Equity without capital, twenty years later

I received a review copy of Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, which has a 2018 copyright date.

1. My first reaction is to be a bit miffed that my name is not in the index. Nick Schulz and I wrote a book on the intangible economy, and the first edition appeared in 2009. Going back even further, in 1998 I wrote an essay called Equity without Capital. That essay is still interesting to read, and it anticipated some of the central issues in their book. But probably fewer than 200 people saw it when I wrote it.

2. Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro aren’t in the index, either. That is a less forgivable omission. Information Rules sold well.

3. I hurried through the book, and I was inclined to give it a mixed review. But when I re-read it, I only re-read the sections that I liked the first time. I decided that those sections are really good. Now I am inclined to give the book a strong recommendation.

4. The organization of the book is excellent. The good news is that you usually can skip to the end of the chapter and read its conclusion to get the main point. The bad news is, well, why not just condense the book into an extended essay? And if you left out the sections of the book that did not do much for me, the extended essay would work even better.

Gosh, I am really being hard on them, for some reason. It really is a first-rate book. I’m not sure why I keep wanting to talk about what I don’t like about it. But, here I go again:

5. They make a big deal about recent literature that arrives at measures of intangible capital. However, as they point out, such measures are fraught.

Their analysis says that intangible capital has four s’s: sunk costs (investments in assets that cannot be re-sold); scale (network effects and path dependency can bring very high returns); synergies (combinations of ideas are worth more than the ideas are worth separately); and spillovers (ideas are easily copied or imitated).

This implies, as they recognize, that intangible capital can be worth much more than what it costs to obtain, because of scale and synergies. But it can be worth much less than what it costs to obtain, because of sunk costs in non-marketable assets. In bankruptcy, you can sell off the office furniture and the fleet of trucks (tangible assets), but not the business process that proved unsustainable or the failed attempt to establish a brand (sunk costs).

But the measures of intangible capital use acquisition cost as the measure of investment in intangible capital. That may be a reasonable way to value tangible capital. But to me, their four s’s imply that intangible capital’s value cannot be reliably represented by its acquisition cost.

To get technical, Tobin’s q is the ratio of the market value of capital to its replacement cost. Think of it as the ratio of the stock price of a firm to the acquisition cost of its assets. For tangible capital, q should be close to 1. But for firms with a lot of intangible capital, like The Four, it is much, much greater than 1. Tyler Cowen’s recent column, Investors are celebrating the tech revolution, says that the current high values of q are a positive signal about future economic growth.

Of course, for many dotcom stocks in the 1990s, q shot way up before dropping to zero, which is what my essay was predicting. But by the way, one of the stocks I was skeptical about back then was Amazon, and if you held onto that, the losses on the rest of your 90’s doctcom portfolio might not trouble you.

Looking at this balance between superstar value and failure, the authors propose that, well, on average, the value of intangible capital for the whole economy ought to be somewhere close to what it costs. I thought they were just hand-waving at that point.

They understand well enough that intangible capital is not exactly like tangible capital in the neoclassical model. But I do not think that they are ready as I am to take the next step and jettison the neoclassical framework.

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One Response to Equity without capital, twenty years later

  1. Tom G says:

    I really like your ability to be honest about yourself: one of the stocks I was skeptical about back then was Amazon, and if you held onto that, the losses on the rest of your 90’s doctcom portfolio might not trouble you.

    I also think you’re mostly right most of the time. You’re a bit hard on these authors not only for not finding your earlier work on this, but also in not having a much stronger conclusion, even now, many years later.

    And perhaps there’s some envy that this book’s timing will make it MUCH more successful than earlier, equally good work (like yours).

    Their hand-waving conclusion: the value of intangible capital for the whole economy ought to be somewhere close to what it costs.
    I’m now looking at such claims and asking: is 100 billion more spread out as 1,000 for each of 100 million taxpayers the same as 100 billion more spread out between the 3 richest Americans: Gates, Buffett, Bezos? The “value for the whole economy” is quite different for these two different distributions of the same total quantity.

    A huge and increasing problem is that too much already, and more in the future, of the increased value of economic growth is going to the owners of intangible capital. This is pretty close to Piketty territory…

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