The only old man in China

We are sitting in the lobby of the China World Hotel. It is a very large space and very unlike most hotels. On Monday, we popped into the lobby of the Marriott ‘Ambassador’ hotel on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Like most lobbies, it was very quiet, with just a few people having coffee.

Here, there are hundreds of people – almost all young. We are the oldest person here, a fossil from another continent and another time. The young people dressed casually, but well. They sit in groups, talking as if they were planning their next marketing campaign.

There is scarcely anyone over the age of 40. We have started a small publishing business here. It, too, is staffed by people in their 20s. What happened to the old people, we wondered? Maybe they have not been able to keep up with the breathtaking changes in China. This is no country for old men.

“Everyone has great confidence in the future”, says a Chinese colleague. “Things have got so much better over the last 20 years. And we expect that to continue.

“Xi Jinping [China’s president] is serious about trying to get rid of corruption, even at the highest levels. He is basically trying to deregulate whole industries. Regulations and licences were really just a way for officials to demand bribes and payoffs. So, Xi wants to get rid of a lot of this so we can do business more freely.”

Whether he will succeed or not, we can’t say. But at least it sounds promising.

We never know what will work. And here, we take up an important subject. It is so important and so weighty that it needs an introduction. And it can be so tedious that we must offer you a reward for paying attention.

FREE daily investment email from MoneyWeek
Receive our thought-provoking investment email Money Morning every weekday morning, plus occasional promotions, & become a smarter investor.

Please enter a valid email address

To sign up, enter your email address:

Yes, dear reader, you will be the first to know our new trading system – guaranteed, almost – to make above-market gains. But first, let us turn the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, Wolf Richter, that is:

It was leaked on Tuesday [of last week] by “people with knowledge of that matter,” according to the Wall Street Journal, that VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers [KPCB] had decided in May to plow up to $20 million into message-app maker Snapchat, for a tiny portion of ownership. An undisclosed investor also committed some funds. The deal, which apparently hasn’t closed yet, would give Snapchat a valuation of $10 billion.

That’s a big step up from November last year, when the valuation was $2 billion. At the time, the company had raised $130 million in three rounds of funding. By now that would be closer to $160 million, after it was also leaked that Russian investment firm DST Global had put some money into it earlier this year, boosting its valuation to $7 billion at the time, once again, “according to two people familiar with the matter.”

At a valuation of $10 billion, it joins the top of the heap: app makers Uber ($18.2 billion) and Airbnb ($10 billion), cloud storage outfit Dropbox ($10 billion), and Palantir, the Intelligence Community’s darling ($9.3 billion).

What makes Snapchat stand out is that it has no business model, no revenue, and no profits. It has, as near as we can tell, a lot of very young users who send photos to one another. How can Snapchat monetise that? Who knows?

Perhaps a better question is why would a bunch of rich, rational money-grubbers at KPCB want to invest good money in Snapchat? We don’t know. Maybe they know something we don’t know. Maybe they have a lot of this kind of inventory in stock? And maybe, they believe that pumping up the whole sector will be good for business.

What’s their business? It is simple: smart guys sell things to guys who aren’t so smart; the pros unload onto the amateurs; Wall Street offers initial public offerings (IPOs) to retail investors.

Putting a little seed money into Snapchat, giving it a nutty valuation, is a bit like bidding up odd paintings by contemporary artists.

Quirky works of art are suddenly very valuable, simply because someone paid a lot of money for them. With no earnings to guide prices, valuations can go to the moon. KPCB – with a lot more Snapchats where this one came from – is along for the ride.

But, do you, dear investor… want to be taken for a ride, too?

FREE daily investment email from MoneyWeek
Receive our thought-provoking investment email Money Morning every weekday morning, plus occasional promotions, & become a smarter investor.

Please enter a valid email address

To sign up, enter your email address:

• Stay up to date with MoneyWeek: Follow us on TwitterFacebook and Google+

MoneyWeek magazine

Latest issue:

Magazine cover
Prime location

The best property buys in the eurozone

The UK's best-selling financial magazine. Take a FREE trial today.
Claim 4 FREE Issues

Which investment platform?

When it comes to buying shares and funds, there are several investment platforms and brokers to choose from. They all offer various fee structures to suit individual investing habits.
Find out which one is best for you.

22 May 1980: Pac-Man hits the arcades

It didn't take long for Pac-Man, or Puck Man as it was originally called in Japan, to become a worldwide craze after it was released on this day in 1980.

The Kids' Portfolio: the four best funds to buy for your children

Investing for your children's long-term future is an excellent idea. But what should you buy? The Kids' Portfolio is a simple collection of four funds intended to be tucked away for 20 to 40 years.