The Hack: When Crime Pays Fractions of a Penny on the Dollar

Plus! Jio, Bans, Slacktivism, Slackifying, Micro PE, Airbnb

In this issue:

  • The Hack: When Crime Pays Fractions of a Penny on the Dollar

  • Jio!

  • The Bans: Huawei Employees. Party Members? Dollars?

  • Slacktivism

  • Slackifying

  • Micro PE

  • Airbnb

The Hack: When Crime Pays Fractions of a Penny on the Dollar

Stories about finance and spying sometimes have very different details but the same basic plot. They both revolve around information asymmetries, and at the highest level they’re both about judiciously using an information edge without revealing it. When the NSA decides whether or not to act on information, when it would reveal how they got the information, they’re behaving the same way a fund manager does when he patiently accumulates a stock over the course of weeks instead of buying a big chunk all at once. And a well-executed intelligence operation has the same inside-the-OODA-loop look as a good trade: a series of events that look like unfortunate coincidences for one side and very lucky ones for the other side suddenly snap into focus as it becomes apparent that one group knew something the other group didn’t. (There are practical barriers to figuring out something you don’t know, but there are high psychological barriers to realizing that someone else knows something about you that they shouldn’t know.)

There’s not a lot of overlap between the two fields, at least in equities, because much of what spies do qualifies as gathering material nonpublic information. So it’s mostly a fun side interest. One person who understands the deep connection between bean-counters and spooks is Neal Stephenson, whose Cryptonomicon is all about money, information, and signals intelligence.

One question that comes up a lot in Cryptonomicon is: when is something that’s normally an asset actually a liability? At several points in the book, characters end up with assets—stock in a valuable but vulnerable company, particular GPS coordinates, an understanding of what other characters are up to—that makes them much worse off, even if their implicit balance sheet looks better.

This came to mind during yesterday’s twitter hack.

The hack, in case you missed it: several Twitter accounts posted links to Bitcoin-related scams, either soliciting Bitcoin donations for fake charities or promising to double people’s money if they sent Bitcoin to a specific address.

Here’s Obama:

Here’s Joe Biden:

More plausibly, here’s Elon Musk:

Individual Twitter accounts get hacked all the time. But usually it’s a one-off event. Insecure passwords are one culprit, and two-factor authentication is another: hackers can execute a SIM-swap attack that lets them receive texts meant for your phone. Those texts can include login verification codes. But that doesn’t scale, and it certainly doesn’t happen all at once.

It’s unclear exactly how Twitter got hacked, but the two possibilities are:

  1. An inside job: a twitter employee either took over the accounts or gave someone else access to the tools necessary to do so. This has happened before. Two Twitter employees were charged with spying for Saudi Arabia, and one contractor, on his last day, temporarily deactivated Donald Trump’s account.

  2. Twitter’s internal account-level control panel got hacked. The best evidence for this is that Twitter has been suspending accounts that publish alleged screenshots of the tool. And some alleged hackers have taken credit for using this method. So far, this is where the evidence points.

Either way: someone had access to either every verified Twitter account or every Twitter account, period. And they used it to… scam a few people out of Bitcoin. The profits so far have been about $100,000.

I can easily think of several ways to make a quick billion dollars from having access to Twitter accounts, given lots of capital and a day or two of lead time:

  • Russia or Saudi Arabia could announce an increase or decrease in oil production. Russia and Saudi Arabia could announce one.

  • Donald Trump could resign, suspend the election, or announce that a pharma company with a liquid options market had produced a working vaccine that would be distributed to every American.

  • Congress could extend unemployment benefits, or cancel them.

  • Elon Musk could quit his job, or buy out a competitor. (Or take Tesla private again.) There’s precedent for this; Emulex dropped 60% after a fake press release, which worked especially well because it was released in the early morning East Coast time and Emulex employees rolled into the office late.

  • The FTC could unwind the Instagram or YouTube deals.

  • The Fed, ECB, or BOJ could do something interesting impacting the extraordinarily liquid FX market.

  • Any head of state could threaten, or start, a war.

All of these are reasonable ways to prompt a massive swing in the value of a liquid market. The AP’s poorly-spellchecked hack tweet about a bomb attack on the White House pushed stocks down by about 1%, and had an impact on currencies and rates. A more coordinated effort—with a copyeditor involved—could have done more.

But the hackers didn’t do any of that. They did a Bitcoin scam instead. These scams have existed before: the classic method is to create an identical profile to a famous person (“EIon Musk,” for example), and reply to one of their tweets with a link to the scam. As hackers have gotten more sophisticated, they’ve gotten better at taking over verified accounts, changing their account details to the famous person’s, and running the same trick.

There are two explanations for the lame Bitcoin-scam payload for the hack. Both should make you less worried about cyber-security. One is that the hackers are dumb, and the other is that they’re actually quite smart.

If the hackers are dumb, they ran the Bitcoin scam because they didn’t know any better. Presumably these people had either been involved in, or knew about, the previous Bitcoin scams, and they pattern-matched “new Twitter security vulnerability” to “better harvest some more Bitcoin.” Someone who figures out how to infiltrate a major company is probably not stupid, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be all that financially-literate.

But let’s assume our hackers made the same list of Twitter-driven market catalysts I did above. We could push the S&P, WTI, the 10-year, the Euro, the Yen, or any other large and liquid asset by 1% instantly, and we can move any stock price we want by up to 30% or so.

Okay, great. Now we have two problems: getting enough capital to make the trade, and realizing our profits. There’s a question of trust at one end, and law at the other. On the trust side, hackers have to convince someone with tens of millions of dollars that they can move the market. The best way to earn that trust is to actually move the market, but a big exploit only happens once. Within an hour or two of the first scam tweet, Twitter had locked all verified accounts from posting, and now seems to have tracked down (or at least mitigated) the original issue. So your criminals need to be very trustworthy. But also, they’re criminals. The whole thing sounds like its own scam: if you’re a hedge fund manager and an ostensible hacker says he can manipulate prices for your benefit, you should assume you’re not the co-conspirator, just the mark.[1]

But let’s imagine they do track down an investor who agrees to maximize profits from their trade in exchange for splitting those profits with them somehow. Where do these profits get realized? The SEC keeps an eye on accounts with suspiciously good timing. Especially if that timing involves a change in strategy. If a buy-and-hold equity investor makes their first-ever deep-out-of-the-money Eurodollar options trade and makes 50x their investment by predicting a headline, that will certainly get regulators' attention. You could act quickly, but an account that suddenly turns a huge profit and then liquidates and closes out will raise red flags. Brokers are risk-averse, and they’re not going to sacrifice much to protect a customer who is leaving anyway. So in any country that cooperates with the US regulatory regime, which is almost every country on earth, the partner-with-a-big-trader option is out.

But perhaps our hackers are smart enough to have thought of that, too. So they pick a jurisdiction where the SEC can’t come after them. Maybe China. Maybe Russia.

I can think of many misfortunes that might befall me in my life, but one of the worst would be:

  1. I have a billion dollars and have unknown but extensive control of Twitter, the main venue the President of the US uses to announce policy.

  2. I’m in Russia.

  3. Vladimir Putin is aware of both of these facts.

There just isn’t a great supply chain linking the ability to move markets through hacks to the ability to realize profits from those hacks. Both skills exist, independently, but the social gap, information gap, and trust gap make it almost impossible for the two to combine. Add that to the low probability of the hacks themselves—it’s not every day that someone exploits a major tech tech company so effectively—and the odds drop to nearly nil.

This is good news. The fact that cheesy Bitcoin scams work means that hackers have an incentive to break into vulnerable companies. But the fact that they work a lot better than more drastic exploits means that Bitcoin creates a sort of global bug bounty. If Bitcoin scammers hadn’t found this vulnerability, maybe North Korean hackers or the PLA would have.

If you’re a smart hacker who can break into Twitter and take over any account, bitcoin plus bragging rights may be the only payoff you have a reasonable chance to collect. If you want your Interactive Brokers account to briefly show a billion-dollar balance that you’ll never collect, you might as well edit your balance with Chrome’s DevTools. You’re just as likely to spend it that way.

[1] I suspect that in the wake of this hack, enterprising con artists will try to pull this off. I don’t know if we’ll hear about it; the victim should keep quiet, because getting away with it would be a serious crime. But I think it’ll happen.

Elsewhere

Jio!

Yesterday I mentioned that Google was considering a large investment in Reliance Jio. It’s official: Google is investing $4.5bn, making them the second-largest outside investor after Facebook ($5.7bn). There’s an idealistic case for investing in Jio, since it’s built a huge business and keeps launching new local-commerce products. And then there’s the cynical case, that it’s an investment in Reliance, which can wield a regulatory veto over competitors.

The Bans: Huawei Employees. Party Members? Dollars?

A common observation about markets in the last few years is that they’ve learned to ignore existential risk. The market tends to shrug off the possibility of things like nuclear war; it reacts a little, and recovers fast. One reason for this is that markets are relentlessly Bayesian. If there’s a surprising new development, it’s either random noise or it means we should expect many more such developments; bad news with no followup is noise, so rallies happen fast in the absence of tit-for-tat escalation.

So, what does it mean that, weeks after Hong Kong’s new security law went into effect, the US is restricting immigration from Huawei employees, and threatening to expel Chinese Communist Party members from the country and cut Chinese banks off from the dollar ($)? The latter two are extremely drastic: when party members send their kids to Harvard, it’s a symbol of the party’s power and a hedge against its collapse. And losing access to dollars would have a Covid-level impact on China (both in the sense that it would crush GDP in the short term and that the party would go to extraordinary lengths to normalize things in the longer term).

The election is in 109 days. Biden’s rhetoric against China is a hair less aggressive than Trump’s, and the status quo has strong anchoring effects: if Biden restored China’s early-2020 status quo, not to mention the pre-Trump status quo, this would read as a strongly pro-China move.

In other China/tech nationalism news:

  • Yesterday, I mentioned the possibility that TikTok signed a long-term deal with Google Cloud Compute to free-ride on Google’s lobbying. Now TikTok itself is lobbying hard. Their parent company is also hedging, by focusing more on China ($). One notable fact about ByteDance is that they’ve launched, depending on how you count, two or three massively successful apps: Toutiao (news), Douyin (viral videos in China), and TikTok (viral videos everywhere else).

  • Huawei remains hopeful that it will work with Canada. Canada, meanwhile, has been slow-walking a decision as their government waits to see whether China will release two Canadian nationals who have been imprisoned by the Chinese government.

Slacktivism at the New York Times

Slack is meant to be a communications tool, not a social network. But Slack channels, especially private channels, create a set of ad hoc social networks with real-time interactions and powerful filter bubbles. As a result, media companies have found that employees will organize on Slack and then pressure their employers on Twitter. Filter bubbles are not strictly bad—every new institution initially consists of the small set of people who ignore the outside world’s message that they’re working on something stupid. But the ability to cheaply form filter bubbles with push notifications is a novel threat. These internal filter bubbles reinforce the external ones: if the subset of New York Times employees who are upset about a decision the Times made can quickly find each other and coordinate a response, their ability to veto the Times‘ decisions is stronger, so its ideological range narrows. Google’s robust internal newsgroups had exactly the same effect, by helping employees who were upset about the same issue find each other and pick a message.

Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is a question for political philosophers. It makes companies more of a direct democracy than an administrative state. But tech companies can look at the city of San Francisco to see where direct democracy falls flat: it involves the promiscuous distribution of veto power to people with free time. A company with active Slack discussions will be more responsive to the will of their employees—but will be disproportionately responsive to the will of employees who spend all their time arguing on Slack instead of working.

Slackifying Gmail

Gmail is testing a redesign of Gmail that puts email, messaging, group chat, and video chat in the same app. If nothing else, this will complicate Slack’s messaging. Slack likes to say that their app replaces email, but both Google and Microsoft are now redesigning their email products around beating Slack.

Micro PE vs Value Capture

One bull thesis on Amazon’s ecommerce business is that third-party sellers are doing Amazon’s market research. For popular products, Amazon can launch their own white-label version; for less popular or more hit-driven ones, they’re happy to outside sellers shoulder the risk. Amazon swears up and down that they don’t access third-party sale data when launching their own products, but that’s not strictly true.

It may be true enough, though: Thrasio, a company that buys out successful Amazon retailers, has raised $260m. It doesn’t fully refute the thesis, though. Thrasio might be a nice example of applying financial theory in a practical way: first, it may be the case that the price at which Amazon sellers sell their business is determined by the perception that Amazon will copy them, while the actual risk is lower. Second, and more interesting: copying risk raises the variance of any given seller’s returns: if they don’t get copied, they do fine; if they do get copied, profits go away. So Thrasio might be structured around benefiting from the one free lunch in finance: if the market is efficient, switching from a concentrated portfolio to a diversified portfolio in the same asset class produces the same expected return, with less volatility.

Airbnb: Somewhat Back

Airbnb has announced one million bookings in a single day earlier this month. Bookings have shifted from international to local, and from long-term to short-term, so any room-nights-booked recovery in Airbnb will overstate the actual trend. Still, the direction is compelling, especially since some of their former supply is being converted back to long-term condo rentals.

Why Are Toys Such a Bad Business?

Plus! V-Shaped Recovery, Tech Sees Like a State in Indonesia, Clever Currency Games, more...

This is the once-a-week free edition of The Diff, the newsletter about inflections in finance and technology. The free edition goes out to 8,221 subscribers, up 211 week-over-week. This week’s subscribers-only posts:

  • The UK as a Science Hub is an update on Boris Johnson’s plan (or, if you prefer, Dominic Cumming’s scheme) to make Britain a scientific powerhouse. The outlines of the plan aren’t new, but the opportunity is.

  • The Equity Risk Premium at 0% Interest looks at the implications of low real rates for tech companies. In equilibrium, low rates are good for equities because they raise the present value of future cash flows. But another way of saying this is that, in financial terms, low rates mean the future happens all at once.

  • Globalization: A Toy Story) is a prequel to today’s note, discussing the history of Hong Kong’s toy industry. Hong Kong’s toy industry was basically nonexistent in 1945, the biggest in the world by 1972, and consistently lost share to China from the 80s onward. It’s a case study in how globalization works.

  • The Depressing Bull Thesis for Rocket Mortgage is a writeup of Rocket, the largest mortgage originator in the US, which recently filed to go public. Fewer red flags than expected, but it’s partly driven by a dire financial bet.

In this issue:

  • Why Are Toys Such a Bad Business?

  • V-Shaped Recovery is here… just not evenly distributed.

  • Tech Sees Like a State: Indonesia Edition

  • Clever Currency Games

  • Treasuries: Bad Deal, No Alternatives

  • China Equities Update

  • Video Games and Pricing Power

Why Are Toys Such a Bad Business?

Early-stage investors sometimes use the heuristic that if a product gets derided as a toy, it’s worth investing in. That model would have gotten you into PCs in the 70s, the Internet in the early 90s, social networks when the good ones were privately-held, cryptocurrencies, and drones. The risk is investing in actual toy companies, which is usually a terrible decision. Hasbro stock hasn’t done anything for half a decade, and Mattel trades where it did in the early 90s. JAKKS Pacific has destroyed most of its shareholders' wealth, and Funko is working on the same.

This is not a new phenomenon, either. The biggest toy company in the US in the 50s was Louis Marx & Company, whose founder made the cover of Time. Sales declined slightly over the next decade, and faster after that; the company was bankrupt in 1980. Coleco rode the Cabbage Patch Kids trend in the mid-80s—in 1985, they had the highest return on equity of any company in the Fortune 500—but they were bankrupt by 1988.

The record is no better for retailers. Toys R Us is bankrupt, of course, and they followed FAO Shwarz, KB Toys, Right Start, and Zany Brainy.

The toy industry has not been kind to investors, at any level.

There are a few reasons, and a few relevant lessons.

First, the toy business operates on an annual cycle. Historically, about 40% of toy sales happen during the holiday season, and about half of those were in the two weeks before Christmas. (That’s a dated statistic, from about twenty years ago. Discretionary retail sales in general have gotten spikier, since more shoppers are used to fast, free shipping. With Amazon Prime, the Christmas shopping season starts on December 22nd or so.) 84% of US toy sales come from China, transported by a mix of ships and air freight, so they need to be ordered months in advance.

And they have to be marketed: while cheap toys can compete on price, the higher-margin ones only get sold when there’s an effective ad campaign. Mattel created this model (and overturned Louis Marx’s price-first approach) when they spent their entire net worth on a one-year sponsorship of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955.

TV ad campaigns, too, tend to be purchased in advance. About half of TV ad spending is allocated to the upfronts—booked March through May to be delivered by the end of the year.

This locks toy companies into a challenging bet. Every year, they have to a) predict trends, b) invent them, and c) commit capital to them. All without knowing how the rest of the year will turn out. Since toy trends exist, but don’t last for very long, they have to invent new products every year—but the technological state of the art doesn’t advance very fast. It has all the volatility of tech, without the progress.

A handful of companies have made serious money in toys, or, rather, in toy-like or toy-adjacent businesses. The video game industry has generally done well. Disney turns a profit. And Games Workshop has a nice little business. (I wrote up in The Diff in April—note that I’ve since sold the stock, just for valuation reasons) . Lego, too, is a great business, worth an estimated $15bn.

What these companies have in common is that they escape the demographic trap that toy manufacturers are locked into. Every year, there’s a new cohort of six-year-olds, and they need something that a) didn’t exist last year, but b) appeals to timeless six-year-old sensibilities. They don’t have much brand loyalty, because a year later the same toy is a toy for little kids. Each of these successful companies beats that in a different way:

  • Video games' average age has trended older over time, so instead of marketing to more trend-sensitive young people, they’re marketing to more dollar-insensitive not-so-young people.

  • Disney has a generational loop, of which toys are a small part. Movies and streaming video get kids hooked on Disney characters, which can be monetized at much higher dollar values through their parks. (See my writeup here for much more.)

  • Games Workshop and Lego have a very healthy product dynamic: the ones you already own are an economic complement to the ones you buy. And Lego clearly designs their marketing around hitting two generations, too: at the Lego Store, $30 Rise of Skywalker-themed Lego sets are at a kids' eye level. The $800 set based on the original trilogy is positioned at an adult’s eye level.

These companies have something else in common: they own their core intellectual property. Video game publishers do make games based on superheroes and sports leagues, and Lego certainly has branded sets, but the core of each business is IP owned by the company itself; the licensed products are a lucrative side business: it’s much easier for a video game company to re-skin characters than for a movie company to start a video game studio. As a case study, one popular game was originally intended to be set in the Game of Thrones universe, but ended up using in-house IP instead. Disney, of course, sells toys based on its own characters. And while some Lego sets are associated with outside brands at the point of purchase, they inevitably end up being fungible with other Legos.

Because it’s a hit-driven industry, toy companies that succeed can be immensely profitable for a while. The problem is that the difference between a cultural landmark and a fad is visible after a decade or so, while the decision of how much to order and how much to spend on marketing has to happen every year regardless. So toy companies with a hit product in year N tend to be bankrupt companies writing down the value of their inventory to ~$0 in year N+3 or N+5.

Share

A Word From Our Sponsors

You shouldn’t have to take big risks to make big returns. So when data from Citibank shows that art has outperformed the S&P by 180% since 2000 with the least volatility of any major asset class—we’re inclined to notice.

The ultra-wealthy have invested in art for centuries, to the tune of over $1.7 trillion in total value—so why can’t the rest of us?

Masterworks lets anyone invest in paintings by some of the most successful artists in history like Banksy, Warhol, Basquiat, and more, in just a few clicks. The only catch? There’s currently a backlog of over 25,000 of people applying for membership, but you can skip the waitlist by signing up today.*

* See disclaimer.

Elsewhere

V-Shaped Recovery is Here…

… just not evenly distributed. And not likely to last. In Japan, Uniqlo expects Japanese sales to be up 25% Y/Y in their August quarter, after a 15% decline last quarter. Their regional estimates are very much virus-driven, with optimism in China and pessimism in countries seeing a second wave, or, in the US’s case, a 1.5th wave. And worldwide PC shipments grew in Q2, mostly due to the one-time build-out of home offices and Zoom-based schools. In China, auto sales were up 10% in Q2 ($), and China’s copper smelting is also rising ($).

Inventory restocking used to be a significant driver of GDP growth: when the economy slowed, companies had too much inventory on hand, and had to cut jobs to work through the excess. Once they ran out, they had to rehire fast. Now, supply and demand for manufacturing are located in different places (with different policies), and companies are more averse to holding inventory for long periods, so this model isn’t as descriptive or predictive as it once was. When the people getting fired are the ones providing demand, it’s easy for a recession to feed on itself, and easy for a recovery to bootstrap itself, too. When those groups are in different countries, and when the swings in inventory are more muted, it’s less of a factor, leading to fewer recessions but much slower rebounds.

Tech Sees Like a State: Indonesia Edition

The Indonesion government is strapped for cash, and needs to spend heavily to mitigate the effects of Covid-19. But the government is not great at collecting taxes (taxes are 11-12% of GDP. For comparison, Mexico and the Netherlands have similar-sized economies, and collect 16% and 39%, respectively). But tech companies are great at collecting taxes on online commerce, and tend to charge close to the Laffer peak. So Indonesia is outsourcing taxation to them ($) by imposing a 10% value-added tax on large Internet companies. Google, Facebook, and Netflix have built their own “tax collection” apparatus, and are better at catching tax-evaders and charging the right amount. As it turns out, tax-farming wasn’t a terrible idea, just a few centuries early

In other tax news, Chinese mainlanders working in Hong Kong suddenly owe the mainland’s 45% tax rates rather than Hong Kong’s 15%. China seems to alternate—on a daily basis—between wanting Hong Kong to be a financial center they control and wanting to use their control to end Hong Kong’s status as a financial center.

Clever Currency Games

The dollar, by virtue of being the world’s most-used currency, is the currency that least represents how currencies work. Since it’s a reserve currency, dollars are demanded by people who don’t earn them or spend them, but who know they’ll need them, so the US has less control over the value of its money than any other place. To paraphrase John Connally, it’s everyone’s currency but America’s problem.

For example, there’s no way the US could get away with this ($):

Africa’s most populous nation has long maintained several exchange rates. In addition to the interbank and black-market rates, there are official rates for consumers wanting dollars for school and medical fees abroad, for Muslims making the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, and for people wishing to buy hard currency at exchange bureaux.

That’s a very clever setup. Smaller countries can use a tiered exchange-rate system to moderately encourage or discourage certain behaviors, or to dole out favors to particular groups. Dollars are so liquid, and used in so many places, that the US has to take a more binary approach, of allowing or banning transactions; taxes get routed around.

Treasuries: Bad Deal, No Alternatives

Alpha Architect has a negative view on treasuries, arguing that they’re not a good diversifier and that yields are too low to justify owning them. The piece goes into detail on how treasuries function as insurance (not always!), and how they’re mostly owned by price-insensitive buyers like regulated insurance companies and central banks. All true. But the most important line in the piece is: “Okay, Treasuries Aren’t Compelling: What Are My Alternatives? Answer: Nothing.” Investments are always expressed in relative terms. In an aging world, we shouldn’t expect anything to be cheap because there’s so much demand for savings.

China Equity Update

Chinese CSI 300 index dropped 1.8% in the last session, and it’s now up only 14% since late June. Bloomberg profiles the wild market, with plenty of pull quotes from new investors (“There’s no way I can lose,” sounds like a classic bull market line, but there’s a tinge of desperation there). One company, QuantumCTek, rose 1,000% in its IPO ($).

Video Games and Pricing Power

2K games is trying to push video game prices above the de facto ceiling of $60/copy. Video game prices have been declining in real terms, in part because of cheaper manufacturing and distribution. As the video game industry gets more mature, predicting sales for any given title gets easier, which encourages publishers to invest more in production. So cost deflation in one part of the market is offset by cost inflation in another.

Loading more posts…