The What-Ifs

Poker is a what-if game. What if I re-raised instead of just called. What if I got the Queen on the river. What if I just folded pre-flop. There are 2,598,960 possible  hands, so if you ever played, you’ve agonized over the what-ifs.

Life delivers an endless array of what-ifs, because we only experience one version of what could have been. A lucky break here, a chance meeting there.

What if Yahoo

Bought Google from Larry Page and Sergei Brin for $1 million in 1998. What if they bought it in 2002 for $5 billion? Would Yahoo own the internet, or would they have stunted Google’s growth and held it back from being the monster that it is today? And where would that leave YouTube?

Speaking of YouTube, what if Yahoo got to them  before Google?

What if Yahoo sold itself to Microsoft in 2008 for $44.6 billion? This one we can answer. They wouldn’t have sold themselves to Verizon eight years later and 90% lower.

What if Yahoo! and eBay merged in 2000?

What if Facebook took $1 billion from Yahoo! like Peter Thiel wanted to?

Both Breyer and myself on balance thought we probably should take the money and run. But, Zuckerberg started the meeting like, “This is kind of a formality, just a quick board meeting, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. We’re obviously not going to sell here.” Zuckerberg’s argument was that there were all these things we were going to build at Facebook, and he wanted to have a chance to build those products [Facebook was about to open beyond colleges and launch the News Feed]. [Yahoo] had no definite idea about the future. They did not properly value things that did not yet exist. They were, therefore, undervaluing the business.

What if David Stern didn’t veto the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade?

In 2011, the Hornets, Rockets, and Lakers agreed to a three-way trade. In the deal, the Hornets trade Chris Paul to the Lakers  (a year after winning the finals), the Rockets trade Goran Dragic, Louis Scola and Kevin Martin to the hornets, and the Lakers send Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom to New Orleans.

But the Hornets were owned by the NBA at the time, and the some of the owners pleaded with David Stern to keep the league competitive and not bury small market teams. So he vetoed the deal.

Six days later they dealt Chris Paul to the Clippers for Chris Kaman,  Eric Gordon, and Al-Farouq Aminu and a draft pick that turned into Austin Rivers. I’m not sure this was a better package than what the Lakers were offering, but it didn’t pair Chris Paul with Kobe, so the league approved the deal. Time would tell that the Hornets dodged a bullet. The original trade would have landed them several decent role players and locked them into a 35-40 win season. Instead, they were downright awful and ended up with the first pick in the draft and a generational talent in Anthony Davis.

What if James Cameron directed Jurassic Park?

Okay, this one is pretty trivial, but I’m a huge James Cameron and Jurassic Park fan. From Collider.

Once upon a time, Cameron wanted to film Jurassic Park, but someone named Steven Spielberg beat him to the adaptation rights.  The Jaws director bested Cameron by a mere few hours.  So how would Cameron’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel differed? In speaking to the Huffington Post at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Cameron confessed to trying to win the director’s chair for Jurassic Park. Although Spielberg beat Cameron to the rights by only a few hours, the Titanic director holds no grudges, saying:

He made a dinosaur movie for kids, and mine would have been aliens with dinosaurs, and that wouldn’t have been fair….Dinosaurs are for 8-year-olds. We can all enjoy it, too, but kids get dinosaurs and they should not have been excluded for that. His sensibility was right for that film, I’d have gone further, nastier, much nastier.

What if we killed Osama bin Laden in 1998?

It cannot be overstated how different the world would look today if the director hadn’t gotten cold feet. From Legacy of Ashes.

The United States had the capability to remove Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan or to kill him,” but it quailed when it came time to pull the trigger, said John MacGaffin, the number two officer in the clandestine service earlier in the Clinton years. “The CIA knew bin Laden’s location almost every day-sometimes within fifty miles, sometimes within fifty feet.” They chose not to pull the trigger because of a mistake the agency made a few days prior. The director had gotten cold feet.

What if I never met Josh at the train station after the Knicks blowout loss?

What had to happen for this chance meeting to occur? I had to be in such a foul mood that I left a Knicks playoff game early. I was.

As I got to my seat my Blackberry buzzed. I opened my email to see a “Thanks but no thanks. We can’t help you.” This was my last real job lead. I was dejected.

The Knicks had to be getting blown out. They were, obviously. Thank you LeBron James. And thank you Mario Chalmers for hitting a three and putting the Heat up by 15 with six minutes to go. That was my signal to get the hell out of there.

I spent the train ride home wondering if I should apply to Starbucks or Verizon. If Chalmers didn’t bury that three, I probably stay an extra minute or two and miss my train. But he didn’t and I met Josh in Merrick, our home town. The rest is history.

What if Einhorn didn’t survive the dot com bubble?

He might not have had the chance to short a bubble basket eighteen years later. From the Financial Times:

Ultimately Mr Einhorn’s doubts about the bubble were proved right, producing a spectacular 2000 after the market turned: he was up 13.6 per cent, while the Nasdaq dropped 39 per cent. Such vindication is likely to stay bright in the memory. Yet there is an irony to how Greenlight thrived in 1999. The fund’s excellent performance can be largely attributed to one stock, Reckson Services, a spin-off from Reckson Associates that included a bunch of disparate assets including a “money losing start-up that wired office buildings for internet access”. Purchased for $5 per share, Reckson rocketed to $60 as it transformed itself into a start-up incubator under a new, investor-friendly, moniker, ‘Frontline Capital’, catching the NASDAQ fervor in the process. Without this twelvefold return, it is not unfair to speculate that Greenlight may have suffered further redemptions over 1999, given the pressure on fellow value investors. In other words, the Greenlight story today may have been very different had it passed on Reckson.

What if the Justice Department won its case against United Fruit in 1909?

This decision changed how corporations do business, and had huge ramifications for State policy and the CIA. Yes, the CIA. Read The Fish that Ate the Whale

In 1909 a case was brought against United Fruit, who had been acquiring anyone who looked like competition. “It’s interesting to consider what might have happened if the Justice Department won its case against United Fruit as it won its case against Standard Oil two years later. If U.F. had been broken up, if the monster had been divided into a half dozen little monsters, American History in Latin America might have been very different…The Supreme Court instead decided- it was a huge decision, rife with unintended consequences- that it did not have the authority to judge, as most of the actions under review occurred overseas…With this decision, Justice Holmes cleared the way for that crucial player of modern age: the global corporation that exists both inside and outside American law, that is everywhere and nowhere, and never dies.

What if the Fed bailed out Lehman? What if they stopped at QE2? The point of going through a what-if exercise is to realize that life is more random than we’d like to think. A lucky break here, a missed Mario Chalmers three there, and who knows what the world would look like. There are a million ways things could have played out, but we only experience one version of what could have been. For better and worse.