Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

Archive for the ‘Productivity’ Category

Technology and productivity: The hollow promise of the iEconomy

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Feb 28th 2013, 21:44 by G.I. | WASHINGTON, D.C.

IN THE battle between David Einhorn and Apple over the latter’s $137 billion cash hoard lies a deeper lesson about the outlook for the economy. Mr Einhorn, an activist investor, says Apple clings to its money out of a “Depression mentality”. Perhaps. But the more mundane explanation is that Apple, like many of the world’s big companies today, is generating more cash from its existing product line than it can usefully plough back into new projects.

And that’s a problem. Apple is the most creative, innovative and envied technology company of our time, yet investors clearly doubt its ability to keep churning out hits at current margins, valuing it at just 10 times this year’s earnings, a ratio more appropriate for a mature value company.

To some, this might be comforting. After all, while the Dow may be flirting with an all-time high, Apple’s valuation suggests there isn’t much irrational exuberance going around.

But in another way it’s rather distressing. Let’s go back to the spring of 2000, at the peak of the Nasdaq bubble, when Cisco Systems embodied the hype and hope of technology. Cisco was, briefly, the world’s most valued company, with a market cap of $555 billion. Unlike many dotcoms, Cisco was nicely profitable, but not nearly as profitable as investors thought it would be one day: it traded at 135 times that year’s earnings. (Click on the nearby table for a comparison.) Compared with Apple, Cisco was a veritable spendthrift. Despite sales that were barely one-sixth of Apple’s today, its R&D budget was almost as large. Its cash pile, at $20 billion, was big enough (evidence that the phenomenon of cash-rich tech giants is not new), but then, there was no widespread clamour that Cisco hand it back it to shareholders; no one doubted Cisco would find a higher returning use for it. Read the rest of this entry »


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March 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Explaining America’s macro puzzles: The worst of all worlds

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Mar 15th 2012, 21:08 by G.I. | WASHINGTON

[Greg Ip] America’s economy is a mosaic of puzzles and contradictions that has economists and bloggers scrambling for explanations and scrutinizing the data for quirks and flaws. Lately, I’ve been thinking dark thoughts: what if all it takes is a single explanation that assumes all the data are correct? Read the rest of this entry »

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March 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Innovation: Still full of ideas, but not making jobs

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America needs to share the benefits of innovation more widely

Apr 28th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

[Greg Ip] THE economy is recovering, yet American confidence remains mired at levels more commonly seen in recessions. For that blame unemployment, petrol prices and a deeper, nagging feeling that America is in decline. A Gallup poll in February asked Americans to name the world’s leading economic power. By a significant margin, they said China.

Barack Obama has exploited this anxiety. America, he has said, faces a new “Sputnikmoment” and must “compete for the jobs and industries of our time” by spending more on research, education and infrastructure. But the notion that America is on the verge of being vanquished by cleverer, more innovative competitors is flawed. First, competitiveness is a woolly concept that wrongly supposes countries, like football teams, win only when another team loses. But one country’s economic growth does not subtract from another’s. Second, America’s ability to innovate and raise productivity remains reasonably healthy. The problem is that the benefits of that innovation and productivity have become so narrowly concentrated that workers’ median wages have stagnated.

Towards the end of the last decade American productivity began to slump, a sign to some that the pay-off from new information technology had largely been exhausted. But coming out of the recession productivity surged; it rose by 3.9% last year, the fastest rate since 2002. This was largely cyclical, since business output has recovered more quickly than hiring. Long-term productivity growth will be more modest, and its rate will depend on investment, human capital and innovation.

After collapsing during the recession, investment in business equipment has bounced back, rising 17% in the last quarter of 2010 from the figure a year earlier. Human capital is more of a challenge. Americans once led the world in educational attainment, but this is now barely rising while other countries have caught up (see article). That is a key reason why Dale Jorgenson, an economist at Harvard University, reckons overall productivity growth will average 1.5% in the coming decade, down from 2% in the previous two.

Innovation is what preoccupies Mr Obama. He worries that the next breakthroughs in energy, transport and information technology will occur elsewhere. Read the rest of this entry »

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April 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Patent reform: The spluttering invention machine

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America’s patent system has problems; a new law would fix only a few

[Greg Ip] Mar 17th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

FOR all America’s anxieties about its decline as a superpower, its deficits and its weak economy, it can still be proud of its strength as an innovator. Americans make four times as many patent applications per head as Europeans. Patents spur innovation and lay the foundations for future growth, by assuring inventors that they will reap the rewards of their effort and by publicising their discoveries.

But worries have grown that excessive patenting may now be having the opposite effect: businesses and other researchers may be discouraged from innovating in areas that depend heavily on prior discoveries, for fear of being sued for patent infringement. Besides making it too easy to bring patent lawsuits, it is argued, America hands out patents too readily: an often-quoted example is the one granted to Amazon for its “one-click” online-shopping button. Last year the Supreme Court restricted the scope of such business-process patents, but not by enough to satisfy critics.

The original article is linked here.



Written by gregip

March 17, 2011 at 3:06 pm

America’s economy: Time to rebalance.

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A special report on America’s economy

Time to rebalance America’s economy is set to shift away from consumption and debt and towards exports and saving. It will be its biggest transformation in decades, says Greg Ip

Note: This is a nine-part, 14 page report. You can read the entire thing at this blog post or on The Economist’s web site here.

Mar 31st 2010 | From The Economist print edition 

STEVE HILTON remembers months of despair after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Customers rushed to the sales offices of Meritage Homes, the property firm Mr Hilton runs, not to buy houses but to cancel contracts they had already signed. “I thought for a moment the world was coming to an end,” he recalls. 

In the following months Mr Hilton stepped up efforts to save his company. He gave up options to buy thousands of lots that the firm had snapped up across Arizona, Florida, Nevada and California during the boom, taking massive losses. He eventually laid off three-quarters of its 2,300 employees. He also had its houses completely redesigned to cut construction cost almost in half: simpler roofs, standardised window sizes, fewer options. Gone were the 12-foot ceilings, sweeping staircases and granite countertops everyone wanted when money was free. Meritage is now catering to the only customers able to get credit: first-time buyers with federally guaranteed loans. It is clawing its way back to health as a leaner, humbler company. 

The same could be said for America. Virtually every industry has shed jobs in the past two years, but those that cater mostly to consumers have suffered most. Employment in residential construction and carmaking is down by almost a third, in retailing and banking by 8%. As the economy recovers, some of those jobs will come back, but many of them will not, because this was no ordinary recession. The bubbly asset prices, ever easier credit and cheap oil that fuelled America’s age of consumerism are not about to return. 

Instead, America’s economy will undergo one of its biggest transformations in decades. This macroeconomic shift from debt and consumption to saving and exports will bring microeconomic changes too: different lifestyles, and different jobs in different places. This special report will describe that transformation, and explain why it will be tricky.  Read the rest of this entry »

Silver Lining: Amid Devastation, Many Still See Gains In Burst Tech Bubble

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Even Sufferers Cite the Value Of Innovation and Base For Longer-Term Growth — Looking Again to the Fed

By Greg Ip

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

2497 words

20 March 2001

The Wall Street Journal



(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. economy struggles with the bursting of the high-tech bubble, here’s an improbable question: Could there also have been a bright side?

Billions of dollars went down the drain in the past few years, to support high-tech companies that never made a profit. Years of entrepreneurial effort by the nation’s best and brightest were flushed away on failed business plans. Massive wealth was created, and then destroyed, leaving shattered confidence in its wake.

Yet the bubble also may have done society a huge favor. The technology-stock boom fertilized new technologies and business innovations, and it galvanized old-economy companies into accelerating their own adoption of these innovations. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

March 20, 2001 at 11:11 pm