An essential read from Martin Wolf this Thursday on the manner in which corporate surpluses are contributing to the savings glut problem and causing all sorts of distributive chaos in the process.
So, whereas it used to be the sovereigns over-hoarding international claims and under-consuming/under-investing in their own infrastructure for the benefit of getting a leg up in the global hierarchal order, it’s now corporates over-hoarding retained earnings for the sake of protecting their dominant positions instead (retaining earning piles being different to explicit cash piles, which can be generated with debt not just profit). Read more
FT Alphaville started its “beyond scarcity” series in June 2012, having explored the core tenets of technological abundance theory and utopianism from about February 2012 onwards — influenced at the time by the thinking of Kurzweil, Diamandis, Brynjolfsson and a whole bunch of technological utopians who had come before.
Fundamentally, it was our way of going against the grain at a time when markets were still overly obsessing about the causes and side-effects of the global financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the subprime banking crisis and in general maintaining a “glass half-full” outlook on growth and the global economy. Read more
As any good Trekkie will tell you, the economics of the 24th century are somewhat different. Why? Because the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in people’s lives. They — Ferengi excluded — work to better themselves and the rest of humanity.
Except, the bummer is, that’s probably a major over-simplification.
A post-scarcity economy — a.k.a. the economic reality of an abundant system — may not necessarily lead to a utopian world. At least if we go by the meritocratic example of the fictional Star Trek society.
In other words, here’s a post about how I attended a New York Comic Con panel on the economics of abundance — featuring Paul Krugman and Brad Delong, Annalee Newitz (i09), Chris Black (Enterprise writer), Felix Salmon and Manu Saadia, author of the new book Trekonomics — and learnt that even if we did have it all one day, chances are, highly-popular cosplaying events would still be capped by the natural limits of space-time. Read more
Tim Pike, from the Bank of England’s inflation report and agency intelligence division, notes the following about the impact of e-commerce on the consumer sector and labour productivity in a Bank Underground blog post on Wednesday:
The need to stack the shelves of substantially more retail space over the past decade has hit productivity performance. My estimates of labour productivity for the aggregate of Tesco, Sainsbury, WM Morrison, John Lewis Partnership and Marks & Spencer (where output is proxied by turnover deflated by the official retail sales deflator) show that following growth averaging nearly 3% per annum from 2004/05 to 2009/10, labour productivity was broadly static in the next five years. That is partly because multi-channel approaches including e-tailing can reduce labour productivity — especially for the sale of low-value items such as groceries as it is very labour intensive for the retailer to “pick” the goods off the shelf. Official data show that “predominantly food stores” accounted for about 15% of on-line retailing in 2014.
Here in the UK, the BBC’s Panorama programme staged a deep dive into the subject of artificial intelligence and robotics on Monday, thoroughly spooking most of this particular correspondent’s friends and family list, taking as it did the subject firmly into the mainstream.
But, before anyone gets too freaked out, it’s worth taking some time to digest the following new research paper by William D. Nordhaus from Yale University’s department of economics, by way of the NBER working paper series (our emphasis): Read more
Citi’s Willem Buiter and team’s main scenario for 2016 is now a global recession in which China’s slowdown drags down other emerging markets and eventually the advanced economies as well.
In a note this week, the team state that while a sufficient policy response from China and among developed market central banks should provide support, recent rhetoric suggests the Fed is still dead set on raising rates. Read more
About a month ago, Citi’s Disruptive Innovations report revived the debate over the cause of slowing productivity in Western economies.
One insight related to how modern technology encourages smarter distribution rather than outright production growth. You don’t need to produce as many spoons because, well, in the digital age less is more and everyone drinks Soylent. You probably don’t need a big house either, because, hey virtual reality.
But if true, why does it not feel like quality of life is improving in many corners of the developed world? Perhaps there is something more to it. Read more
Citi’s back with the upcoming third edition of its Disruptive Innovations report, with ten new big opportunities to stop and think about.
- Autonomous driving
- Machine learning/artificial intelligence
- Floating LNG
- Public API
- Sharing economy
- Virtual reality
- Marketplace banking
At what point does running out of space to keep all the stuff you want to hold on to stop being prudent risk management and become a compulsive hoarding disorder instead?
It’s a question worth asking in the context of oil surpluses because, according to Citi’s commodity research team, US capacity to store excess crude oil may be about to run out of space. Read more
So, Apple has taken advantage of the drop in Swiss funding costs to issue SFr1.25bn of bonds.
A no-brainer funding opportunity for Apple? Or…, alternatively, a sign of things to come: corporates replacing petrodollar and sweatdollar sovereigns as the key accumulators of trade surpluses in the global economy, and issuing debt in a bid to sterilise the effects of too much liquidity on capex they can’t control?
If it’s the latter, we should beware of Andrew Keen’s concerns about the perils of a winner-takes-all tech economy, where a handful of geeks inadvertently become the new masters of the universe, thanks to their cunning monetisation of things Tim-Berners-Lee-types would never have dreamed of rationing to the great tech-ignorant. We’ve dubbed it Silicon Valley’s “god complex” before. Read more
Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra’s latest stab at modelling secular stagnation can be found here.
It includes explanations about the role of demographics, technological displacement, the liquidity trap and the paradox thrift, toil and flexibility within the secular stagnation framework — and there’s also a really neat explanation about the effects on capital, and in particular productive capital’s tendency to depreciate more quickly than might otherwise be expected. (You know, there’s more stuff being produced than expected, so the return on investment is never quite achieved in time, due to increasingly lower barriers to entry thanks to technique.)
The flip side of that scenario, however, is that unproductive capital becomes strangely useful for dodging depreciation for as long as there is belief in the asset class; hence the tendency for bubbles to form in asset classes which can’t easily be over-produced. At least not without significant investment. Read more
Citi’s Matt King has jumped on the secular stagnation bandwagon with a really nifty collection of charts that ties the whole story of how we got to this point together.
He starts off with the capex issue, noting that despite the cyclical recovery corporates don’t seem to be investing all that much. In fact, according to King, declining capex may be a key aspect of secular decline, which he suggests began in advanced economies and is now spreading to emerging markets as well.
Larry Summers was interviewed by Chrystia Freeland at the INET conference in Toronto last week, in a conversation that very usefully expanded upon his thoughts about secular stagnation. (H/T Interfluidity)
It’s a reassuring interview for us because so many of the statements he made echo what we (and other bloggers such as Steve Randy Waldman) have been saying for some time. Namely, that there’s something more significant going on in the industrialised global economy than the effects of a banking crisis per se, and that that *something* is probably related to technological abundance. More so, that this phenomenon is having strange macro effects on capitalist incentives.
There was also a nod to the point we’ve made for a long time, that the financial intermediation industry loses its raison d’etre in such an environment, and worse than that, potentially becomes a malignant rather than constructive force on development and growth. In short, that negative rates are hardly the solution. Read more
Alert, alert! Matt Taibbi of Vampire Squid fame has discovered contango in a five-page mega opus for Rolling Stone magazine, in which he blames all the usual names for crimes against markets, people and everything good in the world. It’s also a running continuation of his “everything is rigged” theme.
But it’s a terribly nauseating read for anyone following the story since 2008.
First off, Taibbi turns out to be a dependable repackager of other people’s stories. Facts and ideas unearthed by others are borrowed and twisted until they fit his own version of reality (often without citation or attribution). Case in point, the “vampire squid” description is surprisingly similar to popular writer ‘Coin’ Harvey’s 1894 description of the Rothschild bank as a black octopus stretching its tentacles around the world.
True, Taibbi never claimed to have come up with the term himself and perhaps it is just a coincidence, but one can’t deny he’s benefited immensely from borrowing it and applying it to Goldman Sachs. Read more
Or as the FT’s Martin Wolf says on Wednesday, regarding the increasing automation of the economy …
[W]e must reconsider leisure. For a long time the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines makes it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well, then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?
If the above is true then the future depends on us being able to successfully redefine labour and purpose — and with it value itself. A new meritocracy based on progress, talent, creativity and doing the previously considered impossible (irrespective of monetary value) must in other words be nurtured. Read more
Humanity has always been used to competing over scarce resources.
Over the years we’ve become better at it: more adept at making the most of the resources we have at our disposal and better at seizing the resources we need by force. i.e. cleverer.
And so it is we find ourselves perfectly equipped for a life of competition. Genetically hard-wired for it, if you will.
The problem is we can’t really improve on the way we club each other to death anymore. Muscle reached its peak with the invention of nuclear weapons. The ironic consequence of that was a peace-inducing stalemate. Wars over resources still happen, of course. But very rarely on equal footing. Meaning for the most part the enemy of the highest power doesn’t stand a chance. Read more
From Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker this week regarding Google’s acquisition of DeepMind, with regards to the latter’s concern that artificial intelligence poses an extinction level threat for humanity:
Google’s acquisition of DeepMind came with an estimated $400 million price tag and an unusual stipulation that adds extra gravity — and a dose of reality — to Legg’s warning: Google agreed to create an AI safety and ethics review board to ensure this technology is developed safely, as The Information first reported and The Huffington Post confirmed. (A Google spokesman said that DeepMind had been acquired, but declined to comment further.)
Bond vigilantes might want to turn away. The following analysis is not pretty for those who have bet everything on a taper-related spike in US yields.
As HSBC’s Steven Major notes on Friday, he is doubtful that the short-term path for US yields will be anything other than lower.
Key to his analysis is the fact that growth and inflation are disconnecting in an unusual way:
This is a long-term chart of white sugar prices:
David Rosenberg, chief economist and market strategist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates, has turned slightly bullish.
Unfortunately, this has come as an unpalatable shock to a few people. Read more
In Star Trek: the Next Generation there is an episode in which Fajo, a member of the Stasius Trade Guild, kidnaps and imprisons the Enterprise’s Lieutenant Commander Data, a sentient android, due to his complete uniqueness in the galaxy.
Fajo, it turns out, is an obsessive collector of all things one-of-a-kind. He values Data because there is only one of him in the universe. And unlike one-of-a-kind human beings, Data’s android status in Fajo’s mind allows him to objectify him and treat him as private property. Read more
In a new analysis the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland looks into the question of why small business lending isn’t what it used to be.
While it’s hard to pinpoint one definitive reason, they do note it’s clear that there is validity in the theory that SME lending is suffering from an ongoing demand-side problem related to soft demand for SME products and services. Read more
Here’s a funny thing.
There was an amusing altercation between self-declared Austrian Peter Schiff (of “I see inflation everywhere” fame) versus The Money Illusion‘s Scott Sumner on Monday. It happened on Larry Kudlow’s show on CNBC. Read more
Paul Krugman says it himself: it’s the similarities between our time and other economic periods that often offer the best insight. But he’s currently in Paris thinking deep Parisienne style thoughts, which might explain the following…
There are, as he notes, some important distinctions to be made this time around, not least globalisation’s impact on the role of intangible rents.
Consequently, we may be living in an economy in which profits no longer remotely resemble a “natural” aspect of the economy. They are, one might say, somewhat synthetic. Read more
Paul Krugman is getting serious about the effects of technology and robots on the economy. He’s made noises about this theme before, but this time he’s taking things a bit further by offering a potential solution to the more sour consequences of the new industrial revolution.
If the fight is between capital and labour, and capital is winning, it seems subsidies in the form of some basic type of income may be called upon. Read more
We just saw this post from Pragmatic Capitalism’s Cullen Roche on the supply of assets.
It offers a nice chart showing net issuance of “safe” assets, from Citi’s research team:
Now that we have Chinese socialites engaging in public cat fights over who is richer, posting snapshots of their bank accounts “Rich Kids of Instagram style“, one has to wonder if it may be worth revisiting John Hempton’s prediction last year that the Chinese authorities will finally crack down on this sort of over-the-top gratuitous wealth display, and when that happens the luxury brands — among them Swiss watches — will begin to suffer.
(*We should note the “I’m really richer than you” meme possibly applies to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal as well). Read more
Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen linked to a new paper by David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson entitled “Untangling Trade and Technology: Evidence from Local Labor Markets”.
Long story short, it suggests computers haven’t been taking our jobs, China has. Read more
A great pick-up from Climateer Investing on the extremely important subject of whether we are collectively, as a planet, mismeasuring GDP by failing to account for the transformation of the economy into a service-oriented, information-based, digital entity.
It comes from Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the former IBM executive.
As he notes:
Gross domestic product (GDP) is the basic measure of a country’s overall economic output based on the market value of all the goods and services the country produces. Most measures of economic performance used by government officials to inform their policies and decisions are based on GDP figures. But, many concerns have been raised about the adequacy of GDP-based measurements given the major structural changes that economies around the world have been going through over the past few decades. GDP is essentially a measure of production. While suitable when economies were dominated by the production of physical goods, GDP does not adequately capture the growing share of services and the production of increasingly complex solutions that characterize advanced economies. Nor does it reflect important economic activity beyond production, such as income, consumption and living standards.
This is the third installment in FT Alphaville’s “Beyond Scarcity” series, a somewhat radical look at the impact of technological progress and efficiency on the volume of goods and services being produced by the system, asking whether “abundance” could now be a key determinant of deflationary forces in the western world.
On top of this, we have considered the role played by “artificial scarcity”, whether imposed wittingly or unwittingly by industry participants as a counterweight to such deflation, and to what degree such measures could now be running into scalability issues. In short, whether there is a limit to how much artificial scarcity private organisations can impose to counteract deflationary forces of abundance, without experiencing diminishing returns. Read more