Change is the only constant
Economic theory: Malthus vs Schumpeter
Thomas Robert Malthus was an English scholar and economist born in 1766 and a little over 200 years ago he had his ‘eureka’ moment that would become his legacy. Malthus observed in An Essay on the Principle of Population that the resources required to sustain a civilization, primarily food, grew at an arithmetic rate. Population itself, however, was growing at a geometric rate. Hence at some point the ability for the Earth to provide resource would be outstripped by the demand placed upon it by the burgeoning population. This conclusion was arrived at without even using the “fill-right” function in Excel!
Even at the time, his proclamation of a future of scarcity did not go unchallenged, indeed Malthus was deeply unpopular with his contemporaries for his views, and rightly so. When a proposed solution to any problem includes celibacy you can pretty much guarantee ostracism.
Contrast Malthus with Joseph Schumpeter. Born in 1883, in what is now the Czech Republic, Schumpeter was an economist at the University of Austria and later moved to Harvard in the U.S just prior to World War II. Schumpeter is the perfect foil to Malthus, as his defining observation of humanity and economics was that capitalism can only be understood as an evolutionary process of continuous innovation and ‘creative destruction’. Old ways of doing things are endogenously destroyed and replaced by new ways as a crucial driver of economic progress that harnesses the entrepreneurial spirit, developments in technology and the expression of human creativity.
Regardless of whose theory sounded better, more elegant or more intellectually appealing, the passage of time has not been kind to Malthus and has proven Schumpeter’s ideas to be far more robust in the real world. We tend to side with Schumpeter for the next hundred years as well.
It is easy to look back at those quaint figures of history who fretted over such things as having enough to eat, when today the USA produces about 3,900 calories per person, or more than 70% more than the recommended per person daily calorie intake. However, there are modern Malthusian examples that we have all heard in recent years, and Schumpeterian solutions that have meant disaster has not come to pass. One could argue that if the Chinese and Indian populations wanted to replicate the standard of living in developed economies, the simple maths would show we do not have enough raw materials to satisfy their demand. Although who said their standard of living equalling ours would come about in the same way? To assume we would need all the output from all the current copper mines for 10 years in orders to build an equivalent copper telephone network spanning China and India is a very Malthusian way of approaching a problem. There is simply not enough resource to meet this demand, and the implications for the price of copper, wars over resource access etc, would be unthinkable. On the other hand, the Schumpeterian solution (which is currently playing out) is to realise that they do not need a copper network. The standard of living outcome can be achieved through the far less resource-intensive technology of mobile telephony. Problem solved, war averted. Famine, pestilence and the decline of civilization avoided once again. Schumpeterian thinking can be applied to many of these Malthusian thought experiments including oil, coal, drinking water, arable land to name but a few. Indeed history would tell us that in the long run, the Schumpeterian bet is the best bet to make.
Opportunities in science and technology
The purpose of this paper then is to look beyond some of the Malthusian constraints we face today and consider for a moment some of the Schumpeterian changes that are likely to emerge in the coming years. With all the reminders of the negatives we face in the global economy these days it is sometimes easy to forget that we live in an age of incredible opportunity where science, technology and human ingenuity can transform entire ways of life and along the way economies and companies.
Rather than simply stating change is certain, in this paper we will outline three significant areas of advancement in science and technology that are not simply stories for a Jetsons future but have been developed to the point where they are being rapidly commercialised and will be potential global game changers in the coming decade. They will of course bring about second and third order effects that none of us can predict sitting here today, but history tells us changes of this significance bring with them both enormous opportunities for investors, as well as disruptive risks. Perhaps they do not emerge as we have outlined here. Perhaps they are more or less important than we suppose. What we can however be relatively sure of is the future is likely to contain outcomes that none of us can be certain of today and even our strongest convictions may be challenged in the coming years.
The first transformational technology we explore is happening in the healthcare space. The total amount of economic output dedicated to healthcare can be quantified as a government outlay percentage of GDP. However, this probably understates the overall size of the problem, including the second order effects of lost productivity on economic output from ineffective care. Although medicine has improved greatly through time, particularly in the past 100 years, the next breakthrough is likely to make the current standard of medical care look like bloodletting does today. That breakthrough is low cost full genome sequencing. The mapping of the human genome is something we are all aware has happened and indeed it was a 13 year US$3.8bn project to map the first human genome, completed almost a decade ago in 2003. This of course didn’t mean a lot to the average person, as 13 years and US$3.8bn per person is hardly an economic proposition. However, like computing and the ability to get more output for less dollars over time, this was simply a starting point.
One of the most powerful trends in industrial productivity over the past 30 years has been Moore’s Law. First posited by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, who suggested that per dollar of cost computing power would double approximately every two years. Thanks to Warren Buffet we know the power of compounding in the long run, and at the rate Moore’s Law implies, the productivity implications have been globally transformational. Almost nothing in the industrial world has been untouched by this trend. So the task for genomics has been to reduce the time and cost for the full sequencing of each genome from the 2003 starting point to something that will bring genomics to the masses. This task is part chemistry and part informatics. Up until late 2007, the cost per genome followed a similar path to that predicted by Moore’s Law, at which point the cost per genome had reduced to around US$10m. Since that time the rate of change has increased significantly, such that by late 2011 the cost per genome had dropped to under US$10,000 (Moore’s Law would still have had the cost around US$4m). We are now looking at commercially available tests in the second half of 2012 at around US$1,000 and the price will be in the low hundreds of dollars in the next couple of years.
Did someone say ‘so what’? Why does cheap genomics change anything? Well here are a few examples:
- Medical advancement to date has revolved around the understanding of the human body ‘in general’. Genomics will move the level of understanding to the individual human body ‘in particular’. This opens up an entire new field of medical research.
- Today the standard of care in assessing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer is BRACAnalysis – which looks for the mutation of 2 specific genes. Detection of this mutation correlates with an increased probability of developing these cancers and allows for early intervention and treatment – improving the outcome for women susceptible to this disease. Today this procedure costs $3,100 with results in 4-6 weeks. A full genome sequence will take less than two hours and will provide a billion times more genetic information (including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes) for less than one third of the cost.
- Personalised medicine: Big pharma has known for years that small molecule pharmaceuticals have different affects on different patients – either related to effectiveness or side effect tolerance. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of products that failed to make it to market because clinical trials could not accurately identify the genetic marker which produced the difference in result. Even if they could they could not release it on the market suitable only for a subset of patients if there was no way for the patient population knowing their personal genetic map. As a result, the state of the art medicine we all marvel at for producing greater health than any previous generation has known is actually just the lowest common denominator of molecules that work well enough on all of us, without causing too many problems to anyone. The ‘efficient frontier’ of pharmaceutical effectiveness and the age of personalised medicine opens up when genomics is a few hundred dollars per person.
- Future medical risk: Research into the three billion chemical base pairs that make-up human DNA will over time uncover the links between genetic markers and risks of specific conditions (such as BRCA1 / BRCA2 and breast cancer),including the big areas of medical research such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. A growing networked database of patients with these conditions will allow us to find the common markers and assist with treatment research and highlight the individual patients that are potentially at risk.
- Discrimination (insurance, workplace and family): Many insurance companies already request disclosure of results from specific genetic tests (the current standard is that you can have a test for a particular genetic marker while a full genome map is orders of magnitude greater). What happens to insurance when the entire population has available a genetic map that contains all of their potential future genetic risk factors? What if there is a genetic marker that influences spatial skills? Auto insurance companies would be very interested. The workplace and other implications explored in the 1999 science fiction movie Gattaca could become reality and the privacy implications are significant.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg of how low cost, widely available full genome sequencing will start to change healthcare and potentially social norms….and you thought that Facebook stalking was invasive. Economically this could result in an economic ‘DNA Dividend’ that rivals the ‘Peace Dividend’ of the early 1990’s when resources and technologies were reallocated away from the cold war and towards the industrial economy. More effective, lower cost medicine is something that will benefit everyone, and with 10-20% of GDP in developed countries being (mis)spent on healthcare the prize is worth pursuing.
The rise of the machine
The second transformational technology relates to the rise of the machines, as Moore’s Law effectively takes the productivity of compounding computing economics out of the information world and into the physical world. We are likely to be entering a robotic age, where many of the things we can currently not do without human intervention, such as drive a car, will be replaced by computers. This change is the one most likely to be met with most resistance, if for no other reason as it is likely to be very disruptive to the labour market… and the labour market votes for politicians who enact laws.
So what exactly are we talking about and what is the path towards commercialisation of these robotic technologies? The challenge has largely been the ability for machines to make sense of our world. If conditions are controlled, such as they are on an automobile manufacturing line, robots can easily replace people, and have been doing so for years. However the big prize will be to enable understanding and navigation of our world as it is, rather than modification to make it machine friendly. The Google Driverless Car is a perfect example of what is required. It involves a huge array of sensors (global positioning satellites, laser based radar, microwave radar, video cameras, microphones etc) that feed information about the physical world into increasingly powerful computers that can interpret in real time, as fast or faster than the human brain. The Google Driverless Car is a huge advancement on the state of the art in autonomous automobile technology from only five years ago. Despite not being market ready today, the rate of change in improvement, in the sensory input, the processing power and the degree and accuracy of mechanical control certainly puts it within our decade timeframe of being a mainstream technology. Automotive companies are already selling “assistant” technology in their cars, where a computer will control physical functions of the car in certain circumstances (Volvo Collision Avoidance with Auto Brake, Audi Active Lane Assist, Mercedes Benz Distronic Plus Active Cruise Control) and government regulation may speed things along, with the European Union requiring mandatory fitting of advanced emergency braking systems on all new commercial vehicles from November 2013 and all new vehicles from November 2015.
This is more than just a 21st century equivalent of cruise control. In the automotive field alone, true driverless cars have the potential to change the global parking lot more than almost any other automotive invention since the Ford Model T. Improved utilisation of the automotive fleet and road infrastructure, greater fuel efficiency, fewer fatalities and lower insurance costs (even for drivers genetically predisposed with poor spatial skills!) should all follow in time. When robotics expands into other fields, and over time there is no reason to believe otherwise. Physical productivity across the economy should increase dramatically because compared to humans, machines and computers are infinitely scalable.
Again, this may seem like science fiction, and the current state of the art may seem little more than lab experiments and curiosities, but that is how all creative destruction begins. Compounding the performance per dollar of cost will improve the effectiveness and increase the affordability such that in 10-15 years time the impact is more likely to be profound than inconsequential.
The last transformational thematic for this article is energy technology. Bound for so many years by the limits of physics and chemistry it has been harder to observe Moore’s Law progress in this sector than in full genome sequencing or robotics. However, this is arguably the biggest prize in the world today. A significant breakthrough in energy technology has the potential to change global geopolitics as well as economics which is nice in theory but a bit less obvious where it will come from. We could perhaps put this one at the outside of our 10–15 year time horizon for meaningful impact, but again glimpses of what may be coming give some insight into the possibilities.
In January 2012, IBM announced that work undertaken by their BlueGene supercomputer into designing a Lithium-Air battery had resulted in a design that theoretically has 1,000 times the capacity of the current state of the art lithium-ion battery. This is incredible, but also unlikely to materialise in the real world. Even for a first product commercialised in the 2020 timeframe with ten times greater capacity than currently exists, with headroom to go to 100 times (10% of theoretical) over the subsequent ten years to 2030 would be a game changer. At ten times, you could have an electric car with a range of 1,500 miles (2,400 kms) between charges. At 100 times, you could shrink the battery from 300kg to 30kg and still get a 1,500 mile range (in fact probably a bit more as all things being equal you would be moving a smaller mass due to the smaller battery). By 2020 and beyond other technologies such as the efficiency of electric motors will likely compound these improvements. Indeed there are already high cost technologies that improve electric motor efficiency 15-20% from current levels that will become economic with scale. Order of magnitude improvements in battery technology improve not just automotive applications, but enable grid storage of household electricity which can improve the efficiency of power generation. A lack of efficient storage today means that power generation needs to be designed to peak load, which means average loads are often sub 40% of plant capacity.
Power generation, transmission, storage and efficient usage are all likely to improve individually and as part of the whole system in the next 10–15 years.
How do these ideas influence how we invest?
Getting a big idea right can be a powerful portfolio driver. “Exhibit A” for this in the past decade has been the nexus between the rise of emerging markets and the boom in industrial commodity prices, the ultimate Malthusian trade but it worked. Although there is obvious risk with these changes materialising at all, let alone for the benefit of a specific group of company shareholders it remains more likely that small companies will be the best placed to take advantage of these changes. Many of these companies probably don’t even exist today. Some examples of small companies who are already seeing tail winds or opportunities for growth from structural changes in the Australian market include:
- Next DC – building out the data centre infrastructure required for the move to cloud computing
- Reckon Ltd – looking to move to a leadership position in the provision of accounting software in the ‘Cloud’
- Freightways Ltd – NZ parcel courier well placed to deliver the wave of online purchases in that country
- iiNet – looking to the NBN as a way of levelling the playing field with Telstra
- Domino’s Pizza – taking advantage of the way consumers interact with businesses through the Internet
- Drill Search – Acreage within the Cooper Basin that could be very valuable using shale gas technology
- Hastings Diversified – infrastructure from the Cooper Basin that would be critical to shale gas commercialisation
- Carsales.com.au – online automotive retailing still in the very early stages, with new car sales now moving online.
Of course we couldn’t have creative destruction without the destruction part. As conservative investors we often find ourselves attracted to the prospects of change, but unable to invest due to the risk associated with either the valuation of the company exposed to the growth, or the uncertainty that the broad opportunity will translate into free cash flow for the shareholders of one specific company. The other way of using our insights into how change will impact the economy is to look for those businesses most at risk and ensure that our portfolio exposure to these companies is minimised.
Destruction is such a strong word, particularly when whole industries rarely disappear overnight. Indeed the argument most often used by those defending industries under threat is to suggest the (correctly) absurd position that their product will not exist in five or ten years time is unrealistic. That is, it would be absurd to suggest that in five years time no one will read a newspaper, read a book, buy a CD, watch pay TV, buy a windows PC, shop at an electronics retail store etc. The problem however is that even if an industry goes “gently into that good night”, and the decline is not sudden, destruction of shareholders wealth is pretty much assured.
There are a few reasons for this, and an example is probably the best way to illustrate. Consider Fairfax Media Limited (FXJ), Australia’s leading newspaper publisher. Firstly, declines tend to be gradual. Newspaper circulation in Australia has declined from 155 newspaper sales per thousand people in 2001 to around 105 per thousand in 2010 or 3.8% per annum. So there would appear logic in the view that this is no great cause for panic.
However, the second point is that like sharks, who need to keep moving in order to move oxygenated water over their gills, companies need growth in order to leverage their fixed assets, offset underlying cost inflation in their business (wages, rents etc) and retain focus and motivation in their employees. This means that when growth in a company goes into reverse, strange things start to happen which are commonly observed yet often underestimated by the market. It is not enough to simply put a minus sign in front of numbers when growth declines rather than advances in a company. Time and again as free cash flow, previously available to shareholders in the form of dividends, gets diverted into low return activities we see the patterns outlined next. As the business tries to adjust to a different reality companies start to incur restructuring costs such as employee redundancies and plant shut down costs. Management looks to reinvest into new, often high risk, growth projects in order to grow or in some cases buy their way into the disruptive technology through M&A. Banks respond to the deterioration in operating financial performance and asset impairments and look to recover their debts more quickly than they otherwise might. Finally, every year the financial resources available to meet all these demands continues to shrink. This is often compounded by a talent drain as attracting and retaining key employees in the face of declining economic prospects becomes harder and an increasing management task results in further risk of strategic and financial disappointment. So despite the appearance of a gentle decline in the industry, the financial performance of the company can be sudden and dramatic.
The final point is that the discounting of future earnings available to shareholders, which is ultimately those cash flows available as dividends, is dramatically impacted by the change in assumptions the market makes for a company with declining cash flows against one that is growing. This means that in the same way the structure of the company compounds the negative impact of the decline in industry growth, so to does the discounting mechanism of the market compound the negative impact of the company cash flows on the current share price. In the case of FXJ, at the end of these three factors, (industry decline, company cash flow decline and stock price decline) what started as a 3.8% per annum decline in newspaper circulation growth resulted in a 14.5% per annum decline in shareholder wealth, with an investment in 2011 worth less than 20% of its starting value in 2001. In shareholder wealth terms destruction pretty well sums it up.
Small companies are often far less well capitalised or diversified to be able to survive as long as large companies and as such their share prices can be far more sensitive to the prospect of creative destruction. Industries and their associated Australian small companies that we believe are at risk today include:
- The paper information economy. Basically anyone who is involved in the “paper as an information good” business across the supply chain including Gunns, Paperlinx, K&S Transport, APN News & Media, SevenWest Media, PMP Ltd and Salmat.
- The 20th century information economy. Businesses that distribute third party content either physically or electronically using their own network, including Consolidated Media Holdings (Foxtel), Austar, Southern Cross Media Group, Village Roadshow, Amalgamated Holdings, Ten Network, SevenWest Media.
- Store based retailers. Premier Investments, Kathmandu, Specialty Fashion, JB Hifi, Harvey Norman, RCG Corporation, Super Retail Group and second tier shopping centres.
- Companies disrupted from a new business model – Seek (LinkedIn), Cabcharge (various new models of payment and dispatch), Data#3 (Cloud)
The world of investment opportunity is not all about new industries and creative destruction. Most of the time, most industries continue serving the needs of their customers and changes in the world around them provide opportunities or threats at the margin, impacting more how they are managed and how their products and services are delivered than their entire reason for being. These are often the “dull and boring” businesses that through sustainable competitive advantage in an industry that is growing and relatively predictable can deliver sound returns to shareholders over the medium to long term. Companies in this group in our portfolio include: Dulux Group, Blackmores Ltd, Retail Food Group, Patties Foods, Fletcher Building, GrainCorp and Tox Free Solutions.
At Schroders we often write about the challenges facing investors in the current economic and political climate and are rarely accused of being too optimistic about prospective returns. We are however investors in the equity of listed companies because we believe in the long term wealth creation possible from compounding returns at the rates high quality companies can deliver. In a world where a 5% pre-tax return from a term deposit is the most popular investing decision for Australians, and with yields available from many asset classes at generational lows, we believe that there is significant appeal in a diversified portfolio of high quality small company equities that diligent research can uncover. Change will remain a constant in the world and we aim to do three things with our portfolio:
- Invest in companies participating in the opportunity change brings
- Avoid companies who are being disrupted by change
- Protect capital in high quality businesses that are resistant to change
By following this approach our real long term returns should be significantly greater than those achieved in a term deposit.
Opinions, estimates and projections in this article constitute the current judgement of the author as of the date of this article. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Schroder Investment Management Australia Limited, ABN 22 000 443 274, AFS Licence 226473 ("Schroders") or any member of the Schroders Group and are subject to change without notice. In preparing this document, we have relied upon and assumed, without independent verification, the accuracy and completeness of all information available from public sources or which was otherwise reviewed by us. Schroders does not give any warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of information which is contained in this article. Except insofar as liability under any statute cannot be excluded, Schroders and its directors, employees, consultants or any company in the Schroders Group do not accept any liability (whether arising in contract, in tort or negligence or otherwise) for any error or omission in this article or for any resulting loss or damage (whether direct, indirect, consequential or otherwise) suffered by the recipient of this article or any other person. This document does not contain, and should not be relied on as containing any investment, accounting, legal or tax advice. Schroders may record and monitor telephone calls for security, training and compliance purposes.