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Investing, Markets

Tech Bubble 2.0 Is Bursting

Rumors of the demise of tech bubble 2.0 started percolating last year. Q1 of this year proved it wasn’t an exaggeration. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that funding for startups fell 25% during that period, the largest decline since tech bubble 1.0 burst.

For many of the hottest startup communities outside of Silicon Valley it was even worse. According to Quartz, Seattle saw funding fall 28.5%. Denver-Boulder saw a 40.93% decline and in Austin it was worse still. The hottest of hot spots was down 63.5% in Q1.

Part of the problem is startups just got way too overvalued, as celebrity VC Peter Thiel recently told Bloomberg. And a rising number of failures (as a product of sky-high burn rates and silly business models) has changed investor risk appetites in the space. VC Bill Gurley recently wrote:

In late 2015, many public technology companies saw a significant retrenchment in their share prices primarily as a result of a reduction in valuation multiples. A high performing, high-growth SAAS company that may have been worth 10 or more times revenue was suddenly worth 4-7 times revenue. The same thing happened to many Internet stocks. These broad-based multiple contractions have an immediate impact on what investors are willing to pay for the more mature private companies.

Late 2015 also brought the arrival of “mutual fund markdowns.” Many Unicorns had taken private fundraising dollars from mutual funds. These mutual funds “mark-to-market” every day, and fund managers are compensated periodically on this performance. As a result, most firms have independent internal groups that periodically analyze valuations. With the public markets down, these groups began writing down Unicorn valuations. Once more, the fantasy began to come apart. The last round is not the permanent price, and being private does not mean you get a free pass on scrutiny.

At the same time, we also started to see an increase in startup failure. In addition to high profile companies like Fab.com, Quirky, Homejoy, and Secret, numerous other VC-backed companies began to shut their doors.

So valuations got too high, more and more companies have failed to live up to the hype and now valuations are falling. It’s the classic boom-bust cycle at work that should be all too familiar to anyone whose been around longer than just the past boom (aka, “half”) cycle.

Strangely, however, amid falling valuations and a significant decline in funding, Venture Capital firms are doing an amazing amount of fundraising themselves. In fact, during the massive decline in funding in Q1, VC’s did a record amount of fundraising – so where’s the disconnect? The WSJ reports today:

Mr. Rabois says the record fundraising actually is a bearish sign. Winter is coming, he says, and venture capitalists know it. “One of the reasons people are raising all these funds isn’t because they want the money, but because they believe their own metrics are inflated at the moment, and they want to get that money before companies in their portfolios start crashing and burning,” he said.

So it’s just a last grab for easy cash before it all dries up, or, ‘crashes and burns.’ VC’s clearly see the writing on the wall. Startups see it, too. They’re starting to cut back in an attempt to avoid getting caught in the rising tide of startup failures. This is where those incredible burn rates meet falling liquidity and the balance sheet fires really start to rage. Gurley again:

Layoffs have also become more prevalent. Mixpanel, Jawbone, Twitter, HotelTonight and many others made the tough decision to reduce headcount in an attempt to lower expenses (and presumably burn rate). Many modern entrepreneurs have limited exposure to the notion of failure or layoffs because it has been so long since these things were common in the industry.

The point Gurley makes is an important one: Many founders today weren’t around for the bursting of tech bubble 1.0 and so don’t understand how quickly or painfully it can all go south. And they now face a new challenge they can’t have imagined even six months ago: falling employee morale. Startup employee, Anna Weiner writes:

Our culture has been splintering for months. Members of our core team have been shepherded into conference rooms by top-level executives who proceed to question our loyalty. They’ve noticed the sea change. They’ve noticed we don’t seem as invested. We don’t stick around for in-office happy hour anymore; we don’t take new hires out for lunch on the company card. We’re not hitting our KPIs, we’re not serious about the OKRs. People keep using the word paranoid. Our primary investor has funded a direct competitor. This is what investors do, but it feels personal: Daddy still loves us, but he loves us less.

We get ourselves out of the office and into a bar. We have more in common than our grievances, but we kick off by speculating about our job security, complaining about the bureaucratic double-downs, casting blame for blocks and poor product decisions. We talk about our IPO like it’s the deus ex machina coming down from on high to save us — like it’s an inevitability, like our stock options will lift us out of our existential dread, away from the collective anxiety that ebbs and flows. Realistically, we know it could be years before an IPO, if there’s an IPO at all; we know in our hearts that money is a salve, not a solution.

With falling valuations, reduced funding, the IPO market shut down, and growing layoffs as the easiest tool to address problematic burn rates, just this sort of morale challenge must be growing across the startup universe. And once the bust reaches the employee level the confidence game is up.

The gold rush is over. As Weiner writes, “ours is a ‘pickax-during-the-gold-rush’ product, the kind venture capitalists love to get behind.” And boy did VC’s get behind these sorts of companies. Just take a look at the list of the most highly-valued startups and think about how many of these business models have leveraged the growth in mobile/apps/smart-phones:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 8.43.54 AMChart via CBInsights

Now think about how many highly-valued startups not on this list were also built around the mobile boom. This was the startup gold rush of the past decade that was kicked off when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone back in June of 2007. And VC’s know all about getting rich during the gold rush. As my friend Jeff recently wrote:

How do you get rich in a gold rush? Not by looking for gold – by selling maps and shovels. You’ll make an absolute fortune selling maps and shovels in a gold rush. But your growth rates and business might not be sustainable in the long term.

VC’s certainly made an ungodly fortune during the recent boom. Now that it’s ending we’ll soon find out just how how sustainable these “pickax-during-the-gold-rush” business models really are. And considering the fact that the FANGs and their ilk have sold as many maps and shovels as anyone, it will probably be a public market story as much as a private market one.

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Investing, Markets

This Indicator Is Still Flashing A Bear Market Warning

The NYSE just released the margin debt numbers for March and, considering the rally in stocks we’ve seen, it wasn’t much of an uptick. In fact, the nominal level of margin debt remains well below its 12-month average.

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The 12-month rate of change, which is pretty tightly correlated with stocks’ same rate of change, is also still negative.

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Now this sort of a downtrend in margin debt doesn’t always lead to a bear market but let’s put it into some context. Not only is margin debt now in a downtrend, it’s coming off of the highest absolute (top chart) and relative (chart below) highs ever seen.

MDGDP

And if you think if margin debt as a simple indicator of potential supply and demand for stocks (when borrowing is low there is great potential demand and vice versa), this should have you worried about another bear market. And the statistics bear this out.

When margin debt has reached relative extremes it has been a very good indicator of, in the words of Warren Buffett, broad investor, “fear and greed.” To demonstrate, when financial speculation relative to the overall size of the economy has been very low, forward 3-year returns have been very good and vice versa.

Forecast

What’s important to note today is that margin debt is now in a downtrend and its massive relative size suggests returns over the next 3 years will be very poor. In other words, based solely on this one measure, buying stocks today presents investors with a great deal of risk for very little potential reward.

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Posts

What Hath The Fed Wrought?

It’s Fed week once again and once again the group has decided to leave interest rates unchanged. This, despite the fact that, with core inflation running at just over 2% and jobless claims at their best levels of my lifetime, they have clearly met their dual mandate. In fact, they met these targets a long time ago. By any measure, the jobs market is very strong and, with core inflation rising, it’s hard to argue deflation poses any real threat whatsoever.

If their goals have been met, why has the Fed been so hesitant to abandon this emergency interest rate policy? I think it’s very simple. They are worried about spooking the markets and thus damaging the wealth effect they so aggressively and explicitly targeted over the past seven years.

The bigger (rhetorical) question, however, is this: In maintaining emergency policy for so long, what hath the Fed wrought? It only took a couple of years of emergency-level interest rates to inflate the housing bubble. After seven years (and counting) of emergency-level rates what hidden (or not so hidden) risks or mispricings driven by malinvestment have accrued this time?

Related:

The Greatest Money Manager Alive Attributes The Majority His Success To Just This One Thing

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Posts

Fighting Bullish Spin With Data And Analysis

I came across a blog post today over at Dash of Insight. Normally, I enjoy checking in with Jeff’s thoughts here and there but today I have to take issue with something.

In “expensive misconceptions,” he likens a chart of John Hussman’s with things like the Baltic Dry Index and the Hindenburg Omen ultimately concluding these are all nothing more than opportunities for investors to indulge in confirmation bias.

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Specifically, he takes issue with the chart in question (above) by writing:

“I have a simple question for you: Could you step up in front of a group of people and explain this chart? If not, why do you believe it? A smart and influential guy presents something that you cannot really evaluate. Why is this a sound basis for your decisions?”

In other words, because “you” (read “he”?) can’t explain the chart, it is simply not valid. To be clear, Jeff makes no attempt to even understand the chart or the concept behind it let alone pose any counterargument to it at all, at least not anywhere in this post.

So let me help him out here by explaining it. This chart is a visual representation of Warren Buffett’s famous words: “The price you pay determines your rate of return.” In fact, this chart is a very close cousin to what Buffett has called, “the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment.” That is, the total value of the equity market in relation to GNP, essentially a price-to-sales ratio for the broad stock market.

It’s very simple, actually. When investors have paid high prices in the past, as indicated by the total value of the country’s equities relative to the country’s economic output (including foreign sales generated by domestic companies – one popular critique of the Buffett Yardstick is that it doesn’t account for this), they have received meager and even negative returns over long periods of time, as indicated by the forward 12-year returns on the chart. Conversely, when investors have been able to buy stocks at relatively low valuations, their returns have been very good over the following decade or more.

Furthermore, this negative correlation between valuations and forward returns is statistically very high (greater than -90%) and backed by 65 years worth of data. The Buffett Yardstick, as Hussman demonstrates, has been nearly as good as his own version at forecasting forward returns and is backed by roughly 90 years worth of data. Both charts, and the data and reasoning behind them, clearly demonstrate and validate the concept that, “the price you pay determines your rate of return.”

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The only “expensive misconception” here is failing to understand this iron “law of valuation,” as Hussman calls it. Investors who are willing to believe they should reasonably expect wonderful returns regardless of the price they pay will inevitably be introduced to this law over the course of their investing lifetime, as countless others have been in the past. Just ask anyone who bought stocks in 1929, 1937 or 2000, the last three times stocks reached current valuation extremes, according to the Buffett Yardstick.

Finally, I find it terrifically ironic, and perhaps enlightening from a sentiment standpoint, to see Jeff end the piece with this:

“The insightful investor fights spin with data and analysis.”

Because, at least in this instance, it appears he’s fighting robust data and analysis with nothing but spin. In fact, Jeff may be indulging in a bit of confirmation bias of his own:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. -Wikipedia

“Less consideration to alternative possibilities”? How about none at all?

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Investing, Trading

Trader Mentality Interview

I recently did an interview with Trader Mentality in which I discuss my personal investing discipline and the major influences who helped me develop and continue to shape it. I also share some advice for those new to the markets:

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