Category Archives: business tools

Coffee as the thin edge

Pick n Pay is starting to gain some useful insights into customer behaviour and purchasing decisions at different stores. They’re using coffee as a key product to better understand who buys what, where and when.  They’re tossing out (more likely de-emphaszing) LSMs as a method of categorising customers and moving to more sophisticated measures (including whether the purchaser has children or not, but also I’d expect location, purchase frequency, average basket size, mix of goods etc.)

Pick n Pay had to spend a fortune on the Smart Shopper system and has ongoing expenses in terms of rewards and analysis. The curious thing for me is how many loyalty cards incur the system and reward costs for retailers, but without gaining the full benefit of analysis and thus insight into customers.

I don’t get tailored book suggestions from Exclusive Books. They also haven’t tried to entice me back to their stores since I started buying first from and then almost exclusively ebooks from Amazon. They’ve basically lost a customer and haven’t done anything about it.

Even my friend’s St Elmos offers sweet deals to customers who haven’t ordered in a while to entice them back. Pick n Pay turned sub R100 pm customers into R350 pm customers (at least while the special was one) by specifically targeting customers that are familiar with Pick n Pay but need a push to become regular, high-spending customers.

I haven’t had a movie card with Ster Kinekor in a while, but I always use the same email address and credit when I purchase tickets online (which I do almost universally). There have been periods of several months where I haven’t gone to the movies, but no attempt from Ster Kinekor to woo me back with free popcorn or a careful movie recommendation.

Retailers are missing a trick to get an edge over their competitors.


what a difference several years make

The laminated card in the seat pocket of the SAA Boeing 737-800 I’m flying in describes how I can use most devices in “flight mode” once in the air.
It’s dated November 2011, but I’m quite sure I’ve still heard cabin crew telling people off for not having their phones off over the last two months. However late, be it several years or several years and two months, the relaxation of the draconian and relatively unique restrictions on the use of electronic devices in the air has been lifted.
So rather than losing 4 hours of my life with every Cape Town – Joburg trip, I now lose more like 2 hours and get to plough through an embarrassingly large list of unattended emails and arrive with a sense of accomplishment, lower stress levels and hopefully fewer irate colleagues waiting on email replies.
Now I can’t wait for a wifi connection so I can retrieve truncated emails and attachments and communicate in real time. And publish the posts I write while on the plane!

Implied Pension Return Assumptions and the Equity Risk Premium

When companies value pension obligations and required contribution rates, they make assumptions about the expected future investment returns. (Accounting standards require market-based rates reflecting fixed interest returns, but that’s a separate point).

So what assumptions are pension funds making? The WSJ has an interesting article showing that the average US pension fund is assuming future returns of approximately 8%. To put that in perspective, yields on 30 year T-bonds in the US are about 3.9%, 10-year yields are below 3% and inflation is currently about nothing. This is a huge real return and suggests that many of these pension funds may be underfunded.

It’s also interesting to work out what Equity Risk Premiums these valuation assumptions imply. FinanceClippings makes  some educated guesses at likely portfolio construction, and estimates assumed ERPs of nearly 8%. For reasons I’ve described before, an 8% ERP is madness.

My own calculations

FinanceClippings assumes a simple portfolio mix of 50% equities and 50% government bonds in this calculation, and assumes the average yield will be consistent with 30-year assumptions. I would differ slightly here. If we are looking at an overall portfolio, I would expect some investment grade corporate bonds and property in the mix too. These assets could be expected to earn 1% to 2% over risk-free over time (after adjusting for expected default loss on the corporate bonds). These return assumptions may seem low to some, but this is another area where it’s easy to overestimate the possible returns based on inappropriate periods of data. Continue reading Implied Pension Return Assumptions and the Equity Risk Premium

Lower interconnect not the promised panacea

Decreasing interconnect fees was supposed to lower telecoms costs, promote competition and create world peace.

It’s done none of these because the logic underlying it was flawed. Analysts focused on interconnect as an expense, happily ignoring the revenue side (since it was a fee paid to another company within the industry). Never has a telecoms issue been so badly hijacked by lack of understanding.

Now, in a press release that is a little vague, BMI TechKnowledge reflect concerns that telecoms growth rates may be lower as a result of falling mobile termination rates.

Too Small To Succeed

According to a Fin24 story this morning, the FSB is probing smaller unit trusts.

The economics of a fund manager depends entirely on growing funds under management so that revenues (based on assets under management) grow to be larger than costs (significantly fixed and at most semi-variable). Details of performance fees and the second order impact of investment performance aside, a successful fund manager must attract positive net client cashflow, and lots of it.

Half the 960 available unit trusts have less than R100m in AUM. Some of these may be rapidly growing new funds, but many have been stagnant with slow growth for several years.

The FSB’s attention presents opportunities for consolidation between funds and should place larger funds in a stronger position competitively. Total Expense Ratios (TER) for these funds with significant scale should already be lower than smaller funds. Maybe it’s time the larger funds made more if their size and cost efficiencies. If they are going to take the heat for being too large to be nimble, they might as well reap the benefits too.

It will be interesting to see what this means for white labelled funds and whether the economics of these convince the regulator that they should survive.

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Property investment – the value of data over opinions

Lightstone have a trick up their sleeves. Their raison d’être is collecting, analysing, understanding and packaging data for themselves and others to use to understand past, current and future property valuations.

Their housing price index is more robust (and more independent) than those of the banks based off their own data and target markets. Rather than consider only the average price of houses sold in that particular month (which is a function of house price growth / decline but also how the type, condition, size and location of the houses sold that month differ from the prior month and year) they consider repeat sales where the same property has been bought and sold more than once.

This data is combined or “chain-linked” to provide a continuous measure of house price inflation over time.

House Price Inflation 2010
House Price Inflation 2010 source:

The result of all of this data, best-in-class methodology and analysis? When Lightstone says “opportunities abound in local market” I actually listen. Since their business model is to sell information, I’m more likely to trust what they say.

5 Things to Learn from Monopoly

I haven’t played Monopoly in a while (preferring Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Tigris and Euphrates and even Cranium), but after a recent conversation I started thinking about the game dynamics. There is surprisingly much that is relevant to the current story of our economy.

1 The Competition Commission is necessary

Monopolies serve to increase prices for consumers. In Monopoly, the “rents” charged are instantly higher as soon as a player has a monopoly on property in a certain area.

Worse than the increase in prices and decrease in supply, the additional profit for suppliers is not equal to the cost to consumers from higher prices, resulting in an overall “dead weight loss of monopoly” or an overall cost to society. Continue reading 5 Things to Learn from Monopoly