Sunday, February 23, 2014

The WhatsApp Deal: Did Zuckerberg Just Blink?

WhatsApp is the antithesis of Facebook.  It doesn't collect personal information.  Messages aren't stored in WhatsApp's servers.  There are no ads on WhatsApp.  As a messaging service, there's nothing on WhatsApp for strangers (or parents) to find via search engines.  It offers the one thing that's almost impossible to obtain on the Internet:  privacy.  No wonder it's growing by a million users a day, many of them in the young adult cohort coveted by commercial websites.

It's unclear what Mark Zuckerberg hopes to achieve by having Facebook buy WhatsApp.  If he engrafts WhatsApp onto Facebook, or makes it semi-clone of Facebook (i.e., has it run ads), it will surely lose much of the privacy it offers.  Facebook's business model, after all, is to vacuum up as much personal information as possible in order to cram advertising into users' faces.  But that could drain away much of WhatsApp's attractiveness to its current user base, and they could easily flee to any of a number of competitors offering private communications. 

If Zuckerberg keeps WhatsApp independent, he'll have to find some way of generating revenue--a shipload of it, since Facebook is paying $19 billion for WhatsApp and the only justification for such a Brobdingnagian price would be freight cars full of revenue.  But you can't charge users much for instant messaging services (the phone companies tried that with text messaging and users are moving away from them).  So there is a big question about what kind of rabbit Zuckerberg will pull out of the hat as a business strategy for WhatsApp.

One thing that seems apparent is that he's blinked.  Zuckerberg evidently has come to realize that Facebook isn't going to be the platform for all users all the time.  He's jumping onto one of the new, hot things on the Internet.  Diversifying Facebook's corporate profile may be a prudent move.  But the company now has two conflicting business models under its corporate roof, and it will have to sort out how to handle these conflicts.  History does not suggest success is assured by any means.  Microsoft entered various lines of business that were potential threats to its basic MS-DOS/Windows business--search engines, portals, mobile software, etc.  It didn't managed them very well, because boosting a newer technology could mean undermining its cash cow.  Newer, nimbler competitors, unburdened by these conflicts, ran circles around Microsoft.  Facebook is one of them.  But now it has taken in-house a conflict between the old (yes, Facebook is getting old) and the new on the Internet.  How Facebook handles that conflict could dictate the future arc of its growth.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

More Badness in the Bigness of Banks

The problems presented by gargantuan banks aren't limited to just too big to fail.  In recent months, we have seen government investigations and enforcement actions dealing with price fixing by big banks in interest rates (LIBOR), foreign currencies, oil and other commodities.  Cartels and oligopolies are antithetical to free enterprise.  To make things worse, the things that were the subject of the conspiracies--benchmark interest rates, petroleum, and the value of the medium of payment in various countries--affect the prices of numerous contracts, investments, products and other things.  Thus, the impact of the price rigging ripples through national and international economies, with the result that a lot of things aren't accurately priced.

The size of the mega banks allows them to dominate these markets.  The small number of players involved makes collusion easy.  It's hard to rig markets with dozens or hundreds of competitors.  But a few big dogs readily find it more profitable to stack the deck in their favor and reap monopolistic returns than compete with lower prices.

Collusion deprives consumers, investors and others of the benefits of competition and efficient markets.  The oligopolists are richer by their financial hooliganism.  The rest of us are poorer.  When banks are too big to fail, governments--and ultimately taxpayers--prop them up.  It would appear that the big banks return the favor by rigging prices.  It's getting harder and harder to see the societal benefits of really big banks.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Is Financial Inequality Constraining Economic Growth?

Businesses are having trouble raising prices.  (See  Consumers resist price increases and look for cheaper alternatives.  The stagnation of middle class incomes surely plays a large role in keeping downward pressure on prices.  With people becoming wary of debt, the decline in the real incomes of the middle class leaves folks with no choice except not to spend money they don't have.

It's become an article of faith among central bankers that a little inflation--in the 2.0 to 2.5% range--promotes economic growth.  And they strive for such a Goldilocks level of inflation.  Whether or not this actually will work isn't clear.  Inflation isn't like the flow of water from a faucet, which can be kept at a desired level while economic growth blossoms.  A slithering rattlesnake, sometimes moving slowly and sometimes moving quickly but always potentially dangerous, is a better analogy for inflation. 

Nevertheless, let's posit for the sake of discussion that Goldilocks inflation can be maintained continuously for long periods of time and that it does indeed give the economy a lively fillip.  The ongoing hollowing out of the middle class stands as a major impediment to the central banks' use of inflation as a stimulus for economic growth.  As income and wealth inequality increases, the middle class--and indeed much of the 99%--will obstinately resist price increases.  Inflation will remain muted and not contribute to growth.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about increasing financial inequality--reduced social mobility, decreased social cohesiveness, rising extremism (especially noticeable in Europe), and so on.  We can add to the list that an increasingly plutocratic society may constrain the economy's ability to grow.  And that's not good for anyone.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Emerging Markets: Another Asset Bubble Popping

The emerging markets asset bubble is popping.  Financial markets in China, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and India have been falling, with no end in sight.  Commodities prices have declined.  And the major stock markets--in Japan, Europe and the U.S.--have been dragged down in consequence.  All because the Fed began to reduce its quantitative easing program.

We've been here before.  Fed easy money policies contributed to the tech stock craze of the late 1990s and the real estate and mortgage bubbles of the 2000s.  Those earlier bubbles popped when the Fed began to withdraw accommodation.  You have to wonder whether the Fed will ever learn:  long periods of accommodative policies inevitably create asset bubbles somewhere, and when the accommodation is reduced, the bubble will pop.  Painfully, since there is no other way for an asset bubble to pop. 

When tech stocks, and then real estate and mortgage markets, crashed, recession and unemployment followed.  The results included, among other things, higher and higher levels of unemployment and greater inequality of income and wealth over the past 15 years.  When the Fed repeatedly uses its very blunt monetary weaponry to combat economic slowdowns, the rich get richer and everyone else stagnates or declines. 

What will the Fed do in response to the emerging markets downturn?  Initially, nothing.  It will hope that the positive momentum that has emerged in the U.S. and to a limited degree, in Europe, will be enough to maintain overall global economic equanimity.  But if the decline extends for several more months (particularly in major stock markets), expect the Fed to rethink its stance and get the monetary printing presses revved up again.  As we have discussed before (see, fiscal policy will be darn near nonexistent this year.  Fed easy money policy is the only way for the federal government to combat economic distress.  And even if more money printing means yet another asset bubble a few years down the line, and more income and wealth inequality, the only choices nevertheless remain easy money or easy money.  The Fed's policies are the only game in town.

One might lament that the Fed never seems to learn that too much accommodation leads to yet another asset bubble that pops, causing distress and dislocation that leads to more accommodation, which only continues the cycle.  But the problem is the Fed has little choice.  Congress and the White House mostly stare at mirrors and ask who is the fairest of all.  The business community waits for the federal government to stimulate the economy, reduce its risks and heighten the potential for profits.  The Fed personifies moral hazard:  the rest of the world has learned that, when push comes to shove, the Fed will act.  So there's no need for anyone else to step out front and center and take the lead. 

How do we break this vicious cycle?  Well . . . uh . . . there was once a time--long, long ago--when the private sector would lead the way out of recessions.  Businesses would start to expand, banks would start to lend, investors would start to take risks.  But how likely is that to happen now?