Posts tagged ‘productivity’

The Fallacy Behind Populism and Automation Fears

The rise of global populism and anti-immigration sentiments, coupled with the perpetual rising trend of automation and robotics has stoked the fear fires of job security. Many stories perpetuate erroneous stereotypes and falsehoods. The news reports and blog articles come in various flavors, but in a nutshell the stories state the U.S. is hemorrhaging jobs due to the thieves of illegal immigration and heartless robotics. The job displacement theory is built upon the idea that these two sources of labor (immigrants & robots) are cheaper and more productive than traditional blue collar and white collar American workers.

Although these logical beliefs make for great soundbites, and may sell subscriptions and advertising, unfortunately the substance behind the assertions holds little water. Let’s take a look at the facts. In the most recent April jobs report, nonfarm payrolls employment increased by 211,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since early 2009 the unemployment rate has plummeted from 10.0% down to a historically low level of 4.4%. Over the similar timeframe, the economy has added over 15,000,000 new jobs. Does this sound like an environment in which immigrants and robots are killing all American jobs?

Sounds like a bunch of phoney-baloney, if you ask me. Just look at the employed person chart below, which shows a rising employment trend over the last seven decades, with the exception of some brief recessionary periods.

As I point out in a previous article (see Rise of the Robots), from the beginning of the United States, the share of the largest segment of the economy (agriculture) dropped by more than 98%, yet the standard of living and output in the agriculture sector have still exploded. There may not have been robots two and a half centuries ago, but technology and automation were alive and well, just as they are today. Although there were no self-driving cars, no internet, no biotech drugs, and no mobile phones, there were technological advances like the cotton gin, plow, scythe, chemical fertilizers, tractors, combine harvesters, and genetically engineered seeds over time.

Source: Carpe Diem

And while there most certainly were farmers who regrettably were displaced by these technologies, there were massive new industries fostered by the industrial revolution, which redeployed labor to new burgeoning industries like manufacturing, aerospace, transportation, semiconductors, medicine, and many more.

While it may be difficult to fathom what industries will replace the workers displaced by self-service kiosks at restaurants, airports, and retail stores, famed economist Milton Friedman summed it up best when he stated:

“Human wants & needs are infinite, and so there will always be new industries, there will always be new professions.”

As globalization and technology continue permeating through society, it is true, the importance of education becomes more critical. Billions of people around the globe in developing markets, along with automation technology, will be stealing lower-paying American jobs that require repetitive processes. Educating our workforce up the value-add food chain is imperative.

The bottom-line is that integration of technology and automation will improve the standard of living for the masses. Sure, immigration will displace some workers, but if legislative policy can be designed to cherry-pick (attract) the cream of the skilled foreign crop (and retrain displaced workers), skilled immigrants will keep on innovating and creating higher valued jobs. Just consider a recent study that shows 51% of U.S. billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants.

The populist drum may continue to pound against immigration, and horror stories of job-stealing robots may abound, however the truth cannot be erased. Over the long-run, the fallacies behind populism and automation will be uncovered. The benefits and truths surrounding highly skilled immigrants and robots will be realized, as these dynamics dramatically improve the standard of living and productivity of our great economy.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 6, 2017 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

Coast is Clear Until 2019

Business Foresight

The economic recovery since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-09 has been widely interpreted as the slowest recovery since World War II. Bill McBride of Calculated Risk captures this phenomenon incredibly well in his historical job loss chart (see red line in chart below):

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

History tells us that the economy traditionally suffers from an economic recession twice per decade, but we are closing in on seven years since the last recession with little evidence of impending economic doom.

So, are we due for another recession? Logic would dictate that since this recovery has been the slowest in a generation, the duration of this recovery should also be the longest. Strategist Ed Yardeni of Dr. Ed’s Blog uses data from historical economic cycles and CEI statistics (Coincident Economic Indicators) to make the same case. Based on his analysis, Yardeni does not see the next recession arriving until March 2019 (see chart below). If you take a look at the last five previous cycle peaks, recoveries generally last for an additional five and a half years (roughly 65 months). Since the last rebound to a cyclical peak occurred in October 2013, 65 months from then would imply the next downturn would begin in March 2019.

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Typically, an economy loses steam and enters a recession after a phase of over-investment, tight labor conditions, and an extended period of tight central bank monetary policies. Over the last seven years, we have experienced quite the opposite. Corporations have been very slow to invest or hire new employees. For those employees hired, many of them are “under-employed” (i.e., working part-time), or in other words, these workers want more work hours. Our country’s slower-than-expected growth has created an output gap. Scott Grannis at Calafia Beach Pundit estimates this gap to approximate $2.8 trillion (see chart below). The CBO expects a smaller gap estimate of about $580 billion to narrow over the next few years. By Grannis’s calculations, there is a reservoir of 5 – 10 million jobs that could be tapped if the economy was operating more efficiently.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Bolstering his argument, Grannis points out that the risk of a recession rises when there are significant capacity constraints and tight money. He sees the opposite happening – an enormous supply of unused capacity remains underutilized as he describes here:

“Today, money is abundant and resources are abundant. Even energy is abundant, because its price has fallen by over 50% in the past year or so. Corporate profits are near record highs, the supply of labor is virtually unconstrained, energy is suddenly cheap, and productive capacity is relatively abundant.”

While new uncertainties have been introduced (e.g., slowing China, potential government shutdown/sequestration, emerging market weakness), the reality remains there is always uncertainty. Even if you truly believe there is more uncertainty today relative to yesterday, the economy has some relatively strong shock absorbers to ride out the volatility.

There are plenty of potentially bad things to worry about, but if it’s a cyclical recession that you are worried about, then why don’t you grab a seat, order a coconut drink with an umbrella, and wait another  three and a half years until you reach the circled date of March 2019 on your calendar.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) , but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

September 26, 2015 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

March Madness Brings Productivity Sadness

Fans in Stadium Celebrating

You feel that scratchy throat coming on? Taking a long lunch to discuss business? Has there been a death in the family? Don’t feel bad about calling in sick or being unproductive during March Madness, the multi-week annual NCAA college basketball tournament, because you are not alone. According to Challenger, Gray and Christmas, 3.0 million people plan to watch up to three hours of basketball games during work hours, costing companies and the economy at least $134 million in lost wages during the first two days of the tournament. What’s more, March Madness tends to attract other unproductive habits in the form of illegal gambling to the tune of $2.5 billion each year (source: FBI).

While I don’t have the time to spend hours filling out a 64-team bracket, I can’t do all the finger-pointing – I too participate in my fair share of unproductive lollygagging. I’ve been known to throw away hours of my time scrolling through my Twitter news feed (twitter.com/WadeSlome) or paging through my Flipboard timelines. Heck, if you really want to talk about unproductive, the President of the United States even filled out a bracket (click here) – so far, so good, but his Wisconsin pick didn’t help his cause.

If you need more proof of our country’s collective lack of productivity, then consider the following:

  • Fantasy Fun: In 2008, there were 35 million people (mostly men) participating in fantasy football at a cost of $6.5 billion over a 17-week NFL season (source: Challenger, Gray and Christmas).
  • The Juice: The 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict cost the country $480 million in lost output and the New York Stock Exchange trading volume plummeted by 41% during the half hour surrounding the reading of the verdict (source: Alan Dershowitz’s America on Trial).
  • Shop until You Drop: “Cyber Monday” is one of the largest online shopping days of the year, which occurs shortly after Thanksgiving’s “Black Friday”. Workers wasted $488 million of their time in 2007, and that number has undoubtedly increased significantly since then (source: Challenger, Gray and Christmas).
  • Summer Sport: In 2012, Captivate Network found out that workers watching the Summer Olympics at the office resulted in a productivity loss of $650 million.
  • Hangover Hammer: Super Bowl Sunday is one of the largest alcohol consumption evenings of the year. The U.S. Center for Disease Control estimates that hangovers cost our nation about $160.5 billion annually.
  • Social Media Profit Black Hole: Are you addicted to Facebook (FB), Twitter, LinkedIn (LNKD) or other social media network of choice? A report by LearnStuff shows that Americans spend as much time collectively on social media in one day as they do watching online movies in a year. The cost? A whopping 4.4% of GDP or $650 billion.

Investor Madness

One of the biggest black hole productivity drains for investors is the endless deluge of foreboding news items – each story potentially becoming the next domino to collapse the global economy. The most productive use of time is an offensive strategy focused on identifying the best investment opportunities that meet lasting financial objectives. Reading prospectuses, annual reports, and quarterly financial results may not be as sexy as scanning the latest Twitter-worthy headline, but detailed research and questioning goes a long way towards producing superior long-term returns.

On the other hand, news-driven fears that cause investment paralysis can cause irreparable damage. A counter greed-driven performance chasing strategy will lead to tears as well. It’s OK to read the newspaper in order to be informed about long term trends and economic shifts, but as Mark Twain says, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed.  If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

While March Madness may not be the most productive time of the year, when your sore throat clears or you get back from that late lunch, it behooves you to become more productive with your investment strategies. Picking the wrong investment players on your portfolio team may turn March Madness into investor sadness.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in FB, LNKD, Twitter, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

March 24, 2013 at 10:39 pm Leave a comment

Robotic Chain Saw Replaces Paul Bunyan

The world is rapidly changing and so is the profile of jobs. Technology is advancing at an accelerating pace, and this is having enormous impacts on the look, feel, and shape of global workforce dynamics. If lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe were alive today, the giant would not be chopping down trees with a plain old steel axe, but more likely Mr. Bunyan would be using a 20 inch, 8 horse-power chain saw with side-mounted tensioner purchased from ChainSawsDirect.com.

But productivity in logging is not the only industry in which output has dramatically increased over the last generation. A recent New York Times article published by John Markoff explores how robots and automation are displacing humans across many different companies and industries around the world.

In China, manufacturers have exploited the value of cheap labor in the name of low-priced exports, but with millions of workers now moving to job-filled cities, workers are now demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Besides rising wages, higher transportation costs have eaten away labor expense advantages too. One way of getting around the issues of labor costs, labor relations, and transportations costs is to integrate robots into your workplace. A robot won’t ask for a raise; it always shows up on time; you don’t have to pay for its healthcare; it can work 24/7/365 days per year; it doesn’t belong to a union; dependable quality consistency is a given; it produces products near your customers; and it won’t sue you for discrimination or sexual harassment. The initial costs of a robot may be costlier than hiring a human being by a factor of five times an annual salary, but that hasn’t stopped companies everywhere from integrating robots into their operations.

The Orange Box on Wheels

One incredible example of robot usage (not covered by Markoff) is epitomized through Amazon.com Inc.’s (AMZN) $750 million acquisition of Kiva Systems Inc. last year. In some cases, Kiva uses hundreds of autonomous mobile robots in a warehouse to create a freeway-like effect of ecommerce fulfillment that can increase worker productivity four-fold. Amazon is a true believer of the technology as evidenced by the use of Kiva robots in two of its major websites, shoe-retailer Zappos.com and baby-products site Diapers.com, but Kiva’s robots have also been used by other major retailers including Crate & Barrel, Staples Inc (SPLS), and Gap Inc (GPS). The orange square robots on wheels, which can cost in the range of $2 – $20 million per system, travel around a warehouse tracking the desired items and bring them back to a warehouse worker, ready to then be packed and shipped to a customer. Larger warehouses can use up to 1,000 of the Kiva robots. To see how this organized chaos works, check out the video below to see the swarm of orange machines dancing around the warehouse floor.

 

The Next Chapter

The auto and electronics industry have historically been the heaviest users of robots and automation, but those dynamics are changing. Healthcare, food, aviation, and other general industries are jumping on the bandwagon. And these trends are not just happening in developed markets, but rather emerging markets are leading the charge – even if penetration rates are lower there than in the richer countries. The robotic usage growth is rapid in emerging markets, but the penetration of robotic density per 10,000 workers in China, Brazil and India is less than 10% of that in Japan and Germany (< 20% penetration of the U.S.), according to IFR World Robotics. As a matter of fact, IFR is forecasting that China will be the top robot market by 2014.

What does this mean for jobs? Not great news if you are a low-skilled worker. Take Foxconn, the company that manufactures and assembles those nifty Apple iPhones  (AAPL) that are selling by the millions and generating billions in profits. The harsh working conditions in these so-called massive sweatshops have resulted in suicides and high profile worker backlashes. Related to these issues, Foxconn dealt with at least 17 suicides over a five year period. What is Foxconn’s response? Well, besides attempting to respond to worker grievances, Foxconn chairman Terry Gou announced plans to produce 1 million robots in three years , which will replace about 500,000 jobs….ouch!

As the New York Times points out, the “Rise of Machines” is not about to result in Terminator-like robots taking over the world anytime soon:

“Even though blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines, as well as significant numbers of other kinds of jobs in the communities where factories are.”

 

Many companies see this trend accelerating and are investing aggressively to profit from the robotic automation and productivity benefits.  In today’s day and age, Paul Bunyan would have surely taken advantage of these trends, just as I plan to through Sidoxia Capital Management’s opportunistic investments in the robotic sector.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), AMZN, and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in  Foxconn/Hon Hai, Crate & Barrel, SPLS, GPS, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

October 8, 2012 at 4:30 am Leave a comment

Economic Tug-of-War as Recovery Matures

Excerpt from No-Cost June 2011 Sidoxia Monthly Newsletter (Subscribe on right-side of page)

With the Rapture behind us, we can now focus less on the end of the world and more on the economic tug of war. As we approach the midpoint of 2011, equity markets were down -1.4% last month (S&P 500 index) and are virtually flat since February – trading within a narrow band of approximately +/- 5% over that period. Investors are filtering through data as we speak, reconciling record corporate profits and margins with decelerating economic and employment trends.

Here are some of the issues investors are digesting:

Profits Continue Chugging Along: There are many crosscurrents swirling around the economy, but corporations are sitting on fat profits and growing cash piles owing success to several factors:

  • International Expansion: A weaker dollar has made domestic goods and services more affordable to foreigners, resulting in stronger sales abroad. The expansion of middle classes in developing countries is leading to the broader purchasing power necessary to drive increasing American exports.
  • Rising Productivity: Cheap labor, new equipment, and expanded technology adoption have resulted in annualized productivity increases of +2.9% and +1.6% in the 4th quarter and 1st quarter, respectively. Eventually, corporations will be forced to hire full-time employees in bulk, as bursting temporary worker staffs and stretched employee bases will hit output limitations.
  • Deleveraging Helps Spending:  As we enter the third year of the economic recovery, consumers, corporations, and financial institutions have become more responsible in curtailing their debt loads, which has led to more sustainable, albeit more moderate, spending levels. For instance, ever since mid-2008, when recessionary fundamentals worsened, consumer debt in the U.S. has fallen by more than $1 trillion.

Fed Running on Empty: The QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II) government security purchase program, designed to stimulate the economy by driving interest rates lower, is concluding at the end of this month. If the economy continues to stagnate, there’s a possibility that the tank may need to be re-filled with some QE3? Maintaining the 30-year fixed rate mortgage currently around 4.25%, and the 10-year Treasury note yielding around 3.05% will be a challenge after the program expires. Time will tell…

Slogging Through Mud: Although corporate profits are expanding smartly, economic momentum, as measured by real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, is struggling like a vehicle spinning its wheels in mud. Annualized first quarter GDP growth registered in at a meager +1.8% as the economy weans itself off of fiscal stimulus and adjusts to more normalized spending levels. An elevated 9% unemployment rate and continued weak housing market is also putting a lid on consumer spending. Offsetting the negative impacts of the stimulative spending declines have been the increasing tax receipts achieved as a consequence of seven consecutive quarters of GDP growth.

Mixed Bag – Euro Confusion: Germany reported eye-popping first quarter GDP growth of +5.2%, the steepest year-over-year rise since reunification in 1990, yet lingering fiscal concerns surrounding the likes of  Greece, Portugal, and Italy have intensified. Fitch, for example, recently cut its rating on Greece’s long-term sovereign debt three notches, from BB+ to B+ plus, and placed the country on “rating watch negative” status. These fears have pushed up two-year Greek bond yields to over 26%. Regarding the other countries mentioned, Standard & Poor’s, another credit rating agency, cut Italy’s A+ rating, while the European Union and International Monetary Fund agreed on a $116 billion bailout program for Portugal.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 1, 2011 at 9:38 am Leave a comment

Tortuous Path to Productivity

Medieval public beheading

There is a silver lining to the deep, tortuous job cuts in this severe recession and it is called “productivity.” Those fortunate enough to retain their jobs are forced to become more productive. In layman’s terms, productivity simply is output divided by hours worked.

Unemployment dropped to 9.4% in July, thanks in part to a decline in the job losses to -247,000 from a peak in January of -741,000 job losses. During this period of job-loss cratering, we managed to sustain a decline of a mere -1% in Q2 Gross Domestic Product (GDP). How could we lose more than 6 million jobs since the beginning of 2008 and still be on a path to recovery? A large contributor is our friend, productivity, which came in at a whopping +6.4% in Q2 – the highest in six years.

Productivity increased in part because of a slashing of work-hours by employers. Employees that have maintained employment are therefore forced to produce more output (goods and services) per unit hour of employment. In this severe recession that we are pulling out of, the American worker is being stretched like a rubber band. At some point, the “Law of Diminishing Returns” kicks in and employers are forced to hire new employees to meet demand levels, or the rubber band will snap.

The prime ways of increasing productivity are raising the amount of capital per worker (capital intensity) and also elevating the workers’ average level of skill, education, and training (labor quality).

Not only are the surviving U.S. workers toiling harder, they are not getting pay increases large enough to offset inflation. For example, Q2 hourly compensation increased +0.2%, but after accounting for inflation, real hourly compensation was actually down -1.1%.

As the MarketWatch article points out:

The early stages of recovery are typically the best for productivity: Output is rising, but cost-cutting plans are still being implemented… Productivity gains are the key to higher living standards, higher wages, increased profits and low inflation… Productivity averaged about 2.7% annually from 1948 to 1970, then slowed to 1.6% from 1971 to 1995. Since then, productivity has grown about 2.5% annually. In 2008, productivity increased 1.8%.

 

Productivity allows the U.S. to produce more goods and services with fewer workers. For instance, the MarketWatch article also highlights the U.S. is producing 20% more output relative to a decade ago, yet employment has not changed at all over that time period.

We are certainly not out of the woods when it comes to the recession, and for those lucky enough to maintain employment, they are being asked (forced) to work more for less pay. These productivity improvements feel like torture to the survivors, however this pain will eventually lead to economic gain.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 20, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment


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