Social Tech: Intangible Product and Unimaginable Scale

One of the most amazing concepts about social media is that as a business, it operates at an unimaginable scale with what is essentially an intangible product. By “intangible product” I mean that a company like Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook doesn’t actually have a product that uses traditional distribution methods since it’s online, and you can’t physically touch what arises from it (contrary to Amazon).

Thus, the use of servers end up becoming the company’s main cost if the product successfully scales to thousands, or in the best case, millions. 

One of the best examples of the one-of-a-kind scaling nature of social media is the rise of Instagram. It launched in October 2010, and within three months, had 1 million users. In February 2011, the company received $7 million in Series A funding from Benchmark Capital. About a year later in April 2012, Instagram was valued at $500 million after securing an even bigger round of funding, $50 million, from Sequoia Capital.

All Instagram allowed you to do was share photographs with your friends and other people you know. It doesn’t sound like anything revolutionary, but when it exists within a instantaneous medium, it ultimately changes how people communicate. So at first, even if the idea doesn’t seem world altering, its value is actually greater than one would expect. Similar to how the telephone and telegram revolutionized mass communication, new age companies like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have certainly restyled the way in which people interact.

The real issue for these businesses is making legitimate revenue. Since their product isn’t actually built to sell, the main way they make money is through striking advertising deals. So in the early stages when these companies don’t have ads running, investors bet massive sums of money based on user growth. The logic is, once ads sell to a huge user base, the company will then be worth all those dollar bills.

According to TechCrunch, Snap Inc. was projected to amass near $1 billion in revenue in 2017, but through Q1, it notched only $149.6 million, and at the Q2 close, it hit $181.6 million. These numbers have steadily increased over the years, as you can see from the graph below of the 2015 quarterly revenues. From $4 million of revenue in Q1 to $33 million in Q4, the growth of revenue was obvious in 2015 because the user growth was still flying high.

Since user growth has slowed in 2017 for Snap, the revenues haven’t been going up at such quick of a rate. With this trend happening, it appears Snap is trying its best to convince advertisers to use the app, releasing an Ad Manager platform in June that helps to optimize ads for appearance on the app.

Fifty years ago, most of what I’m talking about in relation to technology didn’t exist. And people would’ve thought building a billion dollar company, while making little to no revenue, was impossible. But now, the ever increasing use of mobile technology has opened up a market for intangible products, whether or not the actual money being earned measures up to the product’s hype.

What the Market Telling Us about the Korean Peninsula Conflict

A rogue state testing hydrogen bomb sent a missile over the territory of a neighboring country. The American president promised “fire and fury” if threats continue. Sounds a lot like the plot of a Hollywood thriller, right? Tthe Market, however, doesn’t seem to think the world is heading for to conflict and chaos. International investors are relaxed about the potential crisis on the Korean peninsula, and the market stays undisturbed. According to the recent data collected by the Economist, economic indicators including the yield on Treasury bonds and the MSCI World equity index fell, while the Gold price rose in the recent month. However, these movements are not big. In fact, the South Korean stock market, which should be most sensitive to the risk war, is doing better in comparison to the start of the year.

Let us consider the terrible possibility of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. In addition to the tragic humanitarian loss, the global economy will also suffer. Capital Economics points out that South Korea produces 40% of the world’s liquid-crystal displays and 17% of its semiconductors. If Japan was the target of missile strikes from North Korea, as it might be, the disruption would be even greater for that Japan is the world’s third largest economy.

So how can we justify the market’s insensitivity to this delicate political situation? Some propose that the market is simply not very good at assessing political risk. A recent example would be when the European market failed to foresee the result of Brexit. The vast majority of polls and markets had “remain” with a solid lead. It was only when the polls shifted towards “leave” in early June 2016 did the market moved in the same direction. Still, never once did “leave” come close to taking the lead.

Another explanation is that investors have learned in recent decades that geopolitical events tend to have only very short-term impacts on the markets. In comparison to political risks (e.g. the result of a presidential election), economic growth and corporate profits are far more important factors to consider for the investors. The reality is, no one can run enough analysis to properly assess and predict the situation with North Korea based on polls or past data.  Nevertheless, the market has made a decision that for now, they do not believe a serious incident will happen on the Korean peninsula. So let us all hope that the “wisdom of crowds” wins this time.

 

The economics behind Brazil’s addiction to junk food

Thousands of men and women walk up and down the streets in Brazil. They carry with them various items ranging from Kit-Kats to pudding. They collectively make up the workforce of Nestlé. Working for nearly $200 a month these vendors bring supplies directly to consumers. They part of a larger problem in Brazil, one that carries economic roots and is affecting the health of men, women, and children nationwide.

As the growth of sales for companies like Nestlé slows down in wealthy countries, they have since turned their attention to isolated areas in regions within Latin America, Asia and Africa to help make up for the loss in profits. The result is a loss of traditional diets in favor of Western processed food and drink. Years ago people in these countries were underweight, now they are obese and more importantly malnourished.

In 1980, 7% of Brazil was considered obese. That number has since doubled to over 18%. This is directly attributed to the availability of packaged foods. From 2011 to 2016, packaged food sales grew by 25 percent worldwide compared to only 10 in the U.S. Even scarier is the sales of soft drinks which in Latin America have doubled and have since overtaken the North American region in sales.

Not only are companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé finding bigger footing in Brazil, but they are making their influence on local agriculture as well. What were once fields strewn with vegetables have since been replaced with soybeans, corn and sugar. These vegetables make up the bulk of ingredients found in processed foods. As with such companies like Dominoes are reaping the rewards who in 2016 added 1,281 stores, all but 171 were built overseas.

So how did the problem become so bad? Brazil has always suffered from economic disparity. People lacked jobs and the jobs they did have did not pay well enough to sustain a healthy live. Big box companies have since capitalized by not only offering jobs, but providing cheap sources of food that claim to pack all the necessary ingredients. However, the problem runs much deeper than that.

Seeing the problem early, Brazilian politicians aimed to pass legislation in 2010 that would limit the amount of junk food ads displayed to young people. The measures were quickly swift aside by Brazilian food and beverage companies. The remaining legislation that is left is currently being debated over.

Before corporate contributions were banned by the Supreme Court in 2015, politicians saw $158 million dollars donated to the National Congress all from food companies just one year prior in 2014. Coca-Cola was among one of the larger donators with $6.4 million dollars. McDonald’s added another half million to the present $112 million donated by meat giant JBS.

As the last line of defense between a health crisis and the future of its people is debated, thousands of vendors are now living much more fulfilling lives on part of companies like Nestlé. Where the country of Brazil was unable to provide for its people before, big companies are now allowing them to live their dreams. In the New York Times article from which this information is cited, a woman was able to purchase a new refrigerator, television, and stove off of her $185 a month salary. She has since started saving money for a new home.

Nestlé is not helping its salespeople, but their consumers as well. Their over 700,000 direct customers have an entire month to pay for their purchases which allows them to consistently satisfy their eating habits. The company also offers 800 products, many of which are part of new initiatives to limit high salt, sugar, and trans-fat properties. While these initiatives help the consumers, they do more on part of Nestlé. Government aid is delivered at the end of the month and most consumers find themselves over indulging knowing that a check will be sent to them shortly. More so, while these companies boast loads of vitamins their chemical properties leave much to be desired.

Encircling this entire problem is the violence that plagues the streets of Brazil. Parents and children fearful of rampant gang violence have since elected to spend the majority of their time indoors. The ability to have food delivered only keeps them further from the outside. With no exercise in sight, many children fall victim to obesity at a young age.

Brazil now finds themselves in another hole. How do they protect their people from future health issues while still allowing them to live these newfound lives.

The Economic Impact of Repealing DACA

On Sept. 5th, the Trump administration announced the repeal of DACA. As a part of the announcement Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that DACA has had a negative impact on the American economy, that is not correct. Rather, repealing DACA would hurt the economy.

Repealing this Executive order will not only lead to almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the united states as kids not being able to work legally and being at risk for deportation, but it will also have a negative impact on the size and growth of United States economy.

First, the actual act of repealing the excretive order will be expensive. The Cato Institute estimates that it will cost the federal government at least $60 billion over the next ten years to execute the repeal of DACA.

By rescinding DACA, the GDP would both shrink in size and growth. A Center for American Progress study estimates that the repeal of DACA would cause US GDP would shrink by $433 Billion over 10 years. The Cato Institute estimates that in that same time frame US economic growth would be reduced by $280 Billion. Both these studies show a dramatic negative impact on the American Economy.

The GDP would not be the only thing to suffer. A CAP study approximates that the contributions to entitlement would drop by $24.6 Billion.

DACA recipients are a key working age population, the average age of a DACA recipient is 22. As the overall American population ages and there are more people dependent on Medicare and social security we will need more people to pay into these programs. By eliminating DACA we are also eliminating a group that

helps keeps entitlements funded.

In general, the United States needs immigration in order to keep our

population pyramid in check. DACA has helped increased that vital working age population to help hold up our increasing top-heavy pyramid.

DACA will not only have a negative impact on national economy, but some states with large populations of DACA recipients will face even greater economic consequence.

California, the state with largest number of DACA recipients, would face an estimated $11.3 Billion annual GDP loss. Texas would also face approximately a $6.1 Billion GDP loss per year.

Venezuela – What happened?

Once a wealthy country in the 1970s, Venezuela is now experiencing political turmoil and its citizens are living in poverty. With over 298 barrels of proven oil reserves, why is Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserve in the world, the poorest performer in terms of GDP growth per capita? What happened to one of the richest countries in Latin America?

  1. It’s ongoing economic crisis

Venezuela is now in its fourth year of recession. With the economy shrinking, the price of goods keep increasing. The price for a dozen eggs is equivalent to US$150. So, this means devaluation of their currency, the Bolivar. To put it into perspective, one U.S. dollar was 100 bolivars in 2014. In 2016, one dollar got you 1,262 bolivars. On top of this, years of the excessive government spending and poorly managed government programs led Venezuela to experience its worst economic crisis in history.

  1. The currency split

Venezuela established three different exchange rate systems for the bolivar; one rate for “essential goods”, the other for “nonessential goods and another one for its citizens. The two primary rates overvalue the bolivar, and the black market values bolivar near worthless. The government has tried increasing the number of bolivars to tackle this problem, but the money in circulation isn’t enough.

  1. Venezuela is running out of cash and gold

Venezuela is struggling to pay its bills. It owes approximately US$15 billion while its central bank only has US$11.8 billion in reserves. The oil company, PDVSA (Petroleum of Venezuela), is pumping less oil and is at risk of defaulting. China used to come to Venezuela’s aid and loan it billions of dollars at a time. But even China has stopped giving out cash. Interestingly, most of Venezuela’s reserves are in the form of gold and has being making debt repayments in the form of gold bars.

  1. Its hottest commodity, oil, isn’t “hot” anymore

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, but the problem is that oil is the only commodity it has to offer. Ninety-five per cent of Venezuela’s revenue comes from exports, so if it doesn’t sell oil, the country hasn’t got much money to spend. Venezuela’s situation went downhill pretty quickly when oil prices plunged in 2014. It’s been struggling to recover ever since.

  1. Government control

The Venezuelan government enforced strict price controls on golds sold in supermarkets. It also stopped food importers to cease importing basically everything because they would have to sell their products for a major loss. In 2016, the government stopped enforcing price control. However, prices are still so high that Venezuelans can’t afford even the most basics supplies.

There are many factors that have contributed to Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil. The challenge for the country will be to escape the cycle it is stuck in, and that’s only if they can sort out the state of their government first. There won’t be a quick fix solution, it will be long and arduous journey for the country.

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The U.S. household income increased, but there is still much to do.

The data released by the Census Bureau in the income, poverty, and health insurance report on September 12 seem to portray a healthier U.S. economy.

In fact, the annual report shows that the median household income rose by 3.2% from $57,200 in 2015 to $59,039 in 2016, and that the percentage of people living in poverty decreased in 2016 by 0.8% from the rate registered in 2015. Additionally, the data reveal a drop in the percentage of people without health insurance coverage: the value registered in 2016 was 8.8%, 0.3% less than the value registered in 2015 (Reuters).

Overall the quality of life in the United States seems to be improving and this means that the growth that the country has seen since the recession in things like the stock market, is at least to a certain extent also starting to show in households (Marketplace). Yet, skepticism lingers over the data shown in the report.

Considering other measures could help to better understand why the U.S. still has much to do to repair its economy.

The report by the Census Bureau reveals that the income inequality rate is not decreasing: there are still huge divisions in incomes because of people’s gender, race and age. Moreover, inequality between Americans is growing (The New York Times).

In addition to income inequality, there is another measure that we should take into account: supplementary poverty. As pointed out by Forbes, unlike the poverty rate, supplementary poverty considers many of the government programs designed to assist low income families and individuals that are not included in the official poverty measure. Therefore, it shows that there are many families above the official poverty level that are actually receiving government aids.

This is one of the aspects that shows there are still many open questions about how economists should measure the poverty level and what values to take into account. Despite a rise in median household income, there are a lot of people who still feel «economic frustration», because there are different factors that influence people’s wages and economic opportunities, like for example the place where they live (Marketplace).

Beside these measures, also the number of health insurance coverages raises skepticism among the experts.

Even though the percentage of householders having insurance coverage increased, a breakdown of these data could reveal a different story.

If we look at people with income at or below the poverty level, we can see that 16.3% of them lack insurance coverage: «these are people who can least afford to take on medical debt» (Forbes). This percentage is quite remarkable when compared with the 4.6% of householders above the poverty level living without insurance coverage.

Despite these issues, it seems that the U.S. economy is improving overall. This element matters a lot, since President Donald Trump has announced that he wants to reform the current tax system and cut government spending. Democrats, considering the economic improvements shown in the Census Bureau’s report, «now have more ammunition to argue that the changes Mr. Trump seeks would mess with the success » (The New York Times).

The Federal Reserve is also paying close attention to the data released by the Census Bureau and to the current status of the U.S. economy. In fact, Janet L. Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, is expected to end the Fed’s lenient monetary policy in a meeting scheduled this week; the changes that will be following could affect the current improving U.S. economy.

Yet, whatever effect the new monetary policy will have on the economy, the increase in household income and the drop in the poverty rate is a reflection of the higher number of people back in the work force and of the 2.2 million of jobs added over the past year. The growth in the number of working people is «a vivid illustration of the old maxim that a job is the best antipoverty program » (The New York Times).

 

 

Why are states required to have balanced budgets?

With over $20 trillion in amassed debt, the United States federal government is no stranger to running budget deficits. It’s essentially common and expected practice now. For college students my age, the knowledge that there used to be a balanced budget in the US comes as a surprise that almost doesn’t seem real.

But for most state and local governments across the country, balanced budgets aren’t just the norm, but the rule. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states require their governor to propose a balanced budget, 39 require the legislature to pass one, and 37 require the budget to continue to be balanced at the end of the fiscal year. In California, the constitution requires the governor to propose a balanced budget and prohibits the passage of a budget in which General Fund expenditures from exceeding General Fund revenues. In cases like California’s, it’s hard for states to even attempt to carry a deficit because their constitutions prevent them from selling bonds to pay for it.

California’s constitution was ratified in 1879. That’s 138 years (ideally) of balanced budgets. So why can’t the federal government do the same?

Spending only as much money as you get is definitely sound fiscal policy to ensure the solvency of the state government, but it does limit what legislatures can do in times of crisis. States and local governments are reliant on taxes on sales, income, and property — revenues that fall in economic recession when people lose their jobs, lose their property, and/or don’t buy as much. At the same time, reliance on safety net welfare programs increases, putting the state in a budget crunch.

Just as in the federal government, a great deal of state spending essentially runs on autopilot and is difficult to control. States take in — and then spend — a lot of money from federal grants or reimbursements, and the way that money is spent is typically determined by the federal government. Other revenues are specifically earmarked by law, such as money from lottery sales or gas taxes. And in other cases, like Proposition 98 in California, the state is required to spend a certain amount of money on specific departments. (Proposition 98 requires California to spend increasing amounts on education based on economic and enrollment growth).

A lack of flexibility can lead to desperate actions when the economy falters. Governments freeze hiring, stop maintaining buildings, cut back services, furlough employees, or renegotiate pension agreements. In 2009, Arizona was so desperate to balance its budget that it sold public buildings as a way to get money fast — including the Capitol, the state fairgrounds, and some prisons. These cuts can have further impacts on what we typically perceive as economic recovery, since state and local government spending makes up about 12 percent of GDP.

Whether this is good or bad depends in many ways on ideology. If state and local governments were allowed to follow the Keynesian model and spend their way out of an economic downturn, that would allow for even more powerful economic recovery efforts. But followers of Friedrich Hayek’s thinking would say that cutting state budgets in times of crisis keeps us rooted in the reality of the services our government gives us — and what they’re worth.

What Would the End of DACA Mean for the Economy?

The health of the United States’ economy is largely determined by the actions of the President and those appointed by him. Ever since Donald Trump’s presidency began, the country has held its breath watching the decisions he has made on behalf the U.S. people, hoping for the best.

Most recently, one of President Trump’s decisions is putting the country at risk of a huge economic decline. A few weeks ago, Trump chose to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program, which was put in place by Barack Obama to protect the children of immigrants who came illegally, from being deported. This decision would affect about 800,000 “dreamers” in the U.S.

While the DACA program’s future is still not officially decided, if no supplemental program is put into effect, the loss of all those jobs plus the government expenses could be detrimental to the economy. A study conducted by the CATO Institute concluded that the cost the federal government alone would suffer from deportation efforts over the next 10 years would total at least $60 billion. The overall economic impact would be over $200 billion.

In addition to the governmental costs that the end of DACA would bring, the U.S. GDP would also take a hit. The Center for American Progress conducted a study finding that without the DACA workers, the GDP would decline by $433 billion over the next 10 years.

This decline would be felt in certain parts of the country more than others. California, for example, employs about 188,000 DACA workers. If the program was terminated, the GDP in California alone would suffer a loss of $11.3 billion a year. Texas would lose $6.1 billion per year, and North Carolina would lose $1.9 billion a year.

FWD, a pro-immigration reform group, conducted a study finding that 91% of DACA recipients are employed. Many employers of Fortune 500 companies have been stepping forward defending the DACA program and advocating for Congress to put a stop to Trump’s movement. As Microsoft President, Brad Smith stated via a blog post, “These employees, along with other DREAMers, should continue to have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to our country’s strength and prosperity.” He admitted that Microsoft knows of at least 27 employees who are DACA beneficiaries, including engineers, finance professionals and sales associates.

The White House has enacted a six-month delay to the end of the program to give Congress time to act and hopefully come up with another solution. Until then, dreamers will continue to protest, advocate and fight to keep their rights and avoid the eventual economic decline that would come from the end of DACA.

How is the Economy Weathering the Storm?     

It is not surprising that the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey is significant. Not only did the consecutive hurricanes demolish everything in their paths, they could also have a significant impact on the GDP as a whole. Goldman Sachs “sees GDP expanding by 2% during the period, down 0.8 percentage points from its previous forecast” after the destruction took place in Texas, Florida and Louisiana. Hurricane Irma has racked up more expenses and impacted more people than Hurricane Harvey, which hit just a month prior, and Hurricane Katrina back in 2014. Even if the hurricanes weakened before it hit land and resulted in minimal to no damage, the preparation, evacuation and complete halt to a segment of the economy is significant and that does not include the damage in the aftermath. As for direct impacts to the GDP, accrued loss to oil and energy will have an impact on the GDP growth. Not only do the hurricanes ruin working infrastructure, but it displaces the people responsible for consumption and production. Depending on how quickly everything can be reconstructed, that displacement could last a while. Another aspect of the measurement of damage is that the real accumulation of destruction cannot be determined until the water is cleared, a majority of the city is cleaned up and the economy moves forward. It just takes time to measure the breadth of the storms in the aftermath. With that being said, these are all predictions for how the economy will be ultimately impacted at this time. Like we have mentioned in class, confidence is a key factor as a leading indicator for the economy. So, if people think that the damage is a lot worse than it is, the market will reflect that with people pulling out of investments from the areas and businesses affected by the storms.

Not only are the economic environments in the states where the hurricanes hit affected, but the entire country could feel the ripple effect of those record-breaking storms. According to JLT Re, a global reinsurance brokerage and consulting firm, “the estimated U.S. insured losses, excluding any National Flood Insurance Program claims, are $20 billion to $25 billion from Harvey and $40 billion to $60 billion from Irma.” Keep in mind, it is still too early to tell the exact effects of the hurricanes and if it causes a significant impact on Americans who live outside of the areas hit. The government will be responsible for a big chunk of the cost due flood insurance, which is not included in home owner’s insurance and is the government’s responsibility. Both hurricanes have the potential to be two of the most expensive, not only from an economic perspective, but a human one, which does not look promising for the commercial property insurance market.

But, from a Keynesian perspective, there will be financial and personal suffering initially, however, in terms of the greater economy, it will not be too disastrous and probably be better for jobs and the construction business. With reconstruction and relief efforts, a lot of money will be pumped back into the economy of those respective cities which will allow the economy to somewhat bounce back. I know there does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, but the economy will weather this storm and re-stabilize. It will just take time. It definitely did not ease the blow that two devastating hurricanes hit within a month of one another, there is a potential Hurricane Jose on the horizon and more, but our flexible economy will be alright, even if it is at the cost of short term anguish.

A Speculated Economic Silver Lining Brightens the Shadow of a Natural Disaster: How the U.S. Economy could benefit from Hurricane Harvey

The ruthless storm battering Houston, Texas is said to rank as one of the nation’s costliest disasters, with speculated loss of tens of billions of dollars in economic activity and property damage in an area critical to chemical, energy, and shipping industries.

 

Despite the widespread devastation and predicted losses of up to $100 billion, economists vocalized optimism that the Texas city is likely to recover quickly and may experience economic growth from rebuilding efforts.

 

Historically, the U.S. economy has rebounded following natural disasters, most easily associated with the financial resurgence following the $40 billion loss from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the $25 billion loss from Hurricane Ike in 2008. Dan Laufenberg, chief economist at Ameriprise Financial, stated, “the U.S. economy rebounded from Katrina, although the region hit by the storm has not, demonstrating once again how amazingly resilient our economy can be.”

 

The Houston metropolitan area, the U.S.’s fifth largest based on population, accounts for approximately 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Texas is often attributed as a center for oil production and refined products like diesel fuel, gasoline, heating oil, and other distillates.

 

In anticipation of increased demand due to the hurricane, wholesale trading prices for gasoline increased 6 cents to $1.75 per gallon on the benchmark contract set to settle next month. Ellen Zentner, chief United States economist at Morgan Stanley, suggested the lagged effects of rebuilding homes and replacing motor vehicles will outlast the anticipated neutral impact on national gross domestic product in the third quarter, providing a lift to GDP in the fourth quarter and beyond.