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    On The Continuing, Pervasive Hatred of Short-Sellers

    Readers will know that I have somehow been sucked into the Tesla vortex and spend too much time watching Tesla and Elon Musk's antics.  I tried to explain some of the reasons for this fascination here.  Every time I swear off following Musk, he does some new nutty thing, like his joke of a demonstration the other night of his Boring k彩平台登陆 tunnel in LA  (as usual, Musk has come up with another idea that would look cool on the cover of a 1970's Popular Mechanics or Boys Life magazine but fails almost every engineering, physics, and business logic test).

    Anyway, I am going to mostly resist writing about Tesla and discuss the strange bias many Americans (really, many Westerners) have against short-selling.  Here is a tweet from a random Tesla supporter that demonstrates what I see every day from Tesla fans:

    This notion that short sellers are not doing anything legitimate, that they do not deserve legal protections (or else should be banned entirely), and that they prosper only by spreading false information are not just a staple of hard core Musk fanbois, but are actually quite common attitudes.  I saw it just the other night watching the movie The Accountant again (a family favorite in part because a streak of OCD and Asperger's runs through my family).  In this scene, the guy talking is called Brax and he is a gangster and a mercenary, but for a variety of reasons the film-makers need to make him more sympathetic than the average thug.  Watch the justification he gives:

    The movie-makers are expecting that the average viewer will discount his thuggery here because he is beating up a short-seller, and we all know those guys are unethical and destructive (by the way, I too would be tempted to short a company that has stuffed its workers' pension fund with its own stock, that is a big red flag to me).

    Short selling, in which one is betting the value of an asset will go down in the future, is a perfectly legitimate and valuable way to participate in markets.  For those who are unsure what short selling is, here is how it works.  People who own large blocks of a stock, let's say Exxon-Mobil or XOM, can lend their stock, for a fee, to other people.  They do this as a way to generate extra income for their portfolio, particularly if they intend to hold the stock for the long term.  The people who borrow the stock then immediately sell it.  I know, this seems weird -- your neighbor who lent you his mower might be ticked off if you immediately sold it.  But folks who lend their shares know you are going to sell it.

    So I borrow and sell 100 XOM shares for, say, $90.  If the price drops to $70, I can buy the stock back at that price and I make a $2,000 profit.  The risk, though, is that if the price keeps going up, I am going to have to buy back at a higher price and lose money.  If the price goes up too much, the broker is going to issue a margin call and likely force me to pony up more cash or buy back at the unfavorable price to cover my position.  If I had to sell at $110, I would lose $2000.

    Note that short selling has a more dangerous risk profile than going long, or buying the stock.  If you buy 100 shares of XOM at $90, the most you can lose is $9,000 -- your losses are capped.  On the other hand your upside is unlimited -- if XOM goes up to $500, you make a fortune.  For short-selling, this is reversed.  The short-seller's gain is limited -- the most they can ever gain is $9,000 if the stock goes to zero.  But their losses are uncapped -- if XOM goes up to $500, they will have lost over $40,000.  And even if the stock shoots up to $500 and eventually falls to zero (as do many bubble companies that get shorted), it may be hard to ride the short position to the end, either due to margin calls or failure of intestinal fortitude.

    Short selling makes a ton of economic sense in part because it HAS to improve markets.  First, it increases the liquidity of the market and the number and diversity of participants.  The more subtle reason is because markets and pricing are information discovery tools.  Short selling allows more people with information about a security to participate in this information exchange, which almost by definition improves the market. 

    To ban short-selling of stocks is to short-circuit an important mechanism through which people share their knowledge and expectations with others.  Banning a mechanism that better allows share prices to reflect the expectation that the underlying assets are not worth as much as current market prices suggest does nothing to change the underlying reality.  Such a ban merely distorts knowledge of this reality

    I like to think about economics and business issues but I am not an economist.  My layman's way of thinking about short selling was outlined in a post 10 years ago, written in reaction to a temporary ban in short selling during the market turmoil of 2008.

    Someone noticed that just before certain stocks crash in value, there is a lot of short-selling.  So the US government , at least temporarily.  Classic cargo-cult logic.

    Boy this sure makes perfect sense in a time when we are concerned about speculative bubbles -- let's ban one of the most important tools that exist for bubbles to be shortened and made less, uh, bubbly.  Here is why (very briefly and non-technically) short-selling takes the edge off speculative excesses.

    At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

    Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

    Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

    If you want to understand the volatility of a stock like Tesla ($tsla), the issue often is not short-selling but the extremely tiny float -- only a very small percentage of the equity in the company actively trades, while the rest sit in hands of folks who are not going to trade or even lend the stock (e.g. Elon Musk).  With such a tiny float, small changes in sentiment lead to huge price swings, making it a hair-raising investment for both longs and shorts.  This situation would likely be worse without the shorts.

    As for the supposed false information spread by shorts, I am sure that happens.  But information gathering by shorts is one of the reasons we should treasure short-selling.  Here is my analogy -- one of the few good things about having Donald Trump as President is that the media actually is doing its job and is skeptical of everything he says and does.  It digs into the truth of his every single statement.  And sometimes what the media comes up with is fake or wrong.  But I would still argue we are better off with this sort of accountability than we were with the media as lapdogs to Obama.  Just look at the problems and potential rights violations at the border.  The media ignored most all of this same activity when it was happening under Obama, but is rightly (finally) highlighting it under Trump.

    Trump supporters hate the media, and argue that it was "long" Obama and "short" Trump, but whatever the reason, we are learning things we did not know before and knowledge has value.  Shorts play this same role in the market.  For years everyone fawned over Elon Musk and Tesla.  The dedicated EV magazines were basically house organs of Tesla, a sort of Tesla Pravda.  The longs did not want to see or hear any criticism.  Essentially, no one wanted to be skeptical of the Tesla story except the shorts.   The shorts may turn out to be wrong, but they are finding holes in the Tesla love story and that is valuable.

    Postscript:  If you do not invest and want a tiny taste of the hate short-sellers engender, go find the hottest, rowdiest craps table in a Vegas casino and start betting the Don't Come line.

    San Diego Restaurant Recommendation

    I am not a foodie you should normally trust, but if you are in San Diego you need to go to .  Yes, I know it is breakfast and brunch only but skip your evening meal and just go.  Most amazing breakfast I have had.  Been there several times to their Pacific Beach location.  If there was justice in the world, their founder would be as famous as Elon Musk.

    PS - if you really, really insist on getting a traditional dinner recommendation, try , just a block or two away from the viaduct in Balboa Park.

    Does Mounting Famous Heads over Society's Mantle Really Make Us More Ethical?

    I thought this about the mob action to remove Kevin Hart from hosting the Oscars:

    This brings us back to the question that’s been bothering me. What was accomplished by keeping him off the Oscars stage? Because Hart no longer stood by the jokes in question, the Academy’s decision to stick with him could not reasonably be seen as an endorsement of those jokes, or as a sign the Academy accepted them. So how does anybody benefit by keeping Hart from hosting the ceremony? Is the immense pressure supposed to function as a deterrent?

    The notion that people must be purged from a given platform for past mistakes (often unearthed at key moments in their lives) seems to be quickly growing into a reflex and becoming our conventional wisdom, and that goes for both sides of the ideological divide. Is it the only reasonable consequence for these perceived transgressions? Is it reasonable at all when, in Hart’s case, a person’s views have changed?

    I in response to a different online mob action:

    Dear World:

    I was an immature idiot in college. When I was there, part of the appeal was providing a safe space to say or do stupid things so that one can test them out and find them wanting. All those who didn't do, say, or believe stupid sh*t at age 20 may cast the first stone.

    I don't think I ever used force on someone or stole any of their stuff. I treated a girlfriend somewhat callously and apologized to her years later. Other than that, I am not sure I would even bother to apologize today for anything I said or wrote 35 years ago in college.

    If you pointed it out to me I would likely say, "Yeah, that was stupid. I said and believed a lot of stuff then I don't now. So what? It used to be we didn't treat stuff coming out of the mouths of 20-year-olds very seriously for a good reason.

     

    Does the New Worpress Editor Suck as Much as It Seems, Or Am I Missing Something?

    WordPress 5 changed to an entirely new editor where construction of a post that historically just involved typing now involves pasting together a series of blocks that have to be added, for example, just to have quoted text.  Am I missing something?

    This seems ludicrously more awkward than the original editor, which I immediately switched back to by downloading and activating a plugin for that purpose.  My guess is that this functionality is aimed at the large number of folks who use WordPress as a content management system for building websites and not for actual bloggers.  I am guessing that content management for website design is actually a much bigger market for WordPress than blogging, and so development is focusing more on that market.  Maybe someone needs to fork WordPress for a version track focused on traditional bloggers.

    Update:  Apparently the WordPress 5 editor is the same as the Gutenberg editor that has been available as a plugin for a while.  A couple of observations.  First, few people every really liked Gutenberg.  It has a 2.5 star rating which is really low for any WordPress plugin with a lot of installs, particularly one WordPress decided to make standard.  And second, this just reinforces my sense that WordPress 5 is a sign that WordPress is leaving the blogging community behind and focusing on CMS.  I have used WordPress as a CMS for our company websites until we mostly switched to ProcessWire, which is an actual CMS from the ground up and not a modified blog engine.  Gutenberg made much more sense as a CMS tool than a blogging tool.

    DOS Attack of Some Sort

    Having a variety of site issues.  I turned off some of my cache and security to try to diagnose why some folks are not seeing newer posts, and then immediately got a DOS attack that shut down the site.  Working on it but may be the weekend before entirely fixed.

    I Am Pretty Sure I Am Not Going to Like What's Going On In This Room

    Business Strategy, The Insource / Outsource Decision, And Tesla

    I have a confession -- at Harvard Business School (HBS), I loved business strategy cases.   This is a confession because most ex-HBS students have at best a love-hate relationship with cases in the same way that the Band of Brothers, or the 506th PIR, had with Curahee Mountain.  The first 8, 10, 12 cases were fine and you could handle them. But the problem is that they kept coming and coming, two or three a day, like a North Korean human wave attack.

    There is a pretty well defined template for B-school cases, at least in my day (I love being old enough to say that).  A typical example begins with the CEO-on-the-Gulfstream-jet trope, e.g.

    Jessica Stevens, CEO of Acme Enterprises, leaned back in her seat on Acme's brand new Gulfstream VI corporate jet, thinking about the meeting that lay ahead of her.  She was flying back to her Pittsburgh headquarters for the quarterly board of directors meeting, and the board was expecting real answers and a specific plan for how she intended to deal with Acme's mounting problems.

    Over the last 3 years Acme's growth had plateaued at the same time a slew of new companies had entered its industry, putting pressure on Acme's traditionally strong margins.  In addition, Acme had just lost the bidding on two critical government contracts, its largest plant had just burned down, its CFO was under SEC investigation, a strong unionization drive was in the works supported by Antifa protests outside her house, and she had damaged her favorite Chanel purse when she launched it into the face of her lying mancy VP of manufacturing who she had just caught in bed with her husband.

    OK, that last sentence is probably an exaggeration (cases were not quite THAT interesting).  But for me, strategy cases were like who-done-its or locked-room Agatha Christie mysteries.  Would the CEO extricate herself, and if so, how?  What would I do?  If someone were to write business strategy mysteries I would eat them up (the closest I can think of is Clavell's Nobel House -- how would the Nobel House extricate itself -- and even despite the absolutely unrealistic Dallas and Dynasty-like portrayals of business, I love that book).  It is telling that the only novel I have written (OK, more accurately, the only novel I have finished) .

    A lot of people write me and say, "Coyote, why the fixation on your blog and Twitter with Tesla?"  Unlike what Tesla fanboys guess about me, I actually like electric cars (though I am not thrilled with my having to subsidize them, but that is not a narrow Tesla problem).  I am riveted to the Tesla story because it totally feels like a great HBS case study of the future.

    Long-time readers know I think that there is fraud here -- the SolarCity buyout, to my eye, was totally corrupt.  But if I found fraud fascinating, I would write constantly about Enron and Theranos (heck, I worked for Jeff Skilling at McKinsey on the Enron study so I could even be quasi-insider).  But fraud is only fleetingly interesting.  I can think of 5 companies that I am shorting today that I think are engaged in fraud, and I can't remember mentioning one of them on Twitter or this blog.   I find Theranos mildly interesting, but only because my wife is borderline diabetic and really was enthusiastic for Elizabeth Holmes's vision.

    But here is the situation a couple of years ago at Tesla.  Think of this as the case study introduction:

  • Tesla has introduced a real, desirable EV in an industry where EV's were basically crap cars no one wanted produced for PR and some regulatory reasons.
  • For the first time ever, Tesla has demonstrated there was a large market for luxury EV's
  • With the model S, Tesla had what has proved to be at least a 7 year lead over competitors (introduced in 2012 and similar products from several companies coming out in 2019)
  • Tesla had the Model 3 ready to be introduced, with projections of topping 10,000 per week shortly, which could be one of the largest selling sedans in the world, EV or no.  Tesla had as many as 400,000 reservations already in hand for this car.
  • Tesla had a founder (sort of, Musk is credited as founder but really isn't) with the Midas touch, sometimes called the real world Tony Stark, with a huge legion of followers who believe that he is the smartest and most ethical (given his green vision) engineer in the world and can do no wrong.
  • Tesla had shareholders almost literally throwing money at the company, giving it a higher total market value than GM or Ford and with valuation metrics orders of magnitude higher than traditional car companies, based in part on visions of world-leading self-driving capabilities and comparisons to Apple.  The closest thing I have ever seen to the Simpson's take my money meme.
  • I can imagine the case study now -- should Tesla focus on the high-end of the market now and seek an immediate profit and a potentially sustainable long-term niche?  Or should it go all-out to do nothing less than become the major player in the entire worldwide automotive market, taking advantage of its high valuation to raise billions of capital to fund years of cash burn?  These are super interesting questions that I will not address today.  Tesla's apparent choice in this question is ... neither.  It has clearly gone all in, at least in rhetoric, on dominating the automotive market and Elon Musk has announced (at least on Twitter) future new products in nearly every automotive niche.  But at the same time Tesla has refused to leverage its high stock price to raise capital and actually has been and slow-rolling expansion plans. I frankly cannot explain it, and won' try here.

    What I want to discuss is the frequent comparison to Apple.   Elon Musk likes to compare himself to Steve Jobs and Tesla to Apple, but I don't think the comparison is very apt.  A big part of this is the differences in their in-source and out-source decisions.

    As background, my thinking is shaped by several aspects of my HBS education.  The first is a business strategy curriculum crafted from the very first class to make one skeptical of flashy, sexy businesses.  Our first two cases in first year business strategy were an incredibly sexy electronics company, followed by a dull-as-dirt water meter company.  But it turned out that the water meter company minted money, with little technology change and huge moats against competition, while the electronics company was having to invest billions every few years just to stay in the game and never really earned a return on capital.

    Another factor that shapes a lot of my thinking was that in-source / out-source decisions were very much in the spotlight at HBS at the time.  It was a time when the very nature of the industrial conglomerate was in question, and we were constantly made to ask whether a company really had to own function X to be profitable and successful.  Over and over and over, in company after company, we were asked to think about what were the critical success factor for a business, as well as what the most profitable elements of the vertical value-delivery chain were, and to think about structuring companies solely around these key elements, and outsource everything else.

    To a large extent, this has been a key to Apple's success.  As I observed in comparing Tesla to Apple:

    But as far as the ik彩平台登陆Phone is concerned, Apple is a design and software house.  It does not build the phones, it has a partner do it for them.  It does not write most of the applications, third parties do that.  And (at least in the early days) it did not [sell] through its own stores, it sold through 3rd parties.  An Apple-like Tesla would NOT be trying to build its own manufacturing, service, and fueling capacity -- it would leverage its designs as its unique value-add and seek others to do these other lower-margin, capital-intensive tasks.

    Yes, we have Apple stores now, but this was NOT part of the initial strategy and success.  The initial Apple iPod and ik彩平台登陆Phone strategy basically had Apple outsourcing everything from manufacturing to sales as non-strategic, and keeping in-house the design and software functions.   As it turned out, they were right, because they certainly made much better margins than anyone else in the vertical value chain.

    But for all Tesla compares itself to Apple, it has take a totally different approach.  Like most manufacturers, it designs its products (which it is pretty good at).  It also manufactures them (which it is not so good at).  But unlike other auto makers it also owns its own sales and service network (instead of third party dealers) and it is not very good at this and this activity consumes a lot of capital.  Also unlike other auto makers, it also is building out its own fueling network, something GM and Ford can rely on Exxon for. AND, Elon Musk at various times has said we would in-source building of car carrier trailers, car transportation trucking firms, and body shops.  I have argued for years that one of the things that Tesla fanboys love about Tesla -- that it is so integrated vertically -- is an Achilles heel because it greatly increases the capital it needs to grow, takes it into low-margin business segments, and forces it to do highly-technical functions like auto manufacturing it does not have the skills for.  If Tesla really were like Apple, it would have developed a 3rd party dealer network, it would have partnered with someone else to do the charging stations (as VW has) and it would have farmed out the actual manufacturing to an auto-equivalent of Apple's Foxcon (maybe Kia?)

    I wish I had the guys name but the person in this blog said it far better than I have been able to say it to date.  From ""

    The test of whether you are an electric vehicle “disrupter” is: how many manufacturers are licensing your battery? If you’d actually invented a better electric battery or other EV technology (battery is the only technology that matters though), you could license them and have a 10x book business. Tesla not only did not do a battery licensing model, but they effectively did the opposite. Consider the parts of the vehicle industry that they have decided to in-source versus the ones they have decided to outsource. As we know, they decided to in-source and compete head-to-head on manufacturing. The results have shown that they are worse than their more experienced competition. They decided to in-source the automotive retail, which had not been done before and was not legal in most states. (And still is not legal in eight states). This had been a huge distraction from the manufacturing side and has resulted in abysmal customer service. But of all things to outsource, they outsourced the battery production to a joint venture with Panasonic. What should be the entire premise of an electric vehicle company is not even enough of a competitive advantage to do in house.

    I am not totally sure I agree -- I think Tesla would argue the key is in design and software, just like Apple.  But even if that is true, why are they doing all this other stuff that they don't do very well and is a total distraction and sucks up needed capital?

    TV Recomendation -- Wolf Hall

    I do truly think we are living in the Golden Age of TV.  There are so many great shows -- Game of Thrones, the Crown, Counterpart, even a few guilty pleasures like Outlander.  I wanted to recommend one I just watched and I have not heard a lot about before -- Wolf Hall, a retelling (yes, yet again) of the Henry the VIII era from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.  I thought it was really terrific, with Mark Rylance's quirky take on Thomas Cromwell and Clare Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damien Lewis as Henry (best casting ever as Henry, but I really like Damien Lewis).  Plus a great supporting cast including folks like Jonathon Pryce and Mark Gatiss.  Only 6 episodes and it seems like the logical season 2 is missing, but I really enjoyed it.  The acting is great, but I must confess I liked Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in the Tudors better, probably because I have a thing for Natalie Dormer (which my wife does NOT understand).  The Wolf Hall take on the protagonists is quirky -- it is probably the most sympathetic take on Wolsey you will ever see and the least sympathetic take on Moore you will see.  Very intelligent and avoids (for good and for bad) the Skinemax aspects of the Tudors series.

    On Losing the Thread -- Update on What Actually Remains of the Russia Collusion Tale

    I want to thank everyone for all the comments on my thread asking for someone to give me the current, most damning case for Russia collusion.  I am going to try to pull together a best-of version to post here.

    However, I wanted to post a few excerpts from TA Frank at Vanity Fair, in an article titled "IS THIS IT?: A TRUMP-HATER’S GUIDE TO MUELLER SKEPTICISM" that seems to almost perfectly capture my current take on the whole affair:

    Certainly, Trump’s ethical standards are low, but if sleaziness were a crime then many more people from our ruling class would be in jail. It is sleazy, but not criminal, to try to find out in advance what WikiLeaks has on . It is sleazy, but not criminal, to take a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer promising a dossier of dirt on Clinton. (Just as, it should be mentioned, it is sleazy, but not criminal, to pay a guy to go to Russia to put together a dossier of dirt on Trump. This is one reason why the Clinton campaign  about its connection to the Steele dossier, albeit without the disadvantage of being under oath.) It is sleazy, but not criminal, to pursue a business deal while you’re running for president. Mueller has nailed people for trying to prevaricate about their sleaze, so we already have a couple of guilty pleas over perjury, with more believed to be on the way. But the purpose of the investigation was to address suspicions of underlying conspiracy—that is, a plan by Trump staffers to get Russian help on a criminal effort. Despite countless man-hours of digging, this conspiracy theory, the one that’s been paying the bills at Maddow for a couple of years now, has come no closer to being borne out. (Or, as the true believers would say, at least not yet.)...

    Let’s take a moment to consider Mueller himself. The cut of his jib is likable, and the trad Brooks Brothers vibe of his wardrobe is a perfect complement to his job title. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he’s playing a political game at this point. To be fair, I’m vulnerable to confirmation bias of my own in this assessment, since about a year ago  that Mueller was going to drag out his investigation until 2019, when Democrats were likely to be back in charge of the House, and seeing a prediction play out can lead to unwarranted certitude. But the reports we’re starting to see suggest a man who’s fallen prey to the same state of mind that warped Ken Starr—namely disgust over the people you’re investigating and a desire to justify the sunk capital.

    He includes this warning, which oddly enough is nearly identical to what I used to tell my Republican friends as they were giddy about a Ken Starr investigation into investment wrongdoing resulting in ... charges of perjury about lying about an extra-marital affair

    Partisanship is hostile to introspection, but at some point maybe we’ll look back and think again about what was unleashed in the panic over Russian influence. Trump’s White House has pursued what is arguably the harshest set of policies toward Russia since the fall of Communism—hardly something to celebrate—yet nearly all the pressure, from the center-left as much as the right, is toward making it even tougher. As for those tapping along to S.N.L. songs in praise of Mueller and his indictments, they might want to remember that Trump won’t always be in office. The weapons you create for your side today will be used by the other side against you tomorrow. Do we really want the special-counsel investigation to become a staple of presidential life? It’s a creation with few boundaries on scope and a setup that encourages the selection of a suspect followed by a search for the crime, rather than the other way around. This caused calamities in the era of Bill Clinton, and it doesn’t get any better just because the partisan dynamics are reversed.

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