Opinion

Edward Hadas

Apple’s many magic tricks

Edward Hadas
Apr 30, 2014 15:22 UTC

Apple is in the news for borrowing $12 billion this week, even though it has $151 billion of cash on its balance sheet. The financial legerdemain will keep the technology giant’s tax bill down. It also is suitable for a company whose business model has long looked more like a magic act than a traditional corporate drama.

Of course, Apple has, or had, one of the necessary attributes of any successful enterprise: a strong competitive advantage. The California company’s edge comes from a synergistic mix of design expertise, marketing genius and supply chain mastery.

There is also a bit of technological expertise, but that’s where the magic starts. Apple is a tech star which skimps on the industry’s lifeblood, research and development. The 2.7 percent of revenue dedicated to R&D in the first half of the company’s current fiscal year is puny compared to phone rival Samsung Electronics’ 6 percent-plus and double-digit percentages at Google and Microsoft.

Apple’s trick is to rely on the research of others. Suppliers are crucial to its success. Also, as University of Sussex academic Mariana Mazzucato points out, it efficiently exploits the U.S. government’s valuable work. All tech companies both supply and buy, but Apple somehow manages to transmogrify relatively modest research contributions into relatively large sales and earnings.

Moreover, Chief Executive Tim Cook skips a large portion of the other hard stuff generally associated with industrial companies. Apple doesn’t bother with much manufacturing. It has around 40,000 employees compared with more than a million in its supply chain. It outsources inventory to suppliers too: Apple has only about three days’ worth on its own balance sheet.

Inheritance can be less unequal

Edward Hadas
Apr 23, 2014 14:39 UTC

The children of the poor tend to end up poor. The children of the elite seem pre-ordained to inherit a good part of their parents’ status and income. Is that just?

Things aren’t as bad as they were. In developed economies, social stratification has far less effect on children today than a century ago. The modern gulf is between developed and developing economies. In rich countries most people are middle class and the gap in lifestyle and education between poor and rich has narrowed.

Still, family remains a big part of destiny. That’s especially true in the United States, in spite of its claim to being a land of opportunity. A recent paper by Raj Chetty and other economists found a strong tendency for American children to end up in about the same position as their parents in the hierarchy of income. An international comparison by Jo Blanden of the University of Surrey concluded that the economic weight of inheritance in the United States is currently relatively high among affluent countries.

Don’t bother with share-based pay

Edward Hadas
Apr 16, 2014 12:13 UTC

Coca-Cola’s plan to give generous awards of shares to executives has angered some of its shareholders. They have good reason to complain about the potential transfer of about 15 percent of the company to the top 1 percent of its staff. But Coke is only pushing the already bad idea of share-based pay to a foolish extreme.

The justification for paying workers in their employer’s paper is simple and superficially appealing. Worker-owners might be more motivated to push for higher profit than if they just received salaries, even salaries which have bonuses in the millions tied to company performance.

The argument relies on a narrow view of corporate purpose: the sole goal is to maximise the share price, that is, the present value of future profit. Even if that doubtful assertion is accepted, the connection between an individual worker’s contribution and the movement of the share price is too weak for stock awards to motivate behaviour.

When credit is too much of a good thing

Edward Hadas
Apr 9, 2014 15:00 UTC

What does credit do after it has finished the job it was designed for? The supply of credit ought to stop at funding productive activity. But the reality is different. Surplus credit fuels dangerous asset price inflation and funds profligate governments. As leverage increases, so too does the risk of crisis and recession.

Credit, otherwise known as debt or loans, is not necessarily monstrous. It can be a most helpful economic beast of burden, carrying resources to the places where they can be best used. Loans from households to businesses fund helpful investments, and loans from rich older households to poor younger ones help spread property, especially houses and cars, more equitably. Even loans to governments can be a useful alternative to taxes.

However, credit too easily goes astray and there is no natural force to rein it in. Without firm regulatory guidance, credit seems to expand indefinitely, until the financial system explodes. That has been the pattern since the end of the Second World War.

Wealth buys less lifestyle, more power

Edward Hadas
Apr 2, 2014 14:39 UTC

Many serious people think economic inequality in the United States and other developed economies should be a hot political topic. But the general public hardly cares. There is a bad reason behind lack of public interest.

President Barack Obama said last December that a “dangerous and growing inequality” is “the defining issue of our time,” but the most recent Gallup poll suggests that view is not widely shared. Only 3 percent of Americans chose the “gap between rich and poor” as the country’s “most important problem” and 4 percent went for poverty. Unemployment scored 19 percent.

The American indifference is surprising because the measured increase in inequality there has been relatively large by international standards, to judge from the recent Chartbook of Economic Inequality from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School. But the lack of concern is widespread. Neither help-the-poor nor soak-the-rich politicians have gained much traction in any rich country.

In defence of financial coercion

Edward Hadas
Mar 26, 2014 15:45 UTC

Last week the British government gave a new freedom to its citizens, or at least to a relatively privileged group of them. No longer will pensioners with defined contribution retirement plans be forced to invest their accumulated funds in an annuity. The old requirement was a form of financial coercion: government rules which influence behaviour.

For the pensioners in question, the new arrangement may feel like liberation. They will no longer be enslaved to a product which offers meagre yields. For the rest of Britain, though, financial freedom has probably been reduced. All taxpayers will end up paying more for the medical bills of some pensioners, those who would have had an annuity income but who might now be forced to turn to the state if they run out of money when they need expensive care.

The elimination of one sort of coercion for some people brings a new coercion for others. The pattern is typical, and not merely in finance. Freedom is usually tied to constraint. If I am free to play loud music, my neighbour is forced to endure a racket. If I am free to charge as much as I want for a product that is in short supply, the rich are free to buy but poorer people are forced to do without.

How can a plane vanish in a small world?

Edward Hadas
Mar 19, 2014 15:23 UTC

How can a plane vanish in a small world? The information vacuum around Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is as unusual as it is disturbing. In the modern, globalised economy, things normally work well. When they don’t, the causes can usually be identified, and changes often follow to prevent recurrence. So far, MH370 is a distressing exception.

Until a few decades ago, a plane that disappeared from radar would simply be gone. Today, though, it is normally possible to unravel almost all such mysteries. There is much more knowledge than ignorance in technical matters. Aircraft have numerous onboard systems to ensure they are going where they should be and working as they should be. These interact with overlapping communications and tracking arrangements on land and in space. Indeed, so much information is generated in the normal course of flying that, without expert knowledge, the Boeing 777 aircraft could not have come so close to disappearing from electronic sight.

The cloud of information surrounding aircraft is particularly thick, perhaps because the idea of flying seems exceptionally unnatural to many people. However, most parts of the modern economy are remarkably well monitored and measured – and more so all the time. Tastes and practices can be traced with uncanny precision. Cameras track people’s movement, sensors watch machines and buildings, labels track when and where a product was made. When something goes wrong, the precise problem can almost always be identified.

Russia and the unreliable West

Edward Hadas
Mar 12, 2014 16:13 UTC

The revival of East-West tension over Ukraine looks thoroughly geopolitical. But the context is bad economics. In the last century, Russia was damaged by flawed ideologies which originated in the West. And today it is damaged by Western economic policy.

It is easy for Western Europeans and Americans to look down on the Russian economy. Since the breakup of the USSR, the nation’s real GDP per person has increased at a 3.9 percent annual rate. That is a modest accomplishment for a middle-income country with a great deal of resource income. While Ukraine’s 1.7 percent growth rate is even worse, Armenia, Poland and Romania have all grown faster than Russia.

Now look at it from the other side: what the West has given Russia. There are good things, from markets for energy exports to many types of sophisticated technology. However, these positives are dwarfed by two disastrous ideologies in the past and two selfish and hostile policies in the present.

The ongoing ethics struggle of banks

Edward Hadas
Mar 5, 2014 15:58 UTC

The Swiss Bank Employees Association has told an uncomfortable truth: it was “generally known” that for many years some of their employers profited from customers’ “tax evasion.” That is incontestable, as many of the banks’ managers concede. But the practice, supposedly now ended, raises an important question about ethics and business. Why were neither the managers of the Swiss banks nor their employees worried by this business model?

The hardly hidden truth was included in an Association press release which called on Brady Dougan, the chief executive of Credit Suisse, to apologize for insulting the Swiss bank’s employees.

Dougan, who was trying to explain to U.S. legislators how Credit Suisse had stopped helping Americans escape taxes, said that “some Swiss-based private bankers went to great lengths to disguise their bad conduct from Credit Suisse executive management.” The claim, said the employees’ group, slighted the professionalism of the workforce. Besides, it was “hardly credible.”

How hunger and obesity go together

Edward Hadas
Feb 26, 2014 15:32 UTC

Global hunger is shrinking. Yet each winter operators of food banks in rich countries like the United States and Britain speak movingly of the plight of those who must choose between heating and eating. The desperation seen by Feeding America and the British Trussell Trust is real enough, but this is not a massive economic failure. The weakness is predominantly social.

When people do not have enough to eat, there are three possible causes: an inadequate food production system, a bad political choice or poor personal arrangements. Through most of history, the first problem was the most important cause of hunger. However, as the economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, food shortages can no longer be acts of nature.

The reason for Sen’s judgment is that nature has been tamed. More than enough food is already produced globally to feed all the people, and the technology of food transport and storage is sufficiently advanced to get the food to those who need it most. When that does not happen, there must be a human problem. Within a country, a shortage of food comes down to a failure of government to serve the governed. Internationally, it is a failure of the strong countries to help the weak.

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