January 20, 2016
This memo is my attempt to send the markets to the psychiatrist’s couch, and an exploration of what might be learned there. ... One of the most notable behavioral traits among investors is their tendency to overlook negatives or understate their significance for a while, and then eventually to capitulate and overreact to them on the downside. ... “Everyone knew” for years that the Chinese economy had been overstimulated with cheap financing, and that this had led to excessive investment in fixed assets. … One of the most significant factors keeping investors from reaching appropriate conclusions is their tendency to assess the world with emotionalism rather than objectivity. Their failings take two primary forms: selective perception and skewed interpretation. ... The bottom line is that investor psychology rarely gives equal weight to both favorable and unfavorable developments. Likewise, investors’ interpretation of events is usually biased by their emotional reaction to whatever is going on at the moment. ... in the real world, things generally fluctuate between “pretty good” and “not so hot.” But in the world of investing, perception often swings from “flawless” to “hopeless.” ... There is a general sense among my colleagues that investors have gone from evaluating securities based on the attractiveness of their yield (with company fundamentals viewed optimistically) to judging them on the basis of the likely recovery in a restructuring (with fundamentals viewed pessimistically).
It’s a story that has become a part of business folklore in China. In 1985, Zhang Ruimin, the young general manager of the loss-making Qingdao Refrigerator Plant, decided it was time to turn things around. He got his factory workers to smash 76 defective refrigerators with sledgehammers. To drive the point home—that there would be no tolerance for low quality—he delivered the first blow himself. ... This moment marked a significant turning point in the history of Qingdao Refrigerator Plant (now known as Haier), so much so that the sledgehammer is now housed in the company’s in-house corporate museum. Three decades later, Haier is the world’s largest white goods manufacturer and boasts cutting edge innovation. ... None of this would have been possible without CEO Zhang Ruimin at the helm. He led the company through several path-breaking business model changes, which helped the company build a strong brand, grow both organically and through acquisitions, globalize and evolve a business model where the company “gets close to the customer”. The beauty of it is that he forced the company to change even before competition or technology made it imperative that it did so. ... Zhang is now leading the company through yet another transformation. He is, in essence, ‘breaking up’ the company and throwing rigid organizational structures and processes out of the window. The enterprise will, in effect, become an investment platform and the departments and divisions will be like entrepreneurial teams, which he calls “micro-enterprises”.
Around 540 million years ago, the ancestors of most modern animal groups suddenly appeared on the scene, in an outburst of speciation known as the Cambrian explosion. Many of these pioneering creatures left fossils behind. Some are so well preserved that scientists have been able to use scanning electron microscope images to piece together their inner anatomy, eyes included, and reconstruct their owners’ view of the world. ... But these eyes were already complex, and there are no traces of their simpler precursors. The fossil record tells us nothing about how sightless animals first came to see the world. This mystery flustered Charles Darwin. “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances ... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree,” he wrote in Origin of Species. ... in the very next sentence, Darwin solves his own dilemma: “Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist … then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.” ... The gradations he spoke of can be shown to exist. Living animals illustrate every possible intermediate between the primitive light-sensitive patches on an earthworm and the supersharp camera eyes of eagles. ... Even under the most pessimistic conditions, with the eye improving by just 0.005 percent each generation, it takes just 364,000 years for the simple sheet to become a fully functioning camera-like organ. As far as evolution goes, that’s a blink of an eye. ... But simple eyes should not be seen as just stepping-stones along a path toward greater complexity. Those that exist today are tailored to the needs of their users. ... Nothing that sees does so without proteins called opsins—the molecular basis of all eyes. Opsins work by embracing a chromophore, a molecule that can absorb the energy of an incoming photon. The energy rapidly snaps the chromophore into a different shape, forcing its opsin partner to likewise contort. This transformation sets off a series of chemical reactions that ends with an electrical signal.
All told, the company spent more than $600 million. In its brief time in operation, it generated $2.3 million in revenue; when it filed for bankruptcy it listed assets of $58.3 million. ... The next generation of biofuels, made from plants and biowaste (so-called cellulosic materials), which have lower carbon emissions than oil, were a particular passion. Khosla invested hundreds of millions of dollars in about a dozen biofuel and biochemical companies. ... His ambitions were audacious. Khosla declared “a war on oil.” As he wrote in 2006, “I believe we can replace most of our gasoline needs in 25 years with biomass.” He dismissed incumbent energy companies in a 2007 interview as not investing heavily in biofuels because they weren’t “used to innovation and the rate of innovation we are likely to see in this business.” ... Unlike most failed startups, KiOR hasn’t just shut its doors and disappeared into oblivion. Today recriminations, investigations, and litigation continue to surround it. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been examining whether the company made false statements, including on a critical point: the yield of its biofuel (the amount that can be made per ton of wood chips). Two KiOR executives and Khosla himself are also facing a class action suit alleging that company executives misled investors about production volumes and yield. ... The state of Mississippi is also suing Khosla and key KiOR executives on similar grounds, claiming they hoodwinked the state to obtain a $75 million loan.
Netflix’s video algorithms team had developed a number of quality levels, or recipes, as they’re called in the world of video encoding. Each video file on Netflix’s servers was being prepared with these same recipes to make multiple versions necessary to serve users at different speeds. ... Netflix’s service has been dynamically delivering these versions based on a consumer’s bandwidth needs, which is why the quality of a stream occasionally shifts in the middle of a binge-watching session. But across its entire catalog of movies and TV shows, the company has been using the same rules — which didn’t really make sense. ... they decided that each title should get its own set of rules. This allows the company to stream visually simple videos like “My Little Pony” in a 1080p resolution with a bitrate of just 1.5 Mbps. In other words: Even someone with a very slow broadband or mobile internet connection can watch the animated show in full HD quality under the new approach. Previously, the same consumer would have just been able to watch the show with a resolution of 720*480, and still used more data.