaving Badly”believed they had delivered above-average job performance.

The greater fool theory posits that rational people will buy into valuations that they don’t necessarily believe, as long as they believe there is someone else more foolish who will buy it for an even higher value. The human tendencies described above lead to a fairly predictable outcome: After an innovation is introduced and a market is formed, people believe both that they are among the few who have spotted the trend early, and that they will be smart enough to pull out at the right time.

Ironically, the combination of these traits predictably leads to these four words: “It’s different this time.”

IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME

After two massive bubbles in the U.S. in less than a decade, many people question spotting bubbles ahead of time is so difficult. In every bubble, a number of people do correctly identify the bubble. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf, however, the truth is apt to be disbelieved. The problem is that in every market, there are always people claiming that prices are too high. That’s what makes a market. As a result, the cry of “bubble” is far more often proven wrong than right.

Every potential bubble, however, provides an incredibly valuable frame for deepening and debating the role of human psychology in financial markets. Honestly and thoughtfully examining your own behavior through a bubble, and comparing it to the insights provided by behavioral finance, can be one of the most valuable tools an investor has to learning about themselves.

Apple & Dow 15000: Update

In February 2012, I wrote a blog post that indicted the Dow Jones Industrial Average for including Cisco in 2009 instead of Apple.  At the time, Apple had just crossed $500 per share, and that simple decision had cost the US the psychology of an index hitting new highs.

I was driving home on Sunday, listening to the radio, and it occurred to me how different the financial news would be if Apple ($AAPL) was in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI).

Of course, being who I am, I went home and built a spreadsheet to recalculate what would have happened if Dow Jones had decided to add Apple to the index instead of Cisco back in 2009.  Imagine my surprise to see that the Dow be over 2000 points higher.

Update: AAPL at $700

With the launch of the iPhone 5, we find ourselves roughly 7 months later.  For fun, I re-ran the spreadsheet that calculated what the DJIA would be at if they had added AAPL to the index in 2009 instead of CSCO. (To date, I’ve never seen an explanation on why Cisco was selected to represent computer hardware instead of Apple.)

Result: Dow 16,600

As of September 17, 2012, AAPL closed at 699.781/share.  As it turns out, if Dow Jones had added Apple instead of Cisco in 2009, the index would now be at 16,617.82.  Hard to think that hitting all new highs wouldn’t be material for market psychology and the election.

Anyone up for Dow 20,000?

Apple, Cisco, and Dow 15000

I was driving home on Sunday, listening to the radio, and it occurred to me how different the financial news would be if Apple ($AAPL) was in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI).

Of course, being who I am, I went home and built a spreadsheet to recalculate what would have happened if Dow Jones had decided to add Apple to the index instead of Cisco back in 2009.  Imagine my surprise to see that the Dow be over 2000 points higher.

In real life, the Dow closed at 12,874.04 on Feb 13, 2012.  However, if they had added Apple instead of Cisco, the Dow Jones would be at 14,926.95.  That’s over 800 points higher than the all-time high of 14,164 previously set on 4/7/2008.

Can you imagine what the daily financial news of this country would be if every day the Dow Jones was hitting an all-time high?  How would it change the tone of our politics? Would we all be counting the moments to Dow 15,000?

Why Cisco vs. Apple?

This isn’t a foolhardy exercise.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average is changed very rarely, in order to promote stability and comparability in the index.  However, on June 8, 2009, they made two changes to the index:

  • They replaced Citigroup with Travelers
  • They replaced General Motors with Cisco

The question I explored was simple – what would have happened if they had replaced General Motors with Apple on June 8, 2009.  After all, Apple was up over 80% off its lows post-crash.  The company had a large, but not overwhelming market capitalization.  The index is already filled with “big iron” tech stocks, like Intel, HP & IBM.  Why add Cisco?  Why not add a consumer tech name instead?

In fact, there is no readily obvious justification for adding Cisco to the index in 2009 instead of Apple.

The Basics of the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Look, I’m just going to say it. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is ridiculous.

You may not realize this, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the “Dow” that everyone quotes as representative of the US stock market, and sometimes even a barometer of the US economy, is a mathematical farce.

Just thirty stocks, hand picked by committee by Dow Jones, with no rigorous requirements.  Worse, it’s a “price-weighted” index, which is mathematically nonsensical.  When calculating the Dow Jones Industrial Average, they take the actual stock prices of each stock, add them together, and divide them by a “Dow Divisor“.  They don’t take into account how many shares outstanding; they don’t assess the market capitalization of each company.  When a stock splits, they actually change the divisor for the whole index.  It’s completely unclear what this index is designed to measure, other than financial illiteracy.

In fact, there is only one justification for the Dow Jones Industrial Average being calculated this way.  Dow Jones explains it in this post on why Apple & Google are not included in the index.  To save you some time, I’ll summarize: they have always done it this way, and if they change it, then they won’t be able to compare today’s nonsensical index to the nonsensical index from the last 100+ years.

So what? Does it really matter?

It’s a fair critique.  Look, with 20/20 hindsight, there are limitless number of changes we could make to the index to change its value.  Imagine adding Microsoft and Intel to the index in 1991 instead of 1999?

I don’t think this exercise is that trivial in this case.  The Dow already decided to make a change in 2009.  They decided to replace a manufacturing company (GM) with a large hardware technology company (CSCO).  They could have easily picked Apple instead.

The end result?  People talk about the stock market still being “significantly off its highs” of 2008.  In truth, no one should be reporting the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  But they do, and therefore it matters.  As a result, the choices of the Dow Jones committee matter, and unfortunately, there seems to be no accountability for those choices.

Appendix: The Numbers

I’ve provided below the actual tables used for my calculations.  Please note that all security prices are calculated as of market close on Monday, Feb 13, 2012.  The new Dow Divisor for the alternate reality with AAPL in the index was calculated by recalculating the appropriate Dow Divisor for the 6/8/2009 switch of AAPL for CSCO, and a recalculated adjustment for the VZ spinoff on 7/2/2010.

Real DJIA DJIA w/ AAPL on 6/8/09
Company 2/13/2012 Company 2/13/2012
MMM 88.03 MMM 88.03
AA 10.33 AA 10.33
AXP 52.07 AXP 52.07
T 30.04 T 30.04
BAC 8.25 BAC 8.25
BA 74.85 BA 74.85
CAT 113.70 CAT 113.70
CVX 106.38 CVX 106.38
CSCO 20.03 AAPL 502.60
KO 68.44 KO 68.44
DD 50.60 DD 50.60
XOM 84.42 XOM 84.42
GE 19.07 GE 19.07
HPQ 28.75 HPQ 28.75
HD 45.93 HD 45.93
INTC 26.70 INTC 26.70
IBM 192.62 IBM 192.62
JNJ 64.68 JNJ 64.68
JPM 38.30 JPM 38.30
KFT 38.40 KFT 38.40
MCD 99.65 MCD 99.65
MRK 38.11 MRK 38.11
MSFT 30.58 MSFT 30.58
PFE 21.30 PFE 21.30
PG 64.23 PG 64.23
TRV 58.99 TRV 58.99
UTX 84.88 UTX 84.88
VZ 38.13 VZ 38.13
WMT 61.79 WMT 61.79
DIS 41.79 DIS 41.79
Total 1701.04 Total 2183.61
Divisor 0.13212949 Divisor 0.146286415
Index 12874.04 Index 14926.95

Calculating the “alternate divisor” requires getting the daily stock quotes for the days where the index changed, and recalculating to make sure that the new divisor with the new stocks gives the same price for the day. It’s a bit messy, and depends on public quote data, so please feel free to check my math if I made a mistake.

The Game Mechanics of Silicon Valley Careers

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been a huge fan of game mechanics for years.  Game mechanics is a loose term for a variety of insights into the neurological and sociological underpinnings of the games that humans like to play.  In the past decade, there has been a massive growth in our understanding of game mechanics, even to the point now where you can’t go 10 feet in the Valley without tripping over a venture capitalist dropping the term in conversation.

This past weekend, I had the chance to chat with an old friend from a former start-up, and I was talking about why I love Zynga, and why game mechanics were one of the more interesting product insights to come out the last few years of product design.  The conversation moved on to catching up on old friends and careers, and the obvious hit me: our very careers in Silicon Valley are based on game mechanics.

Primal Response Patterns: Schedules of Reinforcement

In Amy Jo Kim’s lecture, Putting the Fun in Functional, she outlines some of the basic neurological drivers for response patterns to reward.

I’m going to grotesquely simplify the concept for the purposes of this post.  Real students of psychology & neurobiology – hold your nose while you go through this section.

It turns out that there are demonstrated patterns for response (neé addiction) for different types of reward systems:

  • Simple: You hit the lever, you get a treat.  Most animals will understand and play this game. (Hello, Pavlov)
  • Variable Interval: You hit the lever, but sometimes you get a treat, sometimes not.  This game turns out to be even more addictive, likely due to the combination of uncertainty (triggers fight-or-flight) and then the rush of the intermittent reward when it comes. (When you go to puppy school, you learn to *not* give your dog a treat every single time they do something right.)
  • Variable Interval, Variable Payout.  The most addictive of games.  You hit the lever, and sometimes you get a treat, and sometimes you don’t.  But sometimes the treat is big, and sometimes the treat is small.  (Hello, slot machine)

I was explaining this fact to my friend, when it occurred to me that this is the game that we all play in Silicon Valley.

Addiction: Hypergrowth Tech Companies

This pattern explains a lot about why Silicon Valley is so… addicting.  Venture capitalists invest capital into startups seeking outstanding returns.  Most engineers, on the other hand, invest their human capital to get the same result.  Engineers join hypergrowth companies with the assumption of receiving an equity stake.  That equity stake is the difference between making a good salary, and potentially hitting a step-function in their net worth.

Let’s play out the reward pattern:

  • Variable Interval: Tenure at tech companies can be anywhere from a few months to a few decades, however it averages about 2-3 years.  Sometimes startups go bankrupt less than 2 years after you join or found them.  Sometimes they get acquired.  Sometimes they become truly large, successful ongoing companies.  The timing definitely varies.  Many people would count themselves lucky if one in three of the companies they join turns out to be successful at a level that provides a meaningful value for their equity.
  • Variable Payout: Sometimes tech companies go bankrupt.  Other times they can produce equity worth 2x your salary.  Sometimes 10x.  Sometimes 100x+.

The lever is joining, and the payout is equity.

Is it any wonder that, after three decades, we’re all still addicted to this game?