Saturday, June 3, 2023

How to Exit the Polycrisis the World Walked Into

Until now, more often than not, economic crises were all singular and well defined. The world will either have slowing down demand with its side effect of lower inflation, or the world will have high inflation with its side effect of a surge in demand.

But this time around, things are slightly different. Confusing even many economists, the world is witnessing high inflation but with a slowdown in demand. Now, this is something not only pretty strange, but something that leaves not many levers for the governments and central banks to act upon.

This is one reason why many thought leaders are citing that the world is in a polycrisis. To add fuel to this fire, are the various global developments like the unprecedented war by Russia in Ukraine, the equally unprecedented economic slump in China, the very much anticipated but unprepared-for population degrowth in Europe, and the disruptive advent of generative AI like ChatGPT, to cite just a few.

While many factors are behind all these diverse challenges, for the highly observant mind, it can easily be seen that one social trend is behind it all. In fact, it is not just a social trend, but something that runs deeper, with its roots in the human psyche itself. It is nothing but the human tendency to deliver excesses, in both committing an act and in later correcting that act.

For those who know human physiology in some depth, parallels can easily be seen in how the cells and systems of our body react to various stimuli. For instance, the much discussed dopamine cycle. There is a baseline dopamine level, but achievement, rewards or euphoria spikes dopamine, but it cannot stay there forever. 

Soon it will be time for a fall, and when dopamine levels fall, it will not stop at the baseline level, but plummet sharply below it. In fact, higher the rise above baseline, higher will be the fall below it, sending happy and euphoric people to sudden gloom and doom, within a matter of hours. People who don’t realise this mechanism, often go after reward-seeking behaviour again and again, be it partying or drugs, to get a new high, only to fall even more deeper, and thus maintaining this vicious cycle of addiction.

Eerily, almost the same thing is happening in global economics too. The world went through a sudden demand slump due to Covid, and central banks responded with easy liquidity by way of lower and lower interest rates. And the otherwise smart companies like the tech majors started thinking that this will remain the new normal forever, and invested more and more into a digital future and in the engineers needed to run that future.

And tech majors alone were not to blame. Some of the otherwise most prudent investors and lenders, like the PE and VC funds, imagined that profits in their funded startups are not important anymore - in this new normal - but that valuations or marketcaps are enough to sustain operations forever.

But inevitably, like the dopamine slump, everything has to correct deeply for the economy to find itself in a stable ground again. Take the recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank in the US that started the most recent leg of the ongoing contagion. SVB was the lender of choice for startups, and the collateral was often the share pledges by promoters of these startups. 

Even more seriously, these young millionaire and billionaire promoters also parked much of their funds in SVB. But when the inevitable correction in the markets came, and the mass layoffs started, the outlook turned suddenly dark, the value of the pledged stocks became only a fraction of their peak values, and the promoters couldn’t take back their deposits in time, and everything came crashing down like a castle of cards.

The world had seen this coming, yet walked into it, mainly because everyone else was doing it. Yet, there have been notable exceptions to this trend across the world. Quite a few companies stood their ground and focused on growing their bottomline along with their topline, paid generous but prudent dividends, and kept aside much for a challenging phase that they saw coming.

There are quite a few measures that governments and companies can take to avoid such excessive behaviours. Firstly, it is important to realise that valuations can never substitute for profits. Secondly, it is important not to over anticipate the durability of an ongoing trend, especially if it feels too good to be true. Such a timely realisation would have been enough to avoid the kind of mass layoffs being witnessed now.

Last but not least comes an objective called sustainable and inclusive development. Governments should realise that the per capita income of their people is way more important than the GDP. Companies should realise that a mindless hiring and firing culture would gradually result in top talents not willing to work at all in their sectors. It doesn’t make sense for the companies themselves to always aim for aggressive valuation growth or even profit growth, but to always choose inclusive and sustainable growth for all stakeholders.

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