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Thursday, 17 December 2020

Weekend Reading

Reading across disciplines is one of the best ways to improve our investment acumen. Here is a summary of some of the best articles I read this week.

I especially try to not post Corona related articles as that is all one gets to read in all traditional media.


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AI is coming to your home

Last week researchers showed it is possible to squeeze a powerful AI vision algorithm onto a simple, low-power computer chip that can run for months on a battery. The trick could help bring more advanced AI capabilities, like image and voice recognition, to home appliances and wearable devices, along with medical gadgets and industrial sensors.

The researchers essentially devised a way to pare down deep learning algorithms, large neural network programs that loosely mimic the way neurons connect and fire in the brain. Over the past decade, deep learning has propelled huge advances in AI, and it is the bedrock of the current AI boom.

Deep learning algorithms typically run on specialized computer chips that divide the parallel computations needed to train and run the network more effectively.



The Cold War version 2

Regarding the trade talks themselves, what really riles both the Trumpsters and the Democrats (moderates and progressives alike) is the very way China does business: stealing intellectual property, acquiring sensitive technology through business buyouts, fusing public and private sectors so that their companies have an unfair advantage (at least by the mores of a global capitalistic trading system), currency manipulation, and so on. Trade talks, however successful, will never be able to change those fundamentals. China can adjust its business model only at the margins.

What we really have to fear is not a rising China but a declining one. A China whose economy is slowing, on the heels of the creation of a sizable middle class with a whole new category of needs and demands, is a China that may experience more social and political tensions in the following decade.



Tech retailing gets into luxury retail

Traditionally, high-end brands have been cautious about selling online. While they were growing rapidly, digital transactions were a relatively low 12% of global luxury sales in 2019. They are expected to hit 23% in 2020 and up to one-third by the middle of the decade, according to Bain & Co. projections.

Boundaries between store and website sales also blurred in new ways this year. With boutiques closed, shop assistants resorted to contacting customers through messaging apps or arranged digital consultations to drive business. Gucci’s parent company, Kering, expects these so-called “distance sales” to stick. In the future, store workers may log on during quiet times and interact with online shoppers to improve the low sales conversion rates that afflict many luxury-brand websites.

Big brands that have already poured cash into their e-commerce businesses are in the best position to control what happens next. The ideal setup for a luxury brand is to sell mostly on its own website, where margins are highest. Roughly 75% of LVMH’s e-commerce sales flow through this channel, for example. The company only works with outside platforms that give it full control over the presentation and pricing of its products.

Tech companies have spotted the opportunity. Amazon launched a new luxury store in September. Social-media platforms, too, have ambitions to turn themselves into e-commerce sites. Instagram, where many luxury shoppers already go for inspiration about what to buy, recently introduced a checkout button in the U.S. that allows them to purchase goods without leaving the app. Terms are very attractive: Instagram will take a 5% cut of transactions, compared with the 30% average charged by online luxury retailer Farfetch.



The key to a successful business is its people

Successful businesses have strong management teams which value and empower their people, they promote innovation and risk taking, encourage ownership, and adopt appropriate incentives through the full rank and file of the organisation. It’s little wonder the world’s top CEO’s and the investment industry’s sharpest minds focus on people and culture.

Even a business with product differentiation, valuable intellectual property or patents must evolve; competitors innovate, patents expire and technological advantages become redundant. The necessary process of constant evolution is ultimately driven by people.

Finding the historical financial numbers to fill a spreadsheet isn’t hard. Discovering the qualitative aspects of the business which will determine the future numbers is a little more challenging. In large part, these numbers will be determined by the people.



What comes after the smartphone?

We’ve spent the last few decades getting to the point that we can now give everyone on earth a cheap, reliable, easy-to-use pocket computer with access to a global information network. But so far, though over 4bn people have one of these things, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what we can do with them. There’s an old saying that the first fifty years of the car industry were about creating car companies and working out what cars should look like, and the second fifty years were about what happened once everyone had a car - they were about McDonalds and Walmart, suburbs and the remaking of the world around the car, for good and of course bad. The innovation in cars became everything around the car. One could suggest the same today about smartphones - now the innovation comes from everything else that happens around them.


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