May a thousand market structures bloom

In my commentary on SEBI’s proposal to change the regulations of Indian securities markets in order to allow new kinds of market structures, I had mentioned that SEBI should simply enable exchanges to apply whatever market structures they wanted to apply, and let market participants sort out, through competition and pricing, what makes most sense for them.

This way, different stock exchanges in India can pick and choose their favoured form of regulation, and the market (and market participants) can decide which form of regulation they prefer. So you might have the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) going with order randomisation, while the National Stock Exchange (NSE) might use batch auctions. And individual participants might migrate to the platform of their choice.

Now, Matt Levine, who has been commenting on market structures for a long time now, makes a similar case in his essay on the Chicago Stock Exchange’s newly introduced “speed bump”:

A thousand — or at least a dozen — market structures can bloom, each subtly optimized for a different type of trader. It’s an innovative and competitive market, in which each exchange can figure out what sorts of traders it wants to favor, and then optimize its speed bumps to cater to those traders.

Maybe I should now accuse Levine of “borrowing” my ideas without credit! 😛

 

Intermediation and the battle for data

The Financial Times reports ($) that thanks to the rise of AliPay and WeChat’s payment system, China’s banks are losing significantly in terms of access to customer data. This is on top of the $20Billion or so they’re losing directly in terms of fees because of these intermediaries.

But when a consumer uses Alipay or WeChat for payment, banks do not receive data on the merchant’s name and location. Instead, the bank record simply shows the recipient as Alipay or WeChat.

The loss of data poses a challenge to Chinese banks at a time when their traditional lending business is under pressure from interest-rate deregulation, rising defaults, and the need to curb loan growth following the credit binge. Big data are seen as vital to lenders’ ability to expand into new business lines.

I had written about this earlier on my blog about how intermediaries such as Swiggy or Grofers, by offering a layer between the restaurant/shop and consumer, now have access to the consumer’s data which earlier resided with the retailer.

What is interesting is that before businesses realised the value of customer data, they had plenty of access to such data and were doing little to leverage and capitalise on it. And now that people are realising the value of data, new intermediaries that are coming in are capturing the data instead.

From this perspective, the Universal Payment Interface (UPI) that launched last week is a key step for Indian banks to hold on to customer data which they could have otherwise lost to payment wallet companies.

Already, some online payments are listed on my credit card statement in the name of the payment gateway rather than in the name of the merchant, denying the credit card issuers data on the customer’s spending patterns. If the UPI can truly take off as a successor to credit cards (rather than wallets), banks can continue to harness customer data.

Aswath Damodaran, Uber’s Valuation and Ratchets

The last time I’d written about Aswath Damodaran’s comments on Uber’s valuation, it was regarding his “fight” with Uber investor Bill Gurley, and whether his valuation was actually newsworthy.

Now, his latest valuation of Uber, which he concludes is worth about USD 28 Billion, has once again caught the attention of mainstream media, with Mint writing an editorial about it (Disclosure: I write regularly for Mint).

I continue to maintain that Damodaran’s latest valuation is also an academic exercise, and the first rule of valuation is that “valuation is always wrong”, and that we should ignore it.

However, in the context of my recent piece on investor protection clauses in venture investments (mainly ratchets), it is useful to look at Damodaran’s valuation of Uber, and how it compares to Uber’s valuation if we were to account for investor protection clauses.

“True value” of Indian unicorns after accounting for investor protection. Source: Mint

When Uber raised $3.5 Billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund earlier this year, the headline valuation number was $62.5 Billion. Given the late stage of investment, it is unlikely that the investor would have done so without sufficient downside protection – at the very least, they would want a “full ratchet” (if the next investment happens at a lower valuation, then they get additional shares to compensate for their loss). This is a conservative assumption since late stage (“pre-IPO”) investments usually have clauses more friendly to the investor, usually incorporating a minimum “guaranteed return”.

Plugging these numbers into the model I’ve built (pre-money valuation of $59 Billion and post-money valuation of $62.5 billion), the valuation of the put option written by existing investors in favour of Uber comes to around $1.28 Billion. Accounting for this option, the total value of the company comes out to $39.6 Billion.

Damodaran’s valuation, based on his views, principles and numbers, is $28 Billion. Assuming that investors and management of Uber are aware of the downside protection clauses and its impact on the company’s valuation, Damodaran’s valuation is not that much of a discount on Uber’s true valuation!

Regulating HFT in India

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has set a cat among the HFT (High Frequency Trading) pigeons by proposing seven measures to curb the impact of HFT and improve “real liquidity” in the stock markets.

The big problem with HFT is that algorithms tend to cancel lots of orders – there might be a signal to place an order, and even before the market has digested that order, the order might get cancelled. This results in an illusion of liquidity, while the constant placing and removal of liquidity fucks with the minds of the other algorithms and market participants.

There has been a fair amount of research worldwide, and SEBI seems to have drawn from all of them to propose as many as seven measures – a minimum resting time between HFT orders, matching orders through frequent batch auctions rather than through the order book, introducing random delays (IEX style) for orders, randomising the order queue periodically, capping order-to-trade ratio, creating separate queues for orders from co-located servers (used by HFT algorithms) and review provision of the tick-by-tick data feed.

While the proposal seems sound and well researched (in fact, too well researched, picking up just about any proposal to regulate stock markets), the problem is that there are so many proposals, which are all pairwise mutually incompatible.

As the inimitable Matt Levine commented,

If you run batch auctions and introduce random delays and reshuffle the queue constantly, you are basically replacing your matching engine with a randomizer. You might as well just hold a lottery for who gets which stocks, instead of a market.

My opinion this is that SEBI shouldn’t mandate how each exchange should match its orders. Instead, SEBI should simply enable individual exchanges to regulate the markets in a way they see fit. So in my opinion, it is possible that all the above proposals go through (though I’m personally uncomfortable with some of them such as queue randomisation), but rather than mandating exchanges pick all of them, SEBI simply allows them to use zero or more of them.

This way, different stock exchanges in India can pick and choose their favoured form of regulation, and the market (and market participants) can decide which form of regulation they prefer. So you might have the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) going with order randomisation, while the National Stock Exchange (NSE) might use batch auctions. And individual participants might migrate to the platform of their choice.

The problem with this, of course, is that there are only two stock exchanges of note in India, and it is unclear if the depth in the Indian equities market will permit too many more. This might lead to limited competition between bad methods (the worst case scenario), leading to horrible market inefficiencies and the scaremongers’ pet threat of trading shifting to exchanges in Singapore or Dubai actually coming true!

The other problem with different exchanges having different mechanisms is that large institutions and banks might find it difficult to build systems that can trade accurately on all exchanges, and arbitrage opportunities across exchanges might exist for longer than they do now, leading to market inefficiency.

Then again, it’s interesting to see how a “let exchanges do what they want” approach might work. In the United States, there is a new exchange called the Intercontinental Exchange (IEX) that places “speed bumps” over incoming orders, thus reducing the advantage of HFTs. IEX started only recently, after major objections from incumbents who alleged they were making markets less fair.

With IEX having started, however, other exchanges are responding in their own ways to make the markets “fairer” to investors. NASDAQ, which had vehemently opposed IEX’s application, has now filed a proposal to reward orders by investors who wait for at least once second before cancelling them.

Surely, large institutions won’t like it if this proposal goes through, but this gives you a flavour of what competition can do! We’ll have to wait and see what SEBI does now.

Uber’s anchoring problem

The Karnataka transport department has come out with a proposal to regulate cab aggregators such as Uber and Ola. The proposal is hare-brained on most  counts, such as limiting drivers’ working hours, limiting the number of aggregators a driver can attach himself to and having a “digital meter”. The most bizarre regulation, however, states that the regulator will decide the fares and that dynamic pricing will not be permitted.

While these regulations have been proposed “in the interest of the customer” it is unlikely to fly as it will not bring much joy to the customers – apart from increasing the number of auto rickshaws and taxis in the city through the back door. I’m confident the aggregators will find a way to flout these regulations until a time they become more sensible.

Dynamic pricing is an integral aspect of the value that cab aggregators such as Uber or Ola add. By adjusting prices in a dynamic fashion, these aggregators push information to drivers and passengers regarding demand and supply. Passengers can use the surge price, for example, to know what the demand-supply pattern is (I’ve used Uber surge as a proxy to determine what is a fair price to pay for an auto rickshaw, for example).

Drivers get information on the surge pricing pattern, and are encouraged to move to areas of high demand, which will help clear markets more efficiently. Thus, surge pricing is not only a method to match demand and supply, but is also an important measure of information to a cab aggregator’s operations. Doing away with dynamic pricing will thus stem this flow of information, thus reducing the value that these aggregators can add. Hopefully the transport department will see greater sense and permit dynamic pricing (Disclosure: One of my lines of business is in helping companies implement dynamic pricing, so I have a vested interest here. I haven’t advised any cab aggregators though).

That said, Uber has a massive anchoring problem, because dynamic pricing works only in one way. Anchoring is a concept from behavioural economics where people’s expectations of something are defined by something similar they have seen (there is an excellent NED Talk on this topic (by Prithwiraj Mukherjee of IIMB) which I hope to upload in its entirety soon). There are certain associations that are wired in our heads thanks to past information, and these associations bias our view of the world.

A paper by economists at NorthEastern University on Uber’s surge pricing showed that demand for rides is highly elastic to price (a small increase in price leads to a large drop in demand), while the supply of rides (on behalf of drivers) is less elastic, which makes determination of the surge price hard. Based on anecdotal information (friends, family and self), elasticity of demand for Uber in India is likely to be much higher.

Uber’s anchoring problem stems from the fact that the “base prices” (prices when there is no surge) is anchored in people’s minds. Uber’s big break in India happened in late 2014 when they increased their discounts to a level where travelling by Uber became comparable in terms of cost to travelling by auto rickshaw (the then prevalent anchor for local for-hire public transport).

Over the last year, Uber’s base price (which is cheaper than an auto rickshaw fare for rides of a certain length) have become the new anchor in the minds of people, especially Uber regulars. Thus, whenever there is a demand-supply mismatch and there is a surge, comparison to the anchor price means that demand is likely to drop even if the new price is by itself fairly competitive (compared to other options at that point in time).

The way Uber has implemented its dynamic pricing is that it has set the “base price” at one end of the distribution, and moves price in only one direction (upwards). While there are several good reasons for doing this, the problem is that the resultant anchoring can lead to much higher elasticity than desired. Also, Uber’s pricing model (more on this in a book on Liquidity that I’m writing) relies upon a certain minimum proportion of rides taking place at a surge (the “base price” is to ensure minimum utilisation during off-peak hours), and anchoring-driven elasticity can’t do this model too much good.

A possible solution to this would be to keep the base fare marginally higher, and adjust prices both ways – this will mean that during off-peak hours a discount might be offered to maintain liquidity. The problem with this might be that the new higher base fare might be anchored in people’s minds, leading to diminished demand in off-peak hours (when a discount is offered). Another problem might be that drivers might be highly elastic to drop in fares killing the discounted market. Still, it is an idea worth exploring – in my opinion there’s a sweet spot in terms of the maximum possible discount (maybe as low as 10%, but I think it’s strictly greater than zero)  where the elasticities of drivers and passengers are balanced out, maximising overall revenues for the firm.

We are in for interesting days, as long as stupid regulation doesn’t get in the way, that is.

Hyperlocal and inventory intelligence

The number of potential learnings from today’s story in Mint (disclosure: I write regularly for that paper) on Foodpanda are immense. I’ll focus on only one of them in this blog post. This is a quote from the beginning of the piece:

 But just as he placed the order, one of the men realized the restaurant had shut down sometime back. In fact, he knew for sure that it had wound up. Then, how come it was still live on Foodpanda? The order had gone through. Foodpanda had accepted it. He wondered and waited.

After about 10 minutes, he received a call. From the Foodpanda call centre. The guy at the other end was apologetic:

“I am sorry, sir, but your order cannot be processed because of a technical issue.”

“What do you mean technical issue?” the man said. “Let me tell you something, the restaurant has shut down. Okay.”

I had a similar issue three Sundays back with Swiggy, which is a competitor of Foodpanda. Relatives had come home and we decided to order in. Someone was craving Bisibelebath, and I logged on to Swiggy. Sure enough, the nearby Vasudev Adigas was listed, it said they had Bisibelebath. And so I ordered.

Only to get a call from my “concierge” ten minutes later saying he was at the restaurant and they hadn’t made Bisibelebath that day. I ended up cancelling the order (to their credit, Swiggy refunded my money the same day), and we had to make do with pulao from a nearby restaurant, and some disappointment on having not got the Bisibelebath.

The cancelled order not only caused inconvenience to us, but also to Swiggy because they had needlessly sent a concierge to deliver an impossible order. All because they didn’t have intelligence on the inventory situation.

All this buildup is to make a simple point – that inventory intelligence is important for on-demand hyperlocal startups. Inventory intelligence is a core feature of startups such as Uber or Ola, where availability of nearby cabs is communicated before a booking is accepted. It is the key feature for something like AirBnb, too.

If you don’t know whether what you promise can be delivered or not, you are not only spending for a futile delivery, but also losing the customer’s trust, and this can mean lost future sales.

Keeping track of inventory is not an easy business. It is one thing for an Uber or AirBnB where each service provider has only one product which is mostly sold through you. It is the reason why someone like Practo is selling appointment booking systems to software – it also helps them keep track of appointment inventory, and raise barriers to entry for someone else who wants the same doctor’s inventory.

The challenge is for companies such as Grofers or Swiggy, where each of their sellers have several products. Currently it appears that they are proceeding with “shallow integration”, where they simply have a partnership, but don’t keep track of inventory – and it leads to fiascos like mentioned above.

This is one reason so many people are trying to build billing systems for traditional retailers – currently most of them do their books manually and without technology. While it might still be okay for their business to continue doing that (considering they’ve operated that way for a while now), it makes it impossible for them to share information on inventory. I’m told there is intense competition in this sector, and my money is on a third-party provider of infrastructure who might expose the inventory API to Grofers, PepperTap and any other competitor – for it simply makes no sense for a retailer to get locked in to one delivery company’s infrastructure.

Yet, the problem is easier for the grocery store than it is for the restaurant. For the grocery store, incoming inventory is not hard to track. For a restaurant, it is a problem. Most traditional restaurants are not used to keeping precise track of food that they prepare, and the portion sizes also have some variation in them. And while this might seem like a small problem, the difference between one plate of kesari bhath and zero plates of kesari bhaths is real.

Chew on it!

Market depth, pricing and subsidies

A few days back I had written about how startups should determine how much to subsidise their customers during the growth phase – subsidise to the extent of the long-term price. If you subsidise too much initially, elasticity might hit you when you eventually have to raise prices, and that can set you back.

The problem is in determining what this long-term sustainable price will be. In “one-sided markets” where the company manufactures or assembles stuff and sells it on, it is relatively easy, since the costs are well known. The problem lies in two-sided markets, where the long-term sustainable price is a function of the long-term sustainable volume.

A “bug” of any market is transaction costs, and this is especially the case in a two-sided market. If you are a taxi driver on Ola or Uber platform, the time you need to wait for the next ride or distance you travel to pick up your next customer are transaction costs. And the more “liquid” the market (more customers and more drivers), the lesser these transaction costs, and the more the money you make.

In other words, the denser a market, the lower the price required to match demand and supply, with the savings coming out of savings in transaction costs.

So if you are a two-sided market, the long-term sustainable price on your platform is a function of how big your market will be, and so in order to determine how much to subsidise (which is a function of long-term sustainable price), you need to be able to forecast how big the market will be. And subsidise accordingly.

It is well possible that overly optimistic founders might be too bullish about the eventual size of their platform, and this can lead to subsidising to an extent greater than the extent dictated by the long term market size. And some data points from the Indian “marketplace industry” show that this has possibly happened in India.

Having remained credit card only for a long time now, Uber has started accepting cash payments – in order to attract customers who are not comfortable transacting money online. This belated opening shows that Uber perhaps didn’t hit the numbers they had hoped to, using their traditional credit card / wallet model.

Uber has problems on the driver side, too, with an increasing number of its drivers turning out to be rather rude (this is anecdata from several sources, I must confess), refusing rides, fighting with passengers, etc. Competitor Ola has started buying cars and loaning them to drivers, perhaps indicating that the driver side of the market hasn’t grown to their expectations. They are all indicative of overestimation of market size, and an attempt to somehow hit that size rather than operating at the lower equilibrium.

So an additional risk in running marketplaces is that if you overestimate market size, you might end up overdoing the subsidies that you provide to build up the market. And at some point in time you have to roll back those subsidies, which might lead to shrinkage of the market and a possible death spiral.

Now apply this model to your favourite marketplace, and tell me what you think of them.