Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Recommended reading from The Economist

I have a little time to kill here at SFO, so I thought I'd make a quick post recommending three nice survey articles in recent issues of the Economist. Sorry if you can't get to some of these articles without a subscription.

Special report on virtual online worlds: Second Life, virtual economies; this is just the beginning.

Unlike other virtual worlds, which may allow players to combine artefacts found within them, Second Life provides its residents with the equivalent of atoms—small elements of virtual matter called “primitives”—so that they can build things from scratch. Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab's product-development boss, gives the example of a piano. Using atomistic construction, a resident of Second Life might build one out of primitives, with all the colours and textures that he would like. He might add sound to the primitives representing the keys, so the piano could actually be played in Second Life. “Of course, since these are primitives, the piano could also fly or follow the resident around like a pet,” says Mr Ondrejka.

Because everything about Second Life is intended to make it an engine of creativity, Linden Lab early on decided that residents should own the intellectual property inherent in their creations. Second Life now allows creators to determine whether the stuff they conceive may be copied, modified or transferred. Thanks to these property rights, residents actively trade their creations. Of about 10m objects created, about 230,000 are bought and sold every month in the in-world currency, Linden dollars, which is exchangeable for hard currency. Linden Lab estimates that the total value (in “real” dollars) this year will be about $60m. Second Life already has about 7,000 profitable “businesses”, where avatars supplement or make their living from their in-world creativity. The top ten in-world entrepreneurs are making average profits of just over $200,000 a year.

Special report on credit markets: growth in private debt financing driven by hedge funds, credit derivatives; reduction in average vol, but systemic risk due to an untested system. Is it a classic story of risk diversification reducing vol and the cost of capital, or a gambling machine that might have a nonlinear meltdown?

Indeed, the market has changed so fast that regulators are not sure if it is spinning out of control. On one hand, innovations in the credit markets have helped to provide a remarkable period of stability in the world's financial system. In recent years, markets have lived through the end of the internet bubble, the collapse of Enron, the terror attacks of September 11th 2001, debt downgrades in the car industry and a stampede out of risky assets in May and June. Any one of these might once have triggered a financial crisis. But none did.

Cheap and liquid financing has enabled companies to make more efficient use of their balance sheets, potentially boosting returns to shareholders and allowing managers to concentrate on profits and cashflow. Despite the increased lending, banks have increased the cushions of capital that they rely on to be a safeguard.

On the other hand, as the debt and derivatives markets have grown out of all recognition, they have moved increasingly into the shadows. Regulators worry that some of the complex financial instruments conjured up around the lending and borrowing of money—worth trillions of dollars—may sow the seeds of the next financial crisis.

The credit markets are the motor for three of the big trends of the decade and some people find them unsettling. First, companies are raising more and more capital through privately issued loan instruments, as opposed to public equity—such as selling stocks or issuing bonds, which can be openly traded. Private deals are harder for regulators and ordinary investors to keep tabs on.

Second, the lending is increasingly being orchestrated from outside the regulated banking industry, by hedge funds and other credit investors that are often supervised only indirectly, if at all. These are especially big in the booming market for credit derivatives, which are also traded outside public exchanges.

Third, although some of this capital is available to public companies, such as Ferrovial, most of it is being gobbled up by leveraged buy-out firms, which use the money to buy public companies and remove them from the stockmarket.

Central bankers and supervisors increasingly worry about the risks to financial stability that may be lurking in the complex debt instruments dreamt up by the finance industry. One of their biggest concerns is how much danger there may be to regulated banks from the faceless institutions they now do much of their debt trading with: hedge funds.

Regulators are beginning to ask themselves whether hedge funds are adequately monitored through the supervision of the banking industry. Pressure is growing on the banks to deal sensibly with their trading counterparties. Equally, some question whether over-zealous supervision may have had the perverse consequence of driving business and finance away from the public eye.

Survey of world economy and emerging titans India and China. Very useful data and growth projections from Goldman. Note the difference between PPP and exchange rate comparisons of GDP; for these to converge in the next decades would require a big slide in the dollar vs. emergent currencies. Also note historic world GDP shares -- for 18 of the last 20 centuries world GDP was dominated by China and India, which accounted for (on average) 80% of the total.

LAST year the combined output of emerging economies reached an important milestone: it accounted for more than half of total world GDP (measured at purchasing-power parity). This means that the rich countries no longer dominate the global economy. The developing countries also have a far greater influence on the performance of the rich economies than is generally realised. Emerging economies are driving global growth and having a big impact on developed countries' inflation, interest rates, wages and profits. As these newcomers become more integrated into the global economy and their incomes catch up with the rich countries, they will provide the biggest boost to the world economy since the industrial revolution.

Indeed, it is likely to be the biggest stimulus in history, because the industrial revolution fully involved only one-third of the world's population. By contrast, this new revolution covers most of the globe, so the economic gains—as well as the adjustment pains—will be far bigger. As developing countries and the former Soviet block have embraced market-friendly economic reforms and opened their borders to trade and investment, more countries are industrialising and participating in the global economy than ever before. This survey will map out the many ways in which these economic newcomers are affecting the developed world. As it happens, their influence helps to explain a whole host of puzzling economic developments, such as the record share of profits in national income, sluggish growth in real wages, high oil prices alongside low inflation, low global interest rates and America's vast current-account deficit.

...Perhaps some of these countries should be called re-emerging economies, because they are regaining their former eminence. Until the late 19th century, China and India were the world's two biggest economies. Before the steam engine and the power loom gave Britain its industrial lead, today's emerging economies dominated world output. Estimates by Angus Maddison, an economic historian, suggest that in the 18 centuries up to 1820 these economies produced, on average, 80% of world GDP (see chart 2). But they were left behind by Europe's technological revolution and the first wave of globalisation. By 1950 their share had fallen to 40%.

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