The “new, new normal” post-Covid-19

After the GFC of 2007-8, we were told to get used to the “new normal” – of low/slow/no growth, record-low interest rates, constant tech disruption and market dislocation as economic systems became increasingly decoupled from one another. And just as we had begun to adjust to this new reality, along comes Covid-19 and totally knocks our expectations sideways, backwards and upside down, and with it some negative long-term consequences. Welcome to the “new, new normal”.

Just what the doctor ordered: “Stay home and read a book!”

In the intervening years since the GFC (and don’t those days seem positively nostalgic from our current vantage point?), we have already seen ever lower interest rates, even faster disruption in business models and services, and a gradual dismantling of the trend towards a global economy. The pre-existing geopolitical landscape has either exacerbated this situation, or has been a prime beneficiary of the dismantling of the established structures of pluralistic, secular, non-sectarian, social-democratic and liberal societies.

First, relations between the Superpowers (USA, Russia and China) have not been this bad since the Cold War. Second, nationalism has not been as rife since the 1930s. Third, political leadership has tended toward the lowest common denominator of populist sloganeering. Not to mention the rise of fundamental religious sects, doomsday cults and tribal separatist movements. Let’s agree that even before the current pandemic, our resistance was already low….

Whatever your favourite conspiracy theory on causes and cures for Covid-19, it’s increasingly apparent that populist leaders of both the left and the right will use the pandemic as vindication of their policies – increased xenophobia and tighter border controls, increased centralisation of power and resources, greater surveillance of their citizens, a heightened intolerance of political dissent, a continued distrust of globalisation, and a growing disregard for subject matter experts and data-driven analysis.

The writing’s on the wall? Message seen in East Melbourne

There are obviously some serious topics up for discussion when we get through this pandemic. Quite apart from making the right economic call (“printing money” in the form of Quantitative Easing seems the main option at the moment…), governments and central banks are going to have to come to grips with:

  • Universal Basic Income – even before Covid-19, the UBI was seen as a way to deal with reduced employment due to automation, robotics and AI – the pandemic has accelerated that debate.
  • Nationalisation – bringing essential services and infrastructure back into public ownership would suggest governments would have the resources they need at their disposal in times of crisis – but at the likely cost of economic waste and productivity inefficiencies that were the hallmark of the 1970s.
  • Inflation – as business productivity and industrial output comes back on-line, the costs of goods and services will likely increase sharply, to overcome the pandemic-induced inertia.
  • Credit Squeeze – banks were already raising lending standards under tighter prudential standards, and post-pandemic defaults will make it even harder for businesses to borrow – so whatever the central cash rates, commercial lenders will have to charge higher lending rates to maintain their minimum risk-adjusted regulatory capital and to cover possible bad debts.
  • Retooling Industry – a lot of legacy systems might not come out of the pandemic in good shape. If we have managed to survive for weeks/months on end without using certain services, or by reducing our consumption of some goods, or by finding workarounds to incumbent solutions, then unless those legacy systems and their capacity can be retooled or redeployed, we may get used to living without their products all together.
  • Communications Technology – government policy and commercial settings on internet access, mobile network capacity and general telco infrastructure will need to be reviewed in light of the work from home and remote-working experience.
  • The Surveillance State – I’m not going to buy into the whole “China-virus” narrative, but you can see how China’s deployment of facial recognition and related technology, along with their social credit system, is a tailor-made solution for enforcing individual and collective quarantine orders.

Another policy concern relates to the rate at which governments decide to relax social-distancing and other measures, ahead of either a reliable cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Go too early, and risk a surge or second wave of infections and deaths; go too late, and economic recovery will be even further away. Plus, as soon as the lock-downs start to end, what’s the likelihood of people over-compensating after weeks and months of self-isolation, and end up going overboard with post-quarantine celebrations and social gatherings?

Next week: The lighter side of #Rona19

 

Notes from Phuket

Last week I was privileged to spend a few days in Phuket, for a wedding. The last time I was there (in early 2011, and for another wedding), I noticed the number of bars and shops that had added Russian to the list of languages on their signage and menus. This time, in the area where I was staying, all of the hoardings around the real estate developments were only written in English, Chinese and Russian – clearly a targeted marketing strategy for the new apartment blocks and resorts currently being built, and further evidence that the island is at something of an international cross-road, if not actual destination.

The wedding party itself was an international affair – guests had travelled from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe, US, Australia, Japan and Thailand itself. Moreover, the demographic was decidedly multicultural, and comprising mainly multiracial and inter-faith couples and families. Not surprising given that nearly all the guests were expats, most of whom had met while we were working in Hong Kong.

The truth is, all of us who were there are beneficiaries of globalisation – choosing to move around the world for work (and for love). Just the sort of gathering that would incur the disapproval and wrath of anti-globalists, racial purists, and religious fundamentalists. Most of them would hate the idea of such a global affair, given the current environment of nationalist, protectionist and segregationist politics that pervades much of the world (Brexit, Trump, Middle East…).

Although the prospect of Brexit was largely lamented by those in attendance, the bigger concern was of course about Hong Kong. While the latest and most dramatic phase of the popular protests there seems to have abated, and although the pro-democracy candidates dominated the recent local elections, there seems to a complete absence of political dialogue between the Hong Kong government and the protest movement.

One school of thought is that the Hong Kong government took it for granted that it could enact the proposed (and highly controversial) extradition Bill. It may have even convinced the Central Government in Beijing that the Bill could pass into Legislation unopposed. If so, that suggests a huge misjudgment and a lack of communication and consultation on all sides.

Of course, should the major experiment in political, economic and social integration (one country, two systems) that is the Hong Kong SAR fail, it will be a major obstacle to resolving the issue of Taiwan (for which it is supposed to have been designed). It would also represent a setback to the concepts of international co-operation, free trade and self-determination, within a framework of mutually recognised and respected co-existence between sovereign states.

Meanwhile, back in Phuket, it was great to sample some authentic Thai food, enjoy the glorious sunsets and embrace island time. Re-visiting Patong after more than 20 years revealed just how industrialised the island’s so-called entertainment area has become – but in the spirit of globalisation, multiculturalism and international trade, at least it doesn’t discriminate: everyone (and their money) is more than welcome!

Next week: The State of PropTech