An Alternate “Truth” About Jobs–Not Steve, but the rest of us working stiffs

A good friend recently sent me an email asking if I agreed with some conclusions reached by Scott Winship in a well-written piece in the Wilson Quarterly titled “The Truth about Jobs.”  Winship basically concludes that that the decline in labor force participation among men has been voluntary, aided by some changes in payments for disability and other factors, and that pay reduction relative to productivity improvements is merely a catch-up with overpayments from earlier decades prior to the ’80’s, and that, ultimately, this will come back into balance. Thus, not to worry. He makes some references to outsourcing, but concludes it has been a net benefit in terms of lower prices of goods. He ends with an important view, with which I fully agree, that skill levels are a problem for a growing segment of the population,  and we need to address that issue, specifically. This is a very brief and incomplete summary of Winship’s article, and I would suggest it is worth reading in its entirety.  I disagree with some of the conclusions which are drawn from a different view, or at least emphasis, on what has happened in the last 40+ years. I hope Winship is correct in his thoughtful and well-researched observations and his conclusions, but I am skeptical.

I think we do have a systemic jobs problem tied to demographics and the relative rise of other economies that are more easily participating in the global economy in terms of markets, intellectual contribution and the use of existing and rapidly changing technology.

Over the decades of change referred to in Winship’s analysis we have shifted into a much more global interconnected world where the movement of goods and services has been significantly enhanced via technological developments. Thus, the benefit of labor arbitrage between countries is real and possible as is labor/capital(technology) arbitrage everywhere.

For many years in the US, “outsourcing” has occurred within our borders, moving more production to suppliers which creates economies of scale and lower labor costs because the skill levels required are different.  And labor cost arbitrage still exists between geographies within the US.

As an example, while I don’t have the precise numbers, I would posit that global employment in the auto industry is up. However, required skill levels are down and, for some time, global geographical arbitrage on labor costs has existed with there being little, if any,  technological arbitrage among countries today–similar technologies are available to almost all. The last time I was in China visiting auto plants the difference in labor content between a Toyota plant in Japan and China reflected the labor cost differential with more workers and less automation on the lines in China.  As relative wages rise, the lines in China have become more automated substituting capital(technology) for labor within a framework of a newer, more efficient production system than might be found in the developed world. This is real and cannot be glossed over as having an effect on the US and other developed economies.

Winship’s dataset of men only and their wage and labor force participation numbers is also a problem. The impact on wages (for men and the total work force) has been, in part, the gender wage arbitrage that has existed, and in some cases continues to exist, between men and women, even though the skill levels are not different–some would say higher among the women. Winship mentions the wage differentials but he doesn’t explicitly incorporate it as a cause for the slower rise in men’s wages.

He points out that more men over 55 are staying in the work force. I agree with much of his analysis here which emphasizes the education levels and the desire to work, not the need. Although, I do believe there is an element of need that comes into play–the need to think about sustaining oneself and a lifestyle for a much longer period than historically has been the case. My personal anecdote is noting that my father lived to 100 and was quite active for almost all of that period. I always said to him that I would take his bad genes as long as I got the good ones. It appears that I did get both…  I have to think about what kind of life I want to lead over the next few decades both financially and actively with my mind and body. It is hard to move away from the stimulus of work (and the reward) as long as I have that opportunity.  And the opportunities appear to be there for me and others.

I think this does have a lot to do with availability of skills in that age bracket, the adaptation of that group, in general, to the new world of communication and technology,  and the recognition that productivity levels remain high, particularly among the better educated, more of whom are maintaining their health. It isn’t as automatic that as an employee ages he or she becomes less productive or less adaptable to the demands of the workplace. It helps that labor laws make it more difficult to end employment for age reasons alone.

On a separate point, as one works one’s way down the age brackets I think we are finding fewer individuals wanting to work within a formal structured work place–they are less available–, thus only the over 55 are available for those jobs. This is a big overstatement, but on the margin it is certainly the case. The use of the internet, the infrastructure in city-states and even within smaller communities leads to the availability of a more entrepreneurial approach to work and provision of services than has been the case historically—and more of this is in the cash (or grey) economy.

There has been much research trying to estimate the dollars floating around the rest of the world in an undocumented economy. There has been some recent work (U of Wisconsin– which may indicate a growing amount of that cash, more than previously estimated, resides within the US.  And, by the way, taxing that income could add $500 Billion to US governments’ revenues. More people are working than the BLS statistics pick up. Do we really believe that all the number of  long term unemployed are actually not working? But, instead,  aren’t they producing some income–maybe sufficient to sustain or even thrive?  Here’s an anecdote for you: We have all heard about companies pushing more people to part-time employment to avoid ACA rules and, ultimately reduce their costs. One of my fellow directors at a company told me that one of her clients–a national retailer–is having employees in certain states with insurance exchanges ask to be moved to part-time because the cost of insurance on the exchange will be lower than or no worse than their current costs. It makes them untethered to a company for the benefits, more mobile and flexible, and with the possibility of making up for the income at another job either on or off the books. One could make the case that the younger generations don’t view the government as doing much for them so why should they pay taxes. That is happening at a time when the ability to work off the books has risen and continues to. Just think what 3-D printing could do to that ability once it is truly operable. I attended a meeting with one of the founders of MakerBot where this was made apparent. The real discussion with him was about the grey economy.

Winship’s final paragraph re the importance of education is particularly valid and critical: People, for the most part, figure out how to survive and thrive under any reasonably open system. Their ability to maximize the thriving part does depend on skill levels, educational attainment and overcoming the systemic inequalities that exist. That does need to be a focus. The developed world has a more severe problem than the developing world as it is more difficult for good things to happen in a replacement economy vs. a growth economy. But we must do significantly better.

There is much more to be written on this topic but I do have other tasks to perform–mostly on the books :-).

The Economy, The Markets, Obama’s Climate Change speech and Idealab: A Podcast

I recently did a broadcast on the Hays Advantage reviewing the turmoil in the marketplace, tying it back to our outlook of last November. We also spent some time on Obama’s speech and introduction of some new regs on Climate Change. I pointed out that we need to do something as we are falling behind technologically what is happening in Germany, Japan and, to some extent, in China. I wrote about what Germany is doing a couple of years ago.  I think we would all agree that regulations have a place, but it is not the best way to deal with this issue. At some point we need to have an explicit Carbon price which allows for economic decisions within a broad framework of rules.

Kathleen Hays had visited Idealab two weeks before and we had a chance to talk about innovation and the process there as well. You might find the 20 minute podcast interesting.

Joining the Chorus–Sequestration: Any Fiscal Austerity Now is a Mistake

Everyone with a brain has commented on Sequestration and what should be done instead–some with sound logic and facts and data to support their view. The most recent brought to my attention in a comment by Tom Gallagher, via RenMac, is an analysis of the impact of austerity in Euroland, “Panic-Driven Austerity in the Eurozone and its Implications“.

The best complete article on this topic and what else needs to be fixed in America–actually in Washington–was Fareed Zakaria’s in a recent issue of World Affairs, “Can America Be Fixed–The New Crisis of Democracy.”  It details the ills of the US and spells out some solutions. The solutions were summed up in a sentence in his second paragraph of the 10-page article: “The focus in Washington is on taxing and cutting. It should be on reforming and investing.”  In the same issue, Roger Altman, who would have been my candidate for Treasury Secretary,  wrote a rather optimistic article, “The Fall and Rise of the West.” asserting his view that the West would emerge stronger from this financial crisis. I think Altman is right if Zakaria’s prescriptions are followed. I would highly recommend both of these articles as well as the fall, 2012, issue of the World Policy Journal, which devoted the whole journal to the subject of Democracy. If you only have time for one article it should be Zakaria’s–an elegant and fairly complete synopsis of how we got to this point and what should happen to get us past it. Zakaria provides some very appropriate solutions, which unfortunately require our politicians, and to some extent, we, the people, to act responsibly. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this happening either from the Administration or Congress or us. And, now that it looks like it will happen, Sequestration is getting a “…it’s not so bad…” rationalization from some who should know better.

I am hoping for a miracle, I guess–just a simple agreement to postpone this nonsense and any short-term series of compromises and truly to focus on a long-term well-vetted plan,with a clear understanding of timing and consequences, that results in “…reforming and investing.” I think the markets, companies and individuals would react well to this. There isn’t much substantive to add to what others have said. I simply urge you to click on the links above to understand a bit more of the madness that is rampant in Washington and its implications.

What is the Big Deal about Big Data?

I have always been fascinated by data and how it could be used to run a business, create investment opportunities and understand and affect behavior. As I was getting my engineering degree in the ’60’s, I was exposed to the value of historical data and the use of algorithms to reach conclusions under uncertainty. My first job out of the Colorado School of Mines was, strangely, with Procter & Gamble. P&G was a big user of data in its product development, marketing and manufacturing operations. After business school, I was fortunate enough to go to work for a research boutique, Mitchell Hutchins, that was prepared to take full advantage of the early big data manipulation capabilities coming from dumb terminals connected through time sharing to large computers. Mitchell Hutchins was involved in the creation of Data Resources, an economic forecasting company co-founded by the late Otto Eckstein. Data Resources created very sophisticated forecasting models that could either be accepted or manipulated by its clients over these early networks. We also used the network to create individual company models and valuation models which became a regular part of reports to clients. The reports themselves were printed and distributed through the US mail or some early private delivery services. I must say the models that were developed through all this data manipulation were seductive and created an air of certainty in the conclusions that we reached. The higher the correlation coefficients and the R-squared, the more we believed. I am not sure if our forecasts, or those of Data Resources were that much better than others created through less sophisticated means. To Otto’s credit, while publishing his models, he remained a skeptic of the end results. “Add factors” were always a part of his forecasts in discussions with clients. I think we all ultimately learned to respect the power of data, but, at the same time, recognized that the models were only as good as the inputs we were using, and what we didn’t know or measure was as important or more important than what we knew. I think that applies even more so today as the available data expand. We will get some answers that we didn’t have before, but let’s all remain skeptics and avoid the seduction of the certainty associated with the size of input, the sophistication of the models, and the speed with which we get the answers.

So let’s explore Big Data.

According to E-Bay the volume of business data is doubling every 1.2 years. The amount of data Big Science is accumulating dwarfs the business community. Several “laws” have come into play producing these enormous amounts of data and getting everyone excited about what can be done with Big Data if analyzed and manipulated properly.
The Harvard Business Review devoted much of its October, 2012, issue to Big Data. McKinsey and others have published numerous reports on the topic. This is all with the belief that applying the proper analytics to all this data can lead to better business decisions replacing or reinforcing intuition with hard facts coming from more complete and precise information. It all starts with the latest version of Moore’s Law: Processing speeds double every 18 months. This is without question the most important law related to Big Data. In my view, particularly these days, the utility of data is inversely proportional the amount of time it takes to process the data. Wirth’s law comes into play here: Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster. Other more assertive variations have been put forth: May’s law (sometimes facetiously called Gates’ Law): Software efficiency halves every 18 months offsetting Moore’s Law. The impact and perceived importance of processing the Big Data coming at us will very likely put even more of a premium on efficient software. For most applications, developers have had it easy. Processing speeds have allowed for the development of lazy code. One would hope that the exigencies of data growth change that. Otherwise value creation will lag and negate some of the other laws at work here. Metcalfe’s Law: The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users to the network (~n squared)–or probably more appropriate in today’s social media world, Reed’s Law: The utility of a large network can scale exponentially with the size of the network (~2 to the nth power). The real value or utility becomes, in most instances–certainly in the social media world–the near instantaneous analysis producing an economic action.

It has become a given that the proper use of data, i.e., metrics, can actually allow one to make better judgements and business decisions. Proper and selective use of the data becomes the key. Within a business what one measures can also affect how those generating the data behave. It should be apparent that it becomes important what one measures and how whatever data are collected are used. There is a variation of another law at work here, Parkinson’s Law. In its original: Work expands to fill the time available or in its computer corollary: Data expands to fill the space available for storage. With networks expanding, processing speeds increasing and the cloud and more powerful servers ultimately providing infinite storage, consultants and business school professors have discovered Big Data. In my view, this is creating another variant of Parkinson’s Law: The number of conclusions one can reach expands proportionately with the quantity of data available and inversely with the time it takes to analyze the data. All of those conclusions may be actionable. That doesn’t mean they will have a positive effect. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek these answers. It is not even a question of “should.” These answers will be sought.

There will be an advantage to those who are the early users of Big Data. This certainly proved to be the case in the investment and trading community. Every day an enormous amount of data are generated on stock price movements, trading volume, business results, economic results and, of course, the opinions of the pundits in the media and in the research departments of a wide variety of financial services entities. Models have been built and continue to be built and modified that attempt to show correlations among securities and deviations from those correlations. The low cost of trading combined with the speed at which a transaction can occur has allowed traders to take advantage of minute variations in highly correlated securities. Those who have created the better models and/or can react more quickly to a variation have done quite well. The importance of speed of reaction has been such that some traders moved their processing closer to the source of the information and the trading shortening the time it takes for electrons to activate and produce a transaction. It is a business where minute fractions of a second can make the difference. The models, though, have to keep morphing in terms of inputs and speed to stay ahead of the competition. Otherwise they all converge eliminating the disparities that produce profits. The Fallacy of Composition comes into play: When everyone stands up to see, no one can see. I think this is already happening in the trading community.

In the long run this will likely happen in other communities as well. We see aspects of this in consumer product marketing. This community has always been good at analyzing the data available to it to discern what customers want or can be made to want. This has led to a wide array of similar products from various companies with little distinction among them. The first movers always had an advantage for a brief period, but ultimately, others developed competitive products. Youngme Moon describes these phenomena well in her wonderful book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.”  What she describes has broad application beyond the marketing community she uses as her examples.

There is a Big Deal about Big Data. The advances that can be made in science, business and, in particular, in the social media world are very exciting–a little scary, but most exciting things are. The early users will have an advantage–maybe a sustainable one as they learn what they still don’t know and adjust accordingly. It is important to understand that the outcomes will only be as good as the inputs and the analytics applied to them. To the extent one comes to rely on these outcomes without understanding what remains unknown, it increases the risks of larger and larger unintended consequences through error or just faulty or incomplete models. The models will always be incomplete. The more we accept that premise the more value our use of Big Data will have. It is hard to imagine the outcomes every time processing speeds and data accumulation double. We are on our way to a more superlative adjective replacing Big. Hang on!

The Debt Ceiling, Long Term Deficit Reduction and Insanity

Having barely survived the Fiscal Cliff, we now face the prospect of the crazies using the debt ceiling as a second attempt to derail this recovering economy. Everyone acknowledges that we have a growing debt problem which must be solved. That is a long term issue and should be dealt with accordingly, as opposed to immediate austerity in the face of a fragile but growing US economy. Even the IMF has finally concluded that austerity at the wrong time and at the wrong level is not the answer.  Restoring the Payroll Tax is already a mistake. This is not the time to reduce any flows into this economy.  It is time to sit down and develop a long term plan to reduce the rate of debt accumulation via serious review of federal spending across the board, entitlement reform, tax policy and, at the same time, redirection of spending and policy toward areas that will produce long term economic growth and jobs in this country and the world. We know the levers that will produce growth–education, technology, infrastructure, energy independence, immigration.

We do run the risk of waking up one day and finding the global financial markets unwilling to finance the debt we continue to incur.  However, if we develop a serious long-term plan that begins to go into effect well before this administration is out of office, while still maintaining a growth path, the financial markets will likely be very supportive. Companies and individuals just need to know the rules and see an economy with opportunity. While it was a rather optimistic view, the forecast I made in December does provide at least a vision of what could begin to happen this year. Look at how global equity markets, including our own, have reacted to what was a modest resolution of the fiscal cliff. I would predict that if the debt ceiling increase is accompanied by the elements of austerity that the chief crazy, Mitch McConnell, wants to put in place immediately, financial markets will reverse in anticipation of a major slowdown in growth domestically with an impact on global economies as well.

Where are the folks that are prepared to have the discussions in meetings among disparate parties as opposed to fighting their battles in the media? This includes both sides of the aisle as well as the Executive Branch. We have a real opportunity to get this right. Let’s hope we don’t blow it.

The Fiscal Cliff, Long Term Deficit Reduction and Instant Gratification

Well, there was a form of Fiscal Cliff Resolution which appeared to make no one happy except maybe real people who got a little more certainty about how they need to handle their finances.  There seems to be general disappointment that the long term deficit problem was not dealt with.  Let’s state the obvious: the long term deficit problem is just that–a long term problem. Instant gratification is not required–except maybe for the securities markets. The short term problem, even for the securities markets and certainly for the commonweal, is maintaining the pace of a recovery that remains fragile. Why would any leader want to truly deal with a long term problem with a lame-duck Congress, particularly when the incoming Congress is modestly more in his camp? I would posit that he may not even want to deal with the long-term problems with this Congress if he has any belief that the 2014 elections could swing things even more his way as Congress continues to look political as opposed to statesman-like.

Right now, we need to deal with the short-term issues of maintaining this recovery. Some of the compromises made to get past the Cliff didn’t do that–the Payroll tax restoration being a big one.  No doubt there will be more compromises to get past the debt ceiling issues. However, I do believe it is becoming more difficult for the majority in the House to continue to hold a gun to this economic recovery. The majority in the Senate and the minority in the House need to do their part as well. In addition, the ratings agencies should also stop looking for instant gratification. The long term deficit problem must get dealt with, including entitlement reform. It will get dealt with because it has to and it can be done. If that takes two years, during which we continue to see a reasonable economic recovery, I don’t think that’s a problem. Maybe  is pays to take another look at what could be happening if we keep eliminating uncertainty and maintain this recovery.

What to Expect in 2013 (and Beyond)–An Optimistic View

This year in early January I posted “What to Expect in 2012 (and Beyond).”  Some of what I expected last year has rolled over into 2013. With more than a month to go before we step into 2013 it is a little risky to make predictions, particularly when much of what is predicted depends on the resolution (or not) of the fiscal cliff. I believe we will reach a resolution and actually take some steps toward overall fiscal reform. That may be the biggest and most important expectation which sets the course for much of what else could occur. Hopefully, op-ed pieces like Steve Rattner’s in the 11/25 Sunday NYTimes will become part of the dialogue in Washington. Keep in mind that the expectations below follow the Byron Wien approach, i.e., my view is a greater than 50% chance of these expectations coming to pass while the conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s plunge in.

  1. With the resolution of the fiscal cliff and some steps toward overall fiscal reform, big corporations and small businesses step up their plans for 2013 and beyond, affecting hiring and capital spending.  The rest of the US economy joins the housing recovery, producing growth in the US exceeding 3.5% for the year with at least one quarter printing over 4% in spite of the trade deficit expanding.
  2. The US experiences double digit growth in capital spending as delayed plans are finally implemented with resolution of the fiscal cliff.
  3. Unemployment works its way lower by a percentage point. Unfortunately, the number of jobs unfilled increases substantially as the mismatch between skills and needs comes into stark relief.
  4. The new leadership in China, while taking a conservative social stance, takes additional steps to insure a decent recovery in economic growth. The strength of the US economy aids China’s recovery.
  5. While the noise about Greece grows and is joined by more concerns about Spain, Italy and France, Europe continues to muddle through with interesting support from the Middle East and some support from China.
  6. As Moore’s Law marches on, Samsung and others introduce advances in tablets and communications devices which puts pressure on Apple that reflects itself in relative stock performance. Apple does an interesting pivot which changes the landscape for even more robust consumer devices.
  7. The Argentine situation is not contained and has an impact on politics, growth rates and inflation for its neighbors, requiring more attention to South America from the US than we have been willing to give thus far.
  8. As we enter the year end 2013, because of the surprising global growth, there are some unsettling signs of inflation. QE is reduced and expectations for a rise in rates increase.
  9. The US stock market has a good rise in the first half of 2013, but inflation concerns and a possible Fed reaction push markets down in the latter part of the year reversing  some but not all of the earlier gains. Analysts find themselves chasing earnings for much of the year.

The next few expectations are holdovers, with some modifications, from 2012. They may not all come to pass in 2013. None of them were complete in 2012.  But as we move further into the decade, in my view, they will likely happen, and will have an impact on how our future unfolds.

  1. Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes several steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service locally.
  3. Aside from the continuing concerns about Europe and the ripple effect of the Argentine situation on South America, India becomes a focal point. With the economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, the leadership looks for diversions and points to its neighbors, China and Pakistan as problems. There are internal confrontations as well. While there is limited impact on the global economy, the uncertainty affects foreign investment and India’s outsourcing businesses.

On balance, this is a set of optimistic expectations with some trouble spots, as always, diverting our attention. I am optimistic about what can happen, certainly within the US, as long as the crazies in Washington get a bit rational. If not, I will need to spell out a whole new set of expectations. It will be an interesting year.