Windy City Rails 2014 Notes

These are notes I took during the two days of Windy City Rails 2014 Conference. Since I attended on behalf of my employer, Springleaf Financial, my notes are skewed towards ideas that may be applicable in a enterprise setting. For anyone who might randomly find this post, keep this in mind, as the speakers had plenty to say on topics outside of the enterprise application development domain.

Rubinius X by Brian Shirai

  • Get slides
  • Promises in JS in Rubinius / New Concurrency
  • Logan Note: An article on explaining Javascript’s Promises
  • Ruby functions as first-class functions versus “module_functions”
  • Use dynamic or static typing with static type checking if desired
  • Immutable String Type
  • Clarity in the Behavior of object changes. “to_s” vs “to_str” example.
  • Character encoding standardization.
  • All APIs use keywords, no position-significance

Recommendation Engines with Redis – Evan Light – Rackspace

Devise by Lucas Mazza

Upfront Design by Mark Menard

Legal Talk by Daliah Saper

  • Useful for non-corporate work. Advice for freelancers.

Domain Driven by Yan Pritzker of Reverb

Go for Rubyists by Ken Walters

  • Mostly Go, not much for Ruby/Rails
  • Watch if you’re interested in Go or Concurrency ideas

Local Government on Rails by Tiffani Bell

  • Code for America work with Atlanta and Detroit
  • A discussion on sample projects with government, but no big takeaways for corporate work

Functional Languages with Rails by Sean Griffin of thoughtbot

  • Get his slides
  • IO should always be concurrent
  • Concurrency ideas from Scala could go into Ruby/Rails
  • “Rails API is too far removed from HTTP”
  • “We will break Rack”
  • The Matz Tweet agrees with Sean’s point on future of Ruby
  • “Promises” in JS == Futures in Scala
  • Monadic gem

The New Era of Orchestration: From Docket to BOSH to Cloud Foundry by Dr. Nic Williams

  • Orchestration: Automated arrangement, coordination, and management of complex computer systems, middleware, and services
  • Book Recommendation: The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
  • In his consulting experience, CIO concerns for the next 10 years:
    • Reduce time to value
    • Unify access among applications to all data
    • Mobile access
  • Goals for Orchestration:
    • Deploy Quickly
    • Deploy Framework/Language of Choice
    • HTTP Routing to Web Processes
    • Integrate DBs/Services/APIs
    • Logging
    • Simple, fast scaling
    • Automatic Recovery
    • Package assurance/Version control
    • Reproduce production environment for debugging
    • Auditing who/what did what change?
    • Access controls
    • Internal billing/accounting
  • Orchestration should let you focus on being valuable and engineering
  • Use Pivotal Web Service and Heroku until someone says you can’t!
  • Beware DIY Orchestration: No Unix app for the whole list
  • Orchestration is a system, not an app
    • Docker is good, but doesn’t cover the whole list
  • Where Docker is Good:
    • Package control
    • Process monitoring
    • Port and data binding to host machine
    • Dockerfiles, community involvement
  • Weakness of Docker: Across clusters of servers that change is hard
  • Try CloudFoundry: trycf.starkandwayne.com

Meet the SLAs: Rails at Constant Contact by Dinshaw Gobhai

  • Slides at: http://dinshaw.github.io/meet-the-slas/#/
  • Building for Scale from Scratch
    • Don’t Do it
    • Don’t Over-Architect
    • Don’t Prematurely Engineer
    • Don’t Solve Problems You Don’t Have Yet
  • Measure: Ruby-prof and DTrace for Profiling Apps
  • Rails and N+1
    • preload(:association) – Separate Queries for Associated Tables
    • eager_load(:association) – One query with all associations LEFT OUTER joined
    • includes(:association) – Picks one of the above
    • joins – One query with all associations ‘INNER’ joined
  • aRel Gem
    • aRel on Github
    • Example usage and Youtube video in slides
    • Shows how to do anything in SQL in Rails!
  • Serialization: Skip your ORM
  • include? Causes variables to be downcased!
  • Excessive Logging:
    • Don’t log in loops!
    • Logger messages are generated even if your logging levels mean it isn’t saved! Something to be mindful of if speed is an issue.
  • Use Delete instead of Destroy. Destroy instantiates objects, delete just erases the record.
  • Move “Unique” validation to database, not in models. This uses one less Read to the DB.
  • dgobhai@constantcontact.com

Greenscren: Digital Signage Powered by Chromecast

  • http://greenscreen.io
  • Not Ruby/Rails related, but came out of a hackathon at Groupon
  • Could be useful if we want to have apps or pages displaying on TVs in office

Charming Large Databases with Octopuses

  • If application is read-centric, replication can help you get more performance.
  • Replication: Split up database with master and Slaves. Write to master, read from slave. Balances traffic.
  • Sharding: Take a database or table and split among many physical instances.
  • Db-charmer gem:
  • BUT DB CHARMER ONLY MYSQL AND NO RAILS 4 SUPPORT
  • This is where the Octopus gem comes in: Octopus Gem on Github
  • Provides examples of DB Charmer and Octopus in slides

More TDD by Jessica Kerr

RubyLisp by Dave Astels

  • One of Authors of RSpec
  • bitbucket.org/bastels
  • daveastels.com/rubylisp
  • Scheme for Ruby/RubyMotion
  • Interesting but nothing immediately useful for us

Developing Developers by Dave Hoover of Dev Bootcamp

  • Two Pronged Approach to Growing a Company
    • Hiring Already Great People
    • Training People
  • At old company obtiva, started an apprencticeship program
  • Elements of Good Apprenticeship Program
    • Mentor, Team, Owner
    • Sustainable Ratio of Senior-to-Junior People
    • Culture of Learning+Collaboration > Curriculum: Encourage customized learning
    • In the Trenches: Get apprentices doing real work with team
    • Pet Project: Can fill time if team busy, educational, allows for mistakes
    • Milestones: Keep people on track
    • Feedback loops: Most important, should include pairing
  • Company must support Learning > Demanding Immediate Competence

Cucumber Still Relevant?

  • Answering the question: How Does this legacy app work?
    • Docs?
    • Tests?
    • Cucumber!
  • Scenario/Given/When/Then syntax
  • Cucumber bridge between devs and biz
  • Setup->Action->Assertion
  • A shared language between biz and devs. The language words should be decided by BIZ.
  • I was unconvinced.

Betting Against Bank of Internet

Disclosure: I am short against Bank of Internet as of July 28, 2014 and at the time this post is published. You can download a zip folder containing some of BOFI’s public filings, two Kerrisdale PDF reports, and Citron’s report. Compared to my two previous public reports (Gamestop and Castlight Health), Bank of Internet is a more complex business. I’ve tried to keep the content interesting and education for financially literate and non-financially literate readers alike. Also, given the essay format, I’m only able to tell part of the story. The zip folder contains the material to answer any further questions one might have.

What Is Bank of Internet (BOFI) Holdings?

Bank of Internet is exactly as its name suggests: It’s an online-only bank. Individuals can make deposits online and the company uses those deposits to make investments. Started in 1999, BOFI has grown to over 300 employees and a market value of over $1 billion. It’s stock has rocketed upwards over 900% in the past five years. This tremendous run is about to end.

The BOFI Short Reports

Two short sellers have come out with public research reports against BOFI: Kerrisdale Capital (with a 36 page PDF and 37 slide Powerpoint presentation) and Citron Research (10 pages, shorter but more scathing).

Particularly scary for BOFI is that Kerrisdale Capital was once one of its biggest fans, bought the stock in 2009, held it as their largest investment for the firm, and published a positive report back when the stock was around $8 per share in 2009. Now that it’s at $79, Kerrisdale is calling it quits. They have a target price of $50 for BOFI stock and have flipped their position, betting it drops down to reasonable levels after having made huge sums of money buying the stock the past five years.

Citron is even more negative, with a $40 price target for reasons you’ll soon learn.

As a fan of Citron and Kerrisdale, I encourage you to read their reports. I’ll explain their key points against BOFI here, which should reveal the understandable problems with BOFI’s stock price. If you are worried about being bored by numbers, jump to section “Reason Five” which might intrigue you to read the rest (although I listed it last as its probably the least directly relevant to the company’s value).

Reason One: Earnings Driven by Mortgage-Backed Securities Are Ending

Page 16 of Kerrisdale’s report highlights the primary reason for BOFI’s huge growth and eventual decline: It’s assets are residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). For my less financially-inclined readers, RMBS are financial assets that represent pieces of residential mortgages.

Kerrisdale writes, “During the financial crisis, BOFI recognized that RMBS were undervalued and aggressively used depositors’ money to build up what was, by the end of FY2009, a $458 million portfolio, amounting to a whopping 35% of total assets.”

This investment by BOFI in cheap, post-financial-crisis mortgage assets was smart and has driven much of their profits in the past five years. However, these were opportunistic, non-recurring purchases. Once these assets, which are structured to last for a fixed amount of time, end or are rolled over into new assets with new terms, BOFI’s advantage versus its competition will be gone, as Kerrisdale demonstrates in this slide:

BOFI Advantage is Securities, Soon Ending

Kerrisdale continues, “Roughly 45% of the company’s securities book, equivalent to 15% of earning assets, is in non- agency RMBS with a high yield of ~5%. These securities are expected to decline by 15%-20% annually and could lead to a ~175 basis point decline in the overall securities yield. This would translate to a 25bps decline in the net interest margin over the next few years.”

And here is a demonstration of how the company’s overall earnings will be hurt by vanishing derivatives profits:

BOFI Profit Falls

Kerrisdale elaborates: “BOFI management, to its credit, recognized during the financial crisis that non-agency mortgage-backed securities were attractive investments. By putting almost a third of its balance sheet into these securities at low prices, it built up a store of future earnings that it has been gradually recognizing over time. As these assets continue to pay down, BOFI will have to reinvest at much lower yields, further depressing its NIM and reducing profitability. Moreover, in a post-Dodd-Frank regulatory environment, we question whether a bank of BOFI’s current size would ever again be allowed to make such an extreme gamble with its depositors’ money.“

Bank of Internet did make money from buying these mortgage-backed securities. Yet, as those investments expire, their money will have to be invested in new assets with different rates of return. Except….

Reason Two: Interest Rate Sensitivity Could Cause Cash Crunch

“BOFI has one of the largest negative interest-rate gaps among publicly traded banks. In other words, its assets reprice much more slowly than its liabilities. As rates increase, its funding will become dramatically more expensive, but its asset yields will stagnate. At a time when almost every high-profile bank has sacrificed short-term earnings to make its balance sheet “asset sensitive,” with assets repricing faster than liabilities and thus positively levered to higher rates, BOFI has made the opposite bet, pumping up its earnings today at the cost of returns tomorrow,” writes Kerrisdale on page four of their report.

An interest-rate gap is the difference in interest-rate sensitivity between assets and liabilities. In the case of a negative number, that means if interest rates go up, liabilities would increase faster than assets, so profits are likely to decline.

Bank of Internet’s interest-rate gap, by its own admission on page 57 of its March 2014 third quarter 10Q filing with the SEC, is -157%.

The not-so-subtle Citron explains, “Banks are not supposed to take on interest rate risk any more than a Vegas Sports Book is supposed to bet on one horse in a race. They are supposed to be structured so that most of their rate risk is hedged…. Most banks are
within 10% or 20% of zero. Any steep interest rate rise would obliterate earnings.“

BOFI’s liabilities are the deposits individuals and businesses keep at the bank (remember from personal finance 101 that you are a liability to the bank), and its assets are the loans it makes and the mortgage-backed securities it buys. The reason BOFI has such a dramatic negative interest-rate gap is that mortgage securities are long dated while deposits like savings and checking accounts can be moved around by the account holders (you and me) any time. I am admittedly not an expert on interest-rate risk management and how banks manage assets to maintain a zero interest-rate gap, but this table comparing BOFI’s rate gap to other online banks makes BOFI’s problem pretty clear.

BOFI Rate Gap

Given interest rates have been low for years, there’s not much room for rates to go lower and mostly talk of rates going higher. When the Federal Reserve chairwoman is debating whether rates will rise slowly or quickly and doesn’t even mention them declining further, that should scare the crap out of BOFI.

“Even a modest increase in interest rates, which is largely expected at this point, will result in a relatively significant reduction in BOFI’s earnings power due to the rapid increase in funding costs for its deposit base. Larger rate increases would put BOFI in a position where it could have capital shortfalls,” adds Kerrisdale.

In plain English, Kerrisdale is saying when interest rates rise, the short-term depositors will cost the company more money because the rates for their savings accounts will be higher. But because so much of BOFI’s money is tied up in mortgage loans and securities that it can’t get cash out of quickly, the company could be in a position where it’s tight on money.

Company management probably sees this coming since they announced two weeks ago they will be raising $50 million by selling more stock. Even if this works in protecting them from a cash shortfall, selling additional stock diminishes the value of current shareholders stocks and will probably push the stock price lower as the new shares hit the market.

One would think that if a company is systemically at risk of running out of short-term cash, even with a low probability, and is selling its own stock ownership stake for more money, it’d start getting conservative with the cash it does have. But if you’re Bank of Internet, conservatism is for wusses. Why ensure the future stability of your business when you can double down on a new risky business venture….

Reason Three: Regulatory Risk in New Stored Value Card Business and H&R Block Bank Acquisition

In April, BOFI and H&R Block announced a deal for BOFI to buy H&R Block Bank (a subdivision of H&R Block) for $200-$250 million. In exchange, BOFI receives $450 to $550 million in customer deposits and prepaid card balances. Prepaid cards are generally things like gift cards or metropolitan subway cards where there is no account connected to the card. The money is tied directly to the card. However, there are businesses that issue these kinds of cards for other general purposes.

There is notable increased regulatory risk with the new prepaid card business BOFI is in the process of acquiring.

In June, The Bancorp’s stock was cut by 20% in a single day by a “Consent Order” issued to them by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to improve their regulatory compliance (read the list of required company changes in Bancorp’s SEC filing here). The Bancorp is the USA’s largest issuer of prepaid or “stored value” cards.

Poor Bancorp

An article by Computer Services Incorporated explains why the government cares so much about the prepaid card business. It’s ripe for terrorist activity. Since there is no account linked to a prepaid card, these cards can be used as an alternative to cash, and used for illegal purposes with no name or bank attached.

This became apparent in 2010 when prepaid cards issued by Meta Financial (the second largest issuer of stored value cards in the country) were used by the suspects of the assassination of HAMAS commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Meta Financial was quickly dealt regulatory fines which also cut their stock in half and required many years to recover.

Meta Financial 2010

The government has a slew of new rules (such as the Prepaid Access Rule, the Bank Secrecy Act, and Anti-Money Laundering Rules) banks must comply with to avoid fines and penalties.

This regulatory risk is Citron’s primary short thesis:

“Citron notes that we are not saying that BOFI either supports illicit activities or even that stored value cards do not offer useful service. What we are observing is this area of the business will soon get disrupted and stay disrupted for a long time.

BOFI added to their risk of regulation with their recent acquisition of H&R Block bank. Citron notes that The Street’s initial euphoria over the H&R Block deal has completely worn off – the stock rallied from 75 to 100, but has now retraced all the way back to where it was before the deal was announced. The reason? The Street wised up to the reality that nobody else wanted H&R Block’s bank because of the regulatory risk – principally, becoming a major player in the stored value card space.

Here’s the issue, according to the CFO of a huge credit union who didn’t want to be named in the article: “It’s very difficult for a bank in the Stored Value Card business to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA – the banking regulation on money laundering) because the bank needs to verify every person who buys a Stored Value card. For example, if they give that card to someone else there are possible compliance problems. Without an over-the-counter deposit and withdrawal system, tracking the stored value cards is difficult. The government is highly concerned with terrorism activity right now and Stored Value represents a high-growth potential problem that needs tight regulation.“

I’m just speculating, but it seems to me that Bank of Internet is most likely buying into the prepaid card business in an effort to boost top line revenues and its total depositor and asset numbers. It’s an attempt at keeping up its high growth while exposing its internal operations to painful compliance cost increases and/or regulatory fines.

Reason Four: Fundamentally Overvalued

Disregarding the potential increased regulatory costs, Bank of Internet is overvalued right now at its market price.

Kerrisdale has done a better valuation job than I can. They’ve taken two approaches to deciding what BOFI is really worth: First, they calculate what they think the company is reasonably worth. Second, they take the company’s $73 per share, over $1 billion valuation and figure out what the company would have to do to earn this valuation.

Kerrisdale finds, using its model, that BOFI is worth $48.34 per share.

Kerrisdale BOFI Valuation

So what would BOFI’s business have to look like for it to earn enough money to be worth $73 per share?

Market BOFI Valuation

Here are the remarkable conclusions Kerrisdale draws from this model:

  • BOFI will have to triple its deposits by 2021 from $2.4 billion to $7.5 billion. Kerrisdale notes that US GDP growth is only a couple percent annually, so most of these deposits would have to be taken from competition, not economic growth. This would have to be accomplished while competition is increasing.
  • BOFI must maintain Net Interest Margins at 3.5%. Due to BOFI’s negative interest rate gap, a rise in interest rates will destroy its margins.

For an easier side-by-side comparison based on simpler metrics like price-to-book (for the non-finance readers, book value basically being the value of a company’s assets minus its liabilities), Citron put together these handy tables:

BOFI Price to Book Overvalued

Reason Five: The CEO and CFO Previously Ran Two Financial Firms….Which Went Bankrupt

My personal favorite reason to be skeptical of Bank of Internet is that it’s top management has a pretty poor record for running financial institutions.

Chief Executive Officer Gregory Garrabants was previous job was Senior Vice President in charge of business development at IndyMac until October 2007. IndyMac was the seventh largest mortgage originator in the United States. That is, until the housing crisis began in 2007 when the stock collapsed, the company’s mortgages and mortgage-backed securities lost money, and IndyMac was put into government “conservatorship” in 2008, becoming the fifth largest bank failure in US history.

Chief Financial Officer Andrew Micheleti was Controller and Vice President of Finance of Imperial Savings. Imperial used depositor money in the 1980s to buy junk bonds from the now-defunct investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert. Both Drexel and Imperial would not survive the 90s (Drexel shut down after its leader Michael Milken went to jail and Imperial was taken over by the Federal government before it lost all its depositors’ money).

Given management’s background and the mortgage-related investments previously explained, what Greg and Andrew have done with their careers is this: Learn as much as possible about the mortgage and mortgage securitization industry as possible, find conservative financial companies that are moseying along, come in as upper management aiming to juice profits with risky mortgage loans and derivatives bets, cash out (as evidenced by Garrabant’s $2 million in compensation just last year), and move on when the company crashes when the penalty for short term risks over long term sustainability comes calling.

It’s ingenious really: pump up a shaky market, pay yourself good money while it goes up, quit as it’s about to collapse, and come back after everything has crashed and buy back all the old crappy assets you sold to people at higher prices just a couple years prior on the cheap. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s possible for Greg and Andrew to have learned from their previous debacles how to run and grow a sustainable bank. However, given the derivatives on their balance sheet I’ve shown earlier, the damning narrative seems to fit.

How I Could Be Wrong

With any idea, it’s important to try and figure out how it could be wrong, and an easy way to do that is support the inverse of your arguments. Any of the following items could help Bank of Internet grow profitably and prove me wrong. For their sake, I hope so.

  • The OCC or FDIC Do Not Force New Compliance Costs: If for some reason the government does not take action against BOFI for its prepaid card business, then this new division could add to the profitability of the company.
  • Interest Rates Remain Low For Years: If interest rates remain low, then BOFI’s net interest margins will take longer to decline.
  • BOFI Improves Its Organic Growth: Of course, if BOFI improves its competitive position either through improved loan selection and underwriting, improved marketing/branding to consumers, or some new investments I’m unaware of that could replicate the success of its mortgage-backed securities portfolio, then it could outgrow its competitors. There is little sign of any of these things happening, but they’re not impossible either.

The Bottom Line

Given all the reasons why BOFI’s stock may take a hit, it seems unlikely they can avoid them all. Even if earnings and their deposit base grow, interest rates stay low, and their H&R Block Bank acquisition is purely beneficial, the company is still valued at twice the earnings multiple of its competitors, leaving buyers less room for potential upside. If any of these positive pillars holding the stock up collapse, investors will be inclined to reevaluate their position. If we learned anything from the financial crisis, it’s that our banks should not be treated as high-flying growth businesses. This is particularly true when the growth is from investing in the types of derivatives that caused the last financial crisis from executives who crashed companies in that crisis.

Books Read in the First Half of 2014

My previous book review posts have been some of my most popular, so I’ll continue to post reviews every six months. This time around I’ll add some context for how I designate my ratings:

One Star: I would not recommend to anyone for any number of reasons (poorly written, lack of content, or plain unreadable).

Two Stars: Generally would not recommend, but tends to have a few worthwhile moments that would merit skimming.

Three Stars: Recommended, but either covers too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience or doesn’t offer enough depth to be really interesting.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended due to superb writing or research material. These books could expertly appeal to a wide audience or cover their source subject so thoroughly to be authoritative accounts of their topic.

As I’ve done previously, I’ll continue to pick one book as my “Best Book Read in the Past Six Months”, which is generally the Five Star book which I loved and feel others could connect with as well.

Last note: I typically exclude textbooks. The line between non-fiction and textbook is grey. When it comes to defining something as a non-fiction, non-textbook, I respond as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once did: “I know it when I see it.”

Here the books I’ve read thus far in 2014.

Two Stars:

Trading with the Enemy: Seduction and Betrayal on Jim Cramer’s Wall Street by Nicholas Maier -

I’m generally a fan of Jim Cramer’s (having met him briefly and taking his show with a shaker of salt). Hearing a book by an ex-employee was published claiming Cramer’s hedge fund committed nefarious market manipulation and front-running in the 90s, it was only fair of me to read it and weigh it against my bias. Sadly, the story is thin (read the whole thing in a couple hours!) and the writing is high school amateurism. I was entertained, but if the Maier’s intent was to whisteblow on Cramer’s potentially unethical activities, one would think he’d approach it with more professionalism.

Three Stars:

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis -

The weakest of the Michael Lewis books I’ve read. The New New Thing chronicles the experiences of technology entrepreneur Jim Clark as he comes from nowhere to become one of the central figures of the dot-com boom. Published in 2000 just before the crash, the book seeps optimism for the new economy and its new new things. What keeps this book from being as interesting as Lewis’s others is that Jim Clark himself is mostly not as interesting as Michael Oher in The Blind Side, Billy Beane in Moneyball, or the short-sellers in The Big Short. Lewis loses focus midway through the book with chapters on Clark’s high-tech yacht. Despite understanding that it’s really a metaphor for Clark’s vision and ambitions, it’s doesn’t hold your attention. The bulk of the character development is saved for the final chapter, which gives The New New Thing a strong finish, but in a character-driven story, it means most of the book lacks all the intrigue which gets shoehorned in at the end.

No Regrets by n+1 -

This second roundtable discussion from the growing literary magazine’s staff focuses on two questions: What do we regret in our youth, and what should the relationship between women and literature be? As in the previously reviewed “What We Should Have Known”, the editors are simultaneously insightful and relatable. Compared to the aforementioned book, No Regrets wasn’t as relatable to me personally due to the feminine focus. A worthwhile read for men regardless.

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams -

“Nothing in this book should be seen as advice. It’s never a good idea to take advice from cartoonists,” writes the Dilbert creator. He probably wrote that knowing that he had essentially written a self-help book. I typically avoid the genre, but who wouldn’t want to hear how to become rich and happy from one of the most famous and hilarious comic creators in history? It doesn’t hurt that he’s an entertaining writer outside of comic strip boxes too. Most of what he writes is truly valuable, giving his anecdotal experiences with low carb diets, weightlifting, and generally being lucky (and unlucky) in life.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis -

Lewis still knows how to make complex, high stakes, and high finance stories entertaining. This book still follows the structure of most of his books: A disenchanted industry insider makes radical moves to reshape his part of an industry. Flash Boys’s failing is that, while Lewis explains the problems with high-frequency trading well, he doesn’t really present in the book enough content from what goes on inside those firms. Other than listing Citadel, Virtu Financial, and some talk of big bank dark pools, he doesn’t turn any of them into a real villain. Whether that’s due to a lack of access to insiders or more interest in telling a different story, I’m not sure.

Four Stars:

Young Money: Inside the World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits by Kevin Roose -

In an impressive piece of journalism, Roose follows almost a dozen recent college grads over multiple years in New York City as they live the investment banker lifestyle post-financial crisis. Roose does a solid job of painting a picture of an industry still living more lavishly than it deserves, yet slowly rotting from the inside as new recruits start to jade and question their lives sooner.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone -

This biography of Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is a solid piece of modern internet business journalism. Despite spending limited time on Amazon’s initial growth (the company goes from $0 to $1 billion in sales in what seems like twenty pages), Stone’s writing vividly expresses Bezos’s early understanding of the Internet’s potential and ruthless drive toward a digital future.

MFA vs NYC by n+1 -

The latest essay collection from n+1 polls its various contributors for their thoughts on one of modern literature’s major questions: Is it better to go to grad school or work your way up through industry. In this case “grad school” means an MFA program and “industry” is the New York City publishing houses. This basic premise can really be expanded to other industries and the perspectives provided here could be helpful to anyone, not just aspiring writers.

Coders at Work by Peter Seibel -

I believe a good way to learn about a field of study is to read candid discussions between experts in said field. Coders at Work is a collection of Seibel’s interviews with some of the premier coders and computer scientists of our time. Despite being occasionally too technical for a casual reader, it contains so much wisdom for programming and project management that I’d still probably recommend it to non-programmers. Google whatever terms in the book you don’t understand.

The Secret Club that Runs the World: Inside the Fraternity of Commodity Traders by Kate Kelly -

After three years of interviews, tracking down quiet, powerful people worldwide, and learning an opaque industry, Kelly entertains and educates on a sector of the financial markets that, until recently, has largely escaped public scrutiny.

Five Stars:

Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein -

If you’ve ever heard a politician speak and considered if assassinating a political figure would qualify as a public good, then this is the book for you. From the authors of the equally brilliant “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar”, “Aristotle and an Aardvark” teaches the philosophical concepts of logical fallacies with examples from United States politicians. I wish Cathcart and Klein could teach every academic subject. We’d all learn a lot more if our teachers were better jokesters.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin -

Few books I’ve ever read are as immediately impactful as Born Standing Up is within the first thirty pages. Martin, once atop the comedy business, opens his old wounds to readers, vividly teaching us the struggles required to earn greatness. Martin spends the majority of the story on the destitution of his twenties, only to quickly and quietly cover the lightning bolt that was his rise to fame. Few stories are as succinctly honest as Born Standing Up.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz -

Former entrepreneur and current venture capitalist Ben Horowitz compiles the lessons he’s learned in his business career. I particularly enjoyed this book more than most business books I read because of his very honest approach. I agree with his fundamental message: Every company is unique, which is what makes business difficult, so to claim there is one roadmap to business success for everyone is naive. All an advice-giver can give is personal anecdotes and lessons learned. That’s exactly what Horowitz does here, and it’s appreciated.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman -

I’ve yet to read something by Feynman which wasn’t brilliant. This particular collection of Feynman tales packs more emotional punch than most of his previous collections. The essay about his wife’s early death (from which the title is pulled) is the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. For the intellectuals, half the book is dedicated to Feynman’s fascinating work uncovering the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. It concludes with his essay, “The Value of Science”, which should be made mandatory reading for all middle school science students. If I had read it at age 14, I’d have probably become a physicist. I’d have certainly become a better person.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss -

Biographers have perhaps the hardest jobs of all those who consider themselves writers. It must be tough to balance years of journalism (hunting down sources, engaging people in interviews over topics that have long since occurred, foraging for faded photographs from lost eras) and bring the research into a compelling story equal in size and scope to fictional novels. The biographer is aided by one reality: Often, truth is stranger than fiction.

Every winter, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people witness the Super Bowl. Every year, the winner of that championship game hoists what’s called “the Lombardi Trophy”. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, opens up the Vince Lombardi legend with a level of journalistic research I have not read since All the President’s Men. Lombardi is both humanized and mythologized simultaneously. The highest praise I can give Maraniss and “When Pride Still Mattered” is that it takes a seemingly simple idea, the biography of a football coach, and use it as a piece of glass: a lens through which we can see the past and a mirror in which we see our present. Regardless of how you look at it, the image is never as clear as we want it to look.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb -

A significant achievement in modern thought. In his magnum opus, Taleb culminates a lifetime of research and his unique insight into his concept of “antifragility”. Without explaining it in depth here, the book demonstrates experimentally, mathematically, and philosophically how systems and societies should be designed to improve from stress. Bending and growing from adversity, rather than breaking like so many things seem to do in our current era. Taleb commits a sort of philosophical biomimicry, taking most of his ideas either from his observations of nature (of the human variety and otherwise) or expanding upon past thinkers who did the same. If I could install a mandatory philosophy course into the school system, this would be required reading.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2014:

Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John Bogle -

Bogle, the founder asset management firm The Vanguard Group, has written a manifesto for reforming the moral fiber of the United States. It’s important for those who have greatly benefited from the financial system to come out and say that it’s broken and should be smaller. He does that and more by extrapolating the problems of the financial sector as caused by a systemic breakdown in how our society conducts business at large. The chapters are short, to the point, and data supported. The chapter titles (such as “Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value” and “Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct”) should be printed out on a poster. Short of hanging that on your bedroom wall, you should at least read this book.

A Casual Conversation on Tech Valuations

“The Bubble Question” is the title of a recent Fred Wilson blog and the frequently asked question: “Are we in an stock market and/or technology company valuation bubble?”

Fred Wilson is a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, prolific venture capital blogger, and (from what I’ve gathered reading his blog for years) a pretty smart guy. Given his position, he gets asked the aforementioned question quite often and laid out his current conclusive response via blog. The gist of his explanation for the bubble is:

“valuations are at extreme levels because you cannot get a decent return on your money doing anything else…. really just one factor (cheap money/low rates)… is the root cause of the valuation environment we are in. And the answer to when/if it will end comes down to when/if the global economy starts growing more rapidly and sucking up the excess liquidity and policy makers start tightening up the easy money regime. I have no idea when and if that will happen. But until it does, I believe we will continue to see eye popping EBITDA multiples for high growth tech companies…. It’s been a good time to be in the VC and startup business and I think it will continue to be as long as the global economy is weak and rates are low.”

After having read Fred’s blog and my recent analysis of Castlight Health, my good friend and old Heyzap coworker Micah Facebook asked me for my thoughts on the tech bubble discussion. With his permission, I’ve posted the transcript from our April 24th conversation which contains my simplified explanation of the outrageous tech company valuations we are currently seeing and other thoughts on the internet industry.

Note: After the transcript I’ve included some further references related to points in the discussion. I also realize some comments in the conversations are over-simplified, but my friends/readership fall all along the spectrum of economics knowledge, so I usually opt for over-simplifying and clarifying details for those who ask. Any comments, critiques, or elaborations are welcome at loganfrederick@gmail.com.


Part One: Shortly Before Leaving Work, Micah Asks Me a Question

4/24, 5:10pm – Micah Fivecoate: So, does Fred’s post explain Castlight?

4/24, 5:10pm – Logan Frederick: I haven’t read through his post yet
But Just from the comments
It is a big part of it
I will respond tonight
After I read his article

4/24, 5:10pm – Micah Fivecoate: I don’t understand yet how it’s tech-specific

4/24, 5:10pm – Logan Frederick: Basically the simplified chain is
Fed lowers interest rates -> Means it’s really cheap to borrow money -> So everyone starts borrowing money -> That money is expected to be put to work to earn a return -> But given the economy now, a lot of industries and assets do not look that appealing -> Tech/internet sector looked pretty strong coming out of financial crisis with increased usage and actual revenues/profits from the giants -> Investors with cheap cash view that as the best place to get a return -> All the money goes into tech

4/24, 5:13pm – Micah Fivecoate: Ah, okay

4/24, 5:13pm – Logan Frederick: Even more basic, it’s just two factors: Tech companies look like the biggest growth opportunity compared to all other asset class, and the Federal Reserve policy makes it very easy for investors to get money to invest in tech

4/24, 5:13pm – Micah Fivecoate: So, it’s a combo of free money + tech looking good

4/24, 5:13pm – Logan Frederick: Yeah
That’s really it
If/when Fed rates rise
It will surely hurt tech company valuations
Even as some commenters said it would be a signal the economy is stronger or inflation is higher
But regardless, less money would be available for investment
So some companies might do better with higher interest rates, but overall valuations will be lower in real terms

4/24, 5:15pm – Micah Fivecoate: Wonder what would do better with higher interest rates
I guess any co with lots of cash
or that facilitates loans

4/24, 5:16pm – Logan Frederick: Well assuming rates go higher because of a strong economy, you could reasonably expect that the large tech companies would be doing well

4/24, 5:16pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh

4/24, 5:16pm – Logan Frederick: The fed interest rate moves
Are more a trailing indicator
“Oh, economy is strong? Then we raise rates”
But your point was right as well to a degree, a company with a lot of cash can weather a rate increase better because it does not need to borrow

4/24, 5:18pm – Micah Fivecoate: So, is the effect to slow change when things are strong, and accelerate change when the economy is weak?

4/24, 5:18pm – Logan Frederick: Yep
That’s the basis of Monetary Policy

4/24, 5:18pm – Micah Fivecoate: cool

4/24, 5:19pm – Logan Frederick: You can continue down the rabbit hole of Monetary Policy theory, but all the research and debates are about what is the best mechanism for maintaining/finding the right equilibrium of economic strength or growth in relation to interest rates
The libertarian/anti-Fed Reserve crowd’s argument boils down to: The Fed does more to deviate us from the right equilibrium than help
In the pre-modern Federal Reserve era (pre-1917 if I have the year right)
Individual banks set their interest rates
I could go on and on, but I am packing up at work
Will respond more after reading Fred’s blog

4/24, 5:22pm – Micah Fivecoate: Cool, I’ll read up a bit on monetary policy in the meantime

4/24, 5:22pm – Logan Frederick: lol Good deal, see ya in an hour

4/24, 5:22pm – Micah Fivecoate: later


Part Two: An hour later with a glass of wine and dinner at Logan Bar and Grill


4/24, 6:16pm – Logan Frederick: I did not realize that this blog post
Was the same one posted a month ago

4/24, 6:17pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh

4/24, 6:17pm – Logan Frederick: I didn’t fully read it then either
Halfway through, don’t see anything I disagree with and is pretty simple finance
I like Fred
It’s pretty simple finance but his readership is tech folk
So it’s good to post this kind of analysis
So Finished his post
Agree with it all, but it’s only half the story
Which is disappointing

4/24, 6:20pm – Micah Fivecoate: Yeah, it wasn’t clear from his post why the money would be going in to tech

4/24, 6:21pm – Logan Frederick: Well that’s not what I meant by half the story

4/24, 6:21pm – Micah Fivecoate: oh

4/24, 6:21pm – Logan Frederick
But that’s also true
But I filled in that part for you
That you can draw, from his post

4/24, 6:21pm – Micah Fivecoate: yeah
4/24, 6:21pm – Logan Frederick:
If you judge things by growth rate
Tech offers the best right now
And always, really
I don’t like “tech” as a sector term
I prefer “software” or “internet”

4/24, 6:22pm – Micah Fivecoate: oh, makes sense
“tech” isn’t necessarily the same sort of low-marginal cost business

4/24, 6:23pm – Logan Frederick: Well I just mean it as tech is too vague a term
In a recent copy of Intelligent Investor, editor Jason Zweig overlays one of the tech stocks of the 80s (IBM I think) on top of General Motors in the 1920s and it’s the exact same. Because General Motors was the “tech” of that era

4/24, 6:23pm – Micah Fivecoate: hah, yeah

4/24, 6:23pm – Logan Frederick: But that’s semantics

4/24, 6:24pm – Micah Fivecoate: barnes and noble isn’t doing too well with their printing press tech

4/24, 6:24pm – Logan Frederick: Your point is valid too, in that different “tech” companies have different business models
Barnes and Noble has a lot of issues and I should look again at shorting them maybe
It’s scary now that they keep decreasing in market cap, someone will take them over before they go bankrupt (possibly)
Hard to short in that situation

4/24, 6:25pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh, yeah

4/24, 6:25pm – Logan Frederick: I can guarantee some PE firm has run numbers on them
If it’s a takeover candidate or not

4/24, 6:26pm – Micah Fivecoate: Yea, it’s pretty high-profile

4/24, 6:26pm – Logan Frederick: High profile, really the only monopoly in the space left, even if it is a shitty industry of bookstores
But that’s the job of a PE guy, run the numbers of what their debts are, do they own their real estate locations? What’s the value there?
How many costs can be cut?
If we can get them for $100 or $200 million, can we reconfigure them to spit out enough free cash flow to cover whatever debt they have/we add AND give us a private equity level return?

4/24, 6:35pm – Logan Frederick: I should turn this into a blog post
And write a blog post in response to Fred’s
I did not elaborate on what I meant as “the other half of the story”, which is what happens when interest rates rise again to the levels he suggests in the post

4/24, 6:36pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh, yeah

4/24, 6:36pm – Logan Frederick: And that’s the sound of the bubble popping
The high valuations will end either when the Fed decides to raise interest rates (by their indications 2016 I think?) or when companies with high valuations fully realize that they can not earn returns on their investments
Whichever comes first

4/24, 6:37pm -Micah Fivecoate: the giant sucking sound of all the money leaving SV

4/24, 6:37pm – Logan Frederick: At least some of it, yes
I’m still a big believer in tech and think software still has a lot of room to run

4/24, 6:38pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh, are they planning to raise rates in 2016?
looks like
maybe going to 2%ish in 2016?

4/24, 6:42pm – Logan Frederick: But I think people forget that software is meant to improve things and that largely means taking process which cost $100 using humans to cost $10 using machines, but that generally speaking means a lot of software companies don’t need to be as big as companies of old
Paul Graham says as much in one of his essays
The goal should be maximizing profit per employee. Can you have a billion dollar company with only 10 people?
Software shouldn’t require a business to need to be valued at $100 billion
You can replace General Motors with new high tech cars…at a lower valuation
I’m kind of shooting ideas from the hip, but you could vet them out and qualify them where need be, but the general point stands I think

4/24, 6:43pm – Micah Fivecoate: What principle does the rev/employee metric maximize?

4/24, 6:44pm – Logan Frederick: Well from the PG essay he was just talking about software leveraging human talent, that was his point there
I’m sort of adding on that you could make the link that PG’s point implies valuations don’t need to be as big to have as significant an impact/be as disruptive
A five person, $10 million company could hypothetically replace a 10,000, $10 billion company
Craigslist versus the newspapers as an example

4/24, 6:45pm – Micah Fivecoate: Yeah, i guess it’s how you define disruptive

4/24, 6:45pm – Logan Frederick: So then why, taking it a step further, are investors and tech entrepreneurs *seeking* valuations larger than the company is intrinsically worth

4/24, 6:45pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh, and the profits of the $10B company just dissipate into the market at large

4/24, 6:45pm – Logan Frederick: Intrinsically judged by how much money they actually make over a future time span
Exactly

4/24, 6:46pm – Micah Fivecoate
Shouldn’t the smaller company be able to keep profits as high?
like, costs could go down
maybe the profits would fall because the competition could implement the same software, and there wouldn’t be as much room for differentiation
or just it’s harder to justify to customers such a large profit margin
or is valuation tied in some way to gross revenue rather than net

4/24, 6:49pm – Logan Frederick: If a new software startup has costs of revenue (cost of providing the service) much lower than an old non-software company in the industry, the company won’t keep their price point at the same as old company because their customer’s substitution costs wouldn’t be affected. Their disruption will lower the costs to customers, and then depending on the industry, competition could drive those lower over time
Yeah, I typed that as you typed, but basically you as a new disruptive company would have higher profit margins, but lower prices than your old incumbent

4/24, 6:50pm – Micah Fivecoate: yeah
So you can initially keep the same profit, but lower price due to lower costs
but then other people start competing with you with software
and that’s what takes the valuation down

4/24, 6:52pm – Logan Frederick: Well valuation goes down even before your second step of competition

4/24, 6:52pm – Micah Fivecoate: because they know it’s coming?

4/24, 6:52pm – Logan Frederick: Well no, I take my last statement back
This would be an empirical question, but I would guess most software that very directly replaces an old manual task
Does not have gross profits greater than the old manual business
That’s hard to test empirically I think because most software replaces a cost of an old manual task
So you’d have to say, what were people spending on process A that was replaced with software product B
And cost of B is probably less than A
So in terms of valuation
It’s odd to word it this way
But what was the “valuation” of the dollars spent on A versus the valuation of company B
But I would guess if you did that kind of test
B is significantly lower
And that’s my point of valuation being naturally lower

4/24, 6:55pm – Micah Fivecoate: Weird
It seems like if one company can provide the same service at a lower cost
they should have a higher valuation
Might be running in to some sort of efficient-market fallacy

4/24, 6:56pm – Logan Frederick: I always view valuation in terms of return on investment
If the cost and price are lower
You can have a high ROI and still come up with a valuation number lower than the old incumbent
And then like you said earlier
If the ROI is *that* good
Then competition comes in and keeps everything in check like prices, cost, valuation

4/24, 6:58pm – Micah Fivecoate: Yeah
I guess, I’m thinking if the incumbent charges $100 for a product that costs them $90 to produce
and the disruptor charges $90 for $10 cost
then disruptor should have a higher valuation

4/24, 6:59pm – Logan Frederick: That is true

4/24, 6:59pm – Micah Fivecoate: but it probably just rarely works out so well
and then competition

4/24, 7:00pm – Logan Frederick: And that’s where it’s a case by case basis and where I think the tech industry screws up
I agree with your statement
Maybe half of software companies are like that
And another half, the bad ones, think they are doing that but are really only charging $20 at a $10 cost or charging $90 at an $80 cost, and so shouldn’t have a higher valuation
But because they are “tech” they and others think they should have the same multiples

4/24, 7:01pm – Micah Fivecoate: Hah, yeah

4/24, 7:01pm – Logan Frederick: And that’s part of why you get bubbles
Businesses thinking they can achieve a level of profitability and margins that similar-ish companies have
But really the business is not the same
And they don’t achieve it
And I guess my larger point would be
There is nothing wrong with *not* having the best margins
You just have to accept your okay margins and profits and accept that your valuation will be okay
But in a bubbly environment, every company thinks they will have the best margins, profits, and a valuation that their real margins and profits do not justify

4/24, 7:04pm – Micah Fivecoate:
Makes sense
So, is that purely because there’s too much money that wants in on this market

4/24, 7:06pm – Logan Frederick:
Yeah, so companies raising money can get away with it
If there wasn’t as much money available, investors would be more picky

4/24, 7:07pm – Micah Fivecoate: Doesn’t seem like the risk tolerance would shift with the amount of $ available
maybe it does though

4/24, 7:08pm – Logan Frederick: I could be wrong, but I think it does, although long-term it has been trending toward high valuations and more entrepreneur control, specifically in the computer software and hardware industries. Over decades that may continue.
But I say the risk tolerance does shift
Because VCs, the main drivers of these valuations, have investors themselves
And in weaker economic climates
There is a real possibility of VC investors, the big funds, saying they won’t do as much VC investing
And if VCs are worried about bad returns
They will get more choosey when it comes to investing

4/24, 7:09pm – Micah Fivecoate: Oh, interesting

4/24, 7:09pm – Logan Frederick: I can think of some counterarguments on both the high and low end though
On the high end, you could argue that VCs will still pay whatever it takes to get into the clear winners, the “next Google”
And on the low end, the dollar amounts are so low it doesn’t hurt them to continue this
And that leads into what people have been saying about Series A and B crunches
Companies in the middle of these two places who haven’t proved their worth to VCs that they can earn big returns but need more money than seed rounds can provide
I dunno how valid the Series A or B crunch is based on a few articles I’ve read, but that logic I just laid out would explain why it exists
VCs are just increasingly worried about investments in those stages

4/24, 7:11pm – Micah Fivecoate: Yeah

4/24, 7:11pm – Logan Frederick: Series D is safe
Seed is safe
By VC math

4/24, 7:11pm – Micah Fivecoate: right

4/24, 7:12pm – Logan Frederick: Any other thoughts/questions for me?
That I can come up with half-assed, on the spot answers for


Notes:

  1. Regarding my comment about wanting to maximize revenue per employee from Paul Graham, I tried finding the exact PG comment I had in mind. My memory of it may have been off. His essay “How to Start a Startup” has the closest passage to what I was thinking that I could find quickly:

    “If hiring unnecessary people is expensive and slows you down, why do nearly all companies do it? I think the main reason is that people like the idea of having a lot of people working for them. This weakness often extends right up to the CEO. If you ever end up running a company, you’ll find the most common question people ask is how many employees you have. This is their way of weighing you. It’s not just random people who ask this; even reporters do. And they’re going to be a lot more impressed if the answer is a thousand than if it’s ten.

    This is ridiculous, really. If two companies have the same revenues, it’s the one with fewer employees that’s more impressive.”

  2. My comments at the end about Seed funding and late stage funding being safe for venture capitalists is based on discussion in the past six months on what the media called the “Series A” and “B” crunches. There was debate on whether there was a trend in venture capital of increasing investments in really young or really old companies, but a lack of investment for companies in the middle. Google “Series A Crunch” or “Series B Crunch” for more details.

Castlight Health Casts Bright Light on Market Bubble

Disclaimer: I shorted (bet against) Castlight Health on April 1 at $23.21 and held this position until Friday, April 11 when I exited at $16.99. I exited to lock in my winnings, but as this essay explains, Castlight is still overvalued and I may short them again. Any reader unfamiliar with “short selling” stocks should reference Investopedia’s introduction to short selling.

Additionally, it’s hard to complete these writeups in my evenings in a timely manner while the market continues to move. I began writing a week and a half ago when I shorted Castlight and had a number of friends, such as Andrew Virata, Reece Arthur, Ben Gilbert and others, aware of Castlight. This note is here to add credibility so it doesn’t look like I’m writing the analysis after the stock has already moved in my favor. Additionally, I have uploaded a zip folder where you can download Castlight’s income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statements in Excel format and the PDF of their public FORM 424B4 filing from which most the research was derived.

“We expect to continue to incur operating losses for the foreseeable future and may never become profitable on a quarterly or annual basis, or if we do, we may not be able to sustain profitability in subsequent periods. As a result of these factors, we may need to raise additional capital through debt or equity financings in order to fund our operations, and such capital may not be available on reasonable terms, if at all. “ – Castlight Health, Page 13 of Form 424B4.

Castlight Health is an internet business which went public on March 17, selling 11.1 million shares at $16 per share, raising approximately $161.2 million for the company ($177.6 million from the public stock sale, but a $12.4 million fee for the bankers). On the first day of trading, the stock rocketed 149% to $40 per share, valuing Castlight at over $4 billion.

In 2013, this business lost $62 million on sales of $13 million. Since it went public a month ago, the stock has dropped over 50%. This is where I start my analysis of what Yahoo has deemed “the most overpriced IPO of the century.” I do not disagree.

What is Castlight Health? It is a web app for enabling employers and employees to easily view and manage their health care and insurance plans. It’s leading application is called Castlight Medical which they say, “simplifies health care decision making for employees and their families by providing highly relevant, personalized information for medical services that enable informed choices before, during and after receiving health care,” and “enables employees and their families to intuitively search for robust and comprehensive information about medical providers, including personalized out-of-pocket cost estimates, clinical quality, user experience and provider demographic information.”

Castlight App Screenshot

How does one lose $62 million in one year building a website for health data? And how is it still in business?

Castlight’s Income Statement

“I would say there is no one here who can understand some new internet company. I said at the annual meeting this year that, if I were teaching a class in business school, on the final exam I would pass out the information on an internet company and ask each student to value it and anybody who gave me an answer I’d flunk.” – Warren Buffett’s Q&A at the University of Florida in 1998

When I first noticed Castlight and it passed my eyeball test as a terrible stock, I wanted to see if I could possibly value the company. I quickly relented.

Castlight filed its Form 424B4 paperwork to the SEC on March 14 which includes all the required information for a company selling public stock. This document contains the company’s historical performance going back to 2011. Typically a financial analyst will use these SEC filings to do a Discounted Cash Flow analysis (link to my introductory tutorial on the subject), but with a company burning through as much cash as Castlight (and many other internet businesses) the DCF analysis quickly breaks. The primary problem is that, unlike a more mature company, or even a barely profitable one, you can’t even begin to predict the company’s future with any degree of confidence or reliability. The two sub-problems when making those future predictions are projecting future revenue increases and cost decreases. In looking at Castlight, I realized I had few ideas on how either of those line items would look over the next five years.

Here is their slightly organized income statement (numbers are in millions):

Castlight Income Statement

The last row, Castlight’s earnings, paints a pretty grim picture of not just three consecutive years of losses, but increasingly large losses. While revenue (row three) has grown substantially, costs (rows five and nine) have grown faster.

Castlight is an enterprise software company, so initial development and sales expenses are likely to be higher than mainstream consumer software. Yet after three years, these numbers clearly show a company that’s been lighting dollar bills on fire with matches in front of large customers for a pittance.

Castlight’s Customers

Page 82 of Castlight’s filing lists its top customers: Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Eaton, Indiana University, Microsoft, Mondelez, Purdue, Safeway, Honeywell and others. While this is a seemingly impressive group, they only totaled $13 million in revenue. If you can’t become profitable with Wal-Mart and Microsoft as your customers (two firms with a large number of employees), how many customers and how large do your future orders need to be? By Castlight’s own admission, Wal-Mart accounted for about $2 million of the $13 million in revenue under a contract which expires in 2015. Are there potential customers bigger than Wal-Mart who are willing to pay more than $2 million? With $58 million in selling and administrative expenses, it’s unclear if Castlight has figured out how to sell services at a higher price than it costs to do the selling (I could have phrased this much less glowingly).

In Castlight’s defense, they dedicate page 83 to “Customer Case Studies”, examples of their application saving companies or their employees money on health insurance. For Honeywell, “employees who used Castlight to shop for laboratory services paid 14% less than those who did not search (February 2012 through September 2013).” This would be more impressive if it weren’t preceded by: “Castlight developed a health care management platform that connected Honeywell health care vendors in a single integrated solution and offered employees a consistent user experience and message.“

Although Castlight Medical is a web application, their business model is not entirely Software-as-a-Service. A large component of their revenues is from “professional services”.

Professional Services

Professional Services is their consulting business of customizing its software suite for each client, which they say typically takes three to twelve months. While there are highly successful consulting businesses, the profit margins on such an employee-heavy business model are typically worse than a pure software business.

In its own documentation, Castlight almost creates a paradox. On page 50 under the section “Key Factors Affecting Our Performance”, the company says about its Professional Services business:

“We believe our professional services capabilities support the adoption of our subscription offerings. As a result, our sales efforts have been focused primarily on our subscription offering, rather than the profitability of our professional services business. Our professional services are generally priced on a fixed-fee basis and the costs incurred to complete these services, which consist mainly of personnel-related costs, have been greater than the amount charged to the customer…. These factors contributed to our gross loss percentage from professional services of (249)%, (596)% and (739)% in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. The increase in gross loss percentage in 2012 was due to non-recurring professional services fees. The increase in gross loss percentage in 2013 was a result of an increase in the number of customers and complexity of our customer implementations. We expect to continue to generate gross losses on professional services for the foreseeable future as we focus on adoption of our subscription offerings.”

That can be summarized as: Professional Services loses money. We have no intention of it directly making money, but using it to up-sell our customers into profitable subscriptions.

That’s not so bad a proposal, until page 51’s “Costs and Operating Expenses”:

“Cost of professional services consists primarily of employee-related expenses associated with these services, the cost of subcontractors and travel costs. The time and costs of our customer implementations vary based on the source and condition of the data we receive from third parties, the configurations that we agree to provide and the size of the customer. Our cost associated with providing implementation services has been significantly higher as a percentage of revenue than our cost of providing subscriptions due to the labor associated with providing implementation services…. We expect to continue to generate negative gross margin on our professional services for the foreseeable future. As our implementation processes and technologies mature and our use of automation increases, we expect our gross margin on our professional services to improve.”

And back on page 50 under the “Revenues” section: “We expect professional services revenue to constitute a significant portion of our total revenue in the future.“

This reads to me as, “Professional services is going to generate a lot of our revenue, but because it’s so personally customized at big upfront costs for each client, it’ll create even greater losses, even if our margins improve.”

Competition

Speaking of margins, they are usually easier to improve when you’re not in a competitive industry.

Page 22 highlights the industry’s competitive landscape:

“While the enterprise health care cloud market is in an early stage of development, the market is competitive and we expect it to attract increased competition, which could make it hard for us to succeed. We currently face competition for sub-components of our offering from a range of companies….These competitors include Truven Health Analytics Inc., ClearCost Health, Change Healthcare Corporation, Healthcare Blue Book and HealthSparq, Inc. In addition, large, well-financed health plans, with whom we cooperate and on whom we depend in order to obtain the pricing and claims data we need to deliver our offering to customers, have in some cases developed their own cost and quality estimation tools and provide these solutions to their customers at discounted prices or often for free. These health plans include Aetna Inc., Cigna Corporation, UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and WellPoint, Inc. Competition from specialized software and solution providers, health plans and other parties will result in continued pricing pressures, which is likely to lead to price decline in certain product segments, which could negatively impact our sales, profitability and market share.”

The fundamental premise behind Castlight is valid; web applications that allow companies and their employees to more easily manage their health insurance and doctor relationships will be the future. This is not an original concept to the industry’s existing players or other startups, which they clearly admit here.

Also dangerous is that there is little stopping health insurance providers from cutting off their data supply to Castlight if they deem it a competitor to their business or cutting into their revenues from companies/end users. Castlight already acknowledges this: “If health plans perceive continued cooperation with us as a threat to their business interests, they may take steps that impair our access to pricing and claims data, or that otherwise make it more difficult or costly for us to deliver our offering to customers. “ It’s possible for the insurance companies to offer this service themselves. An agnostic third-party application is a good idea, but the clear competition and clear stranglehold the data providers have on them makes it a tough business that could have its valuation multiples suppressed.

The Backlog

There is one potential positive to support Castlight’s valuation: Its “backlog” of customer contract agreements to be fulfilled in the future. My reading of their filings points to the backlog information as one of the few indicators of potential revenue.

Castlight explains what constitutes its backlog on page 60: “At any point in the contract term, there can be amounts that we have not yet been contractually able to invoice. Until such time as these amounts are invoiced, they are not recorded in revenue, deferred revenue or elsewhere in our consolidated financial statements and are considered by us to be backlog.”

Potential future deals that haven’t been recognized in their numbers seems promising. The actual backlog size is , as of December 30, 2013, $108.7 million for the “total backlog”, but only half of it, $50.9 million is non-cancellable. Perhaps they give the $108.7 million number to give people a reason to be optimistic, but it seems near-meaningless to me. The $50.9 number is interesting as its a lot larger than last year’s $13 million in revenue and could indicate huge growth for Castlight.

Except Castlight says they do not “expect to fulfill our non-cancellable backlog as of December 31, 2013 over a period of approximately four years, with the substantial majority expected to be fulfilled after 2014.” $50.9 million spread over four years, with most of it in the last three, does not indicate much, if any, growth. Castlight admits as much: “Accordingly, we believe that fluctuations in our backlog may not be a reliable indicator of our future revenue.”

I was hoping the backlog might help them out, but it seems pretty useless except for Castlight to say that some potential customers are kinda sorta considering paying them between $50 million and $100 million over the next four years. And who knows how much it’ll actually cost Castlight in Selling and General Administration expenses to service those contracts.

Possible Valuations?

After having highlighted many of Castlight’s numerous negatives, one may be tempted to try and bet against them (as I am). Despite Buffett’s statement, it could still be worth a back-of-the-napkin valuation so as to have an idea of when the stock may stop its decline.

Since Castlight lacks any significant cash flows to discount, our best guess would be to compare it to similar companies and see if Castlight is overvalued relative to them. The two I will use are BenefitFocus and athenaHealth. Warning that for the purposes of this essay, these valuations are very rough and guaranteed to be inaccurate. I don’t worry too much about the inaccuracy of these valuations considering the company doesn’t make any money.

BenefitFocus is a web application “that enables its employer and insurance carrier customers to more efficiently shop, enroll, manage, and exchange benefits information.” The company went public last September. They are valued at about $1 billion with 2013 revenue of $104 million and $-30.36 million in net income. Still not profitable, but large revenues and valued at about ten-times those revenues. Castlight has $13 million in revenue with -$62 million in net income, so about a tenth of BenefitFocus’s revenue with twice as many losses at three times the market valuation for the company. By using the same 10x revenue multiple as BenefitFocus, Castlight would be valued at about $130 million. In fairness to Castlight, their revenues have been growing at a faster rate the past few years than BenefitFocus, so we’ll double that multiple to 20x revenue and the valuation to $260 million. The stock price would be about $1.60 at a market capitalization of $260 million. The price is currently $18.09.

Now we’ll use athenaHealth, a health care and health insurance software company which offers, “cloud-based services are packaged as four integrated offerings: athenaCollector for revenue cycle management, athenaClinicals for clinical cycle management, athenaCommunicator for patient cycle management, and athenaCoordinator for referral cycle management.” athenaHealth went public in 2007 and is profitable with a mere $2.59 million in net income last year but $18.73 million in 2012. athenaHealth deserves its own research, as it’s currently trading at a price-to-earnings multiple of 8,000-plus. Using the same revenue multiple approach used with BenefitFocus, athenaHealth trades at about 9.2-times its annual revenue ($595 million in revenue and current market value at $5.47 billion). This 9.2x is pretty close to BenefitFocus’s and should arguably be higher considering athenaHealth is profitable and has grown revenues by about $100 million every year for the past five years.

Castlight is currently valued at over 225 times its annual revenue. From a Yahoo! Finance interview: “Jay Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida and my go-to source on IPOs for the past few decades, tells me that Castlight’s insane level of valuation – 107 times revenue (not profits, as they had huge losses last year) – of the original IPO pricing hasn’t been seen for a tech deal since the year 2000, the twilight of the 20th century. Of the prior 13 deals priced at 100 times revenue or more and sales of at least $10 million, the average 3-year return was -92%.”

I’ll reiterate that you can refine these multiples all you’d like or use other metrics, but you can’t refine Castlight’s revenue. Professor Ritter’s stat is the most damning evidence against Castlight’s stock: The average three-year return of company’s as overvalued as Castlight going back a decade is -92%.

Venture Capitalists Cover Castlight’s Losses

If Castlight hasn’t made any profits and lost over $100 million over the past three years, how has it stayed in business? With the help of $177 million in investor funding from 2009 to 2012, of which there was only $67 million left going into last year. Crunchbase includes a quick list of its investors and the size of each investment round. Prior to IPO, but at the end of 2013, Castlight had $67.17 million in cash and short term investments that could be liquidated into cash. Their losses for 2013 were $62 million, so they had about one year’s worth of cash left. The IPO raised an additional $161.2 million for the company, so they have about $166 million in cash now, minus whatever they’ve spent in 2014. This is also probably off by plus or minus $20 million, but it should be in the ballpark.

The investors have primarily been Venrock (the largest shareholder and a large Silicon Valley venture capital group), Oak Investment Partners, Maverick Capital, Fidelity Investments, The Wellcome Trust (a British charity endowment specializing in healthcare funding), T Rowe Price, and Morgan Stanley (also one of the investment banks who helped take Castlight public).

Given their history of increasing expenses more than they increase revenue, we can reasonably expect Castlight to spend somewhere in the range of $60 to $100 million this year. Their current cash reserves should last them two years before they will have to raise even more money, either through a secondary stock offering, sell bonds, or a credit lines with a bank. I guess they could accomplish that through increased sales too, but I’ll reiterate that for Castlight increased sales means increased costs.

Castlight’s Two-Class Ownership Structure and Management Compensation

With all these big investors, who owns Castlight?

Pages 113 and 114 list the major owners of the company and their total voting power for company decisions following the IPO:

  • Venrock and affiliates own 20.6% of the class A shares and 18% of the voting power.
  • Oak Investment Partners owns 15.8% of the class A shares and 13.8% of the voting rights.
  • Maverick Capital owns 10.2% of the class A shares and 8.9% of the votes.
  • Fidelity Investments owns 9.8% of the A shares and 8.6% of the votes.
  • The Wellcome Trust owns 8.7% of the A shares and 7.6% of the voting rights.
  • CEO Giovanni Colella owns 8.2% of the A shares and 7.2% of the votes.
  • Chief Operating Officer Randall Womack owns 1.7% of the A shares and 1.4% of the votes.

Combined, these majors shareholders control 75% of the A shares and 65.5% of the management votes.

What do I mean by “Class A” shares? Well, the public offering is of “Class B” shares. Castlight has two types of shareholders: “Class A” a.k.a “Those with lots of power” and “Class B” a.k.a “Those with little power”. Public investors are Class B.

What’s the difference? Right on the very first page of Castlight’s SEC filing, they explain: “We have two classes of common stock, Class A common stock and Class B common stock. The rights of the holders of our Class A common stock and Class B common stock are identical, except with respect to voting and conversion rights…. Immediately following the completion of this offering, outstanding shares of our Class A common stock will represent approximately 98.6% of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock.”

I’m pretty sure voting rights are an important right and the legalese here, in context of everything I’ve already shown, comes across as flippant.

Pages 9 and 116 elaborates on the rights of these different classes. Class A shareholders have the majority vote on the sale or merger of the company, the sale or lease of property and assets, the dissolution of the company, changes to the certificate of incorporation, or “every matter” if an outside individual or investment group has or announces intent to buy 30% of the Class A and B stock combined. Even outside of these issues, one Class A share counts for 10 times as many votes as a Class B share. There are only 11.1 million B shares compared to 75,469,707 Class A shares.

I have to note that this setup is actually relatively common with public companies (where there are two or more types of stock with certain investors having more control than others). It just looks a lot worse for those Class A people when the company doesn’t look healthy.

The list of investors and executives above control the decision making of the company. But if they’re making good ones for the business, the class B public investors could be okay with the setup.

Or the Class A investors could just let management, some of them former employees at the investment firms, pay themselves large sums of money, as shown in this chart from page 100:

Castlight Exec Comp

That’s right. In the last year, the top five executives were paid $965,156 in salary and total compensation of $6,183,012. This is during a year when the company lost $62 million and only had sales of $13 million.

The reasonable argument is that there is a job market for executives and, given their resumes, the Castlight team could get similar or better offers elsewhere. But these individuals are surely already rich given their previous jobs as venture capitalists for Greylock, having sold previous health care companies, and worked in executive capacity for other billion dollar public companies (page 92 lists the biographies of these five executives). I do make an exception for Head of Product Dena Bravata, who has been a practicing doctor and I assume has made good, but not outlandish sums of money prior to Castlight.

But view the situation from a different perspective: What kind of system pays people hundreds of thousands of dollars for losing tens of millions? Only a venture capital funded business could operate this way. They would presumably argue that sometimes you will need to take losses for a while in the early stages to grow the business. I retort that once you have a multi-billion dollar valuation, you are not in the early stages, even if the industry itself (healthcare IT) is not yet fully mature.

Amazon is the common exception people cite for the burn-money-for-years-to-dominate-an-industry, but Amazon’s stock was abysmal for years, going from above $100 in 1999 to $5 in 2001, and 2001 is when you should have bought their stock. Don’t buy Castlight while it’s expensive. If you believe in them, buy them after their stock collapses and they show some signs of success.

Blame

Having hopefully made the case that Castlight is a horrifically overvalued company that has offered no prospects for investors to earn a return on their investment (other than for the investment banks and their hand-picked clients who received the initial stock), who is responsible for the inevitable shareholder losses?

I don’t blame Castlight’s management. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt that they believe they have the solution to health care management for employers and employees, and the public investment markets are willing to invest in them, they are incentivized, if not obligated, to raise more money while they can.

The reality is much more grey with blame to be partially owned by everyone. I’m at best an armchair philosopher, but surely there is a moral/ethical argument to be made against Castlight’s management taking public money at multi-billion dollar valuations to pay executive salaries and stock options which put them in the top 1% of earners while losing tens of millions annually just because they can. Someday I will have better philosophical expertise to make a more foolproof assertion.

More blame falls next to the IPO underwriters and brokers: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Allan and Company, Stifel, Canaccord Genuity, and Raymond James. In our post-SOX, IPO starved world, investment banks are starting to sell whatever they can now that investors have cash they’re willing to put to work, stock market returns looking more promising than any other asset class, and distance from the original dot-com bubble. Companies come to them with the willingness to be taken public. Bankers compete for the opportunity to support the company’s public offering and get their cut of the deal. Taking companies public is their job. Yet it seems short-sighted of them to sell obviously overpriced companies to public investors. The public has no chance of earning a return on its investment, but the banks and their closest clients get the public’s money. Over time, these kinds of offerings degrade the public’s trust in markets, as we saw in the dot-com boom and bust. The Goldmans of the world claim to have standards that separate them from the scams such as the one depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street. But when the public markets want to invest in stocks and new businesses, the big banks lower their standards to create supply to meet the demand. All this does is put public money into businesses that fail, losing even more money for everyone involved except bankers and executives.

Lastly, the public and the institutions which represent them. Why do we let companies, venture capitalists, and banks get away with making money from selling us stock in companies that lose money? I suspect it’s for two primary reasons: People do not take the time to learn how the financial industry and markets work and they put too much trust in the institutions managing their money without knowing what they are doing either. There is probably academic research measuring those two points. For the institutions like mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance companies, they are looking to make money from investing their cash from the public. New stocks may hold the potential to grow into the next Microsoft, Exxon, or Walmart. Both the institutions and the individuals they represent want to believe this is still possible, and invest accordingly in new stocks with their cash and hope.

That’s the real root of Castlight, the current market boom, and most investment bubbles. We all want to believe the future is brighter, regardless of the present conditions. And it’s usually true that technology will continue to, paraphrasing Gordon Gekko, “mark the upward surge of mankind.” What is lost is that the future is brighter because of today’s work. Though they may help, no amount of high finance or VC funding replaces the work that goes into sustainable solutions to hard problems. That’s what a healthy economy is: sustainable. Currently, Castlight and many internet companies of its kind are not.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at loganfrederick@gmail.com.

UPDATE: Monday, April 14, 2013:
Jim Cramer directly addresses technology IPO oversupply in 2014 and lists Castlight Health as an example of a disappointing IPO harmful to the market. Maybe he reads my blog.

Books Read in the Second Half of 2013

My reviews of books read during my first year in Chicago was my most popular post yet (as measured by email responses from friends). So I’ve decided to make it a semi-annual tradition.

Once again, the books are sorted from worst-to-best on a one-to-five scale, with my highest rated book given special recognition at the end.

Note: The books marked with an asterisk are ones I read in the previous time period but forgot to include in the last post because they were e-books.

Two Stars:

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: Yes, we get that you were able to attend Harvard and were lucky enough to work for Larry Summers *and* your husband also runs a multi-hundred million dollar business. And I don’t hold any of that against Sandberg personally, but the book reads as, “Let me show you what my life, as a successful woman, is like,” instead of, “Here is how any woman can achieve her goals.” Any lessons for women are reworded cliches with “Lean In” being a 21st century brush up of “Speak Up More” which teachers have been telling the shy kid in class for decades. Men will get the most out of it. It’s a good reminder of our cognitive biases and weaknesses when dealing with women. You can get the same effect from older feminist writings.

The Games That Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski: I only give this a two star rating because its for a very specific niche and I don’t feel it even nails its topic. Jaworski’s book is, like his ESPN commentary, a breakdown of the game film from the seven most influential games in NFL history (in his opinion). Even if you’re a football junkie, you will question his choices for the first and last chapter (a Sid Gilman game all about the rushing attack and the 2001 Patriots-Rams Super Bowl focusing on defending Marshall Faulk). I did enjoy the exclusive interviews with players from these games across many generations and Jaworski’s individual play analysis, it’s only a portion of a book aimed for diehard football fans.

Three Stars:

*The Return of the Great Depression by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale: Beale is an economic crank, but that doesn’t mean he’s without good points (as tends to be the case with cranks). His most convincing chapters debunk a Paul Krugman article nearly line-by-line and establish how the Federal Reserve has failed to reduce bank failures and financial crises. He hurts his Austrian arguments with his poorly thought out sexist policy recommendations and over-referencing of the inaccurate ShadowStats site.

Catching The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort: Considering I had read the first book sophomore year of college (I suspect I was one of the few students in 2010 who did) and the Scorcese movie was being released, I felt it appropriate to read the sequel. Belfort maintained the outrageous writing, both in style and substance, that was present in the first book and displayed in the movie. It’s not a book about finance, it’s about one man’s descent into madness in some of the most destructive, off-the-charts ways possible, and the FBI’s attempts to pin him.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins: In this memoir, Perkins explains his life as an “Economic Hitman”, a consultant hired by governments and corporations to convince third-world nations to borrow money from the first-world at indenturing terms. Given the premise, I was hoping for a real expose. Sadly, Perkins is light both on technical economic details and gritty drama. This does leave the book as a quick, thin read. It pairs well with Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” which I previously reviewed.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay: I’d been hearing from friends and media outlets alike that this book was a must-read for young adults in my generation (whatever that means). Given the attention the book got upon release and Dr. Jay’s credentials, I was expecting something more substantive. Defining Decade still contains useful, relatable anecdotes for those in their 20s who are searching for happiness and meaning. I’m just disappointed most of the science was absent.

Four Stars:

*The Launchpad: Inside Y Combinator by Randall Stross: New York Times journalist Stross was able to get exclusive access to the inner workings of Y Combinator, the revolutionary startup investment firm, as it led one of its famed startup “batches” through a summer. The book is a quick read as Stross jumps through the all the startup stages in his three months in Mountain View. It’s length is a great strength, as every page brings the wisdom of Paul Graham and company to readers considering starting a company of their own.

*Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code by Jeff Atwood: A collection of essays by the creator of the Coding Horror, Atwood covers a wide breadth of technology topics including software testing, programmer hiring, project management, and application security. Given his years of enterprise experience, co-founding Stack Overflow, and still maintaining his popular blog, every essay in this book is worth digesting and re-reading.

Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian: Written by the cofounder of Reddit, Without Their Permission is a half biography/half pep talk about the origins of Reddit and the modern internet ecosystem. Alexis writes with a sense of humor, a clear understanding of how lucky he is, and explains the work he put in to be in that position. While anyone who is familiar with Reddit’s history will find the first half a bit redundant (or anyone familiar with SOPA will feel the same way about the second half), Without Their Permission covers enough varied material that any reader will get something new out of it while enjoying Alexis’s storytelling.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford: This introduction to economic thinking meanders aimlessly from topic to topic, but doesn’t feel aimless. Despite not providing much depth for those with a pre-existing background in economics and seemingly disorganized chapter structure, I would recommend this book as a primer on practical applications of economics to those unfamiliar with the field.

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller: This high level explanation of the research into animal group behaviors is readable, understandable, and educational. Miller accomplishes the tough task of simplifying complex flocking and biomimicry research, presenting its real-world applications, and keeping a steady pace for the casual reader.

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb: It seems kind of narcissistic to write a collection of your own one-liners and publish it. Since most people aren’t as insightful as Taleb, he gets away with it. It’s cheap, takes an hour to read, and the most wisdom you can get in that time for that price.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis: Lewis’s second sports work after Moneyball and a popular movie starring Sandra Bullock, he continues to tell the stories of unsung heroes with outsized impact on their fields (in this case, a literal one). What the movie left out of Lewis’s book is the entire half dedicated to explaining why Michael Oher’s position at left tackle became so valuable in the NFL. The Blind Side reminds one that everyone has potential, especially those with the most unappreciated skills in the most overlooked places.

Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen: Cowen, one of my favorite economists and author of “The Great Stagnation”, presents his latest thesis: The future of the American economy is a class divide driven by an individual’s aptitude for complementing computers. Programmers and those with fantastic soft skills which are difficult to quantify will be at the top of the income scale, leaving everyone else competing for minimum wage service work. The book meanders while making its point in the middle chapter and goes increasingly off-topic. It is saved by the final chapter “The New Social Contract” which takes his thesis to its practical societal conclusions. Cowen has said he hopes it reads like a history book of the future and I hope more social scientists attempt this presentation style.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh: Recommended by Twitter creator Jack Dorsey as his manual for leadership, this posthumously published guidebook lays bare the thoughts of a football legend. Walsh led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls and two more under his self-appointed successor during the 80s and early 90s. His core philosophy of teaching his employees/players to rise to his “Standard of Performance” can transfer into any workplace. Although the book is just a tad repetitive, the central thesis mixed with Walsh’s personal stories from coaching one of the NFL’s greatest and longest dynasties makes it recommended reading.

Five Stars:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Lowell Bair: The 2002 Kevin Reynolds film rendition of this classic is one of my favorite movies. I was concerned that seeing the movie first would spoil my view of the book. Luckily, major plot lines are significantly different enough to keep the two separate in my mind. Monte Cristo is the definitive revenge story. I am not surprised it has survived for centuries.

Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards: The book for understanding how currencies work and the dangers of mismanaging them on a global scale. The book is split into two parts: First, a history of the past 100 years of fiat currencies; Second, Rickards’s projections on the future of international monetary policy. These discussions are centered around the concern that countries are increasingly using currency manipulation as economic warfare. This should be read by everyone in a position of political and economic power who decides these very issues.

*Bubble Logic: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bull by Cliff Asness: Billionaire founder of AQR Capital Management wrote this unpublished-book-turned-long-academic-paper in August 2000 as the dot-com bubble was crashing. Asness eviscerates the Internet bulls using simple financial mathematics. As someone who is a believer in the potential of internet companies, Asness provides the logical, sobering truth to the Silicon Valley-ites who misunderstand market realities. A must-read for value investors or anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the stock market.

Fate of the States by Meredith Whitney: I’ve already written another blog post based on the information in this book. Whitney and her research team have compiled damning evidence on the widespread mismanagement of state and municipal governments on both coasts of this country. While her calls against these municipalities might be criticized for early timing, her broader points can not and should not be ignored by politicians and the broader citizenry.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2013:

Fooling All of the People Some of the Time by David Einhorn: While Fate of the States, my runner-up for this position, is an easier and more relevant read for most, Fooling All of the People was too memorable to not have the top spot. Hedge fund manager Einhorn documents his multi-year fight against the fraudulent Allied Capital. Einhorn clearly walks through how white-collar criminals, Wall Street banks, Harvard professors, government agencies, and shady accountants conspired to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers and individual investors. Compared to writings about the 2008 financial crisis, Fooling All of the People is a personal tale of a small group of individuals investigating the very corrupt corporate systems that preceded the crisis and have really existed throughout history. This is a book that will leave you a less naive person. That feeling alone is worth the price of the paperback.

Is Gamestop Overvalued? – Conclusion

We’ve come to the end of this tutorial on Discounted Cash Flow analysis. Using Gamestop’s publicly available data, we have determined that Gamestop’s stock is worth $23.78 (I have used “we” throughout this tutorial, but of course you are welcome to get different results by modifying the model). Considering the stock at the time of the research as evidenced by the Introduction page was $50.29, it seems like a good investment to bet against Gamestop’s stock, or at least avoid buying it.

I’ll also reiterate that all the data and spreadsheets used for this tutorial are available for download so that you can tinker with it and read more information about Gamestop’s operations.

If you have any questions or comments, your emails to loganfrederick [at] gmail.com are welcome.

Is Gamestop Overvalued? – Extending the Research

The following aspects of Gamestop’s business were not thoroughly researched for this paper and should be to complete the analysis:

Leasing versus Ownership:

Gamestop uses a combination of leasing and owning for its retail locations and distribution centers. It is possible that the renewing leases could help or hurt Gamestop in some significant way or that the financing environment might affect how these leases are paid. Lease accounting is discussed in the 10K on page 35 and page 49.

Tax Rates:

The model uses a standard 35% corporate tax rate. Gamestop has some tax credits that can be used in the future to potentially help its earnings, but has also had some historical years with effective tax rates above 35%. These were not used in the model and should be to get a more accurate price.

Choosing a Different WACC:

After attempting to use comparable companies to Gamestop to select the model’s Weighted Average Cost of Capital, I set this value to 8% as it seemed the most reasonable. A more rigorous model for selecting the WACC involving different comparison companies or industry information could be used.

Better Methods for Modeling Future Sales

Despite all the discussion about what might affect Gamestop’s sales in the future, the model uses a simple method for growing and declining sales. The first couple projected years grow based on previous sales growth rates due to the launch of new game hardware. Then the last few years show steady sales decline based on the reasons given in the thesis.

A better, potentially more accurate method for estimating future revenue would include factors such as projected consumer spending patterns, more precise adjustments for the potential hardware and software sales with a new gaming generation (which could be determined using patterns from past generation launches), and other sector and economic factors.

Investigate the Increase in Selling, General, and Administrative Expenses:

Why has SG&A increased by $400 million in five years? This is the primary question which came to mind when building the model.

On page 38, Gamestop notes: “Selling, general and administrative expenses decreased by $6.2 million, or 0.3%, from $1,842.1 million in fiscal 2011 to $1,835.9 million in fiscal 2012. This decrease was primarily due to changes in foreign exchange rates which had the effect of decreasing expenses by $26.7 million when compared to fiscal 2011 offset partially by expenses for the 53rd week in fiscal 2012. Selling, general and administrative expenses as a percentage of sales increased from 19.3% in the fiscal 2011 to 20.7% in fiscal 2012. The increase in selling, general and administrative expenses as a percentage of net sales was primarily due to deleveraging of fixed costs as a result of the decrease in comparable store sales. Included in selling, general and administrative expenses are $19.6 million and $18.8 million in stock-­based compensation expense for fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2011, respectively.“

This does not explain the $400 million increase from 2008 to 2011. Although sales grew by approximately $700 million from 2008 to 2011, sales dropped in fiscal 2012 back to 2008 levels, while SG&A remained stagnant, presumably for the fixed cost/same-­store sales decrease reasons listed above. If revenue remains around the 2008 levels, it would be worth investigating if Gamestop could bring its SG&A costs down as well.

Next: Conclusion
Previous: Valuing The Stock

Is Gamestop Overvalued? – Valuing the Stock

In the Introduction, I mentioned that future estimates of a company’s profitability are inherently inaccurate because nobody truly knows what will happen in the future. Additionally, the farther into the future you try to guess, the less accurate your guesses will generally be. To compensate for this, financial analysts use the previously noted Time Value of Money principle to “discount” future Free Cash Flow (which we found in the last section). Discounting means that if we want to use future profits to determine the company’s value today, we have to make those profits less valuable because there is a chance the company won’t actually earn those profits in the future.

So the next question is: How much less should future cash flow be worth?

The common technique in finance is to apply a “Discount Factor” or “Discount Rate” to decrease the future cash flows.

The Discount Rate is an annual interest rate, except instead of going forward in time, you’re going backward in time from the future to the present (also known as the Present Value formula). The Present Value formula is:

Present Value Formula

In our Gamestop model below, we find the Present Value for every year into the future we have found Free Cash Flow (“Present Value of FCF” in the spreadsheet). “N” is how many years into the future.

What do we use as the discount rate (“r” in the equation)? This is where we use the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC). A longer definition is in the Glossary, but the WACC represents the minimum expected rate of return an investor in the company would expect the company to earn with the investor’s money. Therefore, discounting by the investor’s minimum expected investment return turns future profits into their present value based on investor expectations.

How do we determine what the WACC should be?

There are some different ways to determine the WACC. In my case, I tried initially to find Gamestop’s WACC using data from similar companies, but the value this produced was too low. You can see this work if you download the Excel workbook and view the “WACC” spreadsheet. The lower the WACC, the higher the stock price, since you are discounting or decreasing the cash flows by this rate. So I manually set the WACC at 8% in the model, which seemed realistically fair.

Applying the Present Value formula onto each future year’s FCF gives us the “Present Value of Free Cash Flow” row in the Excel model.

Free Cash Flow

Finding Enterprise Value:

With the knowledge of what the company’s future profits are worth to us today, we can determine how much the company is worth. The company’s value is called the “Enterprise Value”. Again, a longer definition of Enterprise Value is in the Glossary. Here we can define the Enterprise Value as the sum of the Present Value of Free Cash Flows (in the spreadsheet as “Cumulative Present Value of FCF”) plus the Terminal Value.

The Terminal Value represents the value of the company for all the years beyond our model combined into one amount. This can be determined in different ways. In my model I chose to use the “Perpetuity Growth Method.” Simply put, this takes the last year’s Free Cash Flow in the model and grows it at a small rate indefinitely into the future and then discounting it back to its present value. The Terminal Value requires choosing a “perpetual growth rate”, also known as the rate at which the company will grow forever into the future. This percentage should be low as it’s impossible for company to grow faster than the entire economy forever. For Gamestop, I chose a one percent perpetual growth rate. Based on the Thesis and Supporting Arguments, I do not believe the company will grow very fast in the future, but I did not choose zero growth to keep my model a little more conservative and assume that Gamestop will not go completely bankrupt.

Adding the Cumulative Present Value of FCF and the Terminal Value gives us the Enterprise Value. Congratulations, you have now found the value for the entire company! In my model, I determined that the entire Gamestop company is worth approximately $2.357 billion.

The Final Steps – Finding the Stock Price:

Next we will take the value of the company and determine how much each share of stock gets of that value. Adding the Enterprise Value plus the company’s cash gives us the Equity Value, which is the value of the company which belongs to the shareholders. Gamestop has $635 million of cash in the bank, so added onto the Enterprise Value gives Gamestop an Equity Value of $3.006 billion.

The formula for the stock price is:

Stock Price=Equity Value/Fully Diluted Shares Outstanding

Fully Diluted Shares Outstanding is the number of all the company’s stock. To reiterate in English, the stock price is the total value of the company and its cash divided by the total number of shares of stock that exist. FDSO is the “Shares Outstanding” (shares available in the market) plus new shares of stock that can be created by stock options in owned by the company and its employees.

Gamestop has 126.4 million shares of stock.

Take Gamestop’s $3.006 billion in Equity Value divided by its 126.4 million shares and you find that every share of stock is worth $23.78.

Next: Extending the Research
Previous: The Future

Is Gamestop Overvalued? – The Future

Now that we’ve discussed the business, potential problems, and historical financial performance of Gamestop, we can attempt to predict the future to determine if the stock is under-, over-, or correctly valued in the stock market.

Below is the second half of the DCF Excel spreadsheet with the future projections for Gamestop’s financials and projected Free Cash Flow, followed by an explanation of how these numbers were found.

GME Future

Future Sales: In your typical DCF model, you can just grow sales every year into the future using the average growth rate I list in cell G3 in the above spreadsheet. In reality, business rarely have revenue every year change by the same amount. Specifically with Gamestop, I chose to have temporary high growth in the near future because of all the new video game consoles being released in 2013 and the pent up videogame demand saved up for this occasion. However, for all the reasons listed in my “Supporting Arguments”, I decrease the company’s revenue in the future. For the specific percentages, I used Gamestop’s best and worst annual growth rates in the past five years.

Cost of Revenue and SG&A Projections: To find Gamestop’s future Earnings Before Taxes, Interest, Depreciation and Amortization, we need to subtract out its future Cost of Revenue and SG&A costs. To predict those costs, at the bottom of the spreadsheet I have included some extra information: The Cost of Revenue growth rate taken from the CAGR column and SG&A as a percentage of Revenue. SG&A as a percentage of Revenue is based on the average ratio of SG&A to Revenue from past years and using that average ratio in the future.

GME Other Variables and Ratios

Depreciation and Amortization: Future D&A was set at 2% of future revenue. This is another standard number that you could try and modify if you see major changes in these expenses, but I did not see such reasons. If you compare the future projections of D&A using this “2% of future revenue metric”, you will see it is relatively close to the past values and thus seems like a reasonable assumption.

Capital Expenditures: Future Capex was set at 1.85% of future revenue, which was the average Capex over the previous five years.

Increase in Net Working Capital: This is the most complex part of the Free Cash Flow equation, so I have dedicated a separate post to explaining the details on how to project future changes in Net Working Capital.

The equation for Free Cash Flow is:

EBIAT
+ D&A
- Capex
- Increase in Net Working Capital
=Free Cash Flow.

The reason this works to find the company’s available cash flow:

EBIAT represents the company’s earnings that could be used to pay off any debts in the event of a liquidation (hence why “Interest” is not taken out, interest comes from those debts).

Capex is subtracted because it is a use of the company’s cash. Even though it can be considered cash spent wisely to improve the business, it is still less cash available to the owners (the stock holders).

The Increase in Net Working Capital is subtracted because an increase in NWC, like Capex, means cash has been used to either increase the company’s assets or decrease its liabilities. Both of these are not strictly good nor bad, but they are uses of cash that are not available for the investors to pocket.

However, the remaining cash is available for investors.

Using the steps and descriptions above for each row in the Excel spreadsheet model and every column representing the next five year’s of the company’s operations, we can use the simple math explained above and in the past to estimate future Free Cash Flow.

With our guesses for the company’s future profits, we can now determine what the stock price should be.

Next: The Future
Previous: Net Working Capital