Tag Archives: technological change

A Riskier World?

This year’s Davos gathering is likely to be dominated by Donald Trump’s presence. I look forward to seeing him barge past other political and industry leaders to get his prime photo opportunity. As US equity markets continue to make all time highs in an unrelentingly fashion, it is scary to see the melt-up market been cheered on by the vivacious talking heads.

Ahead of Davos, the latest World Economic Forum report on global risks was released today. 59% of the contributors to the annual global risks survey point to an increase in risks in 2018, with environmental and cybersecurity risks continuing their trend of growing prominence, as can be seen below.

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Undoubtedly, environmental risks are the biggest generational challenge we face and it is hard to argue with the statement that “we have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear“. That said, what is also striking about these assessments (and its important to remember that they are not predictions) is how the economic risks (light blue squares) have, in the opinion of the contributors, receded as top risks in recent years. The report does state that although the “headline economic indicators suggest the world is finally getting back on track after the global crisis that erupted 10 years ago” there is “continuing underlying concerns”.  Amongst these concerns, the report highlights “potentially unsustainable asset prices, with the world now eight years into a bull run; elevated indebtedness, particularly in China; and continuing strains in the global financial system”.

A short article in the report entitled “Cognitive Bias and Risk Management” by Michele Wucker caught my attention. The article included the following:

Risk management starts with identifying and estimating the probability and impact of a given threat. We can then decide whether a risk falls within our tolerance limits and how to react to reduce the risk or at least our exposure to it. Time and again, however, individuals and organizations stumble during this process—for example, failing to respond to obvious but neglected high-impact “grey rhino” risks while scrambling to identify “black swan” events that, by definition, are not predictable.


One of the most pervasive cognitive blinders is the availability bias, which leads decision-makers to rely on examples and evidence that come immediately to mind. This draws people’s attention to emotionally salient events ahead of objectively more likely and impactful events.

I do wonder about cognitive blinders and grey rhinos for the year ahead.

Risky World

The latest World Economic Forum report on global risks is out today and, as usual, it reflects current concerns rather than offering any predictions for 2017. To be fair to WEF, the top risk for 2012 to 2014 inclusive in their survey was income disparity which is commonly viewed as one of the factors behind the rise in populism.

click to enlargewef-global-risks-2017

The report states the obvious about the impact on global risks following 2016, specifically that “societal polarization, income inequality and the inward orientation of countries are spilling over into real-world politics” and that “decision-making is increasingly influenced by emotions” due to the increase in nationalism. Where this year’s report is spot on, in my view, is in relation to the top 5 global trends that will determine global developments over the next 10 years, as below.

click to enlargewef-top-5-global-trends-2017

The report also states that “although anti-establishment politics tends to blame globalization for deteriorating domestic job prospects, evidence suggests that managing technological change is a more important challenge for labour markets” and that “we are in a highly disruptive phase of technological development, at a time of rising challenges to social cohesion and policy-makers’ legitimacy”.

Among the many risks highlighted in the report is a reduction in geopolitical co-operation which is likely to be detrimental to global growth, action on global indebtedness, and climate change.  It’s particularly depressing to think that even if the commitments under the Paris agreement were delivered, which now looks doomed after the election of Trump, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates the world will still warm by 3.0°C to 3.2°C, still far above the 2°C limit where scary and irreversible stuff happens.

Another worrying risk is the possibility of a new arms race in an era of rapid advancements in a technology which also has a retrograde feel, especially “while risks intersect and technologies develop quickly, too often our institutions for governing international security remain reactive and slow-moving”.

All pretty cheery stuff! And on it goes.

As I write this, I’m watching reports on Mr Trump’s press conference today, and although there is no doubt that our world is riskier as we enter 2017, it will be entertaining to see this guy as the leader of the free world. Hopefully good entertaining, not depressing entertaining!

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

click to enlargesp-500-operating-profit-margins-by-sector

And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

click to enlargesp-500-historical-operating-profit-margins

It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…