Archive for March, 2012

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Backing off the Resource Boom

March 13, 2012

There are some troubling indicators on the resource front that could dramatically impact the plans of Western Canadian businesses. Let’s face it the Western resource economy is one of the ‘feel good’ stories in the Canadian economy, so a decline in its growth potential would not be welcome.

Recently, of course, the news has been fairly positive. Apart from declining contract prices for hard coking coal, metal (in particular) and oil prices have been buoyed by massive swings in the indexed commodity funds which have recently shifted back into long positions, based on improving jobs numbers in the U.S., rebounding auto sales and other ‘positive’ news like the Iranian situation (which may result in the closing of the Straits of Hormuz) which could dramatically hike oil prices.

Realistically though, these indicators are not the most significant indicator; that distinction still belongs to China and its continued growth potential.

The Chinese government recently cut growth forecasts to 7.5%, on worries over its over-built property and export manufacturing sectors.  These two sectors are highly leveraged but receive the bulk of foreign direct investment in China. The rest of the economy is bank financed and struggling. This is where the problems in China are really starting to get ugly.

China’s growth strategy has always been heavily debt focused. In the early days of the China miracle, the immaturity of its capital markets left China with few financing options. The model that emerged was unconventional, but very effective. Government controlled banks would lend to businesses up and down the economy; they did so without conventional restraints and with few hard-nosed business metrics. As a result many of these loans ended up under-performing or non-performing (NPL’s). Once a decade or so, the Chinese government would acknowledge the problem and clean these NPLs off the bank balance sheets,  often writing them off. This process essentially reset the Chinese banking clock once a decade.

According to Michel Pettis the debt problems are emerging once again, only this time the scale of the problem is much greater than in the past:  “China has instructed its banks to embark on a mammoth roll-over of loans to local governments. Unfortunately, to date these local government have already accumulated over Rmb10.7tn ($1.7tn) in debts – about a quarter of the country’s output – and more than half those loans are scheduled to come due over the next three years.”

This largely hidden ‘China Problem’ is a function of the rapid growth of un-repayable debts. The Chinese government, for a variety of political reasons, is not inclined to force asset sales. So, although there are no principal payments on these loans, the carrying costs alone will impact China’s growth model, which will clearly be handicapped. Michel Pettis sees debt burdened China growth slowing towards 5-6% annual growth over the next year or so, and longer term settling into the 3% region there after. Not bad, but not sufficient to drive marginal demand for commodities as it has in the past.

The impact on oil and other commodity prices will likely be dramatic, metal prices could fall sharply. None of this is going to happen over night, but over the next few years the sovereign debt crisis could cripple western economies. Optimists who expect China growth to offset this declining demand could be in for a surprise.

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Big Data is Watching You!

March 7, 2012

I could feel the frustration in my friend’s voice; “Google is reading my email; they recently targeted me with ads that could only have come from analysis of specific words in my private email.” My friend, Mark, is an experienced entrepreneur and no stranger to the ways of business. He went on; “I know Google analyzes my online searches and shopping behavior to send me targeted ads. What I didn’t know is that Google captures and analyzes the content of private emails and uses that data, too.”

Mark’s anxiety is justified; the ads he received were based on data collected from an email to his lawyer about a legal matter; it scared them both. Mark called me because I’ve been investigating capitalism, economics, and the phenomena of Big Data for some time now.

Mark’s concern is not just about corporations accessing and profiting from his personal data; it is much bigger. When a private company can capture correspondence between a citizen and his lawyer, or between a citizen and anyone, it poses a direct threat to democracy because it undermines the principle of individual autonomy.

I said, “Mark, in future the biggest challenge we’ll have to face in saving capitalism is reversing the extraordinary privileges of corporate sovereignty. Think about a world where the citizen, not the corporation, is sovereign. In that world the technical ability to gather personal data from email, Facebook or Google will not determine ownership of that data.

In an equitably capitalist society the citizen owns their own life and all data about his or her private life. Today, companies like Google gather data – for free – from and about us. They just assume they own that data, and earn hundreds of billions of dollars each year. When the citizen controls access to their private data, companies that choose to use it have to rent or buy it.

Here’s my way out of the Big Data dilemma. We would have to begin treating Big Data as an asset, owned by the individual, but aggregated as a social asset leveraged for the benefit of society at large. The idea of leveraging social assets is not new; many resource rich states raise significant public revenues by leveraging the public asset in their oil, gas, mineral, timber, and other natural resources. These non-tax revenue sources fund education, build highways, research and development. In some places royalties on natural resources provide up to 50% of government funds. Alaska, I believe, is even more.

Why not treat personal data as real estate and allow individuals or their local and state governments to charge a royalty for its use? In the case of Big Data the deal for citizens is relatively straightforward. We as sovereign citizens take ownership of our data and choose to create a social asset from that valuable data. Local governments would incentivize citizen participation in creating this asset by providing tax breaks or coupons for services such as medical care.

The idea of business paying a royalty for data is no pipe dream; why shouldn’t Mark’s personal data benefit Mark, his family, and his community? Royalties from Big Data could help rebuild the roads, bridges, and schools in Mark’s neighborhood, in every neighborhood.

And Big Data is only the tip of the iceberg; in an asset revolution like we’re experiencing today, there are a host of new asset classes for individuals and governments to leverage.

For instance, consider the potential value to the taxpayer for underwriting the banking system, with its implicit guarantee? Why should we as citizens provide security to a bank or its shareholders for free? What if they paid (commercial rates) for the public guarantee that allows them to prosper?

The economy is changing radically and although many dangerous trends are obvious there is a world of unrecognized opportunity. Consider that there are over $3 trillion of invisible intangible assets in the US economy alone, and many potential new sources of public revenue as yet unused.

We need to remember the old adage: ‘money doesn’t manage itself’ and recognize that social assets don’t manage themselves either. A determined body of free and sovereign citizens must identify and manage social assets. It is their right and duty to do so.

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