Huawei Quarantine Accelerates Tech ‘Balkanization’ Trend

“The three core issues of concern to China are the cancellation of all tariffs, that trade purchases be in line with reality, and that the text of the agreement be revised so as to be more balanced. These issues must be resolved. This trade friction has made us more aware that we have shortcomings in terms of economic structure, quality of development, and core technologies. [We must] enhance the sense of urgency in accelerating indigenous innovation and resolve the bottleneck imposed by insufficient mastery of core technologies. CCP Propaganda Department Commentary on the US confrontation in People’s Daily newspaper last Friday

We have regularly covered the rise of China’s tech sector over the past decade and the complacency in Silicon Valley which has only recently been shattered by Huawei’s threatened dominance of the global 5G rollout. The ‘balkanization’ trend already evident in software ecosystems from messaging to payments will now extend to hardware throughout the supply chain – there will be a China centric physical internet architecture over the next decade centred on Huawei as much as a software one around companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Bytedance with the big ‘neutral’ EM markets like India a key battleground.

In the near term, the notion that China can be quarantined as a technology supplier looks naïve – alternative vendors like Nokia and Ericsson make 5G hardware with Chinese partners in mainland factories for sale globally, leaving their equipment vulnerable to malicious tampering – will they have to relocate production to ‘safe’ locations to sell into the US? If so, the global rollout will be significantly delayed…

Huawei has been rapidly vertically integrating with its own chip making subsidiary, HiSilicon, producing highly advanced 5G designs, albeit fabricated (as for Apple and Google) by TSMC. As a Chinese tech VC contact told me in Shanghai last October, cut China off from TSMC and it would be casus belli like the Japanese oil embargo in 1940. If the US is serious about confronting China’s competitive threat on a sustained basis, it needs to boost government R&D spend on basic science (instead it’s been cut), deepen the capacity of domestic tech supply chains via education investment and targeted tax credits or cutting off broader Chinese access to advanced GPU chips and postgraduate student access to STEM courses at colleges such as MIT and Stanford. Those moves would be expensive and disruptive for the US economy and are still possible future steps if relations become even more antagonistic.

China offers uniquely low (marginal) consumer electronics assembly costs plus high-volume flexibility. You can never replicate the mainland factory dormitory model in the US or even Korea and Taiwan. The increasingly well educated rural migrants filling Foxconn factories are the ultimate ‘on demand’ workforce – manufacturing elsewhere would mean higher assembly costs/decreased flexibility thanks to the constraints of current generation assembly line robotics.

Even with high levels of automation, a fully US assembled iPhone would likely cost about 40% more at the factory gate (with Apple gross margins at ~37%, the current tariffs imply a price rise of about 15% to offset the impact, unless the RMB plunged toward 7.5 versus the USD). For instance, Quanta Computer, the largest laptop maker in the world with clients from Apple to Dell, warned last week that the logistical costs of shifting consumer electronics production out of China could prove as expensive as the tariffs themselves. 

Automation is part of the answer to offshoring from China but changes the business model – assembly by Chinese migrant workers is a marginal cost for a factory owner; robots are a fixed cost, although the assembly of an additional unit has zero marginal costs (excluding overheads like maintenance etc.). New AI software will help but it’s still expensive and time consuming to program factory robots to perform multiple tasks.

The implication of this shift from marginal to fixed costs is that there is a heavy incentive to stick with a specific design: any change requires significant capital investment to update the robotic assembly line – the flexibility of the entire consumer electronics sector will deteriorate, with higher inventories and fixed overheads once it loses China’s unique attributes as a global production base – given wafer thin margins, consumer prices will trend higher even if a face saving deal could avoid further tariffs.

Relocating the supply chain for smartphones or laptops will be hugely disruptive, wherever the destination and it certainly won’t be the US – the much-hyped Foxconn factory to make TV screens in Wisconsin has become a fiasco, despite $4bn in tax breaks and subsidies. The lack of a skilled manufacturing workforce will be a key constraint on US re-shoring, as much as logistics considerations – flying components in from Taiwan/S. Korea to assemble phones in the US makes little sense.

The effort to lobotomise Huawei looks ill thought out and will have generated intense lobbying by the most adversely impacted US suppliers – there will likely be some nuance in the implementation. However, the endgame is now clear and US tech companies will have to mitigate ongoing compliance risks by reducing exposure to Chinese SOEs. We’ve seen a few companies like Go-Pro begin relocation (to Mexico in this case), but this will now accelerate while China will race to become a ‘full stack’ technology power by mastering semiconductor fabrication and an indigenous mobile operating system.

In the case of both Iran and Huawei, the US has unilaterally exercised its global power over international bank payments systems and key technologies like the Android OS to exercise brute force geopolitical leverage – the lesson drawn by many in Europe and Asia is that alternative architectures are now needed. Ultimately, China which remains the only country apart from the US to understand the critical value of ‘platform’ software and is catching up rapidly in AI and quantum computing research, will become an even more formidable competitor to the US tech giants. The Xi 2025 plan, whose ambitions triggered panic in Washington from the Pentagon to Congress, will now be implemented sooner, by any and all means possible.

 

Google Takes Gaming From Console to Cloud

‘…with EA’s cloud gaming service and Microsoft’s plan to build a streaming, subscription-based service. Faster average broadband speeds mean lower latency is achievable – although graphic-heavy games may require the equivalent of the 5G network rolling out initially in Asia. The EA system uses essentially the same content delivery technology as used by Netflix and it is betting that the technological shifts that upended the music and movie industries are now coming to games, which looks shrewd. The advantage of owning the distribution platform which is the essence of the Tencent/NetEase strategy is clear in the mobile games space…the industry is slowly evolving toward subscription-based cloud gaming – game ownership, whether via disc or download, will become redundant and gaming publishers will boost recurring revenue. Of course, the flipside is that missing out on a key title launch can reverberate through lower earnings trends for several years – the quality of earnings improves for sector winners, but the volatility is higher for losers so sector performance dispersion will rise sharply.’ –  Weekly Insight, September 18th 2018

“Games are no longer episodic consumptive media for most people — they are now really the basis of new massive online communities that are a lot more like social networks in the way that they function and that we invest spend time in them. So much happening in the pattern of consumption of this medium that no one is paying attention to. You can’t put humans in a space like [Fortnite] for that long and not have massive, profound social consequences. We are just not seeing them yet. I’m almost a little bit ashamed as a gamer myself not to have seen just how big this is. This is staggeringly large.” Improbable co-founder Herman Narula interviewed recently

He’s right about the potential for massive multiplayer games to become the ultimate social network, and it behoves every equity portfolio manager to understand how fast this sector is now evolving. I’ve been a secular bull of the global gaming sector as a key play on the dematerialisation of consumption and the rise of the digital ‘metaverse’ in which real money is spent on acquiring virtual utility and status. As immersive technology becomes more sophisticated (particularly as AR/VR becomes practical via edge computing), more and more incremental consumption will shift from tangible ‘stuff’ to virtual experiences.

We remain long a global gaming exposure stock basket which is up almost 20% YTD and the point I made in that note last September was that the video gaming industry, which looks set to become the dominant form of entertainment for under 30s (directly playing, watching on video and other forms of live engagement such as esports), was inevitably set to follow the wider media transition to an on-demand subscription model. The legacy model of creating a hardware platform, such as Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s Switch, and then charging publishers for the right to access it, is now under relentless pressure. The Japanese companies have responded by creating subscription services and offering content other than games, but Google’s push into the industry is a seminal moment. The search giant however not only has to provide a smooth lag-free experience, but also convince key game title publishers to port their content.

As Nintendo prepares to launch two new models of its Switch console (which generates over 80% of total revenue) the risk of annual sales peaking at just under 18m units is growing as the industry undergoes a paradigm shift. As cloud subscription-based streaming goes mainstream, the company’s real value may lie in its well-known game franchises, such as Pokémon licensed to the web giants hungry for content. The US web giants are likely to follow Tencent in vertically integrating to obtain content. The Netflix analogy is relevant – we are set to see a bidding war for game IP and an M&A surge for publishers over the next couple of years.

On its earnings call last month, Sony’s CFO said cloud gaming could pose a threat to PlayStation in the next five years but that the company believed that would take a much longer time horizon – that looks dangerously complacent. Google has set the bar at producing images in ultra-HD (also known as 4K) which is ahead of today’s consoles and at a fast-enough frame rate to make movements appear smooth (Google is matching the 60 frames per second of the latest Xbox and PlayStation consoles). Google’s data centres are among the world’s most powerful – to render images smoothly for Stadia, Google has built optimised new server “blades” that can be slotted into racks in its data centres.

These are embedded with custom-designed GPUs produced by AMD and in terms of raw computing power these generate over 10 teraflops to the individual user versus Microsoft’s Xbox One X at about 6 teraflops (though the next generation of consoles will likely double that). A key technological challenge will be to eliminate the latency, or lag, that can slow the response time when a player presses a button on the game controller. Google claims more than 7,500 nodes on its global computing network, increasing the chance that players will be close enough to see a fast response time but users outside large cities could find themselves many miles from a Google node. The new game controller is connected through Wi-Fi and communicates directly with Google’s data centre, but it will rely on local network operators for the household connection. Google must be betting that its latest video compression algorithms will be able to deliver the seamless quality of service required to be competitive.

Recent progress in this field has been impressive. For instance, Microsoft’s new Project Zipline compression algorithm is fast enough to compress data while it’s being written to an SSD or uploaded from an IoT device and can deliver up to 96% compression of the original data on the Microsoft internal network. The reason it’s so fast and so efficient is that it uses a custom hardware accelerator to look for many times more patterns than compression algorithms can usually handle; data that matches any of those patterns gets replaced by a reference to the pattern, taking up much less space.

The long-term implications for the hardware storage market of this AI pattern recognition/compression software approach are clearly adverse – the optimisation of slack which defines the tech sector is coming to data transmission and storage hardware. Google said it recommends broadband speeds of at least 25mbps to deliver HD images (known as 1080p). Some potential customers won’t have enough bandwidth. It also limits playing games on mobile devices, unless they are connected over Wi-Fi to wired networks. Future upgrades to mobile networks will help, but tellingly Google itself made no mention of the potential of 5G networks, which in the US/Europe won’t go mainstream until the mid-2020s given the gradual planned telco rollout.

As highlighted in that sector note last year, viewing activity on Twitch or Huya offers a useful insight into overall game popularity – watching expert players live-stream on these platforms correlates highly with game download/in app purchase activity. While Fortnite still has the largest number of Twitch channels, its share of viewers have been declining in recent months, down from a peak of 19% to 9%, being displaced the Apex Legends, which accounted for over 20% of viewers after its recent launch before settling at around 6-7% viewership while the PUBG share of viewers has been steady. Apex Legends has had the best launch month of any free-to-play game in history, having generated $92m last month from in-app spending. Fortnite (which is constantly updated) has been impacted, but recently reached over 250m players since launch.

While new game approvals in China have resumed, Tencent has yet to get permission to monetise Fortnite or the mobile version of PUBG. Sales from the Value-Added Services unit, which includes online games and messaging, climbed 9% to 43.7bn RMB but costs surged 43% y/y as investment in content and server financial technology surged. Tencent plans to introduce a new category of sales when it next reports to break down specific categories in the “others” revenue section in its financial statement. Tencent’s one-off costs contributed to a 19 ppt drop in operating margins to 20% but as a result its biggest revenue growth now comes from cloud services, where sales more than doubled last year, to 11% of revenues.

This is a crucial infrastructure investment for Tencent, not just to diversify away from gaming/WeChat revenue dependence but also to create the infrastructure to launch its own cloud gaming system (which is apparently already in beta testing). The web giants will likely demand exclusivity/original publisher content to drive subscription package differentiation as Microsoft, Tencent and Google launch competing cloud platforms within 12-18mths. As elsewhere across the media sector under the impact of streaming, content creators are in the sweet spot…

‘Peak Smartphone’ Slams Tech Hardware

‘…we are reaching ‘peak smartphone’ and the upgrade cycle is lengthening as new features prove less than compelling – the mobile app landscape has certainly become stagnant. Heavy discounting of the Samsung S8 ($150 plus) is apparent already in the US and the recent profit warning by the UK’s largest phone retailer highlighted a consumer behavioural shift. While the hype cycle will intensify ahead of this month’s launch of a premium advanced OLED screen model with facial recognition security, if the queues outside Apple shops for the new iPhones prove surprisingly short (or short lived), watch out below.’ Weekly Insight, September 6th, 2017

‘The ‘Peak Smartphone’ theme justified an underweight stance back in Q4 across the most heavily exposure Asian supply chain stocks, with DDR4 DRAM prices down about 20% from its January peak and NAND flash down a third. Many DRAM bulls put premature faith in AI and AVs as incremental demand drivers, certainly valid medium term, but not on a scale to offset smartphone/PV weakness this year while for chip makers the end of the crypto mining frenzy is starting to impact. TSMC said this week that sales will rise by only a ‘high single-digit’ percentage in USD terms, down from a previous (reduced) projection of 10%.’ Weekly Insight, July 20th 2018

The smartphone saturation risk we covered over a year ago has gone mainstream and rippled through the global hardware supply chain, with NAND flash prices crashing this year, DRAM also now peaking while production volumes for premium new phone models have disappointed across the sector. It’s hard to believe that most tech analysts missed this pretty obvious inflection point, when even the IMF noticed the industry had topped out as an Asian growth driver (smartphone shipments were about a sixth of global trade growth last year), but mindless extrapolation of the prevailing trend remains the default setting of bottom up analysts.

Smartphones have seen little innovation beyond camera quality and biometric security since 2016; the lack of compelling new hardware features (or new apps requiring them), and the growing ‘digital detox’ trend as awareness of the adverse productivity impact of notification addiction rises have both dragged on demand growth. Tighter network upgrade policies as well as limited ‘must have’ innovation have seen US and European consumers replacing phones every 2.5 plus years, a rise of 7-8 months since early 2016.

As we highlighted a year ago, the refurbished market has seen explosive growth and was the fastest growth segment last year, reaching over 140m units and is still growing at a mid-late teens pace. Three-year old ‘as new’ iPhones and Samsungs have been flooding emerging markets at typically a third of the price but nearly all the functionality of new. The weak outlook was confirmed by several Apple suppliers this week including Lumentum, Japan Display and UK chipmaker IQE this week – Apple as a ’luxury’ tech brand has finally succumbed to wider sector dynamics, although higher ASPs and the shift to services mean that the component supply chain takes a bigger hit.

Until 5G rolls out at scale from 2020 (and compelling new use cases beyond watching Netflix on the move have yet to appear), it’s hard to see the wireless sector regaining much impetus. While Samsung and Huawei plan foldable screen launches next year, initial volumes are likely to be modest at a price point above $1,000. Valuations now certainly look far more reasonable and expectations more realistic, but the downgrade cycle looks set to run into Q1 19. Our view remains to focus exposure  on stocks with high exposure to the nascent autonomous vehicle/automation sensor and emerging consumer segments such as smart speakers.

However, there will be an opportunity in the 5G rollout in niche areas such as high-end optical chips/dark fibre as well as smart antennae. Chinese producers will have a head start and gain critical mass, as the country embarks on the telecom equivalent of the hugely impressive high-speed rail network, which I used several times on a research visit last month. There will certainly be opportunities in China for specialist foreign vendors like Nokia, but the ‘full strength’ 5G being implemented via a new national core network is a critical component in the effort to drive domestic suppliers up the hardware value chain, in both phones and wireless infrastructure.

Facebook Debacle to Accelerate ‘Self-Sovereign’ Privacy Innovation?

We highlighted coming into 2018 that investors faced an inflection point in the ‘zeitgeist’ for US web stocks, which have been engaged in a form of classic rent seeking and regulatory arbitrage as they built natural monopolies in which the user is the product. We have been secular bulls on global tech over the past few years (although broadly preferring the Chinese to US internet names since 2015 on more diversified business models) but the blind faith of some portfolio managers I’ve met this year has seemed almost cult like. At one meeting last month, an investor whose biggest single holding (in a value fund) was Facebook informed me after an hour of debate that Zuckerberg was a business genius who would prove our bearish thesis wrong, end of.

Perhaps, but he’ll have to do better than the self-servingly sanctimonious ‘building a community’ mantra to restore user and more advertiser faith. Of course, even if revenue growth and margins now almost certainly disappoint, Facebook is at least highly solvent and cash generative. Tesla isn’t without a significant capital infusion by end summer and is still struggling to scale up manufacturing, as evidenced by the disastrous Model 3 launch. The last car so badly built in the factory that it had to be effectively reassembled by dealers was the Soviet Lada, exported to Europe to earn hard currency in the 1980s. At least the Russians could knock out (literally) serious volumes.

Our tactical portfolio has recently been short the US web names, even as tech-focused stock funds have attracted net inflows equivalent to half of those seen in all of 2017. The almost viral, social media inspired retail frenzy that infected crypto in Q4 moved on a handful of leading tech names despite extended valuations priced for execution perfection. Just as belated regulatory action has slammed the crypto sector, so it will for several leading web names. The end of crypto and ICOs as an advertising revenue stream for Google/Facebook is a risk to H2 numbers as it will be for the GPU chip names as coin mining approaches marginal profitability.

There is no question that companies such as Microsoft retain strong earnings momentum (and Microsoft’s ‘software as a service’ reinvention via Office 365 cloud subscriptions etc. has been mirrored by many other legacy software names such as  Adobe). There are plenty of attractive themes in tech but the vulnerable areas to an investor exodus are those with unsustainable business models. and extreme positioning. It’s now widely accepted that ‘weaponized AI’ was used to micro-target voter groups based on interpolating preferences from their social media activity in both the US Presidential and Brexit votes, but intrusive data trawling looks far more widespread than yet realized, including via Android phone records.

I’ve compared social media in research notes to digital nicotine or casino gaming, with the adverse addictive fallout only now becoming apparent. However questionable ethically, until now this activity has remarkably remained almost wholly unregulated. Indeed, the same psychological design features that casinos use in slot rooms to maximize ‘time on device’ and engagement are embedded in multiplayer games, Facebook timelines etc. As that view of the negative externalities becomes widespread, ESG investors will likely begin reducing exposure.

Just the threat of regulation will drive up compliance costs which will be a medium-term earnings growth drag (the employment of thousands of outsourced ‘screeners’ over the past few months checking for offensive content to appease advertisers is just the start). The aggregation effects that fuelled social media/search and e-commerce platforms drive natural oligopolies if not monopolies, albeit with market power difficult to identify within a classic consumer welfare anti-trust framework.

Facebook was misunderstood in the sense that it was an inherently weak business model than the consensus believed in just how much relevant user data it could collect directly for advertisers. Unlike say Google, that forced it to rely on elaborate inference to discover user tastes and needs. It had to collect, share and ‘harvest’ as much behavioural and relationship related user data as possible beyond its own network via its Graph API partnerships until 2015. Most users when they agree via a single click to the complex disclaimers on apps simply can’t understand the implications of the agreements they are entering into and as with sectors from banks to airlines, consumer protections will now gradually be legislated, with the EU’s GDPR rules from May the first step.

With personal data privacy now becoming a priority for many, ‘self-sovereign identity’ systems are emerging to make it easier to take back control. These imply that individuals control the data elements that form the basis of their digital identities, not unaccountable private companies. This digital equivalent of a wallet contains verified pieces of our identities (passport, biometric etc.) which we can then choose to share with third-party apps and sites on a selective basis. This type of online identity uses standard key cryptography,  enabling a user with a private key to share information with recipients who can access the encrypted data with a corresponding public key.

By allowing individuals to control their online reputation and privacy, self-sovereign identity may ultimately become the most valuable and widespread blockchain application and would make it much harder for data hackers (or harvesters) to access sufficient data to interpolate income level, political beliefs etc. That would erode the business model of the ‘Apex Server’ web giants, but for software companies not based on stockpiling user data, decentralized identity should be a boon for customer acquisition and management.

In a recent blog post, Microsoft announced that it would start supporting decentralised identification technology within its existing verification application. Apple is also likely to take advantage of Facebook’s humiliation with a privacy focused product – its iOS phones have been immune to Facebook’s trawling of SMS and call records on Android devices for close contacts on the social network. Indeed, tech investors need to start thinking of data privacy winners and losers across the sector in a regime shift for the Silicon Valley ‘consumer as the product’ advertising led revenue paradigm. 

Tech ‘Second Movers’Begin to Perform

The right place this year has been in tech, above all for EM investors with the sector now over a quarter of the MSCI index and accounting for almost half of total performance YTD. The rise of ‘embedded intelligence’ as vision and other sensors enabled by AI software become ubiquitous has been a key theme of ours in recent years, and has attracted a belated consensus frenzy this year, with pure play stocks from Nvidia in the US to iFlytek in China soaring. However, the growth into value tilt we’ve suggested since the summer applies within as well as across sectors. There has been a pretty spectacular valuation arbitrage as new hardware technology and business models are adopted from retail to autos, among incumbents who sit on a fraction of the multiples of the perceived pure play tech leaders. We will see a similar trend in banking/insurance over the next couple of years as fintech startups broadly disappoint, but their innovations slash operating and customer acquisition costs for the more far sighted established names.

The global auto sector has rallied hard since the summer, partly because investors are waking up to the fact that several automakers have very undervalued IP in the EV/AV/transportation as a service space that offsets the wider industry stranded asset risk. This reflects the historical pattern as innovation diffuses – the re-rating opportunity from tech will increasingly be among incumbents adopting new technology to boost competitiveness, from Japanese banks like SBI experimenting with blockchain/crypto payments to car makers like GM, Toyota or Ford able to scale EV/AV roll out better than Tesla ever can. Selling digital advertising via click-bait news feeds is infinitely easier than mass manufacturing.

Indeed, the aggregation effects that fuelled social media/search and e-commerce platforms are not generally relevant in hardware, which tends to get commoditized rapidly. From an investment perspective we’ll have a multiplicity of overlapping technologies and ways to play their relative success, most of which will be in long established but reinventing blue chips. Disruption reflected in relative performance may well be driven more from within incumbent sectors (reflected in rising return dispersion) than from outside them.

WalMart has rallied strongly in recent months versus Amazon and GM versus Tesla as both start benefiting from the underestimated ‘second mover’ advantages of allying scale economies with new business models and technologies. GM or GE were not first movers in diesel locomotive engines in the 1930/40s but by rapidly buying up promising start-ups and harnessing them to vast engineering and balance sheet resources ended up dominating the transition from steam over the subsequent two decades, crushing smaller ‘first mover’ competitors along the way.

second movers

The parallels with GM’s pivotal Cruise Automation acquisition and Chevy Bolt platform being rolled out via Lyft are worth watching closely (with Ford attempting a similar reinvention) as are WalMart’s belated e-commerce shift via the Jet.com acquisition. The breathless Silicon Valley hype is ignoring a looming period of accelerated evolution within sectors that will radically change their leadership and where spotting the sector Dodos unable to rapidly evolve within a portfolio is critical.

As an example, being a value investor in tech is generally a losing proposition but Intel which in terms of chip sector evolution has become a ‘second mover’ by missing the GPU versus CPU shift has been racing to integrate a series of strategic acquisitions (notably Mobileye in autos and Nervana in AI chip design) to play catch up in this market – if it succeeds against low expectations, the huge valuation discount to the perceived AI market leaders will close and versus AMD relative performance has now turned decisively. Tech disruption won’t be the much feared extinction event for adaptable incumbents – the quality of management will be key alongside aggressive M&A to preempt new entrant threats, but there are growing signs that hugely rated tech insurgents are not  going to have it all their own way for much longer. Therein lies the investment opportunity…

 

Blockchain Deconstructs the Corporation…

JPM CEO Jamie Dimon recently declared that he would sack any of his traders playing bitcoin which he compared to Tulip mania, but given the broad volatility famine that has crushed Wall Street’s Q3 results, any half decent trader would surely be keeping their skills sharp in the wild world of cryptocurrencies. It’s important to differentiate between permissioned networks (e.g. across banks to settle securities) with a central authority and fully autonomous ‘permissionless’ ones such as that underpinning bitcoin, which threaten the role of banks as the apex of a longstanding financial hierarchy. Near term, blockchain offers banks, insurers and asset managers a margin windfall by slashing processing costs – long term, it threatens to undermine their gatekeeping role.

While I’ve been a sceptic of the recent ICO boom and the resulting profusion of new cryptocurrencies (supply certainly isn’t limited in the aggregate), but blockchain is probably comparable in long-term impact to the TCP/IP internet protocol in the 1990s. In other words, it could prove as significant an enabling technology in transactional terms as the original internet protocol was in transforming communications. By now, all investors are aware of the disruption risk to many incumbent business models from new technologies that shatter barriers to entry and compress margins and pricing power, but there is an even more fundamental question looming.

Could the firm, in the sense of the formal corporate entities that have evolved since Dutch spice expeditions to Asia gathered risk sharing investors in the 17th century, now become unbundled?  The information search comparative advantage of the firm versus consumer  or individual entrepreneur in classic microeconomic theory has narrowed dramatically while the cost of enforcing and supervising contract execution has tumbled via sharing economy models and soon the widespread use of digital ledgers.

As a reminder, blockchain is a distributed ledger technology, and uses a self-sustaining, peer-to-peer database to record and manage transactions in a decentralized manner. Verification of data is undertaken via complex algorithms and consensus among multiple systems, making it almost completely tamper-proof.  Data is transferred or stored using a series of blocks, each of which have a cryptographic hash protecting its contents. Any update or transaction on the data creates a new record in the form of another block, which is added to the existing blockchain.

The defining, radical characteristic of the digital economy in terms of traditional economics is its zero-marginal cost and we’ve now reached a point where something can be simultaneously digital and unique, without any tangible representation (bitcoin being a case in point). The bedrock of economic exchange is trust, and we now have technology that allows a reliable degree of trust to be established between total strangers in order to share resources, which has had profound implications for investors. That principle can be applied via the blockchain to anything from stock certificates to trust contracts, property title deeds etc. In that scenario, the elaborate hierarchy of trust we have built over several centuries via the legal system and complex compliance and oversight procedures becomes increasingly redundant.

This new distributed trust architecture could replicate much of the organization of a firm built on contracts, from incorporation to supply chain relationships to employee relations. If contracts can be automated, then what will happen to traditional firm hierarchical management structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers? Much of the corporate world is built on exploiting transactional ‘friction’ and information asymmetries between consumers and suppliers – the Internet over the past two decades has been a force for reducing these profit opportunities, from hotel room pricing to asset management. While crowdsourced trust between strangers via sharing economy platforms has been powerful in this respect, the advent of the blockchain over the next few years looks far more revolutionary.

As I’ve highlighted in many notes, online services and the advent of AI software are reducing slack and redundancy in the economic system – the internet from its inception has been about reducing search costs and price asymmetries between producers and consumers i.e. acting as a fundamentally deflationary force (a shift which central bankers still struggle to adapt their outdated equilibrium models to). Sharing economy platforms are zero marginal cost business models in terms of adding inventory (e.g.  advertising for Google/Facebook).

Google, Facebook, Twitter or Airbnb rely on the contributions of users as a means to generate value within their own platforms. Of course, in the existing sharing economy model, the value produced by participants is harvested by the platform owner with most of those contributing to the value production getting nothing beyond free access to services like social media, search or marketing their products.

Blockchain changes that because it facilitates the exchange of value in a secure and decentralized manner, without the need for an intermediary – to that extent, it’s a medium term threat to incumbent web giant business models, which are centralized rather than distributed and extract economic rent from often unwitting users. Digital ledgers and smart contracts reduce the capacity of the firm to enforce and exploit ‘trust arbitrage’. A far more fluid economic structure will develop over the next decade and beyond, with project focused associations of specialists coalescing and disbanding, their contractual obligations and financial entitlements will be delivered via blockchain.

Next year, we will begin to see significant blockchain and ‘smart contract’ deployment across the finance sector from maritime insurance contracts that rewrite themselves in real time to asset leasing and securities settlement. The logistics/freight forwarding business is another ripe for disruption and millions of mid-level admin jobs will be automated out of existence globally over the next few years as a result. While positive for early mover finance sector margins over the next few years, the implications for prime real estate look ominous, as office towers, which are simply warehouses of human inventory, begin to empty out.

Blockchain protocols make it technologically possible for a ‘Decentralized Autonomous Organization’ (DAO) of individuals with relevant skills to associate and organize for a specific task with the power to execute smart contracts between them and a client that can replicate many of the functions of a traditional corporate entity.  This shift marks the advent of a new generation of “dematerialized” organizations that do not require physical offices, assets, or even formal employees. Of course, this utopian vision won’t apply where regulatory compliance demands a centralized authority or significant capital/fixed investment is required but can certainly work across many ‘asset light’ service sectors from design to advertising and professional services, where freelancing is already common.

There is also a trade-off between blockchain network size versus transaction frequency. The blockchain is so far struggling to solve this trade-off between network size versus transactional frequency, and until that technical dilemma is resolved it’s hard to see this technology competing with existing payment networks like credit card networks or SWIFT on a global scale anytime soon (i.e. achieving several thousand transactions per second).

However, despite these and other limitations, the huge scale of capital now being invested in this area (some of it via the notorious ICOs) and surging interest from blue chip companies (particularly in Japan, as covered recently) suggest that every investor needs to reflect on the nature and implications of this potentially revolutionary technology. The current generation of cryptocurrencies may ultimately fall by the wayside, but the innovations that enabled them almost certainly won’t…