A few thoughts on “Rise of the Robots”, risks to global rebalancing and much more

Foxconn replaces ’60,000 factory workers with robots’” was a recent headline in a BBC news report, and of course many other stories.

The global rebalancing story goes as follows: developed economies offshore production of goods in cheap labour emerging markets with strong growth prospects, benefiting from cheaper labour and also entrance into consumer markets with vast potential.  Developed economies experience declines in wage growth as manufacturing declines and service sector expands in relative terms, interest rates are lowered and consumer credit growth stimulated.   Lower cost goods and low interest rates cushion the impact of lower wage growth but the economy moves out of balance, towards consumption and debt (increasingly asset focussed) and away from production and investment.  

Ultimately this story depended on developing markets maturing their own consumer stories and wage growth/currencies rising to erase or at least obfuscate wage price differentials.  This rebalancing of developing economies to consumption and away from manufacturing/investment would have created demand for goods, services and expertise of developed economies, rebalancing GDP away from consumption and towards production and investment, raising wages and reducing dependence on credit for consumption with interest rates slowly re-ascending.

The story about Foxxconn factory workers being replaced with robots takes away important marginal flows from the rebalancing equation and reemphasises emergent income distribution inequalities: less income to labour, more to capital; reduced consumer expenditure growth to rebalance growth in developing/developed areas; greater stress on high debt levels accumulated in both areas, debt levels used to finance consumption in one and infrastructure and manufacturing in the other.  And of course, all the attendant asset price issues that have arisen as a result of low interest, financial shocks, asset price support and other unconventional monetary policy actions.

Technology is a good thing and we should always be striving to produce more efficiently and effectively and part of the move to robots in these developing markets is the reallocation of labour capital across the broader economy and the need to produce ever more goods for growing demand in many of these vast economies. 

But the separation of income flows, or at least higher growth higher value income flows to labour, is a disconcerting one and especially so given the ongoing deceleration of global economic growth and asset price divergence.  This not only accentuates the trend towards increasing income inequality and therefore damages the eco system’s ability to regenerate demand (and support asset prices), increasing reliance on loan growth (and hence debt support), but it also risks prevent a more rigorous and necessary rebalancing of growth between developing and developed that would have re-established the balance of power between labour capital and financial capital that would be necessary to keep the eco system’s flows at regenerative levels. 

Within the capitalist system there are numerous subtleties.   Human beings need a reason for being and the economic dreams of home ownership, durable goods consumption and various other lifestyle goals are gradually being hammered away and left to an increasingly small percentage of the population.   The objective of a capitalist system should be productive efficiency on the one hand and the regeneration of the model’s ability to support its asset, human and of course natural frame.   Technology has not historically been a blight on humanity, but that has been because of various forces that have coincidentally expanded the frontier of consumption and production capabilities.   

Productive efficiency is only one side of the equation and it requires balancing forces on the other to maintain a healthy “equilibrium” of sorts between all factors of production.   Talk of helicopter money, the drive for increasingly perverse unconventional monetary policy all strongly suggest that the equation that drives the eco system is out of balance.

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