Is the artisan trend a precursor to a Big Tech backlash?

In the Economist’s 1843 magazine, Ryan Avent writes about the resurgence of the “artisan” culture in Crafting a life:

Before the Industrial Revolution, the craft economy was simply the economy. Clothing, processed food, furniture, wood and iron tools were all made by hand, using simple equipment, one unique batch at a time. Artisans learned their trade through years of observing experts, within the family or in a structured apprenticeship. The quality of both the instruction and the finished products was highly variable. There was virtually no opportunity for mass education in trades, nor a chance for better producers to capture increased market share by scaling up production.

The Atlantic ran a similar piece recently Craft Beer Is the Strangest, Happiest Economic Story in America.

At the same time, the number of public companies has decreased and the “Big 4” tech companies make up 24% of the market cap of $SPY. Some amazing numbers, per Scott Galloway in Esquire:

Over the past decade, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—or, as I call them, “the Four”—have aggregated more economic value and influence than nearly any other commercial entity in history. Together, they have a market capitalization of $2.8 trillion (the GDP of France), a staggering 24 percent share of the S&P 500 Top 50, close to the value of every stock traded on the Nasdaq in 2001.

How big are they? Consider that Amazon, with a market cap of $591 billion, is worth more to the stock market than Walmart, Costco, T. J. Maxx, Target, Ross, Best Buy, Ulta, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks/Lord & Taylor, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Sears combined.

Meanwhile, Facebook and Google (now known as Alphabet) are together worth $1.3 trillion. You could merge the world’s top five advertising agencies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) with five major media companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, CBS, and Viacom) and still need to add five major communications companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish) to get only 90 percent of what Google and Facebook are worth together.

And what of Apple? With a market cap of nearly $900 billion, Apple is the most valuable public company. Even more remarkable is that the company registers profit margins of 32 percent, closer to luxury brands Hermès (35 percent) and Ferrari (29 percent) than peers in electronics. In 2016, Apple brought in $46 billion in profits, a haul larger than that of any other American company, including JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, and Wells Fargo. What’s more, Apple’s profits were greater than the revenues of either Coca- Cola or Facebook. This quarter, it will clock nearly twice the profits that Amazon has produced in its history.

Will the trend of the big getting bigger continue? Or is there enough of a Big Tech backlash to make things start regressing to more normalized levels?

We’re certainly not making a call and will continue to look for further evidence.

 

Apple is well-positioned, less flashy

Apple isn’t the same company it once was, and that’s ok as they seem aware of their position as market leader, rather than the upstart they once were. While they may not be overwhelming critics and consumers with new devices, they are making appropriate moves for a company in their “middle age.”

This is by no means a condemnation of Apple. Every single move I’ve described above is justified by two circumstances in particular.

First, as a general rule, challengers pursue interoperability while incumbents strive for incompatibility. This is Strategy 101: seek to fight battles where you have the greatest advantage. When Apple was making the iPod, it’s advantage was a superior device; making that device interoperable with Windows let Apple fight the portable music player battle on its terms. Today, though, Apple already has dominant market share: better to make its devices exclusive to its ecosystem, preventing rivals from bringing their own advantage (superior voice assistants, in the case of Alexa and Google Assistant) to bear.

Secondly, the high-end smartphone market — that is, the iPhone market — is saturated. Apple still has the advantage in loyalty, which means switchers will on balance move from Android to iPhone, but that advantage is counter-weighted by clearly elongating upgrade cycles. To that end, if Apple wants growth, its existing customer base is by far the most obvious place to turn.

In short, it just doesn’t make much sense to act like a young person with nothing to lose: one gets older, one’s circumstances and priorities change, and one settles down. It’s all rather inevitable.

via Apple’s Middle Age at Stratechery by Ben Thompson

Software updates as SEC violations

Could disclosures on software updates be a securities violation? From Matt Levine in Bloomberg:

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether Apple Inc. violated securities laws concerning its disclosures about a software update that slowed older iPhone models, according to people familiar with the matter.

The government has requested information from the company, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the probe is private. The inquiry is in early stages, they cautioned, and it’s too soon to conclude any enforcement will follow. Investigators are looking into public statements made by Apple on the situation, they added.

While the slowdown has frustrated consumers, U.S. investigators are concerned that the company may have misled investors about the performance of older phones.

It is fun to imagine more extreme hypotheticals. What if Apple sold phones that it knew would explode after one year, and they all exploded and killed millions of people? And the Justice Department looked into it, examined the facts and the law, and said: “You know, this looks like securities fraud. The real victims here are Apple’s shareholders, who had no warning that the phones would explode and kill their users, and who have now lost money when the stock dropped.” If you were an alien trying to understand the U.S. legal system from cases like this one (also opioid casesclimate-change lawsuitsgun control, etc.), you might conclude that its purpose is to protect shareholders from losing money when the companies they own harm consumers. 

via Sergeant Spoof’s Time Has Passed at Bloomberg.com

Pressuring Apple to make iPhone less harmful to children

On January 6th, two Apple shareholders, Jana Partners and CalsTrs (The California State Teachers’ Retirement System ), publish a 2,500-word open letter urging Tim Cook and his team to do more to protect children from the harmful consequences of smartphone use. The missive to Apple, replete with citations, reads like an article found in a scholarly publication.

via Saving Our Children From Smartphones – Monday Note at Monday Note

Apple is still Value at Nearly 8x Bitcoin

From Howard Lindzon’s post Apple is my Favorite Crypto Asset comes a reminder of how small Bitcoin is compared to other asset classes and even single companies, despite the seemingly unending tear it’s been on this year.

At $7300, Bitcoins now are valued at over $120 billion.
Apple this morning is just 7.5 times more valuable than all the Bitcoins in the world.

I hope Bitcoin passes Apple in terms of total market value as I still hold some, but I like the idea of owning Apple just a little more at this morning’s ratio.

PS – I heard tonight from a Coinbase investor that 100,000 people opened accounts today. As Bitcoin continues to rise, I check it’s price first on Stocktwits when I open the app. We have entered a very strange point in time where the Bitcoin rise might just be pulling the general markets along.

Tough to Please

From A Bull Market Should Make Investors Happy:

Generally, this far into a bull market, euphoria kicks in. In 1929, shoeshine boys were doling out stock tips. In 1999, people were quitting their jobs to trade technology stocks from their living rooms.

These days, each successive stock market record seems to spur more hand-wringing than cheerleading. There is anxiety about overhyped shares, about the possibility of central banks withdrawing their support for global economies, even about markets simply being worryingly quiescent, as evidenced by the historically low readings of the volatility index known as the VIX.

This is from Landon Thomas Jr. in the New York Times. He includes the following numbers, which really puts the relative small size of crypto in perspective:

Since early 2009, the market capitalizations of Amazon and Apple, have soared from $26 billion and $74 billion to $532 billion and $872 billion.

By definition, it seems there are a number of people happily putting more into the market.

Mr. Bernstein argued that investors should care the economic and corporate fundamentals — not the remote chance that a calamity will strike.

“You cannot invest successfully,” he said, “when you are crouched under your desk in a fetal position.”