Wednesday, March 14, 2007

When does a "Correction" become a "Disillusionment"?

Everyone's reporting on the latest rather worrying "correction" in global markets currently, following annoying US data and, well, everyone being in debt really.

The idea of a "correction" is a funny one. Usually, this means that people's expectations are being "corrected" back into line with "reality". Markets measure hope - or, perhaps, naivety - about the future, and so one can see these falls as a re-establishment of what's actually happening. The markets were up while people were spending money. They come down when people stop spending.

But if markets are based on hope, but react ultimately to reality, then surely everything they do is just "correction"? "Value" itself is nothing but a perception. The "Value" of MySpace or of YouTube, for example, is a fleeting thing, based on what people think it will achieve - future tense, there. Actual value comes and goes these days as readily as ice cream.

The flipside is that the reality dealt with by markets and economies is actually not reality at all. The reality that is measured, and hence reported, and hence reacted to as per the last few weeks, is just that - what we can assess. The overall growth in markets, then, is based on just what we can see. But there's a whole bunch of stuff outside of this system that we can't/don't see.

If one of the pros of capitalism is that it's a non-zero-sum game - i.e. that everyone in it can gain at the same time - we should be asking where this growth comes from. So far, the major growth of the past century has come from a number of places: firstly, people - third world countries and "emerging economies" have been incorporated such that more work can be done for less. Secondly, technology - a similar principle, more work for less, although in a network society, this has started to translate into a virtualisation, wherein value (like MySpace above) can be created within the "unlimited" realms of the mind. Thirdly, resources - the planet. This is the big kicker, as it's the one we have least control over and, hence, the one that will bite into economies first. This is why the Stern report on climate change has such a big impact. It is, of all things, the most immediate "threat".

So, I think, we should be seeing markets jumps not in terms of "simple correction", but instead attempting to eradicate the difference between "correction" and "what the market system as a whole borrows". There will be a big correction if climate effects are taken into account, just as there are large corrections if working conditions are taken into account. We are equally "restrained" by our physicality as we are "liberated" by our cyber-inventions. However, the Midas touch of innovation has forgotten about at least 2 of the 3 sides of the triangle - people, and the planet, and these are the two big "corrections" that will loom large over the 21st century.

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