It’s always scary to hear a Wall Streeter utter the hackneyed phrase, “this time it’s different.” And yet today it really is. Especially the economic conditions that make up the operating system for today’s world.
As markets ride a roller coaster this week, as the political environment is heavily focused on international trade and tariffs on manufactured objects like cars and jeans, the reality is that all of this is yesterday's way of looking at the economy. This, according to Jonathan Haskel, who is a member of the Bank of England’s rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (the equivalent of the US Federal Reserve), a professor of economics at Imperial College London, and the director of the school’s doctoral program. He has also taught economics at the London Business School, the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and the Stern School of Business at New York University.
Haskel explains in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast that, while people once invested in things that grow (in the agrarian age) or in things that could be made with steel and sweat (in the manufacturing age), today, no matter how hard politicians try and take us back, the investments are made in human capital, in ideas, in imagination, and in zeros and ones. The problem for economists, according to Haskel, is that things like R&D, marketing, design, and software are much harder to measure and value.
The idea, Haskel tells Jeff Schechtman, is that intangible assets are created, distributed, and often valued differently than traditionally manufactured items. “Products you can’t touch have a very different set of dynamics in terms of competition and risk and how you value the companies that make them.”
Trying to determine the impact of all of this on the economy — when much of what is produced is abstract, symbolic, and speculative — has been difficult, Haskel explains, because so much has eluded traditional description, measurement, and accounting.
For example, he laments that we lack the ability to measure a company, even one as big as Microsoft, whose market value a decade ago was $250 billion, while its physical basis — the value of its properties and equipment — was only about one percent of that.
Finally, Haskel explains that the “shift to intangible investment” has widespread consequences that affect long-term inequality, infrastructure development, taxation, and other areas. It also leads to what Haskel calls “secular stagnation,” by allowing firms to scale quickly after they emerge, then engulf and overpower competitors, as opposed to enhancing an economy based on the rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s clear that we can’t watch the current daily gyrations in the stock market without understanding this evolving dynamic.
Jonathan Haskel is the author of Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy (Princeton University Press, November 18, 2017).