This Tiny Country Beat COVID

On the southern tip of Spain, the tiny UK territory of Gibraltar has vaccinated almost its entire population. COVID deaths have dropped to zero:

Life is beginning to get back to normal. Masks are no longer required outside, curfews are gone, and bars and restaurants are full. Even sporting events have resumed:

Events have also returned to the Rock as Gibraltar hosted what’s thought to be the first fully vaccinated major sporting fixture in the world on Saturday.

Five hundred spectators, each tested for Covid-19 prior to the event, were able to witness British heavyweight fighter Dillian Whyte claim victory over Russia’s Alexander Povetkin at Gibraltar’s Europa Sports Complex.

The fight, called the Rumble on the Rock, was originally meant to take place at the Matchroom HQ, a venue in southeastern England, but was switched to Gibraltar thanks to its Covid-19 safe environment.

Soccer fans were also allowed to witness sporting matches starting with Gibraltar’s World Cup qualifier clash against the Netherlands on Tuesday.

Victoria Stadium welcomed 600 attendees who had previously received two doses of the vaccine and tested negative for the virus on the day of the match.

Only 3% of residents refused the vaccine, which may be one reason why Gibraltar’s results are so good. That may be difficult to recreate in the US or other nations, but Gibraltar provides a welcome view of what life could look like soon as the world races to vaccinate.

I encourage you to get your shot if you haven’t already. Let’s get back to normal life!

For more on COVID and vaccines, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Gibraltar – Rosia” by Roy McGrail (krm gib) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Beware the SPAC Cliff

Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, have become all the rage in the last year. These “blank check” companies raise money from investors and then look for a company to acquire. They’re multiplying like rabbits:

More than 300 such blind pools have come public so far this year according to SPACInsider, raising an aggregate $99 billion. That blows past the prior $83 billion, full-year record established in 2020. For context, the pre-coronavirus peak in aggregate IPO proceeds stood at just $64.8 billion.

More here (see the 4-9 post).

That means hundreds of companies all competing for the same pool of private acquisition targets. This has pushed up prices substantially, and SPACs may be overpaying for their acquisitions:

SPAC-sponsored deals took place at a median price of 12.9 times sales in the first three months of the year, more than triple the 4.1 times median price-to-sales ratio for non-blank check transactions.

SPACs typically have two years to find a company to acquire. If they succeed, the people who run the SPAC will get about 20% of the total value of the deal. If they don’t acquire a company, the party ends, and the money goes back to investors.

With hundreds of companies from this year and a backlog from previous years all searching for deals before their two year window is up, it’s no surprise they’re overpaying.

With 117 SPAC-related deals announced so far this year, 497 blank-check entities are currently seeking their own dance partner, according to Refinitiv, while only about a quarter of all SPACs listed in 2020 or 2021 have completed a transaction.

The clock is ticking: Entities that fail to find a merger target within two years are typically unwound, with promotors obliged to return capital to investors. “There is a lot of indigestion,” a senior bank executive tells the FT.

If the SPAC sponors buy an overpriced company, they still get 20% of the money. If they don’t buy anything, they don’t. What do you think they’ll do?

The incentives aren’t well aligned. If the SPAC sponors buy an overpriced company, they still get 20% of the money. If they don’t buy anything, they don’t. What do you think they’ll do?

Sure enough, overpaying for companies is leading SPACs to perform poorly. An index of SPACs is down about 20% from its peak earlier this year.

Expect to see more and more SPACs frantically overbid for deals as their two year cliff approaches. Bad for SPAC investors, good for private company shareholders.

For more on SPACs and financial markets, check out these posts:

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Photo: “YIELD TO THE MAN FALLING OFF THE CLIFF!” by Bods is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Top 5 Things That Changed When I Started Working for Myself

For fourteen years, four months and eleven days, I worked in software. My job was like a lot of jobs: conducted in a cubicle or sometimes remotely, during regular business hours, and almost every week of the year.

In July of 2019, I left that job to make my investment business full time. I still remember the feeling when I walked out of the office for the last time into a hot, sunny summer’s day…”Wow, this is it, I’m really gone”.

Looking back on the past 21 months, I decided to write down a few of the biggest changes in my life since leaving the world of corporate employment:

1) Your time is your own. When I wake up in the morning, I eat breakfast and do a little journaling. I can plan out a day focusing on whatever I want. The ability to design your own day is a huge difference from working at a company, where you’re crossing off items on someone else’s to-do list.

2) You find yourself suddenly immersed in new areas on a regular basis. In the last couple of months, I’ve done deep dives into COVID, vaccines, meme stocks, and startups. Some for business purposes, some just because I’m interested. When your time is your own, you find yourself delving into new topics a lot more frequently.

3) It’s harder to decide what success means. At a job success means not getting fired, getting a raise every year, and maybe a promotion. How do you define success in your own business? That’s a lot more subjective, and I tend to move the goalposts further whenever I reach a goal. This can put you on something of a treadmill. It’s important to get off sometimes and smell the roses.

4) You have more energy. Even though I almost never use an alarm clock anymore, I wake up earlier and am more energetic in general. Being able to do what I want with my time gives me energy. Doing what someone else wanted all day tended to drain it.

If you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

5) The sky is the limit. My investments this past year made far more than I ever made working, and new investments I’m planning in early stage startups could blow away all previous earnings if things go right. (Or go to zero if they go wrong!)

If you work for a company, your raises usually come yearly and they’re only so much. There’s a limit to how much an employer will pay for an hour of your labor in most fields. What’s more, you only have at most 24 hours a day to sell! But if you can make money through something other than selling your time, like investing or writing or selling a software product, you can remove that ceiling on your income.

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it!

If you can generate enough income to fund even a modest living, and you aspire to work for yourself, I encourage you to do it! If you can’t, build up a side business over time and eventually you’ll be ready!

For more on improving your life, check out these posts:

Photo: “The Workaholic NSA” by herval is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Could the Government Sue Wallstreetbets Over GameStop?

Traders on Reddit’s Wallstreetbets who are pumping GameStop stock could get in trouble with the law. From Lawyer Monthly:

There’s no clear indicator that what occurred is illegal, but it certainly falls within a shady area.

A large number of the investors who joined in, certainly in the later stages, were just jumping on a trend that could earn them money. That’s not the case for those who kicked things off, and that’s where there may be problems. However, even then, it’s not clear because “pumping” a stock for fun, provided that you’re not releasing misleading information, doesn’t technically fall foul of the law. There’s a strong argument that the subreddit thread didn’t have the capacity on their own to change the market substantially. In addition, they didn’t release misleading information to induce others to buy. For these reasons, the SEC and FCA may well decide that although dubious, there were no illegal manoeuvres.

I would expect the most at risk posters to be people with large positions who were early to a campaign to lift a stock like GameStop. Others have been successfully sued by the SEC for buying a stock and promoting it online message boards. However, there are two significant legal precedents in the US that may protect the Reddit traders.

If you want to participate in these runs on meme stocks, the safest way to do so is quietly. Let others do the talking and, if necessary, take the hit.

Nonetheless, if you want to participate in these runs on meme stocks, the safest way to do so is quietly. Let others do the talking and, if necessary, take the hit.

For more on GameStop, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Retail GameStop” by ccPixs.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The First Stock Trades On the Blockchain Just Happened

Credit Suisse and Nomura just did the first stock trades settled via blockchain technology:

This week Credit Suisse cut some US equities trades with the Nomura-owned broker Instinet, using blockchain. This technology has been used before to verify other kinds of transactions. But these trades were a “first” because settlement occurred in hours and not the two days needed with America’s Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation, the industry-owned utility that normally settles stock trades.

This long settlement period is inefficient and costly:

“This is an incredibly inefficient way to operate,” Charles Cascarilla, Paxos’s chief executive tells me, pointing out that $15bn to $30bn of industry capital and twice as much liquidity are tied up in DTCC systems.

The two day settlement period was the key factor behind Robinhood stopping buy orders for GameStop shares earlier this year. The price had become so volatile that it could move against Robinhood a great deal in those two days. Given that, brokers insisted Robinhood post a large amount of colatteral. That expense was too great, so instead, Robinhood blocked buy orders for the stock. In a world where trades settled in hours via the blockchain, this would be much less likely.

However, blockchain technology is incredibly energy hungry. If we moved the massive volume of stock trading onto it, I suspect the energy needed might be prohibitive. I think instant, or at the very least faster, trade settlement is likely. But I expect that to happen via more standard computer systems, rather than blockchain technology.

I think instant, or at the very least faster, trade settlement is likely. But I expect that to happen via more standard computer systems, rather than blockchain technology.

For more on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Crypto Kitties on Blockchain” by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Tiny Village That Beat the Great Depression

Nestled in the Austrian Alps is the tiny village of Worgl. In 1932, as the world economy was in the depths of the Great Depression, Worgl too had fallen on hard times:

The Great Depression was in full swing and of its population of nearly 5000, a third were jobless, and about 200 families were bankrupt. The situation was desperate. The town would try anything.

What followed was one of the most radical economic experiments in history. The town created a new form of money. It was a lot like the standard Austrian schilling it replaced, except its value dropped by 1% every month. In a year, you’d have just 88.64 left of every 100 schillings.

This gave residents a strong incentive to stop hoarding currency, a natural reaction to a scary economic climate:

The speed that money changed hands (14 times higher than the national schilling) helped keep local businesses afloat and, in time, brought back the town’s lost jobs.

Soon, the town went from 1/3 jobless to full employment. Tax revenues boomed as people paid their bills in the new currency before it lost its value.

Worgl’s success attracted attention from its neighbors:

Things looked up for Worgl and [Mayor] Unterguggenberger. The town did so well that six neighbouring villages successfully copied the system and over 200 grew an interest in following suit.

Ultimately, the central bank shut down this experiment in a local currency. Shortly thereafter, unemployment shot right back up to where it was before Worgl’s mayor made this bold move to save his town.

It makes sense that Worgl would’ve rocketed ahead of nearby villages. Worgl essentially had (very) negative interest rates and a far more accomodative monetary policy than its neighbors.

Today too, lowering interest rates, even below zero, is a commonly used tactic to stimulate economic activity. The US Federal Reserve lowered interest rates substantially at the beginning of the COVID crisis, and Japan and much of Europe has had negative rates for years.

But despite the success of Worgl, the results of negative rates today are mixed. Negative rates might encourage consumers to spend, but they could also discourage banks from lending. After all, who wants to lend when you might have to pay for the privilege!

Worgl remains an interesting footnote to monetary policy. Whatever the applications to today may be, I applaud the bravery of those villagers who took a radical step to try to save their home.

For more on markets and the economy, check out these posts:

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Photo: “File:Pfarrkirche Woergl Osten.jpg” by Thom16 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Palantir Stung By Slow Government Contracting Business

Palantir Technologies’ business is largely driven by government contracts. So far in 2021, despite a new Department of Energy contract, the overall picture is not looking good:

The Department of Energy win could potentially add $18 million in incremental revenue per year, but Mielczarek says that, otherwise, the investment firm’s Dotted Line tracker shows that Palantir “had a fairly quiet first quarter for government bookings.”

Besides an early January $8.5 million Army TITAN prototype award, there were no other government contract wins in the quarter.

Palantir’s business is largely driven by government contracts, and so far in 2021, it’s not looking good

This stock trades at a rich multiple, so it needs rapid growth to justify that. The numbers aren’t much better on the commercial side of the business:

“Palantir’s commercial sales increased by 4% in the December quarter,” Mielczarek noted. “The new sales strategy is showing potential, but we believe that it is too early to bet on.”

Add that to the fact that 20% of their commercial business is a single customer, and this looks like an overvalued, moderate growth company with some serious embedded risks. I’ll be avoiding this stock.

For more on Palantir, check out these posts:

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Photo: Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel. “Peter Thiel” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Venture Funding Just Doubled in 1 Year

I came across an incredible stat last night:

Worldwide venture funding has nearly doubled YoY reaching $125B and grew by half QoQ in Q1 2021, according to Crunchbase. On average, two startups crossed the unicorn valuation threshold each working day during the first three months of the year.

Users increasing their engagement with online tools due to the pandemic, along with easier exits via Special Purpose Acquisition Vehicles (SPACs), were two big factors in this extraordinary increase. I’d also be willing to bet that a big jump in the money supply, which is showing up everywhere from meme stocks to cryptocurrenices, is a factor.

In startups I’m looking at, I’m seeing valuations in the $10-15 million range even on seed stage companies. A few years ago, that might have been $5-6 million. I can’t say I love those higher prices, but if a company achieves a valuation of $1 billion (not to mention $10 or $100 billion), whether you got in at a $5 or $15 million valuation may not matter.

I’ll be watching to see if these trends continue or if the industry is setting itself up for a crash. With consumers becoming more and more used to doing everything online during 2020, along with loose monetary policy, I think that any downturn is probably quite a ways off.

For more on venture capital and startups, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Rocket Launch SpaceX” by Schwabenknipser is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

This Is Why Credit Suisse Keeps Getting Punched in the Face

Credit Suisse keeps getting smacked. Let’s review a few of their recent scandals:

  • $4.7 billion charge for losses in trades with Archegos Capital Management, the imploding hedge fund
  • $1.5 billion loss likely in dealings with collapsed supply chain finance company Greensill Capital, just three weeks prior
  • Bonus scandal: Former CEO Tidjane Thiam spied on employees and was forced out in February 2020

So they’ve been busy! Why is this one company stumbling from cliff to quagmire?

A major factor appears to be its bifurcated business, which focuses on both asset management and investment banking, but is too small to be a big player in either market. So, in order to win business from its bigger competitors, it has to offer better terms and do worse deals.

In reality, the asset-management unit, which brought in Greensill, and the investment bank, which handled Archegos, were too small to square off with Wall Street giants. The bank tried to make more money from fewer clients than rivals with larger balance sheets and ended up overlooking risks, the executives said.

There were clear warning signs on both Archegos and Greensill.

There were clear warning signs on both Archegos and Greensill. Archegos founder Bill Hwang had been sanctioned by the SEC for insider trading and banned from handling client money, which is the entire reason he started Archegos in the first place. It was a family office, managing just his own family’s money, due to that SEC ruling. Credit Suisse thought the risk was limited because he wasn’t managing client money, but failed to consider what would happen to its own funds!

Greensill too had come under scrutiny early enough to avert problems, but nothing was done:

In 2019, members of the credit-structuring team escalated its alerts about Greensill to the bank’s reputational-risk committee, the person familiar with the funds said. They had become concerned Greensill might be taking operational shortcuts.

Interestingly, the dynamic of Credit Suisse agreeing to anything in order to win business from larger competitors was played out by its client Greensill as well:

Mr. Greensill signed up some big, credit-rated companies. To wrest those customers from big banks, Greensill had to offer competitive terms that didn’t make it much money, according to people familiar with Greensill’s business.

Credit Suisse seems to lack any internal controls whatsoever, and I strongly recommend investors avoid

Credit Suisse seems to lack any internal controls whatsoever, and I strongly recommend investors avoid it. We can also gain a broader lesson from this fiasco. If you’re a smaller company trying to get into a market, don’t do disadvantageous deals just to get some market share. You expose yourself to too many problems that will blow you up before you ever get a chance to compete with the big boys.

For more on Archegos, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Punch to the Face” by Ninja M. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Lost Planet of Vulcan

For nearly two hundred years, Newton’s laws of motion worked pretty well. Then, a French scientist named Urbain Le Verrier came along and messed it all up.

He calculated Mercury’s orbit using Newton’s laws and waited until it orbited the sun again in 1848, awaiting confirmation of his calculations. Mercury didn’t behave as expected. Its orbit was off by a fraction of a degree, enough to perturb exacting astronomers. Le Verrier went in search of what could’ve caused his calculations to go awry, and seized upon a dramatic possibility.

What about an unknown planet? If a small planet existed between the sun and Mercury, it would explain the deviation in his calculations. Le Verrier called the unknown planet Vulcan, and set about trying to find it.

Only Le Verrier never could find it, and neither could the many other astronomers who looked.

The mystery was finally solved decades later by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It showed that Newton’s laws were wrong, and the mass of objects warped space in a way that brought objects together, rather than an object itself attracting other objects. It also perfectly explained the shape of Mercury’s orbit without needing to postulate a planet no one could find.

Einstein’s theory remains unchallenged to this day, and even NASA telescopes can’t find Vulcan. It seems to have existed only in our imaginations.

I found out about Vulcan today in an excellent class I’m taking. It’s called Puzzles, Problems and Paradoxes and you can sign up here. It’s online every Wednesday at 11:10am Central through UT-Austin.

For more on science, check out these posts:

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Photo: “False Color View of Mercury” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0