economics in the US vs. identity

The Financial Times has recently added an interesting new Opinions columnist, Rana Foroohar.  In her column yesterday, she writes that while the Democrats believe that they lost the presidential election because of misogyny and racism, the more likely cause is wage stagnation and job insecurity.  In other words, long-time Democrats voted Republican in the last election in spite of the victors’ abhorrent social views, not because of them.  Further, she implies that by continuing to seek favor from large corporates as well as by taking up the former Republican mantle of mindless legislative obstruction, the Democratic party risks further establishing itself as part of the economic problem, not the solution.

Clearly, the Democratic leadership doesn’t believe this, although personally I think Ms. Foroohar is correct.  Moreover, as Ms. Foroohor notes, the issue of job insecurity and wage stagnation is a dynamic one, not static.  As recent research from the University of Cambridge suggests, and the emergence of self-driving cars illustrates, the range of human tasks subject to replacement by machines is continuing to expand, putting more blue-collar jobs as well as some white-collar occupations as risk.

So this central issue is not going to go away.  It’s going to get bigger.

 

Social issues aside, a stock market investor must, I think, address two questions:

–how to participate through stock selection in the substitution of hardware/software capital for labor, and

–how closely continuing political dysfunction in the US resembles the situation in Japan thirty years or so ago, in which a foolish political defense of the status quo in the face of structural change has resulted in a decades-long impairment of GDP growth there.

 

 

ARK Investment Management and its ETFs

ARK

I was listening to Bloomberg Radio (again!?!) earlier this month and heard an interview of Cathie Wood, the CEO/CIO of recently formed ARK Investment Management.  I don’t know Ms. Wood, although we both worked at Jennison Associates, a growth-oriented equity manager with a very strong record, during different time periods.  Just before ARK, she had been CIO of Global Thematic Strategies for twelve years at value investor AllianceBernstein.  (As a portfolio manager I was a big fan of Bernstein’s equity research but I’m not familiar with her Bernstein output.)  She’s been  endorsed by Arthur Laffer of Laffer Curve fame, who sits on her board.

ARK is all about finding and benefiting from “disruptive innovation that will change the world.”

Ms. Wood was promoting two actively managed ETFs that ARK launched at the beginning of the month, one focused on industrial innovation (ARKQ) and another the internet (ARKW).  Two more are in the works, one for genomics (ARKG) and the last (ARKK) an umbrella innovation portfolio which will apparently hold what it considers the best of the other three portfolios.

What really caught my ear in the interview was Ms. Wood’s discussion of the domestic automobile market (summary research available on the ARK website).  Most cars lie around doing nothing during the day.  What happens if either ride-sharing services like Uber or the Google self-driven car, which make more constant use of autos, catch on as substitutes?  According to Ms. Wood, until these innovations reach 2.5% of total miles driven (based on the idea that on a per mile basis ride-sharing costs half what owning a car does), there’s little effect.  But at 5% penetration, the bottom falls out of the new car market.  New car sales get cut in half!

Who knows whether this is correct or whether it will happen or not   …but I find this a very interesting idea.

about the ETFs

The top holdings of ARKW are:  athenahealth, Apple, Facebook, Salesforce.com and Twitter.  These comprise just under 25% of the portfolio.

For ARKQ, the top five are:  Google, Autodesk, Tesla, Monsanto and Fanuc.  They make up just over 24% of the portfolio.

Both will likely be high β portfolios.  Both have performed roughly in line with the NASDAQ Composite since their debut.

The perennial question about thematic investors (I consider myself one) is whether the high-level concepts are backed up by meticulous company by company financial research.  This is essential.  In addition, it’s important, to me anyway, that the holdings be arranged so that they’re not all dependent on a single theme–the continuing success of the Apple ecosystem, for instance.

I’m not familiar with Ms. Wood’s work, so I can’t say one way or another (Fanuc and ABB strike me as kind of weird holding for ARKQ, though).  But I think her research is worth reading and her ETFs worth at least monitoring.  For us as investors, the ultimate question will be whether Ms. Wood can outperform an appropriate index.  The NASDAQ Composite would be my initial choice.

 

 

 

 

 

“New World Order”: Foreign Affairs

The July/August 2104 issue of Foreign Affairs contains an interesting conceptual economics article titled “New World Order.”  It’s written by three professors–Erik Brynjolfsson (MIT) , Andrew McAfee (MIT) and Michael Spence (NYU)–and outlines what the authors believe are the major long-term trends influencing global employment and economic growth.  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but I think it’s a reasonable roadmap to start with.

Here’s what the article says:

the past

Globalization has allowed companies to exploit wide wage differentials between countries by moving production from high-cost labor markets close to consumers to low labor cost areas in the developing world.  Former manufacturing workers in high-cost areas enter the service sector to seek employment, depressing wages there.

This period is now ending, as relative wage differentials have narrowed.

now

Relative labor costs are at the point where manufacturing plant location is determined by other factors.  These include:  transportation cost, turnaround time for new orders and required finished goods inventory.  This implies that manufacturing can be located closer to the end uses it serves.  However, globally higher labor costs also imply that new factories will be much more highly mechanized than before.  Robots replace humans.

As a result, wage growth will remain unusually subdued.

the future 

Although returns to capital have avoided the erosion that has befallen labor over the past generation, this situation won’t last.  Long-lived physical capital is being replaced by software (note:  the majority of investment spending done by US companies is already on software).

Software doesn’t have either the total cost or the permanence of capital invested in physical things.  Software can be moved, it can be duplicated at virtually zero extra expense.  To the extent that software replaces physical capital as a competitive differentiator, it makes the latter obsolete.  It, in turn, can be made obsolete by the innovative activity of a small number of clever coders.

Therefore, the authors conclude, returns on invested capital (especially physical capital) are already beginning to enter secular decline.

Where will future high returns be found?

…in the innovative activity of talented, well-educated entrepreneurs.

education

This brings us to a major problem the US faces.  It’s the relative slippage of the domestic education system vs. the rest of the world, and an increased emphasis on rote learning (No Child Left Behind?).

The trio dodge this politically charged issue–they do observe that there’s a direction relationship between the quality of a community’s schools and the affluence of its citizens–by asserting that online learning will come to the rescue.  A child stuck in a weak school system will, they think, be able to in a sense “home-school” himself to acquire the skills he needs to succeed in the future they envision.

my take

What I find most interesting is the presumed speed at which the authors seem to think transition will occur.

–Is it possible that we’ve reached the point where there’s no available low-cost labor left in the world?  If so, this is a dood news/bad news story for low-skill workers.  On the one hand, downward wage pressure will stop.  On the other, robotization is going to take place at warp speed, making it harder to find a job.

Relocation of factories will also have implications for transportation companies, warehousing and even the amount of raw materials tied up in company inventories.

–Does software begin to undermine hardware so quickly?  Certainly this the case with online retailing and strip malls.  But how much wider is this model applicable?

–If the key to future growth is young entrepreneurs, then the sooner we as investors reject the Baby Boom and embrace Millennials the better.  This, I think, is the safest way to benefit in the stock market if the New World Order thesis proves correct.

 

 

unemployment and robots

robots are everywhere

Like just about everyone else (except my wife, who is a former president of the local chamber of commerce in our small home town), for years I’ve gone to the ATM instead of a bank teller. I don’t photo checks into our account, however, although close to 10% of American check volume is now processed this way.

I see the car commercials where computer-controlled cutting and welding machines are the ultimate symbols of manufacturing excellence.

I saw IBM’s Watson trounce those two guys on Jeopardy.

So, yes, I know that robots are taking over some tasks previously done by humans.

jobs at risk

What I didn’t know is how many jobs are potentially at risk.

Then I read an opinion piece by Martin Wolf, the chief economist of the Financial Times. It’s titled “Enslave the Robots and Free the Poor.”   Like anything Mr. Martin writes, the article is worth reading. But I mention it here because it references a paper by two professors from Oxford, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, “The Future of Employment:  How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization.”

The answer is “very.”  The paper concludes that 47%–that’s right, just about half, of the jobs now done by humans in the US are likely targets for replacement by robots.

How can this be?

Mssrs. Frey and Osborne divide work tasks into a matrix, according to whether the they require manual or cognitive skills, and whether they are repetitive or are non-repetitive, i.e., require some creativity, judgment or persuasive ability.

What we see in the ATM and the welding machines is repetitive manual tasks already being done by robots. We;re all used to that. The Frey/Osborne assertion is that while robots may increase their penetration of this segment of the matrix, computer scientists have become skillful enough in their algorithm fashioning that robots can now replace humans doing routine cognitive tasks. These include cashiers, waiters, tickettakers, manners of information kiosks, legal writers, medical diagnosers, truck drivers…

Is anyone safe?

Thank goodness, yes. On second thought, “Thank goodness” may not be appropriate.

–one set of “safe” jobs consists of service work that pays so little that savings don’t cover the cost of building the robot. Ouch.

–the other “safe” jobs re the ones that require a high degree of education, or that depend on creativity, or the ability to lead/persuade others, or the flexibility to respond effectively to novel situations.

fending off the robots

In the Frey/Osborne research, the two most effective ways to prevent your own robotization are to have a college degree or to be paid very poorly. Those lucky enough to qualify on both counts can breathe a sigh of relief.

timeframe

The Oxford paper gives no timeframe for this displacement. But even if the authors are off by a mile in their 47% and even if the process they describe takes half a century, substitution of capital for labor will continue to be a drag on job formation for a long while.

Frey and Osborne point out that ten years ago academics maintained that the safest possible job was being the driver of a motor vehicle.  And then along came the Google car.

IBM is refocusing itself to emphasize development of Watson, which is already being used to help make medical diagnoses.

 

Ironically, the current ultra-low interest rate regime in the US lowers the cost of investment capital—and therefore also lowering the breakeven point that must be reached to make the investment in robots.

investment significance?

Mr. Wolf’s op ed imagines the possible long-term societal implications of further mass replacement of humans by robots.  As an investor, my thought is that it may be wrong to look for the usual cyclical signs of vigor returning to the economy–signs that may never come.  Safer to focus on secular growth ideas,