I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The New New New Normal

My blogs in recent months have focused on macroeconomic factors affecting tech, primarily inflation and interest rates and the things driving them: increased labor power, supply shortages, expansion of M2, and unabated demand. The gist of my arguments has been that although the long-term trend still favors tech (tech can reduce energy intensity as a hedge against energy inflation, and reduce labor intensity as a hedge against labor inflation, and so forth), there is no compelling investment thesis at this time, because we’re in a state of both global and local socio-economic transition and there is simply too much uncertainty. Five year return horizons are academic exercises in wishful thinking. Do you know any business leader who, five years ago, predicted with any degree of accuracy the economic conditions we face today and the conditions we experienced on the way to where we are today?

It is interesting how the nature of expected lasting economic change has itself changed in the last 2+ years.

A little over two years ago, there was the initial COVID-induced shock: what does a global pandemic mean to market economies? That was answered quickly, as the wild frenzy of adaptation made clear that supply in most parts of the economy would find a way to adapt, and demand wasn’t abating. Tech especially benefited as it was the enabler of this adaptation. Valuations ran wild as demand and supply quickly recovered from their initial seizures. Tech investments quickly became clear-cut winners.

As events of the pandemic unfolded, the question then became, "how will economies be permanently changed as a result of changes in business, consumer, labor, capital and government behavior?" The longer COVID policies remained in place, the more permanent the adaptations in response to them would become. For example, why live in geographic proximity to a career when one can pursue a career while living in geographic proximity to higher quality of life? Many asked this and similar questions, but not all did; among those that did, not all answered in the same way. This created an inevitable friction in the workforce. Not a year into the pandemic and the battle lines over labor policies were already being drawn between those with an economic interest in the status quo ante calling for a return to office (e.g., large banks) and those looking to benefit from improved access to labor and lower cost base embracing a permanent state of location independence (e.g., AirBNB). Similar fault lines appeared in all sorts of economic activity: how people shop (brick-and-mortar versus online), how people consume first-run entertainment (theaters versus streaming), how people vacation, and on and on. Tech stood to benefit from both lasting pandemic-initiated change (as the enabler of the new) and the friction between the new and reversion to pre-pandemic norms (as the enabler of compromise - that is, hybrid - solutions). Tech investments again were winners, even if the landscape was a bit more polarized and muddled.

Just as the battles to define the soon-to-be-post-COVID normal were gearing up for consumers and businesses and investors, they were eclipsed by more significant changes that make economic calculus impossible.

First, inflation is running amok in the US for the first time in decades. While tame by historic US and global standards, voters in the US have become accustomed to low inflation. High inflation creates political impetus to respond. Policy responses to inflation have not historically been benign: by way of example, the US only brought runaway 1970s inflation (in fact, it was stagflation - high unemployment and high inflation) under control with a hard economic landing in the form of a series of recessions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the most recent interest rate hike, recession expectations have increased among economists and business leaders. Mild or severe is beside the point: twelve months ago, while much of the economy recovered and some sectors even prospered, recession was not seen as a near-term threat. It is now. Go-go tech companies have particularly felt the brunt of this, as their investor’s mantra has done an abrupt volte face from "grow" to "conserve cash". Tech went from unquestioned winner to loser just on the merits of policy responses to inflation alone.

Second, war is raging in Europe, and that war has global economic consequences. Both Ukraine and Russia are mass exporters of raw materials such as agricultural products and energy. A number of nations across the globe have prospered in no small part because of their ability to import cheap energy and cheap food, allowing them to concentrate on development of exporting industries of expensive engineering services and expensive manufactured products. Those nations have also had the luxury of time to chart a public policy course for evolving their economies toward things like renewable energy sources without disrupting major sectors of the population with things like unemployment, while domestic social policy has benefited from a "peace dividend" of needing to spend only minimally on defense. The prosperity of many of those countries is now under threat as war forces a re-sourcing of food and energy suppliers and threatens deprioritization of social policies. Worse still, input cost changes threaten the competitiveness of their industrial champions, particularly vis-a-vis companies in nations that can continue to do business with an aggressor state in Europe. The bottom line is, the economic parameters that we’ve taken for granted for decades can no longer factor into return-on-investment models. Tech as an optimizer and enabler of a better future is of secondary importance when countries are scrambling to figure out how to make sure there are abundant, cheap resources for people and production.

Tech went from darling to dreadful rather quickly.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these recent macro pressures could abate, quite suddenly. Recovery from a real economy recession tends to be far faster than recovery from a recession in the financial economy. Such a recovery - notwithstanding the possibility of secular stagnation - would bring the economic conversation back to growth in short order. Additionally, regardless the outcome, should the war in Europe end abruptly, realpolitik dictates a return to business-as-usual, which would mean a quick rehabilitation of Russia from pariah state to global citizen among Western nations. However, the longer these macro conditions last, the more they fog the investment horizon for any business.

Which brings us back to the investing challenge that we have today. In the current environment, an investment in tech is not a bet on how well it will perform under a relatively stable set of parameters such as pursuing stable growth or reducing costs relative to stable demand. A tech investment today is a bet on how well an investment’s means (the mechanisms of delivering that investment) and ends (the outcomes it will achieve) accurately anticipate the state of the world during its delivery and its operation. That’s not simple when so many things are in flux. We’re on our third “new normal” in two years. There is no reason to think a stable new normal is in the offing any time soon.