Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Chihuahua disruption.

I met a great young doctor tonight, he 'scoped my throat because I thought I was going to die. My hypochondria, as it turned out, had merely toyed with 'fish bone graze + general sore throat' and arrived at 'red herring'. Well, actually that was his joke. My joke, after he had mentioned the soaring value of his Bitcoin position, was to paraphrase and throw back at him the old vegan joke.

A- How do you know when someone is long of Bitcoin.
Q- Because they always f’ing tell you..

He is long Bitcoin and believes that the price of bitcoin will revolutionise the world. I asked if he knew a surgeon called Mr. Ponzi. He didn’t. The price of Bitcoin can be anywhere you want as the value of a chequebook is not the value of the number written on it.

So I'm launching a new index to go with the other indices out there. To the DPI ( Dinner Party Index) and TDI (Taxi Driver Index) I add the DrI - the Dr. Index. (A Baltic DrI perhaps? Maybe, but not after Brexit).  The DrI is flashing red on Bitcoin. Mind you, if you are a young doctor and wish to go long of crime then buying bitcoin is probably safer than following Dr. Crippin’s investment advice. Or perhaps my new friend is counting on the NHS becoming a Bitcoin-based service, where you use virtual money to pay for virtual care. Nononono .. a cheap pun, NHS care is unbelievably brilliant when you get it.

But the young are great believers in new disruptive technology and scorn the types of company I had just visited on my way to having a probe put up my nose. I had visited our local Audi dealership to pick a car up from servicing. I usually take my cars to Ken. He is brilliant and for a one man business in an old barn, it's amazing the amount of tech kit he has to cope with all the makes he deals with. Ken charges me £40/hour. Audi, with their one brand kit, charge me somewhat more than £150/hour.

So why did I go to Audi? Because they have devised a new form of restrictive practice. The service logbook is now online with only Audi or Audi recognised (read ‘paying Audi’) entities allowed access to make entries. So to get my electronic service stamp I paid the entry price for a service and experienced the equivalent of the Salvation Army headquarters in the City of London. The similarity? Hugely expensive expanses of chrome and glass sitting on prime real estate, funded by money that shouldn’t be going to purchasing and running glitzy premises, instead, being used to give charity to the poor or to provide spannering services at prices somewhat lower than legal fees.

But Ken hasn't lost out completely, I had an email from Audi near the end of their process. They had a worker go around the car with a video camera and then emailed me the resulting film together with an electronic Audi version of Amazon - an electronic shopping list of all the things they recommended I have done, ready to be clicked and authorised. The design of the site was clever in the way it replicated the easy, one-click "Jeez did I really mean to buy that” sites. They even had a picture of my car in the middle for that ‘look at your poor car, all alone in the garage, if it were a kitten you’d spend anything to make it better now wouldn’t you?’ pressure. I didn’t get much further than the £84 for new wiper blades and £60 for a bottle of brake fluid to be added because, if my car were a kitten, it would have a £100 self-insurance stop-loss on its head when it came to its longevity. Instead I 'cut n pasted' the list to Ken and had it booked in with him for the extras.

So what is going on here? Ken is the friendly man I trust, he gets the job done efficiently and he is a quarter of the price - yet he is not disrupting Audi. Far from it. Audi has created barriers to entry that in the financial world would be considered monopolistic and in Silicon Valley, would have seen Microsoft have to unbundle its web browsers even faster. I have to deal with Audi because of protectionism and I loathe them for it, even if they did give me a biscuit with my coffee as I waited the quarter of an hour to be seen by a service rep.

Disruption? I'm beginning to think that the branding fad of disruption is at the same point internet stocks were in 1999. Yes, it (new paradigm) sounds great but the soundbite is so far ahead of the reality you need the Hubble space telescope to see it. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are not an example of how successful disruption is but, instead, what a failure it is. Who is now able to disrupt any of them? The plethora of primary coloured adverts (with lots of circles, circles are so inclusive) for disruptive new ideas thought out in a land of ideals are not so much world changing, but more like chihuahuas yapping at the heels of the behemoths. One might get lucky and land a turd on Mr. Behomoth's shoe but most are likely to get kickstarted with a swift back heel into the long grass yelping or get picked up but then quietly taken around the back of the woodshed. Some even take themselves around the back of the woodshed, such as the dreadful Lily drone that I stumped up for 2 years ago only for them to go under with my money.

Another reason I was thinking about the old steady investments versus the new was because of some wise words a friend of mine, relatively new to investing, had said to me. It was probably the first thing he had heard and it had stuck-  "never underestimate the investment power of dividend-paying defensive stocks" - which conjured up Kipling's ‘If’ lines

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs ..

Now at that point I always thought the next half line should be ‘…. then go short hats’, but here it's a comment on the old stalwarts. The type of company such as Unilever, who make so many essential day-to-day products they will just keep trucking along paying the dividends. Diversified product ranges all under one competition swamping conglomerate.

The topic of the Unilevers of the world was raised again in my conscious today by Dave Trott’s article in Campaign. He observes that the FMCGs ( Fast moving consumer goods) that Unilever excels at selling are not actually subject to the same form of brand loyalty as expensive consumer durables. If people buy a £5 product and don't like it, they can buy a different one next time and won’t give a thought to the £5 opportunity cost. Brand loyalty is greater the higher up the price point.

So how does the disrupter get high enough up the food chain to establish itself as a brand to be followed rather than a brand to be ditched? It needs to fight all the other newcomers. Tadpole land, where carnivorous tadpoles consume each other in their fight to make it to frog. The more seething the mire, the more energy is expended getting out of it and the less energy there is to take on the beasts that have already emerged ahead. In this respect, it is in the big companies interests to maintain the idea of the disrupter. Sell the dream of potential riches, much as the Investment Bank boss sells the dream to minions that if they work hard they could one day have his job, but all the time benefit from their infighting to protect his own position. Very Napoleonic in management style.

With markets being so quiet, as far as major trends go (get back in your e-box, bitcoin), we are left with streams of news and articles that are much like the chihuahuas of embryonic disrupters. Stories about what may, could or possibly happen if 4 levels of circumstantiality occur. The sands of news are being combed for tidbits of investment opportunity. But, as with most treasure hunting, the bulk of the bleeps from the metal detector yield nothing more than ring pulls which, though they once released a fizz, are now dulled with age. Which is why I am looking at this Steady Eddie, non-attention grabbing boring yielding non-tech behemoths to park my money in whilst I go and pursue more worthwhile interests for a bit.

The idea I am trying to propagate is that disruption is almost fake news. The big boys quietly stride on and are erecting further barriers to defend their positions whilst the new overexcitable disrupters yap and clamour causing the misdirection that is the foremost requirement of theatrical magic.

.... and watch for it in politics too.

1 comment:

Asian Trader said...

The earliest piece of investment advice I remember receiving is this:
"Get hold of a newspaper from 50 years ago and see how many of the companies listed are still in existence."
One day I did, and although familiar with British industry, could recognise but a handful - the disappeared names didn't all get taken out at a premium (note: consolidation of new industries accounts for much disappearance e.g. aerospace from 50 yrs ago A.V. Roe, de Havilland, Enlish Electric into BAE - combination of this and sophistication of aircraft to the point only large companies could afford to be in it - likewise benefits of scale strangling smaller )

BTW Unilever is going through a restructuring/brand revamp as it is getting its lunch eaten by P&G.

If we still had cycles I would say the surest bet would be buying cyclicals in emerging (i.e. retail investor dominated) markets at their lows (or as near as you can guess to that). Certainly that worked well for me pre 2009.