Friday, August 30, 2019

Charts #24: Malnutrition in Children

It is estimated that 150m children are suffering from malnutrition. That's 30x the population of our little red dot. While we worry about school results and whether our kids are picking up the right enrichment, children globally don't have food to eat. The chart below was really an eye-opener for me. There are malnutritioned kids everywhere!

Asia formed the biggest subgroup with more than 80m children having stunted growth according to the 2019 UN report. Malaysia has 20%. Even Japan and South Korea still has malnutritioned kids. More can be done and more should be done.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Activision Blizzard - Part 2: Positives

This is a continuation of the previous post on Activision Blizzard with ticker code ATVI.

In the last post we established ATVI's investment thesis. It is one of the best gaming companies in the world with eight strong franchises. It has a huge loyal user base across these various games and it is starting its own esports global league with Overwatch. In this post, we shall explore deeply into some of these positives as well as the risks involved (in the next post).

Positive #1 - Innovation

ATVI is one of the rare companies in the gaming world that has continued to create new gaming franchises after franchises. I first got to know ATVI when it launched Diablo which much fanfare in 1996 - 23 years ago. Back then, it was just Blizzard. Activision hadn't bought Blizzard yet. But they really marketed it quite well and we saw on TV how people queued up to buy Diablo cartridges. In Singapore, we couldn't wait to get our hands on it and played it together with friends.

Those were the days where not everyone had a gaming console or a PC, so we would gathered at some friends' place to play Diablo together. Geez, how many would remember those good old days? Then Blizzard launched Warcraft and Activision launched Call of Duty. These games were huge hits, selling millions of copies in the first few days. Then came Starcraft, then Skylanders for the kids. Every few years, it would launch sequels of the old hits and create hypes all over again. It was a formula for success. Years later, Hollywood caught on.

ATVI's biggest game in recent years

Just when the whole gaming industry lacked innovation, ATVI launched Overwatch and revived and expanded a whole new genre. Before Overwatch, gaming genres were pretty much fixed and dead. At the beginning, the old arcade genres had whole games on just one static screen (think Pacman or Space Invaders). In 1985, Nintendo introduced the Super Mario Bros conveyor-type games into living rooms with its home consoles. There was also racing, music/rhythm and sports. Then Street Fighter brought us player vs player. In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D came in as the first first person shooter game genre. This became a really big hit. Around the same time, the Japanese came up with role playing, which was slow but people somehow liked it. There were also strategy games, multiplayer online and others but things were turning stale.

In 2016, Overwatch picked up the online multiplayer first person shooter game and brought it to a whole new level. The game had specific heroes with specific strengths and weaknesses and teams with the right heroes had to train together in order to win. Strictly speaking, Counterstrike created this genre around 1999 but Overwatch made it really big by incorporate the new elements - dyamic gameplay, heroes, character backstory, variety in maps and stunning graphics. It made ATVI more than a billion dollars on its first year of release. Today, 40 million players play Overwatch and seizing the day, ATVI quickly launched Overwatch League in 2017, creating the first 12 competing teams. Overwatch became the the English Premium League / NBA of gaming.

To further enhance its moat in esports, ATVI bought Major League gaming for USD 46m to learn the know-how of managing esports. Overwatch would not be its only esports title. Starcraft had long had esports potential and we would expect more to come. In time, ATVI would be able to create its own World Cup / Olympics for gaming. Think of the revenue potential! As a quick gauge, FIFA made USD 6bn from the last World Cup according to New York Times!

Positive #2 - Ads and Ecosystem

Starting with Overwatch, ATVI had more than 300m monthly active users across all its platforms. Specifically 32m from Blizzard, 56m from Activision and a whopping 262m from King (although 97% of these users don't pay anything, they play Candy Crush for free). ATVI believes it can generate a lot more revenue from these 300m users.

Advertising is the obvious starting point. For Candy Crush users not paying a single cent, ATVI can easily show them 30 second ads as they play. This had become the main model for most casual games. To continue playing, users have to watch ads. It gets a bit frustrating, but hey, there's never free lunches right? ATVI believes that it can generate USD 200m revenue by showing ads to its 300m users.

Building on its eco-systems, ATVI had launched, or rather relaunched its own gaming site This site was already live in 1996 when Blizzard launched Diablo. But with its huge portfolio of games and the advent of game streaming. ATVI decided to use this as a platform for its gamers to play straight from the browser. For now, fans can only play Activision Blizzard games, but who knows, it might become an open platform some day.

Ecosystems are powerful weapons in the era of mobile and internet. Amazon built a huge ecosystem in e-commerce becoming the de-facto online store to buy anything. It fortified it with its Prime membership, putting in video and music. It makes one difficult to unplug. Google has the same strategy starting with search, Gmail, Android and its growing plethora of services. Facebook realized it was losing out and launched its own cryptocurrency for payment, backed by real currencies.

ATVI's ecosystem is still in its early days but more will be done. As a sidenote, it is expanding its franchises into movies. Skylander launched a successful series with Netflix and would have a Hollywood movie in a year or two. The Warcraft movie had a surprising hit in China although it flopped in the US. There would be more movies to come and analysts had put down a USD 50m revenue for 2019 and 2020.

Incrementally, these positives can add USD 250m to USD 500m or more if some of the optionalities like esports materialize. At USD 250m, the lower bound, it's only a small drop in its USD 7.5bn annual revenue, but still it's a good start. 

In the next post, we would discuss the risks and the conclusion.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Three Investing Adages That Are Not True

Adages are fascinating, they are beautiful and usually true. Take everything in moderation, it's universal. There is no example one can think of when this phrase doesn't work. Or better safe than sorry. It's common sense but unfortunately, also commonly forgotten. It is also the basic tenet of investing - don't lose money, look for a big fat margin of safety. That's how we make money. 

But not all adages are true.

I have had problems with the following three, the more I think about them, the more I believe they are not true. Well, to be more specific, I think they are probably not true more than half the time. Yet, there are many who would believe in them. It then reflects their nascent thought processes and maturity in the markets. Would you agree?

1. Those who can do, those who cannot teach.
2. There are lies, damn lies and statistics.
3. Don't catch a falling knife.

Ok let's start with the first one. How many times had we learnt this phrase. But as I come across this phrase time and again, I must say it is only true maybe 10-20% of the time. Teaching is a noble profession. It is as good as any other profession. It takes a certain character and special skills to be a good teacher, a good coach. A good teacher understands how to motivate others but also needs to discipline, inspire, teach and lead. How many of us remember our best teachers? Think about how they have motivated us to be our best. Every great sportsman or sportswoman had a great teacher, a coach.

The world's greatest investor Warren Buffett had Benjamin Graham, his teacher at Columbia Business School. There are also many historically inspiring teachers, Aristotle, Helen Keller, Maria Montessori and in recent times Jack Ma and J.K.Rowlings were also teachers before they became famous in other fields. Warren Buffett said it himself, if he didn't become an investor, he would have been a teacher.

Of course there are teachers who are real CMIs*. But that's likely because they were pigeon-holed into the wrong profession. They simply needed to do a lot more to be a better teacher. It is sad because when a teacher cannot perform, it pulls down a bunch of kids. Unfortunately, most education systems have rigidity that is not able to help these teachers nor the kids.

*CMI = cannot make it, used as a noun 

Scene from popular Singapore serial drama dedicated to teachers - 早安老师

It takes a lot to be a good teacher. Perhaps more so than an investor. So, it's not true that those who cannot teach. Good teachers can both do and teach. They are also the important human catalysts for creating future leaders and entrepreneurs. For Singapore to continue to progress, we need to make sure we attract the best to be our teachers. We can start by paying them well and stop them leaving schools and becoming tutors.

Interestingly, the second adage was made famous by a teacher - Mark Twain. Although he attributed the quote to the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli whose exact words were, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."Yes, statistics can be used to lie, but data and statistics is the fundamental foundation of any analysis. To say that statistics are lies reflects the shallow thinking of the sayer. It is as good as saying aeroplanes are bad because they can be used by terrorists to crash into buildings.

Data, numbers and statistics are at the heart of value investing, or rather, any kind of due diligence. We rely on numbers and reading through the numbers to get to the truth. Yes, oftentimes, we need to question the numbers, slice and dice it differently to see the picture. But it doesn't mean statistics are lies. If there is any doubt that the people who created the statistics lack integrity, then we can no longer analyse the numbers and we need to change the people. Statistics are not lies. Statistics are tools. They are neither good nor bad. It is important to learn to use them well.

The normal distribution, the biggest subtopic in statistics

Okay and here's the most interesting of them all, "Don't catch a falling knife."

When I was a newbie investor, I totally believed in this. It just sounded so true. When the stock is going down, why would a smart investor want to buy it? Why catch a falling knife? But as I looked back at my investments over the years, this adage began feeling wrong. Even the analogy is wrong. A falling knife would eventually fall to the ground and lay still. But a stock, especially a good stock, would eventually go up. If you had done your work, calculated the intrinsic value of the company, understood the strong economic moat of the company, then you should buy when it's cheap enough. It doesn't matter if the stock is falling or rising.

We want to think we are smart enough to catch the turning point. We buy when the stock had turned up, when the knife is no long falling. Seasoned investors would know that's not possible. This adage plays different tricks to our minds and confuses everything. It assumes we can predict when stock prices had bottomed and would go up, it projects images of suffering huge pain caused by buying falling stocks. The truth is, we can always just buy a toehold position.

We cannot predict stock prices just like we cannot predict the weather. To not catch a falling knife when buying stocks is like never bringing an umbrella outside because we assume we will always only go outside on sunny days. In my mind, this last adage - never catch a falling knife is probably more harmful than helpful to investors. It sounds beautiful, logical and right. But, in reality, it's not.

Howard Marks

This truth also dawned upon me just recently when Howard Marks made it clear himself. Here's an excerpt of an interview about his views on falling knives. Obviously, he said it much better:

Marks: You mentioned catching falling knives, and my vision is that when the stuff hits the fan and there’s blood in the streets most people go like this, they say well we’re not going to buy until the knife stops falling, until the dust settles, until all the uncertainty has been resolved. But the trouble is that once that happens then the price will have rebounded. So we want to buy at a time of upset and while the knife is still falling and I think the refusal to catch a falling knife is a rationalization for inaction. It’s our job to catch falling knives, That’s how you get bargains. But you have to do it carefully.

So, next time someone tells you about not catching falling knives, you know he's a newbie. Tell him or her that our job is to catch falling knives, with gauntlets on. Some of us even have the Infinity Gauntlet. Stones and all. We time-travelled to enough alternative universes collecting Infinity Stones. If we want, we snap our fingers and the knife disintegrates. Refer him to this post and see if he agrees. 

Happy National Day! Huat Ah!