Two thousand and twenty was the year in which the promise of artificial intelligence became more tangible. We are probably entering the phase in which the early majority is starting to adopt machine learning infrastructure. Breakthroughs such as GPT-3 (an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text) and AlphaFold 2 (code that predicts the 3D structure of a protein based on its genetic sequence) are hints of what lays ahead the coming decades.

Tim Davidson, founder and CEO of Aiconic and one of our advisors in the field of artificial intelligence, concluded his year-end note by saying “In the unique world of machine learning, it was a year of meaningful breakthroughs. While uncertainty looms over 2021, we see enough evidence to support a bullish view on everything that is cloud + machine learning (ML). The expanding ML-as-a-Service industry and ever declining costs of research are likely to empower a new generation of ML products and companies. Lower failure costs combined with increased competition will accelerate the startup iteration cycle, providing investors with faster outcomes. Finally, corporations and governments will drastically increase their venture investment targets in an attempt to stay relevant in a rapidly digitalizing and automating economic environment.”

We are excited about emerging machine learning infrastructure companies that are able to deliver the end solutions that the market is now ready for to start implementing.

Over the past two weeks, most of our businesses presented their 2020 Q3 results. The numbers show the tectonic shift of wealth within society.

Just five years ago, a trillion dollar market valuation still sounded unimaginably big. Few people would have thought that the trillion dollar+ businesses would continue to grow at such a stunning rate.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said in the presentation of the third quarter earnings: “The next decade of economic performance for every business will be defined by the speed of their digital transformation. Tech spend is 5% of GDP. We think it will double in the next 10 years and if anything, this pandemic has perhaps accelerated that doubling. In that context, the large most secular need is the need for distributed cloud infrastructure. It’s both needed for modernizing existing applications you have, and that’s, by the way, 20% penetrated so there’s another 80% that needs to move.”

Enterprises are moving workloads to the cloud at an accelerated pace. It enables cost efficiencies and enhances security. The whole non-Chinese world is basically moving to three cloud infrastructure platforms. Amazon Web Services is growing 29% and is now at a USD 46 billion annual revenue run rate. Amazon’s cloud business alone is worth more than USD 600 billion. Microsoft’s cloud division hit a USD 25 billion revenue run rate and is growing at 47%. Google’s cloud is around USD 14 billion and is growing at 45%. Google’s cloud growth even accelerated as growth in 2020 Q2 was 43%.

These powerful cloud operations are one reason why the valuations of these three holding companies remain fairly attractive.

Besides the three cloud giants, smaller companies are emerging with niche services. Increasingly, compute power and security are moving to the ‘edge’ – computing that is closest to the client. This enables applications to upload with minimal latency as the fundamental limit of speed remains the speed of light. Here, Cloudflare and Fastly are well-positioned. Fastly did not meet its own third quarter forecast due to regulatory uncertainty about TikTok which accounted for 10.8% of its revenue. Such short-term glitches provide long-term owners with the opportunity to buy at a reasonable price.

We are excited about current investment opportunities.

 

The digital revolution perhaps marks the greatest disruptive transformation in the history of mankind so far. The evolution of human intelligence spans about 7 million years, roughly from the separation from the genus Pan. The emergence of almost limitless artificial intelligence is now starting to have a significant impact on society. The unfolding of machine learning is proceeding at a revolutionary speed. It is likely to cause more change to the way we live over the next few decades than it did over the past few centuries.

A good way to get an understanding of what is happing is by studying today’s relevant businesses. During these summer days, I’m spending most of the day reading company reports and listening to the Q2 earnings conference calls. These insightful discussions are open to anyone on the Investor Relations websites of every public company. The staggering growth of some firms is showing the shift of behavior; for example, Shopify reported revenue growth of 97% in the second quarter and Amazon’s revenues increased by 40%. The fact that Amazon, with a market value of USD 1.5 trillion, can grow at such a speed is unprecedented.

We are experiencing the Cambrian explosion of cloud-based technologies. Of software connecting to software and of unsupervised learning at a pace so fast that those looking in the rearview mirror are at risk of being replaced by machines.

The role of software is increasing at an accelerated pace. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said last week that “the last five months have made it clear that tech intensity is the key to business resilience. Organizations that build their own digital capability will recover faster and emerge from this crisis stronger.”

One positive effect of running a distributed business is that the global pool of talent can be accessed irrespective of where a person happens to live. The decentralized way in which many people are able to work is increasing the measurability of every person’s added value and decreasing the benefits of, for example, having a charismatic character. Today, business leaders know better than ever who is relevant and who is replaceable.

Once, the leaders of companies were mainly the well-adjusted social people, those with the personality to move up the corporate ladder. This social setting is getting upgraded now as the autodidact hackers who create art by writing code release their creations into society. Their influence is derived from the beauty of the virtual worlds they are building; masterpieces that eat the role of physical assets as well as that of humans.

While this technological revolution is chaotic and disruptive like any transformation, there will also be many positive effects on the quality of our lives. For instance, we own shares in Livongo, a firm that leverages data to empower people with chronic conditions such as diabetes to live healthier lives.

Today’s younger companies are growing faster and reaching scale at record speeds. Most of these companies are cloud-native and using machine learning to get insights from data. Eugene Wei, a former product developer at Amazon, Hulu, and Oculus VR, wrote this week:

“TikTok didn’t just break out in America. It became unbelievably popular in India and in the Middle East, more countries whose cultures and language were foreign to the Chinese Bytedance product teams. Imagine an algorithm so clever it enables its builders to treat another market and culture as a complete black box. What do people in that country like? No, even better, what does each individual person in each of those foreign countries like? You don’t have to figure it out. The algorithm will handle that. The algorithm knows.”

The current discussion about TikTok shows that technological supremacy has become a geopolitical matter. Machine learning, computing power, cybersecurity, and space dominance, amongst others, have become essential themes of national defense. The arms race in these fields will remain an important topic for the rest of our lives.

In 2030, when looking back at 2020, we will be amazed that some of the most valuable businesses were still smaller private ventures today. While I think that the businesses in which we own shares will thrive, sentiment in markets and stock prices will forever fluctuate wildly. Market participants who are selling shares of great businesses based on someone’s opinion that valuations are rich are likely suffering from a failure of imagination where certain businesses, as well as our species, are headed.

I am writing this update in the garden of a medieval building and from underneath an old oak tree that has been here before 1788, the year of birth of Bank of New York Mellon, the oldest company on this year’s Fortune 500. It helps me to get perspective as businesses continue to come and go. The free market is always destroying the old economic structure and creating a new one and I feel we have to be on the ball closer than ever before. Therefore, Jeff Bezos continues to remind his team that today is Day One and to keep acting like a startup.

Now it’s time for me to listen to the next company’s earnings report. All I need to do is to open my Spotify app. This is the most interesting time of my investing life so far.

The massive global scramble to digitalize both private and professional matters is creating big winners and losers. Today, we are at a shockingly early point in the digital transformation.

The economy of the internet is still only a single percentage of global GDP. We are gradually heading to a place where the GDP of the internet will provide the majority of economic activity. This big social change is like a huge tailwind driving the most successful businesses in the next decade.

E-commerce penetration in the U.S. grew from 5.6% in 2009 to 16.0% in 2019. Then it grew about 30% in April. There are 5.7 billion adults on the earth of which about 4 billion have a smartphone. The penetration of e-commerce is still low in most countries because people lack good internet and digital tools. If one would like to buy a handmade fabric from a person in Senegal online, then there are quite a few complications with regard to the exchange of goods and money. However, the teams at companies such as Starlink, Stone, Stripe, Shopee, Square, and Shopify, are determined to provide the most efficient platforms that allow and urge everyone to participate.

As digital commerce is growing more businesses are building a direct relationship with the consumer. For instance, L’Oréal’s chief digital officer said “We are setting ourselves up for a world where half of the business is e-commerce and 80% of customer interactions will happen online.” L’Oréal quickly shifted its advertising and marketing spending online, which led to an increase from 50% to 70% of its total since the start of the pandemic. As a result, digital advertising on platforms such as Instagram, Amazon, Cardlytics, Spotify, and Roku, is set on a trajectory this year to overtake spending on traditional media.

Changes are clear beyond commerce; the pandemic has caused a massive acceleration of remote education and telehealth which grew from an 11% penetration in 2019 to about 46% currently. The pandemic has increased the need for technology that enables on-demand virtual urgent care, virtual visits, remote personalized monitoring, and collection of data to improve care driven by machine learning.

The investor does not need to have an opinion on the general economy. It does not matter what the general economy or the stock market will do. What matters to the investor is whether one belongs to the group to whom wealth is shifting.

The pandemic is accelerating existing trends to digitalize. We further concentrated on technology businesses that benefit from current developments and that provide winning platforms in e-commerce, cloud computing, gaming & e-sports, digital payments, and machine learning.

On April 27th, Loren Padelford, Chief Technology Officer of Shopify, the e-commerce platform, tweeted ‘this crisis is a time machine that brought 2030 to 2020. It accelerated the digital transformation on many enterprises who weren’t ready. We have helped thousands of large retailers unshackle from legacy systems and start writing their next chapter.’ Over the past month, Shopify experienced strong volumes every day. Heinz and Lindt, amongst others, announced their online stores on Shopify to build direct consumer relationships.

On April 29th, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said ‘As COVID-19 impacts every aspect of our work and life, we have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.’

While there is a large audience for doomsday scenarios about the virus, unemployment, corporate defaults, government debt, money printing, etc., the intelligent strategy is to co-own a focused selection of great companies that will thrive.

The strong businesses seem to emerge stronger from this crisis.

 

I do not have any special knowledge about viruses or epidemiology and will not express opinions on this topic. Yet, I do like to share a few thoughts about our investment philosophy.

Intelligent investing is based on the relationship between the value of a business and its market price. There will always be global events that will have some impact on the operations of our businesses. While longer-term trends drive the values of our firms, daily news can cause market prices to fluctuate widely around these values. Over time, prices will more or less reflect intrinsic values.

Would you sell your successful family business because a virus is spreading?

We do not trade partial ownership (shares) based on macro-economic events. We grow our wealth because we co-own companies that prosper.

Every business is likely to be impacted somehow by a major virus outbreak. Yet, I believe that even in case of a pandemic the values of the businesses we own in the Guardian Fund will be impacted only modestly. All have strong balance sheets that can withstand a temporary decline in revenues. Some of our technology companies may even benefit from people’s reactions to current events.

As we will be net buyers of stocks over the next few decades, we always welcome lower prices and are ready to increase our ownership at the right price. I have great confidence in the management of the companies we co-own to be able to adapt and cope with challenges. The intrinsic values of our businesses are likely to grow significantly over time.

I wish you and your family good health.

Sincere regards,

Georg