A smart Wall Street guy recently described to me a new way to think about the value of a stock in an overheated market. He proposed that there were really two parts to value. The first of course is the underlying value of the share. And the second is the option the holder of the share holds implicitly to sell the share at a time of his choosing. This could be called the option to sell to the greater fool, but let's not start calling people names.
This second layer of value can be greater than the first. In other words, particularly in a momentum market, the right to sell is worth more than the stock itself. This is interesting because it is a good visualization of an emerging class of assets that derive their value entirely as a function of their relationship to an underlying asset.
Some will say this is nothing new. A steak at a steak house costs three times as much as a steak at home. Such an item could be described in two parts as well: the steak and the experience of eating it at the steak house. Again the second part is likely more valuable than the steak itself. Milk at the Mini Mart has two parts, the milk, and the convenience of buying it quickly.
In markets where innovation is changing the cost of producing and delivering things, the cost of the underlying asset is decreasing quite quickly. Take ebooks for example, the cost to create and deliver the next copy of an ebook is essentially zero. This creates an environment where it is easy to see how there is relatively more value in the second, derivative asset, than in the ebook itself. The derivative asset to an ebook could be merely the recommendation of the right book, or who is reading what book, or comments about the book, or quotes from the book. If you were about to pitch a big deal, how much would you pay to know what the person on the other side of the table was reading the day before your meeting? At the risk of offending the authors who clearly invest themselves in their craft and create valuable work, we must ask: Is there more value in the marketplace to the second level information about the book than in the book itself?
Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook have been named as the new horsemen in technology. These companies recognize the value of being one layer removed from the actual asset. Google and Facebook both pay their customers (by offering free services) in exchange for this second level information – so clearly they assign value to it. Apple exploits the second level information less than the others – mostly because it’s history is making money selling devices. They are getting smarter about this all of the time and the Apple iCloud announcements last week betray their interest in being in the second level game. Amazon is the one with the superior business model. Not only does Amazon make money selling products, but they are expert at using the second level information to sell even more stuff. Amazon has a much more concrete awareness of what you “like” and knows how to use that information to present you with other products to purchase.
More examples of this construct emerge every day, and many in places commonly thought of as confidential:
- Banks: I received an offer today from my bank to purchase access to their database of financial statements. These are financial statements their customers have submitted as part of their traditional banking relationship. Banks make money in many ways, and now they are making money selling access to the information they collect about their customers.
- Phone Companies: The contents of your phone call cannot be “tapped” without a search warrant, but law enforcement regularly pays the cellular companies for the second level information. That data includes, who you called, how long you talked, and where you were (while talking or just while the phone was on). Law enforcement does not need probable cause or a search warrant to get this information and the cellular providers have automated access to the database, so the fees they collect are pur profit.
- Credit Card Companies: Your credit card issuer makes 2 to 5% off of every transaction, plus they sell the information about how much you spend at what vendor. Soon you will be seeing advertisements on your credit card bill.
- On the plane: I would pay extra to sit next to a thin person or better yet a client or potential client. In the case of the potential client, I would probably pay more than the cost of the ticket itself. This could also go for any event.
- Buying Things: The next time I buy a house I would like to know which houses are going to come on the market next. So information about people looking to move, getting transferred, or experiencing other life changes would be valuable to me. Facebook could have this already, but other big databases will likely get mashed up to provide information like this.
- Healthcare: The next time I get a cold or the flu, or better yet, before I get a bug, I would like to go online and see what is happening in my area. Who is suffering symptoms (Google has this because people do searches for their symptoms, the healthcare companies have it once people go to the doctor, and schools and employers have it once people call in sick) plotted on a map and compared to historical data.
- The Government: The government could become the biggest player in this area. Think of the gold in the IRS’s databases.
Things are definitely getting interesting. Maybe my next post should be about privacy!