Tag Archives: commodities

Notes – The Art Of Profitability: Pyramid Profit (#profitability, #business, @CreditBubbleStocks)

(A multi-part co-blog series with CreditBubbleStocks.com about the book The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky)

Chapter 2, Pyramid Profit

The Pyramid Profit model consists of multiple quality and price tiers for products, targeted at multiple types of customers (and customer preference), which creates two powerful dynamics for the business:

  1. Protects them from competition from market entrants below (commodity market)
  2. Creates profitable “customer migration” opportunities as loyal customers move up the steps of the pyramid (franchise market)

Why is this model so powerful?

As guru David Zhao teaches,

Your pyramid has to be more than just a collection of different products at different price points. A true pyramid is a system in which the lower-priced products are manufactured and sold with so much efficiency that it’s virtually impossible for a competitor to steal market share by underpricing you. That’s why I call the lowest tier of the pyramid the firewall. But the most important factor is the nature of your customer set. The customers themselves form a hierarchy, with different expectations and different attitudes toward price.

The competitive environment all businesses would prefer to have is that of a franchise, where their product is deemed uniquely valuable and essential such that the business can capture a franchise premium in its margin structure, a premium which is enduring and protected from competition over time by the proverbial “moat.”

Simultaneously, the competitive environment all businesses fear is that of a commodity market, where the only way to distinguish your product from someone else’s and incite the customer to buy is by offering the lowest price. It is a true race to the bottom and the turnover for businesses in commodity markets can be quite high.

As discussed in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, most innovators arrive in a market as low-cost entrants. Incumbent firms see no problem in giving the low-margin business dregs to them as they’re happy to play in the higher-margin markets upstream. The hungry commodity firms are constantly looking above them at the juicy margins available in this other market– can they apply their innovative, low-cost practices to this higher-margin space and move in for the kill? As Christensen details, so often they try and succeed.

This is the genius of the Pyramid Profit model. Incumbent firms are protected from innovative, low-cost competition by offering a low-to-no margin product that creates a competitive “firewall” at the most vulnerable place in the market, the violently dynamic commodity space. Then, they are free to play in the middle and higher margin markets without stress.

There is an additional benefit, as well. By capturing new customers even at the low-margin end of the market, the firm is able to increase customer loyalty and brand familiarity over the customer’s lifecycle. Over time. these (presumably) younger, poorer customers turn into older, richer customers following the circumstances of life.

The value of a Pyramid Profit model depends on the shape of the pyramid. A pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top is relatively inefficient and less valuable as most of the business volume is captured in the low/no-margin mass market whereas the high-margin premium market remains under-promoted. An ideal shape would resemble something more like a skyscraper tower– the same width for all tiers, all the way up, with enough segmentation via price/quality tier to progressively move customers up the pyramid at a rapid pace. The more business that is concentrated at the upper levels of the pyramid, the better the margins and the more profit the firm can earn.

The Pyramid Profit model can be found in many well known businesses, even though it is a rarer circumstance than that of the Customer Solution Profit model discussed in chapter 1. A good example is the automobile industry with its “economy” and “premium” brands (for example, Honda and Acura, or Chevy and Cadillac). Even within each brand, many manufacturers have managed to create a “pyramid” of quality, price and even features/capabilities (for example, Honda has the LX base model, EX, EX with leather and EX-L with navigation; it also has the Civic for the entry buyer, the Accord for the more sophisticated, the Odyssey for the family buyer, etc.). Another example would be the airline industry, such as Virgin Atlantic’s “Economy”, “Premium Economy” and “First Class” seating and service tiers. However, no airline seems to have created separate brands/carriers that focus on one tier of the pyramid over another, instead this segmentation always occurs per aircraft (contrast this to a “single class” carrier such as JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, though notice that even these firms have begun to offer new passenger tiers for additional money such as early boarding, extra luggage capacity, etc.)

Speaking of the auto industry again, one of the most prodigious Pyramid Profit employers has been Toyota. Toyota offers three brands in the United States: Scion, Toyota and Lexus. Scion was a brand developed specifically for the young car buyer, initially offering lower price points, simpler model choices and a “no bargaining” purchase experience that was supposed to capture a first-time buyer and put them into the “Toyota system” for the rest of their automobile-buying lives. Then, there was the mass market, multi-trimmed and multi-segmented Toyota brand, offering cars, vans, SUVs and light trucks to the everyman. And finally, there was Lexus, the flagship brand for wealthy, older, image-conscious and highly-demanding customers.

Toyota’s pyramid is awkwardly shaped, however. It’s base, Scion, is miniscule and definitely low/no-margin. The middle step is enormous and fairly profitable relative to the rest of the industry. And the top is much wider than one would expect it to be, being both relatively high-volume for a luxury market and quite profitable despite ongoing margin erosion in the industry overall. Indeed, Lexus auto dealership franchises are consistently one of the most valuable and sought-after brands in the industry alongside BMW and Audi, commanding high market multiples reflective of their premium value.

The key to a successful and highly profitable pyramid is twofold. First, you must be lucky enough to operate in a market that is conducive to segmentation of customers (especially self-segmentation). Second, you must know your customers well– the Customer Solution Profit at work again! The better you understand your customers and their specific needs, the better you will be able to create custom quality and pricing tiers in your pyramid that will meet their subjective needs.

The Best Interview On Gold, The Gold Market And Investment Implications I’ve Ever Read (#gold, #economics)

In “What is the key for the price formation of gold?” at GoldSwitzerland.com, SF-based software developer Robert Blumen covers a lot of fascinating and, to my eyes, original ground in an interview with the site’s host.

This has got to be the best interview on the subject of gold in general, the functioning of the gold market and the implications for investors that I’ve ever come across. Blumen not only covers these specific subjects related to gold, but also discusses the Chinese economy, the US economy and the state of monetary and fiscal affairs and even the attitudes of value investors, demonstrating thoughtful familiarity with all he touches. Blumen is well-versed in Austrian economic philosophy and applies this theory to the various practical considerations resulting in surprising new perspectives on common themes.

It’s a long interview and it will only fully reward those determined to dive all the way in. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two different kinds of commodities and we need to understand the price formation process differently for each one. The first one I’m going to call, a consumption commodity and the other type I’m going to call an asset.

A consumption commodity is something that in order to derive the economic value from it, it must be destroyed. This is a case not only for industrial commodities, but also for consumer products. Wheat and cattle, you eat; coal, you burn; and so on. Metals are not destroyed but they’re buried or chemically bonded with other elements making it more difficult to bring them back to the market. Once you turn copper into a pipe and you incorporate it hull of a ship, it’s very costly to bring it back to the market.

People produce these things in order to consume them. For consumption goods, stockpiles are not large. There are, I know, some stockpiles copper and oil, but measured in terms of consumption rates, they consist of days, weeks or a few months.

Now for one moment I ask you to forget about the stockpiles. Then, the only supply that could come to the market would be recent production. And that would be sold to buyers who want to destroy it. Without stockpiles, supply is exactly production and demand is exactly consumption. Under those conditions, the market price regulates the flow of production into consumption.

Now, let’s add the stockpiles back to the picture. With stockpiles, it is possible for consumption to exceed production, for a short time, by drawing down stock piles. Due to the small size of the stocks, this situation is necessarily temporary because stocks will be depleted, or, before that happens, people will see that the stocks are being drawn down and would start to bid the price back up to bring consumption back in line with production.

Now let’s look at assets. An asset is a good that people buy it in order to hold on to it. The value from an asset comes from holding it, not from destroying it. The simplest asset market is one in which there is a fixed quantity that never changes. But it can still be an asset even when there is some production and some consumption. They key to differentiating between consumption and asset is to look at the stock to production ratio. If stocks are quite large in relation to production, then that shows that most of the supply is held. If stocks are small, then supply is consumed.

Let me give you some examples: corporate shares, land, real property. Gold is primarily an asset. It is true that a small amount of gold is produced and a very small amount of gold is destroyed in industrial uses. But the stock to annual production ratio is in the 50 to 100:1 range. Nearly all the gold in the world that has ever been produced since the beginning of time is held in some form.

Even in the case of jewelry, which people purchase for ornamental reasons, gold is still held. It could come back to the market. Every year people sell jewelry off and it gets melted and turned into a different piece of jewelry or coins or bars, depending on where the demand is. James Turk has also pointed out that a lot of what is called jewelry is an investment because in some parts of the world there’s a cultural preference for people to hold savings in coins or bars but in other areas by custom people prefer to hold their portable wealth as bracelets or necklaces. Investment grade jewelry differs from ornamental jewelry in that it has a very small artistic value-added on top of the bullion value of the item.

So, now that I’ve laid out this background, the price of a good in a consumption market goes where it needs to go in order to bring consumption in line with production. In an asset market, consumption and production do not constrain the price. The bidding process is about who has the greatest economic motivation to hold each unit of the good. The pricing process is primarily an auction over the existing stocks of the asset. Whoever values the asset the most will end up owning it, and those who value it less will own something else instead. And that, in in my view, is the way to understand gold price formation.

Many of the people who follow and write about this market look at it as if it were a consumption market and they look at mine supply and industrial fabrication as the drivers of the price as if it were tin, or coal, or wheat. People who look at gold as if it were a consumption market are looking at it the wrong way. But now you can see where the error comes from. In many financial firms gold is in the commodities department, so a commodities analyst gets assigned to write the gold report. If the same guy wrote the report about tin and copper, he might think that gold is just the same as tin and copper. And he starts by looking at mine supply and industrial off-take.

I wonder if more equity analysts or bond analysts were active in the gold area, if they would be more likely to look at it the same way they look at those assets.

Review – The King Of Oil (#MarcRich, #EnemyOfTheState, #oil)

The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich (buy on Amazon.com)

by Daniel Ammann, published 2010

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. This review was originally published at EconomicPolicyJournal.com.

The Story of Marc Rich

The popular telling of the myth of the crimes of Marc Rich almost perfectly captures the modern American zeitgeist– a businessman, the most evil and exploitative kind of villain that can plague a nation of honest and earnest people, sought to earn a profit via oil trades with the enemy (post-Revolution Iran) during a time of national crisis and embargo (the embarrassingly stupid hostage situation in Tehran circa 1979), evaded his tax obligations and then had the sheer nerve (or perhaps deep well of pure, black hatred within his heart) to refuse to stand trial for his crimes by fleeing to neutral Switzerland, using his enormous, illegally-acquired and not to mention positively unsightly personal wealth to buy himself immunity — and eventually a full pardon — from a criminal justice system to which lesser mortals must pay heed.

But if we peer a little closer (and trust the retelling of Rich’s story in Daniel Ammann’s biographic to be honest and accurate), we begin to see Marc Rich in an entirely different light– if not immediately heroic, then certainly victimized by a benighted American public and tormented by a vengeful “limited” government with ulterior motives. Yes, in this new light, Marc Rich casts long shadows, and standing hunched over in the shadows we see the plotting, manipulative forms of then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani and then-US Federal prosecutor Sandy Weinberg, as representatives of themselves but also as representatives of the disaster of unbridled ego, political pragmatism and the twisted logic of the State that has nowadays become so popular.

The man’s accomplishments are legend and long-form: single-handedly creating the world market for spot-price oil; circumventing blockades, trade barriers and hare-brained foreign policy situations to move commodities from the conflict-ridden pieces of earth where they lay, wasted, into the hands of producers all over the world who value them most; organizing a billion-dollar-a-year commodity trading company with his partner Pincus Green, whose reach spanned the globe; and evading the vagabonds and plunderers calling themselves the US federal government and the US Marshal Service for over a decade.

And the man’s crime? Libertarians, steady yourselves– doing business in certain places and in a certain fashion without the express permission of the United States federal government to do so. In other words, Marc Rich was guilty of minding his own business.

Enemy of the State

That’s the reality of Marc Rich’s crimes, but that was not the story fed to journalists by U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani on September 19th, 1983. On that day, the public learned of Rich’s “fifty-one counts of fraud, racketeering” and “tax evasion” (pg. 116). “It was ‘the largest tax evasion indictment ever,’ Giuliani said.”

The defendants engaged in this scheme as a part of a pattern of racketeering activity in which they concealed in excess of $100 million in taxable income of the defendant Marc Rich International, most of which income was illegally generated through the defendants’ violations of federal energy laws and regulations. This scheme, and pattern of racketeering activity, enabled the defendant Marc Rich International to evade taxes in excess of $48 million in United States taxes for the 1980 and 1981 tax years.

Giuliani, however, held back the most serious charge until the end of the press conference.

The most serious charge:

Marc Rich + Co. AG [Rich's Swiss trading corporation and mother-company to MRI] ‘entered into contracts with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to purchase Iranian crude and fuel oil.’ ….Trading with the enemy– the gravest of accusations” (pg. 117)

This is how Marc Rich’s crimes became famous, and Marc Rich himself infamous. Prior to these allegations, Rich had been a quiet genius, an unknown billionaire. For a man who would later become the detested scoundrel of a nation who had, until that time, been quite familiar with its many antiheroes (Billy the Kid, Al Capone, Charles Manson), the initial reaction of Sandy Weinberg to allegations against Marc Rich was telling.

“Marc who?” Weinberg asked. “I’ve never heard of a Marc Rich.” (105)

Yet, this “accidental discovery” (117) of Weinberg and Giuliani’s (trading with the enemy) would provide the political impetus to eventually charge Rich and partner Pincus Green with the nation’s toughest “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws, the “prosecutor’s equivalent of nuclear weaponry” (122). For a man whose entire indictment contained not one crime of actual fraud or extortion, the traditional definition of racketeering, it’s hard to imagine how racketeering charges could be justified. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how any charges could be justified because, remember, Rich’s crimes were not against actual, existing individuals but rather against the positive corporate mandates of the United States federal government and its immense regulatory and tax bureaucracies.

True crimes

The real racket being run was that of the US tax authorities, the real crime Rich — a literal world citizen with passports issued by Spain, Switzerland and Israel and whose main business was incorporated in Switzerland — was guilty of was not paying his protection money and furthermore being so bold as to trade with a rival gang in Iran.

And this is really the most instructive moral of the many morals of the Marc Rich saga. Forget the struggle of fleeing Europe’s Holocaust and losing everything in the process. Forget the hard work and determination of an immigrant family that allowed them to overcome language barriers and their immediate poverty to ultimately realize an ‘American Dream’ of their own. Forget the sheer talent and raw force of will necessary to forge a world commodities empire and create an entirely new way to trade oil, a new market that directly challenged the oligopoly of the Seven Sisters oil cartel.

No, Marc Rich’s story is significant and telling because it reveals the true nature of government in practice, and especially government as practiced in America, where it is nothing but politics and egos that decides men’s fates, and not some phony, childish striving for the “common good.” It shows us that government is fundamentally anti-competitive, anti-business and anti-individual.

Political vendetta embodied

The crusade against Marc Rich was over the top and beyond any reasonable idea of the pursuit of justice in a free country. With rampant politicization of the process and the prosecution and defense alike, its use of the most formidable federal charges possible (RICO) and the wanton collateral damage caused to Rich’s company, employees, trading partners and even world markets, it was akin to an all-out totalitarian war.

“It was phenomenal,” Sandy Weinberg told me with glee. “We tied up all U.S. assets, including 20th Century Fox. We shut ‘em down completely. We shut the company down for a year. They couldn’t operate in the U.S. It cost them dearly. I assume it cost them probably a billion dollars.” (123)

Ask yourself, what is this prosecutor gloating over? What is he gloating over besides his own pride in his personal power to destroy a man’s business, business partners and reputation? What is he thrilling over but the loss of value, to many millions of people the world over, that the “billion dollars” in lost revenue represents? Rich was never charged with a crime that represented stealing from others or extorting his trading partners… all money he made, he made on the basis of voluntary, wealth-producing transactions from the viewpoint of his trading partners.

This is the stark reality of government, that it destroys wealth. That it tears society down. That it hobbles trade. And all for what? For the egos of ambitious politicians. Who benefited from Marc Rich’s downfall? Not the people of the United States, and not the people of the rest of the world. But for Giuliani, it was “another feather in his cap” (123).

“U.S. Attorney Giuliani knew that the case would serve as a springboard for his political career– a career that would lead him to become the mayor of New York and later to make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. presidency. One could go so far as to say that Giuliani’s political and very public career actually began with this case. As history has shown, the fact that the case escalated rapidly before virtually exploding as a media event was not exactly to Giuliani’s disadvantage. In all likelihood, this escalation was even desired.” (142)

Ultimately, Marc Rich ran afoul of the political process. He sought to trade around arbitrary regulations and restrictions on oil exchange established by the political Department of Energy. He maintained multiple passports and was not beholden to the ever-changing nationalistic political winds of any land or time period. He exploited tax loopholes to avoid paying as much protection money as he could, protection fees which are, again, established arbitrarily and politically by the respective governments involved on he basis of what is expedient, not what is right or necessary. And finally, he traded with unpopular foreign regimes without respect for outstanding bans and embargoes and did so without the nauseating moral hypocrisy of the politician who makes claim that he is transacting with rights-violators for the Greater Good.

The moral: the individual stands alone

No, Marc Rich only traded for profit, nothing more, nothing less, and a value that is truly non-partial and non-political.