How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash
Like the big banks, big tech uses its lobbying muscle to avoid regulation, and thinks it should play by different rules. And like the banks, it could be about to wreak financial havoc on us all.
‘In every major economic downturn in US history, the ‘villains’ have been the ‘heroes’ during the preceding boom,” said the late, great management guru Peter Drucker. I cannot help but wonder if that might be the case over the next few years, as the United States (and possibly the world) heads toward its next big slowdown. Downturns historically come about once every decade, and it has been more than that since the 2008 financial crisis. Back then, banks were the “too-big-to-fail” institutions responsible for our falling stock portfolios, home prices and salaries. Technology companies, by contrast, have led the market upswing over the past decade. But this time around, it is the big tech firms that could play the spoiler role.
You wouldn’t think it could be so when you look at the biggest and richest tech firms today. Take Apple. Warren Buffett says he wished he owned even more Apple stock. (His Berkshire Hathaway has a 5% stake in the company.) Goldman Sachs is launching a new credit card with the tech titan, which became the world’s first $1tn market-cap company in 2018. But hidden within these bullish headlines are a number of disturbing economic trends, of which Apple is already an exemplar. Study this one company and you begin to understand how big tech companies – the new too-big-to-fail institutions – could indeed sow the seeds of the next crisis.
No matter what the Silicon Valley giants might argue, ultimately, size is a problem, just as it was for the banks. This is not because bigger is inherently bad, but because the complexity of these organisations makes them so difficult to police. Like the big banks, big tech uses its lobbying muscle to try to avoid regulation. And like the banks, it tries to sell us on the idea that it deserves to play by different rules.
Consider the financial engineering done by such firms. Like most of the largest and most profitable multinational companies, Apple has loads of cash – around $210bn at last count – as well as plenty of debt (close to $110bn). That is because – like nearly every other large, rich company – it has parked most of its spare cash in offshore bond portfolios over the past 10 years. This is part of a Kafkaesque financial shell game that has played out since the 2008 financial crisis. Back then, interest rates were lowered and central bankers flooded the economy with easy money to try to engineer a recovery. But the main beneficiaries were large companies, which issued lots of cheap debt, and used it to buy back their own shares and pay out dividends, which bolstered corporate share prices and investors, but not the real economy. The Trump corporate tax cuts added fuel to this fire. Apple, for example, was responsible for about a quarter of the $407bn in buy-backs announced in the six months or so after Trump’s tax law was passed in December 2017 – the biggest corporate tax cut in US history.
Because of this, the wealth divide has been increased, which many economists believe is not only the biggest factor in slower-than-historic trend growth, but is also driving the political populism that threatens the market system itself.
That phenomenon has been put on steroids by yet another trend epitomised by Apple: the rise of intangibles such as intellectual property and brands (both of which the company has in spades) relative to tangible goods as a share of the global economy. As Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake show in their book Capitalism Without Capital, this shift became noticeable around 2000, but really took off after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The digital economy has a tendency to create superstars, since software and internet services are so scalable and enjoy network effects (in essence, they allow a handful of companies to grow quickly and eat everyone else’s lunch). But according to Haskel and Westlake, it also seems to reduce investment across the economy as a whole. This is not only because banks are reluctant to lend to businesses whose intangible assets may simply disappear if they go belly-up, but also because of the winner-takes-all effect that a handful of companies, including Apple (and Amazon and Google), enjoy.
This is likely a key reason for the dearth of startups, declining job creation, falling demand and other disturbing trends in our bifurcated economy. Concentration of power of the sort that Apple and Amazon enjoy is a key reason for record levels of mergers and acquisitions. In telecoms and media especially, many companies have taken on significant amounts of debt in order to bulk up and compete in this new environment of streaming video and digital media.
Some of that debt is now looking shaky, which underscores that the next big crisis probably won’t emanate from banks, but from the corporate sector. Rapid growth in debt levels is historically the best predictor of a crisis. And for the past several years, the corporate bond market has been on a tear, with companies in advanced economies issuing a record amount of debt; the market grew 70% over the past decade, to reach $10.17tn in 2018. Even mediocre companies have benefited from easy money.
But as the interest rate environment changes, perhaps more quickly than was anticipated, many could be vulnerable. The Bank for International Settlements – the international body that monitors the global financial system – has warned that the long period of low rates has cooked up a larger than usual number of “zombie” companies, which will not have enough profits to make their debt payments if interest rates rise. When rates eventually do rise, warns the BIS, losses and ripple effects may be more severe than usual.
Of course, if and when the next crisis is upon us, the deflationary power of technology (meaning the way in which it drives down prices), exemplified by companies like Apple, could make it more difficult to manage. That is the final trend worth considering. Technology firms drive down the prices of lots of things, and tech-related deflation is a big part of what has kept interest rates so low for so long; it has not only constrained prices, but wages, too. The fact that interest rates are so low, in part thanks to that tech-driven deflation, means that central bankers will have much less room to navigate through any upcoming crisis. Apple and the other purveyors of intangibles have benefited more than other companies from this environment of low rates, cheap debt, and high stock prices over the past 10 years. But their power has also sowed the seeds of what could be the next big swing in the markets.
Afew years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an economist at the US Treasury’s Office of Financial Research, a small but important body that was created following the 2008 financial crisis to study market trouble, and which has since seen its funding slashed by Trump. I was trawling for information about financial risk and where it might be held, and the economist told me to look at the debt offerings and corporate bond purchases being made by the largest, richest corporations in the world, such as Apple or Google, whose market value now dwarfed that of the biggest banks and investment firms.
In a low interest rate environment, with billions of dollars in yearly earnings, these high-grade firms were issuing their own cheap debt and using it to buy up the higher-yielding corporate debt of other firms. In the search for both higher returns and for something to do with all their money, they were, in a way, acting like banks, taking large anchor positions in new corporate debt offerings and essentially underwriting them the way that JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs might. But, it is worth noting, since such companies are not regulated like banks, it is difficult to track exactly what they are buying, how much they are buying and what the market implications might be. There simply is not a paper trail the way there is in finance. Still, the idea that cash-rich tech companies might be the new systemically important institutions was compelling.
I began digging for more on the topic, and about two years later, in 2018, I came across a stunning Credit Suisse report that both confirmed and quantified the idea. The economist who wrote it, Zoltan Pozsar, forensically analysed the $1tn in corporate savings parked in offshore accounts, mostly by big tech firms. The largest and most intellectual-property-rich 10% of companies – Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) among them – controlled 80% of this hoard.
According to Pozsar’s calculations, most of that money was held not in cash but in bonds – half of it in corporate bonds. The much-lauded overseas “cash” pile held by the richest American companies, a treasure that Republicans under Trump had cited as the key reason they passed their ill-advised tax “reform” plan, was actually a giant bond portfolio. And it was owned not by banks or mutual funds, which typically have such large financial holdings, but by the world’s biggest technology firms. In addition to being the most profitable and least regulated industry on the planet, the Silicon Valley giants had also become systemically crucial within the marketplace, holding assets that – if sold or downgraded – could topple the markets themselves. Hiding in plain sight was an amazing new discovery: big tech, not big banks, was the new too-big-to-fail industry.
As I began to think about the comparison, I found more and more parallels. Some of them were attitudinal. It was fascinating, for example, to see how much the technology industry’s response to the 2016 election crisis mirrored the banking industry’s behaviour in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Just as Wall Street had obfuscated as much as possible about what it was doing before and after the crisis, every bit of useful information about election meddling had to be clawed away from the titans of big tech.
First, they insisted that they had done nothing wrong, and that anyone who thought they had simply did not understand the technology industry. It was under extreme pressure from both press and regulators that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg finally turned over 3,000 Russia-linked adverts to Congress. Google and others were only marginally less evasive. Similar to Wall Street financiers at the time of the US sub-prime crisis, the tech titans have remained, years after the 2016 election, in a largely reactive posture, parting with as few details as possible, attempting to keep the asymmetric information advantages of their business model that, as in the banking industry, help generate outsized profit margins. It is a “deny and deflect” attitude similar to what we saw from financiers in 2008, and has resulted in deservedly terrible PR.
But there are more substantive similarities as well. At a meta level, I see four major likenesses in big finance and big tech: corporate mythology, opacity, complexity and size. In terms of mythology, Wall Street before 2008 sold the idea that what was good for the financial sector was good for the economy. Until quite recently, big tech tried to convince us of the same. But there are two sides to the story, and neither industry is quick to acknowledge or take responsibility for the downsides of “innovation”.
A raft of research shows us that trust in liberal democracy, government, media and nongovernmental organisations declines as social media usage rises. In Myanmar, Facebook has been leveraged to support genocide. In China, Apple and Google have bowed to government demands for censorship. In the US, of course, personal data is being collected, monetised and weaponised in ways that we are only just beginning to understand, and monopolies are squashing job creation and innovation. At this point, it is harder and harder to argue that the benefits of platform technology vastly outweigh the costs.
Big tech and big banks are also similar in the opacity and complexity of their operations. The algorithmic use of data is like the complex securitisation done by the world’s too-big-to-fail banks in the sub-prime era. Both are understood largely by industry experts who can use information asymmetry to hide risks and the nefarious things that companies profit from, such as dubious political ads.
Yet that complexity can backfire. Just as many big-bank risk managers had no idea what was going in to and coming out of the black box before 2008, big tech executives themselves can be thrown off balance by the ways in which their technology can be misused. Consider, for example, the New York Times investigation in 2018 that revealed that Facebook had allowed a number of other big tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, to tap sensitive user data even as it was promising to protect privacy.
Facebook entered into the data-sharing deals – which are a win-win for the big tech firms in general, to the extent that they increase traffic between the various platforms and bring more and more users to them – between 2010 and 2017 to grow its social network as fast as possible. But neither Facebook nor the other companies involved could keep track of all the implications of the arrangements for user privacy. Apple claimed to not even know it was in such a deal with Facebook, a rather stunning admission given the way in which Apple has marketed itself as a protector of user privacy. At Facebook, “some engineers and executives … considered the privacy reviews an impediment to quick innovation and growth”, read a telling line in the Times piece. And grow it has: Facebook took in more than $40bn in revenue in 2017, more than double the $17.9bn it reported for 2015.
Facebook’s prioritisation of growth over governance is egregious but not unique. The tendency to look myopically at share price as the one and only indicator of value is something fostered by Wall Street, but by no means limited to it. The obliviousness of the tech executives who cut these deals reminds me of bank executives who had no understanding of the risks built into their balance sheets until markets started to blow up during the 2008 financial crisis.
Companies tend to prioritise what can be quantified, such as earnings per share and the ratio of the stock price to earnings, and ignore (until it is too late) the harder-to-measure business risks.
It is no accident that most of the wealth in our world is being held by a smaller and smaller number of rich individuals and corporations who use financial wizardry such as tax offshoring and buy-backs to ensure that they keep it out of the hands of national governments. It is what we have been taught to think of as normal, thanks to the ideological triumph of the Chicago School of economic thought, which has, for the past five decades or so, preached, among other things, that the only purpose of corporations should be to maximise profits.
The notion of “shareholder value” is shorthand for this idea. The maximisation of shareholder value is part of the larger process of “financialisation”. It is a process that has risen, in tandem with the Chicago School of thinking, since the 1980s, and has created a situation in which markets have become not a conduit for supporting the real economy, as Adam Smith would have said they should be, but rather, the tail that wags the dog.
“Consumer welfare,” rather than citizen welfare, is our primary concern. We assume that rising share prices signify something good for the economy as a whole, as opposed to merely increasing wealth for those who own them. In this process, we have moved from being a market economy to being what Harvard law professor Michael Sandel would call a “market society”, obsessed with profit maximisation in every aspect of our lives. Our access to the basics – healthcare, education, justice – is determined by wealth. Our experiences of ourselves and those around us are thought of in transactional terms, something that is reflected in the language of the day (we “maximise” time and “monetise” relationships).
Now, with the rise of the surveillance capitalism practised by big tech, we ourselves are maximised for profit. Remember that our personal data is, for these companies and the others that harvest it, the main business input. As Larry Page himself once said when asked “What is Google?”: “If we did have a category, it would be personal information … the places you’ve seen. Communications … Sensors are really cheap … Storage is cheap. Cameras are cheap. People will generate enormous amounts of data … Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.”
Think about that. You are the raw material used to make the product that sells you to advertisers.
Financial markets have facilitated the shift toward this invasive, short-term, selfish capitalism, which has run in tandem with both globalisation and technological advancement, creating a loop in which we are constantly competing with greater numbers of people, in shorter amounts of time, for more and more consumer goods that may be cheaper thanks in part to the deflationary effects of both outsourcing and tech-based disruption, but that cannot compensate for our stagnant incomes and stressed-out lives.
But you could argue that, in a deeper way, Silicon Valley – not the old Valley that was full of garage startups and true innovators, but the financially driven Silicon Valley of today – represents the apex of the shift toward financialisation. Today the large tech companies are run by a generation of business leaders who came of age and started their firms at a time when government was viewed as the enemy, and profit maximisation was universally seen as the best way to advance the economy, and indeed society. Regulation or limits on corporate behaviour have been viewed as tyrannical or even authoritarian. “Self-regulation” has become the norm. “Consumers” have replaced citizens. All of it is reflected in the Valley’s “move fast and break things” mentality, which the tech titans view as a fait accompli. As Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen wrote in an afterword to the paperback edition of their book: “Bemoaning the inevitable increase in the size and reach of the technology sector distracts us from the real question … Many of the changes that we discuss are inevitable. They’re coming.”
Perhaps. But the idea that this should preclude any discussion of the effects of the technology sector on the public at large is simply arrogant. There is a huge cost to this line of thinking. Consider the $1tn in wealth that has been parked offshore by the US’s largest, most IP-rich firms. A trillion is no small sum: that is an 18th of the US’s annual GDP, much of which was garnered from products and services made possible by core government-funded research and innovators. Yet US citizens have not got their fair share of that investment because of tax offshoring. It is worth noting that while the US corporate tax rate was recently lowered from 35% to 21%, most big companies have for years paid only about 20% of their income, thanks to various loopholes. The tech industry pays even less – roughly 11-15% – for this same reason: data and IP can be offshored while a factory or grocery store cannot. This points to yet another neoliberal myth – the idea that if we simply cut US tax rates, then these “American” companies will bring all their money home and invest it in job-creating goods and services in the US. But the nation’s biggest and richest companies have been at the forefront of globalisation since the 1980s. Despite small decreases in overseas revenues for the past couple of years, nearly half of all sales from S&P 500 companies come from abroad.
How, then, can such companies be perceived as being “totally committed” to the US, or, indeed, to any particular country? Their commitment, at least the way American capitalism is practised today, is to customers and investors, and when both of them are increasingly global, then it is hard to argue for any sort of special consideration for American workers or communities in the boardroom.
Tech firms are more able than any other type of company to move business abroad, because most of their wealth is not in “fixed assets” but in data, human capital, patents and software, which are not tied to physical locations (such as factories or retail stores) but can move anywhere. And as we have already learned, while those things do represent wealth, they do not create broad-based demand growth in the economy like the investments of a previous era.
“If Apple acquires a licence to a technology for a phone it manufactures in China, it does not create employment in the US, beyond the creator of the licensed technology if they are in the US,” says Daniel Alpert, a financier and a professor at Cornell University studying the effects of this shift in investment. “Apps, Netflix and Amazon movies don’t create jobs the way a new plant would.” Or, as my Financial Times colleague Martin Wolf has put it, “[Apple] is now an investment fund attached to an innovation machine and so a black hole for aggregate demand. The idea that a lower corporate tax rate would raise investment in such businesses is ludicrous.” In short, cash-rich corporations – especially tech firms – have become the financial engineers of our day.
There are the ways in which big tech is driving the mega-trends in global markets, as we have just explored. Then, there are the ways tech companies are playing in those markets that grant them an unfair advantage over consumers. For example, Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon now own the digital advertising market, and can set whatever terms they like for customers. The opacity of their algorithms coupled with their dominance of their respective markets makes it impossible for customers to have an even playing field. This can lead to exploitative pricing and/or behaviours that put our privacy at risk. Consider also the way Uber uses “surge pricing” to set rates based on customers’ willingness to pay. Or the “shadow profiles” that Facebook compiles on users. Or the way in which Google and Mastercard teamed up to track whether online ads led to physical store sales, without letting Mastercard holders know they were being tracked.
Or the way Amazon secured an unusual procurement deal with local governments in the US. It was, as of 2018, allowed to purchase all the office and classroom supplies for 1,500 public agencies, including local governments and schools, around the country, without guaranteeing them fixed prices for the goods. The purchasing would be done through “dynamic pricing” – essentially another form of surge pricing, whereby the prices reflect whatever the market will withstand – with the final charges depending on bids put forward by suppliers on Amazon’s platform. It was a stunning corporate jiu-jitsu, given that the whole point of a bulk-purchasing contract is to guarantee the public sector competitive prices by bundling together demand. For all the hype about Amazon’s discounts, a study conducted by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance concluded that one California school district would have paid 10-12% more if it had bought from Amazon. And cities that wanted to keep on using existing suppliers that did not do business on the retail giant’s platform would be forced to move that business (and those suppliers) to Amazon because of the way that deal was structured.
It is hard to ignore the parallels in Amazon’s behaviour to the lending practices of some financial groups before the 2008 crash. They, too, used dynamic pricing, in the form of variable rate sub-prime mortgage loans, and they, too, exploited huge information asymmetries in their sale of mortgage-backed securities and complex debt deals to unwary investors, not only to individuals, but also to cities such as Detroit. Amazon, for its part, has vastly more market data than the suppliers and public sector purchasers it plans to link.
As in any transaction, the party that knows the most can make the smartest deal. The bottom line is that both big-platform tech players and large financial institutions sit in the centre of an hourglass of information and commerce, taking a cut of whatever passes through. They are the house, and the house always wins.
As with the banks, systemic regulation may well be the only way to prevent big tech companies from unfairly capitalising on those advantages.
There are questions of whether Amazon or Facebook could leverage their existing positions in e-commerce or social media to unfair advantage in finance, using what they already know about our shopping and buying patterns to push us into buying the products they want us to in ways that are either a) anticompetitive, or b) predatory. There are also questions about whether they might cut and run at the first sign of market trouble, destabilising the credit markets in the process.
“Big-tech lending does not involve human intervention of a long-term relationship with the client,” said Agustín Carstens, the general manager of the Bank for International Settlements. “These loans are strictly transactional, typically short-term credit lines that can be automatically cut if a firm’s condition deteriorates. This means that, in a downturn, there could be a large drop in credit to [small and middle-sized companies] and large social costs.” If you think that sounds a lot like the situation that we were in back in 2008, you would be right.
Treating the industry like any other would undoubtedly require a significant shift in the big-tech business model, one with potential profit and share price implications. The extraordinary valuations of the big tech firms are due in part to the market’s expectations that they will remain lightly regulated, lightly taxed monopoly powers. But that is not guaranteed to be the case in the future. Antitrust and monopoly issues are fast gaining attention in Washington, where the titans of big tech may soon have a reckoning.
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