CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Uneconomics

We must move away from short-termism to prevent next economic crisis

Compiled at the IoD, Pall Mall, London, and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi connection.

For more than a year now I have been in a state of mild bewilderment while watching and listening to the economic commentators. The truth is: I find it difficult to afford them much credibility as I have been here many times before.

Recent crisis situations prompted by oil markets, technology development, human greed and ignorance have spanned the 1970s through to today, and all have resulted in similar consequences and total confusion.

With each cycle of economic mayhem the experts are wheeled out to explain what's happened - then the politicians huff and puff and Joe Public picks up the bill.

Where do these times of monetary and market instability come from? There appears to be a limited number of fundamental mechanisms over and above human ignorance, greed and stupidity.

First, I would cite the fundamental tenets and assumptions of economic theory that are obviously wrong:

  1. Infinite resources - Not true for the atoms on this finite planet.
  2. Infinite markets - Not true for a finite population and ecosystem.
  3. Linear channels - Nothing to do with markets is wholly linear.
  4. Continuous growth - Was never, and never will be, possible
  5. Known behaviours - People and markets are increasingly unpredictable.
  6. Understandable - Probably beyond the grasp of humankind.

Second, I think we can identify a set of new and progressively growing factors of increasing influence:

  1. Complexity - Managers and people no longer understand products.
  2. Connectedness - Everything is now related and not isolated or standalone.
  3. Scale - Everything is now huge and networked globally.
  4. Machines - They perform more trades than people.
  5. Fundamentally non-linear - Chaotic and probably beyond human control.
  6. Short-termism - The focus is on the immediate and making money now.
  7. Speed - ICT has improved speed and removed latency.

The first set of factors set the scene for beliefs and the illusion of understanding, while the second present ideal components for the occurrence of one economic crisis after another. Perhaps the most critical, given (5) and (6), is the reduction of latency (7) as a prime factor in a world of non-linearity, chaos and strange attractors.

Looking back over the past 40 years we see the rate of economic crises is speeding up, and the severity of each gets worse. This is a classic chaotic situation. How do we stop the next one, or even see it coming? No one knows for sure but new banking regulations are unlikely to be effective in the long term. And as more companies industrialise and enter the fray, the probability is that this will only get worse.

Until we get more brainpower into modelling the overall economic system, and out of maximising the short-term trading patterns of individual groups, we should expect another big crisis relatively soon.

Hopefully it won't be as big as this one but it will almost certainly come on faster and probably from a different direction and by a new mechanism. Chaos is like that: it comes from a direction you are not looking, via a mechanism you did not anticipate and at a time that is really inconvenient!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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