OMG, Investing 101

The fact a personal finance class is not required to graduate high school is probably the most reckless government mistake of the 21st century. Teaching people to allocate capital efficiently is literally foundation of economic growth, yet the government figures telling gas station owners to be considerate is a better strategy. So here we are, and I’ve been asked to write, in effect, investing 101. The topic is so widely covered its much more often click bait than informative. At least you know this blog isn’t click bait because there’s nothing to click on. I would like some more views though.

I’m going to do this in 3 sections. First, I want to talk about what investing is philosophically. Then there’s a Q&A format to answer some basic questions about investing. Finally, I’m going to summarize all of this by saying, “if you don’t know what you are doing, max out your 401k and then open a Vanguard account and put all of your money in VTI.”

What is Investing?

Investing is providing capital (douchey way of saying money) to an entity or entities with an agreement that the entity will provide you more money in the future. It’s both simple and very nuanced. The basic idea is that if you have money, why not give it to someone else, or some other company, who can use it to create some value for this world and in return give you more money back? In theory, this should be quite complex because every investment opportunity is unique. Does everyone with a savings account need to evaluate if the donut shop around the corner can double your money if you give them $10k to research a new Birthday Cake Celebration flavor? Luckily thousands of years of commerce and lawyers have provided us with simplified investments structures, like stocks.

Generally speaking, when you “invest”, you are investing in an “asset”. An “asset” is something that is useful or valuable. Some assets have the ability to grow in value, but have the risk of going down in value. Other assets are better at storing value, but struggle to grow quickly. As an investor, you get to choose whether you want to select something that is more stable, but grows more slowly, or something that could increase in value rapidly, but could also lose value rapidly. If you believe in the Efficient Market hypothesis, the average expected return from a group of risky assets versus a group more stable assets should be equal. So therefore, if you want to achieve average returns, all you have to do is invest in a lot of assets at random. If those assets are valued equally by a large number of independent people, you’ll achieve average returns. Average returns puts you in a way better position than the average person because the average person doesn’t invest in stocks. Hence, can we please have a personal finance class in High School???

So if you buy ~30+ random stocks, you’ll probably achieve the same returns as a hedge fund. I’m not kidding. A lot of things don’t make sense in this world.

That said, no one sleeps well at night knowing their hard earned money has just been sent to 30 random companies with the hopes it will get returned one day. I also haven’t talked about how the outcome of companies can be correlated to similar companies. If you invest in research for 30 donut shops trying to replicate the success of the Celebration Cake from Sidecar Donuts, you’ll likely have the same outcome (great success!). So go for quantity and random.

Ok, I see why you are overwhelmed. I just said buy stocks in large quantities at random. The Q&A should make this very, very simple. Plus, you’ll likely outperform Hedge Funds if you follow this advice.

Q&A – Lord Save Us All

I’m going to set up a scenario. Let’s say you work for a company that grants you stock every quarter via Restricted Stock Units. That basically means each quarter you receive a certain number of shares of your company’s stock. This is literally the same as if it you bought the stock with your own money. (unrelated, but those grants are taxed as income. Your cost basis is the price per share multiplied by the number of shares you received. So start from there).

Question: When should we pull stock out vs. when should we hold?

Answer: First, you’re paying income taxes on the stock you receive. So the stock you now own is like you just bought it with taxed income. If you sell it as soon as you receive it, your cost basis is basically the same as the amount you sold. So there are no tax implications. In terms of when should you sell, it literally doesn’t matter. The Efficient Market Hypothesis says that every stock on the stock market accurately reflects its current value. Selling one to buy another has no effect on your net worth. You may change your risk profile, but nothing changes. (This is clearly not the right forum to challenge the Efficient Market Hypothesis…please leave your scathing thoughts in the comments).

Moreover, IT’S A GOOD IDEA TO SELL ALL OF YOUR COMPANY’S STOCK WHEN IT VESTS! We’ll get into diversifying, but why would you put all of your savings in the same company that employs you? If you get laid off, how do you think your company’s stock is doing? Bad is the answer. If your company is doing well, you’ll get a raise. You should put your money literally anywhere else. Diversify!!!

Question: How do we know what to invest in?

Answer: You don’t. You’re going to place your trust in an investment vehicle (another douchey term) like an ETF. There are companies, like Vanguard, that take investors money and buy thousands of stocks in quantities that reflect the market size of those stocks. These are called index funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), or mutual funds. Generally speaking, this is what you want to buy. There’s a litany of research that supports buying funds that invest in every stock that is public as opposed to fund managers that try and choose winners. Sounds simple? It is. Which is why it is even more important to invest in index funds that offer very low fees for investing in all of these companies. ETFs generally change anywhere between .03% – 2% / year. There’s no difference between these funds. Buy the .03% fee fund every day.

Question: When we invest in another company (not {my company}) how long should we keep it in that stock before pulling it out again?

Answer: If you’re still reading this and learning things, only sell when you need the money to buy something else. Again, there are so many studies that show trying to time the market or pick winners is a strategy that on average loses. People who do this for a living perform worse than index funds. Why bother? TBH, I bother because it’s fun for me. I like learning about a company, putting an outsized bet on that company and seeing what happens. Again, people like me are giving money to people who own index funds.

Question: What are the tax implications of selling stock

Answer: Your cost basis is the price at which you buy (or receive, you techies) a stock. If you hold that stock for less than a year (365 days), the increase in value of that stock will be taxed as income (Federal ~25%+, CA 9%+ for a total of 34%+). If you hold that stock for a year, the increase in value will be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate of 15% plus CA 9%+ for a total of 24% plus. Unless you need the money or invested in a terrible stock like SoFi or Fubo, don’t sell before a year is up. Honestly, this is such a stupid tax rule meant to benefit the rich. Hedge funds trade stock every day and pay corporate taxes. Wtf, but I digress.

Question: Are there different tax implications if you don’t pull stock out from your company for over a year?

Answer: Yes, as I said above, but you are only taxed on the increase in value from when you received the stock. If you receive $10k in stock and sell 364 days later and the stock is worth $11k, you’ll pay short-term capital gains taxes of about 34+% on $1k ($340). If you wait another day, you’ll pay long-term capital gains taxes (state and fed of ~24+%) of $240. If you don’t need the money, just wait.

Losses offset gains. So you can add up all your losses and subtract from gains, including short term capital gains. When buying and selling stock, try and do so in a way that minimizes how much taxes you pay.

Question: What’s the difference between a stock and a bond?

Answer: There’s a simple and a complex answer. The simple answer is that a stock represents ownership of a company. A bond is a loan. So you should expect to receive the interest payment until the loan is due, when you should receive the full payment. Generally speaking, people like to invest in both stocks and bonds. Ironically, bonds are much more complex than stocks because they hold a higher legal standing in terms of repayment. If you invest in bonds, just stick with a bond fund like BND from Vanguard.

Question: I know diversifying your portfolio is important – how many companies should we be investing in at once?

Answer: A lot! The best part about ETFs and Mutual Funds is they invest in lots of companies so you don’t have to. Believe me, you don’t want your entire savings riding on the fate of some cloud storage company that’s more expensive and less integrated than Google Cloud or a social media company that everyone hates, especially if you work for those companies too.

Question: What platform/website should we use to invest?

Answer: It doesn’t really matter, but I’d suggest choosing a large brokerage like Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard, Etrade, etc. Here’s a good heuristic determining how long something will stick around: how long has it been around? New trading platforms like RobinHood haven’t been around a long time. While I don’t think they are going to lose customer funds, Vanguard is way more likely to be here in 30 years than RobinHood because they’ve proven they’ve been around since 1975. You definitely want your money to be around in 30 years.

Seriously, How Do I Invest

Ahh, time to wrap this up. I’m not going to give anyone a “how to guide.” It’s your money, you should think of this as a high school class you never took. But here’s a hint, buy index funds. Google (type in to Google) Vanguard Index funds. Learn about the fact the US economy has healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, etc economic sectors and just buy those. If you don’t want to make any decisions, just buy a total market index fund with a .03% fee. That’s it. You’ll retire happy and make an average return of 7% per year.

Of course there’s a lot more to portfolio strategy than just “buy index funds”. Honestly though, the more you learn, the more the research points to just buy index funds. Bonds have gone through hell the last few months, but unlike equities, there’s limited chance of recovery. So sell all of your company’s stock and buy index funds. Like go do that now. There’s a ton more nuance, but that advice alone will get you 90% of the way.

SoFi – Making Its Footprint Bigger Than Its Foot

It’s been a while since I’ve been excited about a stock, but over the weekend my friend Jack mentioned he is very bullish on SoFi and he made quite the convincing case. Intrigued, I spent a few days doing some research. My conclusion on SoFi is that it is the best emerging FinTech company to challenge the legacy FDIC banks and their 500 million customer accounts. While not without its risks, SoFi is a true growth stock that has a strong and differentiated product offering, a moat around its revenue not shared with competitors, strong and proven leadership, and a clear, simple vision its employees and customers can rally around.

Here’s what SoFi, or Social Finance – the full name no longer seems to be aligned with the company – does in their own words:

SoFi Technologies, Inc. is a financial services platform. SoFi was founded in 2011 to offer an innovative approach to the private student loan market by providing student loan refinancing options. The Company conducts its business through three reportable segments: Lending, Technology Platform and Financial Services.

SoFi 10Q

SoFi launched in August 2011 and currently offers digital financial services to 3 million members, including student loan refinancing, mortgages, personal loans, credit, cards, investing (equities and crypto), and banking services. SoFi’s sales pitch is that they are the only one-stop-shop where all their products are better than single offerings by competitors. They offer no fees, partial shares, crypto, no-fee ETFs, and offer IPOs. Funds are available the day you open your account. I will say, I didn’t find another fintech company that offers their breadth of services and definitely didn’t find one that puts all of them right on their customer’s home page.

Commercialization of direct to consumer technology has unfolded in media, video, and e-commerce, but it hasn’t happened in direct to consumer financial services company.

In plain english, the above sentence that I lightly lifted from SoFi’s CEO means digital banks who interact directly with customers investment, loan, and payment products have not yet challenged legacy banks that can profit by buying up loans from intermediaries and providing backend services to frontend facing companies.

SoFi thinks there is potential to take a shot at the big guys and their 500mm customer accounts in the US, and from the outside, it looks like they have the right selection products, fast customer onboarding, and convenient apps facilitating casual usage and research.

From Non-Bank to Bank

Digital Wallets are not banks. To use digital wallets and avoid fees for sending money, you can connect your bank through debit card or banking information. The key difference between non-bank digital wallets and banks is that non-banks cannot hold a balance. Funds held in a digital wallet are actually held by a bank that partners with the wallet for financial benefit. For example, the Venmo Debit Card is issued by Bancorp Bank. Digital wallets, in general, cannot offer interest on funds held in the wallet. Digital wallets can still facilitate alternative financial services, such as investment, risk pooling, financial consulting, and so on. They cannot hold balances or loans for gain.

Most of Millenials and GenZers use peer-to-peer payment facilitated by digital wallets like Venmo, CashApp, and PayPal to send money to friends and hold a balance. Digital wallets easy to use, fast to get started, and widely accepted for payment. All you need to get started is a debit or credit card. These wallets partner with banks; they can originate loans, but cannot benefit from hold for investment. They do not have direct access Fed money nor direct access to FDIC insurance.

In March 2021 SoFi purchased Golden Pacific Bank financed by $750mm in capital. Last month SoFi received approval to become a national bank from the Office of the Comptroller of Currency and the Federal Reserve. SoFi can now accept deposits from customers and offer interest and there is currently a wait-list to open a checking account offering 1% APY, no account overdraft fees, 2-day-early paycheck, no ATM fees and other smaller benefits.

SoFi’s financials, along with its customers, can also benefit from the bank charter. CEO Anthony Noto says SoFi will now operate a hybrid of gain on sale and holding for investment; SoFi will increase the average time loans spend on its books from 90 days to 180 days because they have access to more funds and they will earn more holding for investment. This is meaningful in a rising rates environment, but it shouldn’t be overstated because they are just getting started whereas the legacy banks have massive balance sheets and are much better positioned to make profits on spreads.

As a bank, deposits can fund loans. Loans on SoFi will include a stand-alone offering and a direct deposit offering. Big banks like BofA can shave off a few basis points on loans if you have a checking account with them. Customer data from one financial product can inform risk assessments and more accurate pricing for other financial products. Starting now, SoFi can utilize its customers data to facilitate better offers across its suite of financial products.

Leadership, Vision & Execution

Anthony Noto is the CEO of SoFi. He is 53 years old. He worked at Goldman Sachs from 1999 – 2008 where he joined the NFL as CFO until 2010. He then went back to Goldman Sachs to co-head the global media group where he won the role of lead underwriter on the Twitter IPO. In 2014 he joined Twitter as the CFO and later COO. Finally in 2018 he joined SoFi as the CEO. He’s been successful and clearly built great relationships. I specifically like the fact he returned to Goldman after his stint at the NFL. He also formed a good relationship with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. He seems like he has the right combination of finance and tech experience to lead SoFi in the right direction amidst significant competition.

After watching a few interviews with Anthony Soto, it is clear he exudes strong leadership and is laser-focused on execution. As Anthony Soto says multiple times, “Selection, Fast, Content, Convenience, Better Together”. Every employee should be able to say on command what the mission of the company is and what they need to execute to be successful. While this is true for any company, it’s especially true for a fast-flying technology company. You can go to the company’s homepage and basically build an org chart. I don’t know anyone who works there, but I assume everyone who works there has crystal clear direction.

Pivoting Away From Student Loans

SoFi’s first major product offering was student loan refinancing and was responsible for their initial success. However, in March 2020 President Trump announced a pause on all payments on federal student loans due to the onset of the pandemic. After multiple extensions, that moratorium is set to expire in May 2022. In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Anthony Noto said “our student loan business got cut in more than half” and “that business has been running at about 50% of the pre-COVID volume for the last 20 months.”

Federal student loans over the past decade have grown from $642bn to $1.566tr, according to a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the average debt per borrower increased from $23k to $37k. While this was a profitable entry-point, the student loan payment moratorium brought that to a grinding halt; no one needs to refinance a loan that they don’t have to pay.

On February 8th, Anthony Fauci claimed the ‘Full Blown’ pandemic phase of Covid was nearly over. I think it is unlikely the pause on student loan payments will continue past May of 2022 and many Americans will be looking for refinancing options. SoFi seems poised to benefit, but its success isn’t dependent on an influx of student loan refinancing.

Here’s a comparison of SoFi’s last 3 years, including last 12 months (LTM) of revenue and loan origination volume. Revenue is in millions and loan origination is in $000s

Student loan origination volume is almost half what is was in 2018 and there was a significant dip in personal loan originations in 2020 followed by a spectacular rebound over the last 12 months (this is from Q3, so data is not that recent). Also home loan origination has steadily been growing.

Revenue growth tells a different story; consistency. In April 2020 SoFi saw felt the headwinds of the pandemic and foresaw a huge drop in their main business of student loan origination and refinancing. SoFi pivoted quickly and bought a proverbial shovel during the rush into digital banking. Now emerging from the pandemic, Galileo provides a moat around longevity in the digital banking world.

Galileo Acquisition Solidifies SoFi in Digital Banking

In April 2020, SoFi bought Galileo, a banking infrastructure solution company that offers a payment processing platform and a variety of services for digital banking companies for $1.2bn. Galileo has been around for 10 years longer than SoFi and it works with many of its competitors such as Robinhood, Chime, Monzo Revolut, Varo and TransferWise. Galileo’s software connects credit card processors through APIs. It is painful for companies to switch payment processors and it is very, very difficult to build one from scratch. Galileo has grown its customer base from 49 in Q32020 to 89 in Q32021 and revenue from technology services has grown from $95mm in 2020 to $178mm in the last 12 months ending in Q3 2021.

The acquisition of Galileo provides SoFi with significant revenue diversity, in-house knowledge of core technology powering digital banking, and a chunk of its competitors now rely on its success.

Payment processing is at the core of Galileo. Vast majority of customers are using payment processing. Integrating with merchants, banks, ATM networks, ACH, etc. Galileo is like a data center. No one is building their own data centers. SoFi customers inform Galileo’s product offerings even before Galileo’s customers know what they want. Vertical integration at its finest.

Can SoFi Keep Growing?

SoFi has grown consistently since inception and successfully navigated multiple changing financial environments. Its Q3 Earnings Presentation clearly lays out a story of continued growth.

The highlights from SoFi’s Q3 earnings presentation shows year-over-year member growth of 96% to 2.9mm, of which 377k members were added since the prior quarter. Total Products increased 108% to 4.3mm. Total products means the aggregate number of lending and financial services products that members selected on SoFi since inception through the reporting date (so this would include loans that have been fully repaid).

The most interesting, and to me important, part of the growth story is SoFi Money, SoFi Invest, and SoFi Credit Card drove 79% of new member growth. These financial services are simpler and faster to use than refinancing loans or taking out a personal loan. SoFi’s offers easy-to-use investment and every day spending products that is desired by all GenZers and Millennials. It is much easier and cheaper for SoFi to offer its breadth of existing financial products to people who are already customers of SoFi. Moreover, and I’ll hint at my conclusion here, since SoFi can garner significant growth from multiple product offerings, it can use its status and access to capital as bank to offer better rates and lower fees to customers and then provide even lower fees to customers who use other SoFi products. BofA reduced my mortgage loan a few basis points because I already had a checking and savings account. All major banks that originate mortgages and loans do this and it works.

General Market Woes

There’s a lot of negative press about FinTech and $MEME stocks right now, which is dragging down growth stocks. Non-profitable technology stocks, including FinTech stocks, and $MEME stocks (SoFi is all 3) flew too close to the sun and crashed back to earth nursing their burns.

While the latest drop has been tough for a lot of investors, at least there is some rationality in the markets. The upside to these charts is that we are back where we started pre-pandemic. If you believe we are headed for a recession, macroeconomic forces will likely drag these stocks down with it, SoFi included. If you think things are back to normal, or at least not going to get worse, now is a great time to buy stocks with great fundamentals. That’s why I’m writing about SoFi.

What’s My Downside?

I believe SoFi could drop as much as 50% in the next few months. The main ratio I’m looking at is the PS Ratio, or the company’s market cap divided by the company’s sales for the previous 12 months. Here’s SoFi’s PS ratio since it went public via reverse merger in June 2021

While the PS ratio is the lowest it has been, and half what it was when it IPO’d, there’s still a lot of room to go down. To be clear, a low PS ratio means a) low growth potential and/or b) undervalued. A high PS ratio means the opposite. Here are some benchmarks of its competitors.

While these companies aren’t apples to apples, its worth noting that if SoFi’s long-term growth stalls, PS ratio could fall as low as 5, but probably not 2 unless there are some serious issues. Fintech is a crowded space and there’s a small window to prove profitability amidst slowing growth.

Customer Acquisition Cost: Here Be Dragons

The other main area that is concerning is SoFi’s incredibly high expense on Sales & Marketing. In Q32021, SoFi spent $115mm on Sales & Marketing against $272mm less $50mm in technology platform fees in net revenue, which equates to 51% of $222mm. SoFi added 377k new members in Q32021, which means they spent $588 / new customer. These numbers and any analysis regarding cost of customer acquisition are completely excluded from their Q3 earnings presentation.

Now, I’m sure the above numbers are not accurate, but I don’t think I can get enough information to determine whether or not its too high (it’s very high). Moreover some of these expenses could be one-time expenses that can’t be amortized over time. Some expenses could be fixed, such as the stadium naming rights, while others are variable, such as $15 referral fees and CPC advertising.

Since we (I) can’t really dig into the expense-side of things, we need to trust the company’s leadership. It is also my belief that SoFi is investing heavily in brand-marketing and, speaking from experience, it is very difficult to prove a causal relationship between decreasing cost of customer acquisition by increasing brand awareness.

If SoFi’s membership growth slows for their next earnings on March 1st, expect the stock to tank. As an investor though, slower growth in Q4 doesn’t worry me and I would probably add to my position. If, however, they slow again in Q1 after the federal student loan payment moratorium is lifted and the Super Bowl, it might be time to get out. A lot of companies go bankrupt trying to buy up customers in a heavily saturated market.

Focus on the Customer

SoFi owns the naming rights to SoFi stadium, the football stadium here in Los Angeles. Guess where the super bowl is? Guess who just became a bank? The largest annual television event in the US is being held at SoFi BANK stadium. That sounds like a big important company to me. I really hope SoFi marketing emphasizes they are bank. Chase Bank ($462bn market cap) is the name of the Warriors stadium. There are smaller banks that own naming rights to stadiums (not many), but SoFi Stadium is a global name and it’s hosting the super bowl. SoFi is (probably) the only bank that offers equity and crypto trading on an easy-to-use mobile app. I was able to sign up and get my first free stock in less than 1 minute.

After the Super Bowl, when people see an advertisement for SoFi Bank they are more likely to convert and create an account and when they create an account, they get a free stock. I love this product loop; sign people up quickly and give them something free that gets them hooked. Trading is much more engaging and leads to higher customer retention than lending products. By signing up more people to higher retaining product loops SoFi only needs to market its more profitable products internally.

The mobile app desperately needs Dark Mode. The UI is ok, but it’s not as good as Robinhood. Furthermore they should start offering options trading asap. Imagine being able to offer personal loans to r/wallstreetbets apes who lose money on credit making risky trades. Sounds terrible, but it’s a huge opportunity. It would be like if DraftKings became a bank and offered credit and personal loans to its customers, which they can hold on their own balance sheet. It’s not loan sharking if you’re a bank!

The Mobile App Converts Existing Customers

When you open up the SoFi app as an existing customer the home page provides enticing calls to action. Yes, I want a high yield banking account. I want 2% cashback on credit cards, and I’m sure a lot of people like tracking their credit score. All of these activities provide perceived value to the user, the products are features users will regularly engage, and the products are high value to SoFi. Here’s my homepage.

SoFi’s app provides more value to the user and itself than any of its other competitors. Venmo’s homepage is a feed of payments (no value, just amusement), CashApp is a calculator with a button for Pay and one for Request, RobinHood shows your investments (not something I want to look at right now), and PayPal wasn’t downloaded on my phone apparently.

In Summary

I like this stock and I bought it. I mainly bought shares because this doesn’t seem like a short-term play. I’ll continue to monitor the thesis laid out in this post, but there’s no point in timing an earnings release or some macro event. I believe this is a strong company that has the potential to 3-5x in a few years. I also bought a few call options expiring Jan 2023 at a $20 strike price.

SoFi is clearly executing its mantra, as the CEO puts it, “Selection, Fast, Content, Convenience, Better Together.” And just like it’s naming rights purchase of LA football stadium, SoFi is “making its footprint bigger than its foot”.