xi's moments
Home | Op-Ed Contributors

Winners and losers of 'pandemic economy'

By Michael Spence | China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-23 07:55


Much economic commentary nowadays focuses on "divergence". While broad equity market indexes are at or near all-time highs, much of the wider economy struggles to recover from one of the most severe downturns ever.

Many have concluded that the market is unmoored from economic reality. But, viewed another way, today's equity markets may be partly reflecting powerful underlying trends amplified by the "pandemic economy". Equity prices and market indexes are measures of value creation for the owners of capital, which is not the same thing as value creation in the economy, more broadly, where labor and tangible and intangible capital all play a role.

Also, markets reflect the expected real returns to capital in the future. When it comes to measuring the present value of labor income, there simply is no comparable forward-looking index. In principal, then, if there is a significant anticipated economic rebound, the outlooks for capital and labor income could be similar, but only capital's expected future would be reflected in the present.

But there is more to the story. Market valuations are increasingly based on intangible assets, not least the ownership and control of data, which confers its own means of value creation and monetization. According to one recent study of the S&P 500, stocks in companies with high levels of intangible capital per employee have recorded the biggest gains this year, and the less intangible capital per employee companies have, the worse their stocks have performed.

In other words, incremental value creation in markets and employment are diverging. And while this was true even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, the trend has accelerated now. There are at least two reasons for this. One is the rapid adoption of digital technologies as part of the response to lockdown measures. The second is that many labor-intensive sectors (which normally add value mainly with labor and tangible capital) have been partly or totally shut down due to lockdowns, social distancing, and consumer risk aversion.

To be sure, general market valuations have been supported by the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks' interest rate policies. In the current context, highly accommodative monetary policies are principally aimed at creating space for governments to use debt to finance large fiscal programs in response to the COVID-19 shock.

But while ultra-low interest rates may provide some general support for today's market valuations, they do not account for the stark differences across sectors. After all, the part of the economy not represented by publicly traded stocks is also suffering (though there are private companies in digital sectors whose valuations and returns are similar to, or even higher than, the upper end of the intangible capital spectrum in public markets).

More broadly, lower-income households and many small businesses with thin, fragile balance sheets have been left with no effective shock absorbers, and many of the labor-intensive sectors that generate significant employment in normal times (including hotels, restaurants and bars) have been partly shut down. To address these trends, sovereign balance sheets are being used as a shock absorber for large swaths of the economy.

But not all swaths. Because the current crisis is actually boosting the value of certain companies, it is worth asking who owns the bulk of their stock. It certainly isn't the private households and businesses whose balance sheets are too weak to serve as shock absorbers. Today's high-valuation companies are owned by individuals and institutions with balance sheets that are already substantial enough to provide a cushion of economic resilience.

When the post-pandemic phase comes into view, labor-intensive sectors with lower intangible capital per employee may enjoy a period of out-performance as they bounce back. Yet even in this scenario, the economy's digital footprint is likely to expand, and the underlying trend favoring intangible capital and its owners will continue.

It is not surprising that intangible-capital-intensive sectors would have an advantage. For the most part, their cost structures are abnormally tilted toward fixed costs and low or negligible marginal costs. This makes some platforms massively scalable, which in turn confers significant power in terms of pricing and market access.

One could draw a few conclusions from these economic realities. For starters, the "pandemic economy" has accelerated the pre-pandemic trend favoring intangible asset value creation through enterprises with relatively fewer employees. We can expect this trend to continue, albeit not at the heightened pandemic-induced pace. Traditional businesses will recover, but the disconnect between value creation across enterprises depending on intangibles per employee will persist and remain a major economic and social challenge.

The idea that markets and the economy are diverging reflects a narrow focus on particular indexes. But no single index can offer a useful summary of the overall market, let alone economic conditions and trends. And in the "pandemic economy", equity market indexes obscure even more than they otherwise would, due to the large divergences in economic outcomes across sectors and for the people who work in them.

Finally, given the outsized contribution of digital intangible assets to value creation, it is hard to see a way to reverse the trend of rising wealth inequality. Because the balance sheets of those lower down the income and wealth ladder are largely devoid of assets with high intangible and digital content, the rewards of current economic and technological dynamics will pass them by.

The author, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, is a professor of Economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Project Syndicate

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise and would like to contribute to China Daily, please contact us at opinion@chinadaily.com.cn , and comment@chinadaily.com.cn

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349