Economy/Reset

Capital Markets Distortions - Another Version of "The Roof is on Fire"

The economic and markets effects of the aftermath of “the great recession” has led to some asset price inflation and persistently low interest rates. The distortions in markets in early-stage private companies, real estate, leveraged loans and negative bond yields, has resulted in floods of capital, from non-traditional investment groups, seeking required investment return. A number of those investment assets have rolled over and are starting to reveal risks.

The Anxious American Life

Secular forces have helped create a New Economy in the United States - an economy with less job and income security and more wage and cost pressures than citizens had experienced in the past.  Meanwhile, the pervasiveness of digital technology and digital media have created additional sources of distraction and pressure.  These combined stressors have produced diffuse, long-term anxiety throughout American society.  This anxiety is driving some individuals to practice unhealthy and dangerous coping mechanisms; yet others have sought more healthy and sustainable ways to adjust their lives and soothe their anxiety.  Finally, some are going a step further, saying “enough is enough” and looking to change society in ways that would help reduce this pervasive anxiety.

(Update) The New Economy

The economy has many leaders, experts and economists confused, and it is confounding individuals and politicians as well. What most government and corporate leaders are missing is how to look at the economy. As we have written and discussed over the past two years, the American economy is heading toward a New Economy, and the many miscalculations and the extensive confusion are caused by the period of transition from the historical model to something new. Governments dedicated to lowering taxes are having to raise them; corporations focused on growth are having to dig deeper into efficiencies to realize profits; and individuals are turning to financial devices of their own to make ends meet. At present, the country’s models, processes and concepts are essentially out of line with the emerging set of conditions. 

Social and Consumer

Systemic Thinking

We have discussed ways in which digital systems have been training individuals in how to operate, think and behave, first as consumers and how to engage effectively in a systematized marketplace and then how to interact effectively with their systematized workplace. That training and the users’ new skills are starting to move individuals to a higher level of thinking, teaching users to think about the whole system, rather than just how they, as individuals, engage and interact with those systems. Systemic Thinking is holistic, in that it focuses on how constituent parts interrelate, how those parts work together and interact over time and how the system they comprise connects and relates to larger systems that incorporate them. Learning to think systematically starts when individuals see connections between parts of a system, and then they see patterns in those connections and finally they think about ways those patterns comprise and create as well as affect the whole. Digital technology’s training of users has slowly progressed until today, individuals are starting to think at a systems level, often talking about social media and the Internet, or about democracy, socialism, elections, markets, the environment and capitalism. Such discussions at a systems level eventually lead to assessments about how well or how poorly those systems are performing and what is causing such performance. This manner of thinking is just starting, but the implications of Systemic Thinking spreading across more of society could be significant for elections, markets, education and leadership.

Work and Happiness

Attitudes about work and how to relate to it are shifting, and they are shifting rather rapidly. Just a few short years ago, for the wider society, work was seen as rewarding and meaningful; today, work is increasingly seen as boring, time-consuming and disruptive to more meaningful activities. The causes of such a wide-ranging change in perspectives are many, but they include automation, what we have called the New Economy and Rampaging Efficiencies as well as other factors, such as cultural changes in where value is placed. Being employed is increasingly seen as merely a means to an end, a way to earn income that will facilitate doing what workers really want to do outside their jobs. This will cause problems for businesses seeking to engage their employees, mostly because many corporations have often been less effective at activating employee interest in their work. Misalignment between management and employees at nearly all pay levels will result in costly conflicts. 

The Digitally Trained Consumer and Finance

Like automobiles before it, digital technology is creating its own reality - that is, digital tech is essentially training humans how to think, act, read, behave and experience life. From this point in time, we can see numerous things that digital tech has taught consumers, and they are causing challenges and forcing changes for any company wishing to attract those trained consumers. First, Distractions are appealing. Second, Impatience has become ingrained. Third, Expectations are rising. And finally, consumers get better at Resourcefulness.  These teachings are impacting what financial products and services individuals are attracted to, and offer a roadmap for how financial companies need to interact with their customers.

Less of This and More of That

Consumers are becoming comfortable with buying and having less, even as they seem to be finding things that entertain them more.  In the decades following the Second World War, during which time the Dispersed Wealth Grand Narrative held sway, Americans pursued growth at any cost - more clothes, larger houses, bigger profits, more energy, more comfortable cars and on and on.  “More” was a mantra, and costs in terms of personal lives and the environment became substantial.  As that Grand Narrative fades into history, new ways of thinking and operating are surfacing, and as a result, a new dynamic has emerged between less and more. An increasing number of individuals and companies are shifting the kinds of things they want less of and the  kinds of things they want more of, and that shift is becoming a critical in consumer markets.

Companies Doing Good 2.0

From Google employees marching about sexual harassment, Kroger planning the elimination of plastic bags, Dick’s restricting gun sales, State Street pressuring companies for female board participation and Spotify downplaying hateful music, companies are looking for ways to “do good.” An examination of how and why workers and management, as well as some of the investment institutions that own company shares, are nudging various enterprises to take up certain altruistic actions, particularly in light of perceived government inaction in these arenas.

Changing Places (and Spaces)

The retail industry is still in the midst of its Great Restructuring, but elements of the next paradigm are starting to emerge.   Retailers, restauranteurs, and airports are experimenting with ways to align with the Digitally Trained Consumer — specifically the desire for novelty — and the Consumer Value Hierarchy, specifically the desire for connectivity and experience.  Retailers and restaurants are experimenting with design,  changing the size, configuration and utilization of spaces and offering new kinds of experiences that consumers can have in those spaces.

A New Paradigm Takes Hold in Video Distribution

The days when consumers of television can be forced to purchase a content bundle that includes many unwanted channels are coming to an end.  While many consumers will still choose to receive their video content through large or skinny cable bundles, building a content lineup via à la carte subscription-video-on-demand (SVOD) and over-the-top (OTT) channels is now a legitimate option.  In the extremely competitive Battle for Consumer Time, content producers have recognized that the consumer is in control, and that in order to gain their attention providers are now offering consumers a proliferation of OTT options, including the ability to receive sports and news.  Additionally, platforms have been created to make viewing of OTT content easier, and advertisers are starting to get on board.  All of this is driving a new phase of video distribution. 

Brands, Branding and Changing Market Dynamics

The terms “brand” and “branding” are getting more widely applied, creating confusion among consumers, who seem less and less interested in purchasing “overpriced” branded products. Thus, the rising appeal of private-label or store brands – which can be lower priced and are “good enough” for a busy consumer. With the advent of consumers armed with product information and reviews from pros and friends (and “friends”), online buying possibilities, store brand availability and the related decline in number and shrinking in size of retailers, brands face many challenges. Several old beliefs about brand names – Brand Names Sell Products, Brand Names Attract Consumers, Brand Names Enable Product Extensions and Brand Names Provide Stability – are proving harder to realize. In all, the function of a brand name is changing; its claim of superior quality is weakening; its higher prices are being challenged; new competitors are coming from everywhere; and its once stable place in the market is becoming less tenable.

On A Different Road To A Better Life

As we have written, Americans are passing over a bumpy road to the New Economy. That rough ride is making the road to what we have called a Better Life more attractive, but still bumpy for individuals. But individuals are, bit by bit, action by action, moving ahead in their transition from focusing on a Better Living, including resetting priorities and values to yield meaning, growth and happiness. They are making the transition by changing their behavior in a variety of ways and then changing their minds about the way they relate to the economy.

Justifying the Human Element

Before the twenty-first century, having access to unique information was a major competitive advantage, but, in today’s digital world, information is so easily accessible that everyone is overloaded with it.  In this environment how do we create real insights?  Justifying the Human Element explores how to create an environment in which an organization and its people can generate insights and great results, and therefore “justify the human element” in an era of algorithms, AI and automated decision-making.  We explores how to choose the right people, how to create a process that emphasizes intelligence and how to employ disciplines that minimize distractions and provide room for insight generation on an individual and organizational level.

Society, Reason & Emotion: Decision-Making & The Brain In Today's Context

“Our point is not that people are ignorant.  It’s that people are more ignorant than they think they are.”  That is how psychologist Steven Sloman and cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach explain the results of their research.  Meanwhile, back in the 1950s, famed psychologist Leon Festinger described how individuals with convictions think:  “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.  Tell him you disagree and he turns away.  Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources.  Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” Together these pieces of research provide insight into how humans deal with contemporary society with its widespread uncertainty and resulting anxiety.  The human brain does not like uncertainty, and so it seeks out information that confirms what it already believes (and issues a shot of dopamine when confirming information is found to make that belief feel good). When the mind has reached a decision, it does not want to change because such challenges are seen as threats to one’s personal identity.  These kinds of realities make decision-making more difficult to do objectively. We have some lessons learned that could guide the decision-maker interested in overcoming society’s and most people’s current biases…and ignorance. 

Americans Go Outdoors

As we have noted, various social, economic and technological problems are driving Americans to the brink of their sanity.  One way some Americans are “Coping with Today” is by destressing through participation in outdoor activities.  At a time when the lure of digital technology and especially video programming is quite strong, Americans are once more getting outdoors and the sales of equipment and services to take advantage of various outdoor activities are likely to continue to increase. 

International

Four Tales of the Global Realignment

For over a decade, a Global Realignment has been underway in geo-politics and geo-economics, which is seeing the rise of new power centers and international institutions, the falling clout of former powers and intuitions, and the scrambling of traditional alliances.  Much of this dynamic is driven by the ongoing rise of the New Autocrat style of leadership, exemplified particularly by Xi and Putin, China and Russia.  In an increasingly multi-polar world, so-called “middle powers” and emerging markets are jockeying to take advantage of multiple sources of economic and geo-political support.  An examination of this topic raises key questions.  Who is providing leadership in the world?  Who has power?  Those who do are remaking the world to their benefit.  An examination of four particular cases will serve to show the power of this dynamic:  Iran, Huawei, Saudi Arabia, and Italy. 

Larger Responsibilities

Characteristics of Effectiveness in a New Leadership Model is a product of shifting priorities among consumers, citizens and employees (the same person in different roles). In general, the new reality that leaders face has been outlined by another topic, “Less of This and More of That.” That outline of shifting priorities among individuals requires a different leader, one, in business, who does not have shareholder value as the top (and only) objective of what their corporations should and should not do, and one, in public institutions, who places importance across the spectrum of interests and needs of society rather than focusing on campaign contributors and ideological goals. They operate this way following three new characteristics: Problem Solver; Thought Leader; and Long-Term Strategic Thinker. Being a Problem Solver in the new model requires leaders to look outside their institutions to see what resources they can muster to solve issues that might (or even, might not) affect their institutions eventually. Being a Thought Leader means that those at the top need to think about things beyond profits and elections to offer answers to problems once thought beyond their “responsibility.” And finally, being a Long-Term Strategic Thinker brings to bear perspectives that go beyond near-term results and that offer a vision for actions today that will have long-term positive effects.

It's Not the Trade War: China Manages its Now and Later

The Chinese economy is tilting toward what some observers might call a recessionary slowdown but which market-centered critics might prefer to characterize as the imminent collapse of another centrally planned economy. One that many think will be made worse by a trade war.  Bad news about economic conditions has been surfacing regularly, from equity-market declines to declines in infrastructure spending. Beijing’s response, which started before discussions of a trade war, has been to reduce taxes, control off-balance-sheet lending and to alter bank regulations. If these actions fail to keep the economy at the targeted 6.5 percent growth rate, Beijing will try something else. Overall, the Chinese economy will be slowing down, as planned, but it is not headed for the oft-envisioned economic collapse.  While the Chinese domestic economy is slowing, Beijing is continuing with its long-term strategy. First, Chinese corporations are using their capital and making their moves into new markets around the world, and that means new markets geographically as well as new markets commercially; second, China has been making moves through its massive Silk Road Project; and third, Beijing is working hard at expanding relationships with the countries of the world. As the United States is retreating from foreign obligations and pulling back from international leadership, China is becoming more assertive in pushing forward its international agenda.

The Big Shift 2018

The Big Shift represents a transfer of wealth and geopolitical power that has been taking place for several decades from consumer/importer countries to manufacturer/exporter countries and the numerous social and economic ramifications of this significant transition. The rise of various nationalist leaders globally, a return to protectionism in international relations, and the spreading us vs. them mentality can all be better understood in the context of the Big Shift and the resulting identity crisis.

Washington Consensus and The Beijing Consensus: Managed Vs. Market Economies

The Beijing Consensus and the Washington Consensus remain two models for developing and expanding an economy. While the models have done each side well, their differences tend to trigger conflicts, as both sides claim the other side is unfair and unsustainable. The Beijing Consensus revolves around the idea: “manage.” More specifically, centralized governmental management. From such centralized decision-making comes a strategy to be pursued by private and public institutions, with plans laid out by the government. The Washington Consensus revolves around the idea: “free.” More specifically, freedom to let markets decide value. With that decentralized format, companies decide what they wish to do to excel in the market, as they don’t need to align with any national strategy. Lately, the Beijing Consensus has yielded some positive economic and geo-political results. How will those who support the “invisible hand” of the “efficient market” mount an international response?

Russia Goes After the World's Vulnerabilities

Russia has a strategy to enhance its image in the world and to expand its influence in a location it identifies as vulnerable.  That strategy involves identifying a vulnerability anywhere and then exploiting it to the Kremlin’s advantage.  This practically assures victory.  Russia has applied the strategy to its own domestic troubles, charging and imprisoning more dissenters recently to keep the citizenry feeling uneasy.  It entered the Middle East when the region seemed vulnerable to falling into a new era of chaos, asserted its military weight.  Russia utilized social media to confuse, anger and divide American voters, by using its own cyber-trolls to further the cause of a candidate the Kremlin preferred.  The odd thing about the strategy is it mirrors that of terrorists, who have always identified a vulnerability and then exploited it.  Terrorists are fighting an asymmetrical battle, they being less powerful than the entities they attack.  Is Russia admitting to a similar relationship of power?  Or are its actions clever judo moves?

The Digital Silk Road

The Belt and Road Initiative (a.k.a. the Silk Road Project) has created a whirl of activity along the land and sea routes that are combining under Chinese leadership to create an international marketplace.  Yet moving ahead of these massive infrastructure projects is another piece of the project, the Digital Silk Road.  This aspect of the larger initiative seeks to expand communications and networking across the Eurasian and African continents, all pointing toward one large, global online marketplace.  E-commerce drives the digital infrastructure buildout, which can move ahead via the Skip-a-Step routine much faster than the larger projects that require physical buildouts.  The Digital Silk Road has generated business and deal-making in three components: Systems and Networks; E-commerce; and Payments. 

What To Focus On, Now: The U.S., Russia and China Differ

We have discussed the issue of where individuals choose to place their attention and how that is their first decision; from that one decision, all others follow.  As a result, where to focus one’s attention and energy is critical because significant consequences will likely follow.  One of China’s principal focuses is on building out the Silk Road, and as a result, Beijing is changing international relations and local economies; One of Russia’s principal focuses is on making moves into geo-political arenas, and as a result, Moscow is changing political dynamics in several areas of the globe; a principal focus of leaders in the United States is on domestic politics, with attention to whatever international crisis interrupts, and a result, Washington, D.C., is disrupting domestic politics and changing international relations. These countries are focusing on what their leaders think will bring the most favorable outcomes for them, and as a result, international relations are being reshaped.

Global Realignment Underway: The Appeal Of The New Autocrats

A new form of autocratic leadership is ascendant globally.  These leaders use strongman tactics to make quick bold decisions, which appeal to neighboring countries, while the global West remains mired in internal political struggles.  This autocratic leadership is realigning the world and undermining established institutions and international networks, while creating news patterns of friendship and cooperation.

China Building Out

One aspect of China’s long-term strategy is to “go out” and invest in both emerging markets and developed countries and purchase global strategic assets. Beijing continues to consolidate state-owned-enterprises to reduce oversupply while simultaneously pursuing the long-term Silk Road Strategy by deploying their sizable foreign reserves. These strategies will impact raw materials markets, basic industries and the growth of other emerging markets.  At the same time, China is investing domestically in innovation in order to develop new products and services to sell into the global marketplace.

(Update) China: The Low-Cost Innovation Center

China is in the process of moving beyond low-cost manufacturing and is becoming a global center of low-cost innovation due to an emphasis by Beijing on science, research and technology with deep pockets to back that up. Chinese research and technology labs are now creating lower costs for high-tech products and services and, in turn, making those products and services more accessible to global buyers, especially in other developing countries. This shift in emphasis is indicative of a broader transformation under way in the Chinese economy: to create more high-paying jobs that can fuel a growing consumer economy. At the same time, China is becoming a serious competitive threat to traditional centers of innovation and high-tech manufacturing.

(Update) China's Consumer Brand Strategy

Beijing has a clear plan for China’s next stage of economic development: generate a consumer-based economy, and help cultivate a cornucopia of indigenous Chinese brands that consumers will buy from.  As such brands ramp up their brands in China (and increasingly, internationally) Beijing appears to be creating intentional roadblocks for foreign brands operating in China.  Many such internationally renowned brands will have to reconsider whether it is worth doing business in China.

Technology

Mobile Payments: The Ultimate Trojan Horse

If Jack Ma is correct in saying that “data drives the internet economy,” mobile payments, where massive information sets are captured, can be the mechanism to gather that “fuel.” Mobile payments continue to expand globally, especially in underdeveloped countries, as part of the “skip-a-step” phenomena. And this information is now being utilized in loan, insurance, and “social measurement” operations. 

Too Big To Succeed? Looking at the Future of Big Tech Platforms

For more than a decade, scale has been a key word and major driver for the big platform technology companies. Now, their size is creating problems, causing increased scrutiny and inviting competition. Have they gotten too big to succeed and can they still grow as they have in the past?

5G: The Next Battlefront for Geo-Economic Competition

Despite many announcements by western telecommunications companies, full-capability 5G has yet to be deployed in U.S. markets. The cost of deploying such technology, with its required line-of-sight linkages and base stations every few hundred feet, may be prohibitive without a scalable “killer app” that could lead to a profitable business model. At present AT&T, Verizon and others are enhancing their 4G networks and marketing them as 5G. Chinese companies do not have the nagging problem of requiring a profitable business model before spending money to deploy the technology, mostly because Beijing has said it wants to move ahead with 5G infrastructure and has announced its financial support. As a result, the Washington Consensus, which involves markets and profits, faces another challenge from the Beijing Consensus, which involves strategies and government support. Additionally, a competition has emerged over whether companies and/or countries will use Chinese 5G equipment, specifically Huawei’s, or follow U.S. claims of national security risks in using the Chinese company. 

Reality Sets In

Virtual Reality, autonomous cars, artificial intelligence, voice shopping and blockchain are technologies and applications which have received tremendous amounts of investment, corporate resources and media attention.  However, it is important to separate hype from reality, and in this discussion we will look at some facts and events surrounding the use and adoption of these technologies to try to understand if these are areas worth your time and attention.

Tracking 2.0: Monitoring and Surveillance

Digital capabilities continue to expand and grow more influential, and as a result, the digitized ability to monitor and surveil has expanded and grown as well.  Utilizing biometrics, the ability to track and monitor individuals is spreading globally with numerous contextual tailwinds driving the practice.

China's Race to the Front

As part of President Xi Jinping’s China Dream to orchestrate a “great rejuvenation” in China, the country is seeking to shift from being an innovation follower to an innovation leader.  To accomplish this goal, China is using a multi-pronged approach: increasing R&D spending; recruiting world-class scientists; incubating innovation labs; and, increasing publishing and patents in basic science.  Our observations suggest that, with a concerted effort, China is moving toward the global forefront in several technologies.  We have isolated five significant areas to explore: 5G telecommunications technology, satellite navigation, mobile payments, AI, and quantum computing.

(Update) From Mobile-First To AI-First

In our original look at Artificial Intelligence (AI), we explored the scramble by companies such as Google, IBM, Facebook, and Baidu to develop an “AI First” strategy as AI capabilities quickly developed and redefined how people and machines interact.  Those capabilities can be categorized to include voice recognition, language processing, image recognition and pattern recognition.  In this first update to our AI topic, we explore how those capabilities are now being applied in various industries, including healthcare, finance, retail, defense, automotive, and media. 

Tech in Retail: Automation and Robotics

As part of the industry’s Great Restructuring, retailers are increasingly utilizing automation software and robots in the manufacturing process, in logistics and in physical retail locations in order to align with the needs of the Digitally Trained Consumer, to cut labor costs and to improve margins.

Tech in Retail: Experimentation on the Way to a New Paradigm

In any Great Restructuring, an industry must let go of old thinking and adopt widespread experimentation.  An industry changes how it relates to its customers and then restructure operations, products and services to align with new economic, digital and social realities. While many experiments fail, the ones that do work begin to form new industry paradigms. In the retail industry, the seamless integration of technology in physical retail is proving to be one of the new paradigms.  The best seamless integration of technology helps align retailers with the digitally trained consumers’ desire for novelty, convenience, speed and personalization while also allowing the companies to make more informed decisions.   An increasing number of retailers are using technology, and often the data that is gathered by it, informs marketing, product, inventory and pricing decisions. 

Industry

Esports: Finding the Truth Between the Hype and the Reality

Among the hype and high expectations, esports are facing growing pains as companies continue to experiment with different revenue models. However, our observations also suggest an industry that is still in its early stages with increasing appeal for consumers, companies and marketers. A discussion about the present and future of the esports industry.

From Farm to Table: Food Restructuring

Technology, climate change, healthcare and ethical perspectives are converging on the food production systems that have been in place for decades. The convergence of such widespread forces is triggering an extensive restructuring of the food system, from agriculture to retail to distribution to consumption. This makes for a complex era, in which new consumer interests trigger the development of new kinds of foods, which affects farming; and conversely, new kinds of food production methods lead to new kinds of restaurant offerings, which affect what consumers eat. As a result, this restructuring is prompting a period of price and product volatility, and that could cause some surprise successes and failures.

Aligning with the Digitally Trained Consumer: Retail Restructuring

Over the past decade, digital technology has become ubiquitous and in the process it has “trained” consumers in how to behave and has reset their expectations.  As a result, consumers are exhibiting a new set of characteristics, including distraction and impatience, but also resourcefulness.  Consumers now exhibit a desire to control the time and place of various activities they couldn’t previously control; they demand convenience and speed while they also seek novelty and expect personalization, and individuals have become satisfied with access to goods that previously had to be owned.  Meanwhile, the retail industry has spent more than five years scrambling to restructure in the face of lower barriers to entry, changing consumer preferences and the rise of online shopping.  This topic explores how retailers are finding ways to align with the new characteristics of the Digitally Trained Consumer in the midst of Retail Restructuring.

The Great Restructuring: Where We Stand

The financial, print and auto industries are among the many areas that are participating in what we have called The Great Restructuring.  These industries have been following a three-stage process for change identified by physicist Thomas S. Kuhn over 50 years ago; normalcy, an era of accepted wisdom; crisis and experimentation, an era in which too many anomalies make accepted wisdom no longer effective and in which new ideas and methods start circulating; and then, a new effective structure emerges. This will be an examination of where numerous industries currently stand in the process of the Great Restructuring, and why, for management, things really are different this time.

Healthcare Scrutiny Rising

U.S. healthcare spending has risen for many years to a record high as a percent of GDP, but recent events suggest that various healthcare payers, particularly American employers and U.S. states, are reaching their limits in terms of willingness to shoulder rising healthcare expenses and are looking for ways to put pressure on various providers to limit costs, in particular with respect to drug prices.

Lasers, Drones and Cyber Attacks: Advance of the New Warfare

The world has recently witnessed the rapid spread of a New Autocratic style of leadership, rising brinkmanship and proactive military actions, yet there is still no country that can match the military power of the U.S. in terms of conventional weaponry.  Therefore, countries and insurgent groups, ranging from those as large as China to those as small as ISIS, are attempting to adopt capabilities of the “new warfare” including high-energy weapons such as lasers, unmanned vehicles such as aerial drones, and cyber attacks.  Other countries, including the U.S., are responding by investing in ways to counter these threats.

Telemedicine Hits Its Stride: Healthcare and the Digitally Trained Consumer

As a whole, the healthcare industry is looking for ways to align with the Digitally Trained Consumer to deliver digitally enabled healthcare products and services. Operating in a highly regulated, high-cost, information-restricted, and deeply personal environment, this digital way of operating that transformed retail and other industries has been slower to restructure healthcare.  However, in recent months, a variety of providers, ranging from hospital networks to insurers to drug stores have ramped up ways that their operations can align with the traits of the Digitally Trained Consumer, in part to offer faster, more efficient, and more convenient access to healthcare products and services, through a variety of smartphone apps, omnichannel retail systems, online portals, and telemedicine/telehealth systems.

(Update) Advertising's Identity Crisis

Over the past two years we have explored the pressures faced by the advertising industry, from the splintering of consumers’ time and attention and the proliferation of competing media, to new digital methods of blocking advertisements altogether.  Now, the industry is grappling with a reconsideration of where ads should be placed, particularly as some digital platforms attract heightened scrutiny.  The industry also faces a shift in the role of traditional brands’ ad spending.  Recent events and actions illustrate a significant ramp up in secular headwinds faced by the advertising industry.

The New Business Model: The Customer Ecosystem

Alibaba, one of China’s largest enterprises, is currently involved in at least twelve different areas of business. From education to e-commerce, from finance to the cloud, from entertainment to logistics and from sports to tourism – Alibaba is spreading out horizontally.  While Alibaba and Amazon own companies that make things, they also both have marketplaces that enable other people and companies that make things to take advantage of their (Alibaba’s and Amazon’s) logistics and delivery mechanisms to market goods.   These companies and others like them are not just focused on a specific set of market relations; rather they are creating a new business model around ecosystems – that is networks of companies focused around consumers’ wants and needs.  These companies’ horizontal growth, as they jump into new industries and across traditional categories of enterprises, outmaneuvers traditional monopoly laws; yet their influence is enormous.

(Update) A New Video Paradigm

In October 2018, DAZN (pronounced da-ZONE), an over-the-top (OTT) sports provider run by former ESPN president John Skipper, signed boxer Canelo Alvarez to a $365 million contract, the richest individual deal in sports history.  In a first, the average U.S. adult is likely to spend more time using mobile devices than watching conventional TV, including broadcast, cable, or other over-the-air channels live or on DVR, according to an early June report from eMarketer.  Already, viewers in the 18-to-34 demographic spend a greater share of their media-consumption time using a smartphone than a TV.  All of these suggest a continuation of the New Video Paradigm context that we wrote about last summer.  At the time, we suggested that this new paradigm consisted of providing video to consumers “when they want it, where they want it and how they want it” and would be centered on expanded OTT video offerings, including sports and news. The continuing consumer adoption of OTT services and video streaming is only one part of the story, however.  Over the past year, content providers and video distributors have accepted this new paradigm and there is now an acceleration of business-model experimentation and advertising for streaming video. 

(Update) Digital on Defense

In our first look on the rising scrutiny of digital media in late 2017, we looked at how industry insiders, academic researchers, and regulators were raising critical questions about the role of digital media: on the teenage brain, on general human well being, on democracy, on productivity, and the like.   Now in this update, we observe a crescendo of concern coming from additional quarters:  leaders of related technology companies, major advertisers, and institutional investors are all pressing for reforms of digital media, which in turn is leading some of the digital media platform companies to themselves propose and try adjustments to their algorithms and business models.  Meanwhile, the public themselves appear to be questioning their use of some of these technologies, and for the first time, making adjustments to their use.  This fast moving dynamic suggests potential risks for the previously can-do-no-wrong digital platforms. 

(Update) The Great Distribution Experiment

It has been four years since our inFocus,  “Retail Restructuring: The Great Distribution Experiment,” and companies are still trying to figure out the best and fastest ways to get packages into the hands of customers.  This update contains new examples of how retailers are trying to respond to current consumer demand to receive their items how, when and where they want it, with implications for retailers, distributors, warehouses and technology providers.

 

The fast-developing Digital Silk Road has an important distribution/logistics component.  The developments of capabilities and new technologies and approaches are explored.

The Rise of EVs

The auto industry, already dealing with numerous secular changes, now has another significant shift to deal with., electric vehicles.  Nations across the globe are adopting requirements for hybrids and full-electric vehicles and with sales likely to increase substantially over the next few years, there are many implications for auto companies, auto suppliers, and the makers of batteries and components, among others.

 

(Update) The Cyclical and Secular of Autos

The auto industry is facing two different realities, one cyclical and one secular. The industry posted record sales numbers in 2015, but a closer inspection of leasing terms and delinquency rates in 2016 forewarned a turning point in the U.S. auto market that has now come to pass. Those realities are continuing in 2017 and suggest ongoing cyclical weakness. At the same time, car companies have decided that “the writing is on the wall,” changes in driving habits are secular, and they will need to adjust business models and product lines accordingly. In an attempt to not be disrupted like many entrenched companies in other industries, the big global auto-makers are heavily investing in both transportation services (offering access over assets) and in-car technology, including autonomous and semi-autonomous driving features.

Energy and Resources

Crazy Times in the Oil Patch

The restructuring of the hydrocarbon industry is nearly a decade old, and it continues to shift. Three large changes are currently pushing the restructuring. First, too much supply continues to alter market dynamics, triggering volatility in pricing and causing some instability among exporting countries. Second, cyclical and secular forces are causing uncertainty in demand and supply. A global economic slowdown is happening just when overproduction of hydrocarbons has become commonplace. And new sources of energy, particularly alternative and renewable fuels, continue to eat into the overall hydrocarbon demand, even though they are unlikely to completely replace traditional sources. Finally, geo-politics are working to integrate the Eurasian continental mass into one huge market, being led by China’s Silk Road Project and now being complemented by an integration of a hydrocarbon market. Given that internal “sales” of hydrocarbons within this larger Eurasian continental market are without public disclosures of price or volume, global hydrocarbon markets could get rattled. The implications of these three forces will be substantial.

Evergreens and One-Offs

Skip A Step

Our observations suggest that there are many ways developing economies might skip, bypass and avoid developmental stages that are historically associated with becoming a modern industrialized economy. Assumptions about what tools, infrastructure, services and capital a country will need to move from “developing” to “developed” should be rethought. 

Intelligence, Diagnosis and Effective Decision Making

New digital media communications get shorter and shorter, moving from Web pages and blogs to text messaging and Twitter posts.  Those shorter communications technologies along with all digital technology are reprogramming the human brain.  New-media adopters have found it easy to place three barriers between themselves and those who would like to communicate with them: Receptivity, Selectivity and Connectivity. To overcome these barriers, anyone wishing to communicate with the digitally adept must focus on these users’ minds first and then think about the technology, which may be uncomfortable for advertisers and agencies.

Unaddressed Consequences: The Risks of Not Following Cause & Effect to the End of Linked Systems

This context raises the issue of elevated risks derived from interlinking complex systems with other complex systems.  The human mind wants to make things easy and simple, and so, those in control of these systems often launch projects with an eye only on short-term benefits, choosing not to focus on the more difficult yet possibly more costly long-term consequences.  “Who could have known that…” or “I was not aware that…” are usually later public comments.  They are, so to speak, living with technological and financial changes without fully embracing the range of consequences.

Client Quote

"Inferential Focus' ideas and thoughts are unique, non-traditional; not your typical front page thoughts."

Ed Antoian

Partner, Senior Portfolio Manager
Chartwell Investment Partners

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