Fairfax Selling TradeMe Is No Surprise

The news that Fairfax are selling their stake in TradeMe is no surprise. This is because Fairfax has made a string of poor decisions over the past decade.

They failed to aggressively expand in online media, benefiting primarily through the acquisition of TradeMe. They loaded up on debt and TradeMe was a key contributor to maintaining Fairfax’s debt servicing ability over the past few years.

The reduction in Fairfax’s debt will give them a lot of breathing room. But it will basically take them back to the position they were in pre-TradeMe. That’s a poor online strategy.

It is a fascinating insight into how executives are not very good stewards of shareholder wealth, if you subscribe to that theory. It’s also an interesting insight into how supposedly smart people can make really dumb decisions.

If we look at Fairfax’s most recent investor presentation, we see Fairfax are trading away a business with a margin of 75% (TradeMe) and EBITDA growth of 11.2% for a core group of businesses with margins between 5% and 28%.

The Fairfax executives are basically betting that their transformation strategy will deliver more cost reductions and revenue growth than using TradeMe as a cash cow to pay down their other groups debt.

Their arrogance is amazing. From their own financials, only their internal whole of group restructuring (HR, IT, operations) is delivering higher returns than TradeMe!

One of the biggest contributors to their cash flow – enabling them to stay alive – was the proceeds from the TradeMe IPO!

But we have to remember that the major Fairfax loss is a non-cash impairment as a result of their ~$2.8 billion writedown in masthead value and goodwill.

They have to write down the value of their print assets, yet somehow think selling off TradeMe is a good strategy.

This action reminds me of something Bob Jones wrote in one of his books – whatever AMP is doing, do the opposite.

Corporate executives have a track record of poor decisions. Fairfax loaded up on debt during the boom and delayed aggressive cost reduction until it was too late.

Now they’re letting go of a franchise business with massive margins that can fend off any competition for the foreseeable future.

This whole debacle is another reason why excessive executive compensation is so wrong.

You can make completely stupid decisions that put a company on a trajectory to insolvency but there is no likelihood of Fairfax executives having to repay their “make hay while the sun shines” compensation.

If I was a major institutional investor in Fairfax I’d be extremely annoyed to the point of spending the rest of my career aggressively shorting companies with executives responsible for this at the helm.

“Go short the idiots who think selling TradeMe is a good idea” could be a rewarding hedge fund strategy over the next decade or so!

Buying A House Is Weird

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub is right, renting is better than buying. It’s weird how obsessed New Zealanders are with real estate. Browsing the real estate section of TradeMe or Open2View must rival consumption of online pornography when you think about the volume of data transferred.

I’m just about to move to a cheaper room. It’s in Thorndon, close to university and further away from the bright lights of Courtenay Place with overpriced bars and nightclubs. I spend thousands of dollars a year on housing and I’m happy with how my side of the trade is working out. In the long-run I will be far better off than whoever owns the property I am renting a room in.

I completely disagree with the idea that renting is less secure than owning your own home. David Whitburn’s comments that a landlord can just kick you out are completely off the mark for a lawyer. The Residential Tenancies Act and Tenancy Tribunal provide a reasonable level of protection for residential tenants.

When you enter into a rental agreement, you go in with your eyes open. In exchange for lower levels of security and the landlord covering the cost of insurance, rates and mortgage repayments you get a substantial discount on the cost of housing. If you complain about the terms of the deal, shop around for a better one.

A unique feature of the New Zealand rental market is that many landlords are reasonable people. If you have a young family and need access to schools there is no harm in asking for an extra month or two’s notice if the landlord is going to sell up. It’s called “not being a dick” and when housing affordability is a major issue landlords need to be responsive to longer lead times for residential tenants departing.

You don’t need to buy a house before you have a family. If your partner won’t settle down with you before you’ve bought a house, you might want to read about the Relationship Property Act. Multiply the cost of your mortgage over the expected life of your relationship by 0.5 and ask yourself if you’d like to write a cheque to your partner for that amount of money. If not, it might be time to end the relationship.

If you decide to have children and buy a house, you’re not giving them security at all. This sadistic rationalisation must be linked to the poverty of experience many Kiwis have growing up. If Mummy and Daddy didn’t spend $1,100 a fortnight paying off the mortgage on a dingy villa that costs an extra $20,000 in maintenance to keep from falling apart they’d be much happier.

They’d have more money to spend on expensive groceries, overseas trips, luxury goods, private school fees, charitable donations and fine dining. Instead of working on behalf of Australian bankers we’d be working on behalf of our friends, family and neighbours. There would be no need to ship billions of dollars a year in interest payments overseas when it could stay here and create jobs if we merely stopped participating in groupthink.

Parents could even afford for one partner to stay at home with the kids. They wouldn’t need to work a dreary office job that barely covers day care, the cost of work clothes and commuting. This is because tens of thousands of dollars a year wouldn’t need to be earned in the first place because there isn’t a massive mortgage payment to be made. Imagine how much happier children would be if Mum or Dad didn’t abandon them every day to go to work. I’m sure glad my Mum took time out of the workforce with my younger brother and I. Parents with young children are funnily enough a group with the most to gain from renting before a primary school needs to be found.

I can see myself buying a house one day, eventually, potentially, if house prices decrease significantly to around 3 times the median income. But after my experience with debt so far I sure as hell wouldn’t want a rapacious bank involved with where I sleep and retreat from the world. I’ll buy a house when I can pay cash and have as much again left over. With the median house price in Wellington central $472,000 that means I’d want at least $944,000 in liquid assets before buying a house.

If more people thought like me New Zealand would be far better off. You’re bailing out baby boomers who failed to save for retirement when you pay too much for a house. When they all die, the market will be flooded with houses because their impoverished children can’t afford the upkeep or to develop large sections in high demand areas.

If you want to calculate the difference between buying and renting for your own specific situation, the New York Times has a fantastic interactive tool. You’ll need to think clearly about the assumptions being made, but will get a good idea of the size of the tradeoffs you make when you buy a house.

Buying a house is weird because for 99% of people you are betting the farm on the possibility of an out-sized capital gain while exposing yourself to the risk of losing everything. You’ll spend twice what you paid for the house in interest, fees, maintenance, insurance, remodelling, furniture, landscaping and the opportunity cost of all the money you spent on all of the above which would amount to such an enormous sum that you could rent forever on the interest and dividends.

Buying a house is weird. But I’m glad that lots of New Zealanders don’t think so. Renting is a discount on the cost of housing. Landlords are basically subsidising my cost of living. I’m not throwing money away because you have to live somewhere. I hope the difference between the cost of renting and the cost of buying continues. I can prove with maths I’ll be better off, but I’m not concerned about convincing people who buy into the house owning cult.


Wheedle Does Not Reinvent The Wheel

The New Zealand online auction marketplace is currently dominated by publicly listed TradeMe. They enjoy a monopoly on online auctions and use this market power to frequently increase their success fees and listing fees. When you think about selling something online in New Zealand, TradeMe has the power of a verb.

I’ll put it on TradeMe if it doesn’t fit


We’ll just get a new flatmate off TradeMe

The market position of TradeMe has had many attacks from both well-funded and not-so-well funded startups. So far, none of them have succeeded. For some reason I am yet to figure out, Rich Lister Neil Graham has moved away from his transport industry expertise into something he clearly has no first-hand knowledge of.

Wheedle Is Down For Maintenance

So far, Wheedle has encountered the following problems:

  • No restrictions on user names
  • A slow-loading frontpage that is a rip-off of TradeMe and shows no innovative thinking
  • No integration with social media
  • Password reset including plain-text passwords which presents a security risk
  • Lots of publicity but problems for people trying to place listings

Who is behind the Wheedle advertising and web development? There is clearly a transfer of wealth going on here. Neil Graham is being charged significant amounts of money to launch a sub-standard competitor to a major incumbent with monopoly power.

Having a $10 million dollar war chest to go up against a media behemoth (Fairfax) in a marketplace where the other major competitor is APN News & Media is as close as you can get to insanity. For starters, why has Wheedle done the following?

  • Kept the success fee model?
  • Not taken advantage of new web technologies to make search and listing far quicker than TradeMe?
  • Fell into the “build it and they will come” trap?
  • Outsourced to India pretty straightforward web development?
  • Not tested sufficiently before launch to avoid multiple “Wheedle Is Down for Maintenance” messages?

I don’t think that Wheedle can succeed. It will be a success for the “experts” advising Neil Graham. He will lose his investment unless some dramatic changes are made. If I was Neil Graham I would go back to the drawing board and ask – how can we make an online marketplace that is easier to use than TradeMe?

If his team can’t answer that question in an elevator pitch they should exit the marketplace immediately before burning through more of his hard-earned millions.