There’s going to be a new kind of entrepreneurship; not necessarily one that is building businesses with an established revenue stream or for a current market need, but one that bets on the needs of a future that the world wants to be creating. And the upcoming green race might unleash this new breed of entrepreneur more strongly than before. In the post-pandemic era where people might have got sick of government stimulus allowing billions of capital to slosh around the system, risking inflation and simply making the richer rich, fiscal policy might be returning to the center-stage as the new means of keeping the public voting base satisfied.
The green race is going to drive new winners in the economy as entrepreneurs who have positioned themselves to make the critical investments needed for the economy. Especially the ones that going to create the very jobs that politicians plan to trumpet about. Being able to think ahead and consider the kinds of businesses desired both by the public sector in an economy that is highly pro-market will be rewarded. The risk is that the public sector decides to take on the direct investments themselves rather than to ‘incentivise’ the businesses to do so. This is why the pro-market orientation of the government is important.
For the markets where the government have the tendency to perform direct intervention or deem infrastructure investments way too strategic to be left to private sector, the green race may take those economy in a different direction. They may choose to create new state-owned and managed entities to make new direct investments or to use the existing ones. And the green jobs will be created within state-linked enterprises. Civil servants who are savvy in these areas will tend to gain within such systems.
Either way, there are going to be new ways smart people will be gaming the system.
What is interesting about the coffee stories I shared is that entire cultures can be reshaped by business models and the slew of marketing that is fueled from the leverage investors allows. I’ve always shared the example of how Grab overturned the culture of hailing cabs off the streets in Singapore. Singaporeans don’t even hop on the cabs at the taxi stands anymore.
This has implications for government incentivisation and the manner by which incentives are doled out and the behaviours they are trying to change. Singapore government had been quite skillful in this area, having a smaller market to government and being able to impose ‘tighter’ controls. There are often careful checks and balances to prevent individuals and corporations from gaming the system to extract benefits from the system without abiding by the desired behaviours. And there’s also a big theme of maintaining consistency. This was why for the longest time, the government only allowed married couples to purchase public housing directly from the authorities; and even today, singles are only allowed to own these flats if they are aged 35 and above. The government wants to promote family formation and hence maintaining some consistency in the policy of public housing subsidisation.
Those elements recur in the position of offering tax breaks, providing further direct grants to new parents, priorities in public housing and so on. Businesses can learn from the same by ensuring that they steward the limited resources they have to reward those customers behaving in the desired manner (eg. referring other customers, posting about using their products) while making it harder for the ones whom the business do not desire as customers to consume the products.
As Singapore steps into the prosperity of modern society, we recognise increasingly that our prosperity and success isn’t about us as individuals but something we need to develop as a society. And that is driving the whole Forward SG exercise: the idea around reworking our social compact. Prime Minister Wong declared, “Here I have a plea to all: For a new definition of success to become a reality, all of us – as consumers – must be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services we consume. We must recognise the important work that our fellow citizens undertake to keep our society going, and do our part to uplift and boost their wage prospects.”
For this plea to work, it is not just about consumers and cultural mindset changes, the whole economic engine of the government including our policies on trade and industry. Essentially, our government needs to develop new ways to think about inflation: that it may be part of the consequences of uplifting the wages of our fellow Singaporeans and tradesmen. And the mechanisms around public sector procurement might need to change too if the PM himself is suggesting that consumers must be willing to bear higher cost?
We all are consumers, taxpayers, employers or employees somehow; the whole economy works such that we have these overlapping roles and what we fail to spend through consumerism, can be spent by the government through taxation. If the government genuinely wants to uphold certain principles of social distribution, it would be really hard to do so by moral suasion and avoid damaging the pro-growth stance.
When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.
On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.
Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.
I first heard about this as a question around which came first and the challenge of studying causality in somewhat circular systems. But then it was also characterised as a problem when we want to develop a new system to displace the prevailing one. It is some kind of situation where you need something to start another and you need the other to get the something you need.
Classically, if you want a thriving business, you need customer, stakeholder support but in order to do that, you need to have the business first. Or that you need capital to build a business but then quite likely the route to getting money for capital is to have a business. When success builds upon success, based on what you can observe, then you have a chicken-and-egg problem on hand when you want to create the success to begin.
Essentially anything that involves some kind of circularity exhibits this kind of problem when it needs to be first put in place. Several strategies have been looked into for this problem. There’s bootstrapping – which generally entails squeezing out some resources from existing pockets/spaces to be able to get the first bit of results which will drive more. And then let it snowball.
There’s the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it‘ approach, which involves essentially lying to at least a small group of stakeholders to get them onboard in order to bring in the others. I do not recommend this. Finally, you could also take immense amount of risks, exhausting resources, adopting the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach.
Governments in particular do all three a lot. And it can be wise to learn from them when it comes to business. Sometimes they can be good entrepreneurs.
Who eat half-baked cookies? Probably someone who have never tasted a cookie; or maybe someone who prefers cookie dough, or don’t know what you were trying to bake. Yes when you don’t know what you’re trying to bake, then something half-baked works just as well as one that is properly baked.
Likewise, there are plenty of half-baked solutions lying around and even implemented by those who have no clue what is the problem they are trying to solve.
We often overlook the importance of specifying a problem well before getting our hands dirty to solve it. Being biased to action isn’t always good when one does not have strong thinking. Of course, if there’s a system of trial and error that continuously test different solutions to find one that works, that’s okay. The challenge is in not knowing what problem one is trying to solve; or attempting to design a solution that tries to solve multiple problems.
Then there’s no proper test for the solution at all, no success indicators that allows the solution to past the usefulness test.
So if a government comes up with a scheme and it is not used; or an incentive programme which no one in the market qualifies, what just happened? Did the problem that it was designed to solve not actually exist? Or is the solution half-baked?
Insurance seemed like betting against your death or misfortune and some people don’t want to bet on your personal downfall so they don’t want to buy insurance. For years, the industry have been trying to change the story and they settled on the idea of protection, financial protection against those misfortune.
In principle, that works theoretically but the issue is that a lot of what you pay for is sales and distribution. The structure of the industry is such because insurance works well only when the risks are being pooled. That means having lots of people paying the premiums in order to support payouts during adverse events. As a business though, it means that the firm is ultimately a sales and marketing organisation. Costs will have to weigh disproportionately on the distribution side of the business.
This is a shame because the society needs insurance. Yet it is a market failure; the market system allocates resources poorly in this market. It can be better designed through a mix of regulation and making it mandatory to have certain amount of cover. The government should not think the market will help reduce cost of insurance through competition because the basis of competition in this market isn’t so much pricing. It is more sales, marketing and tactics.
But isn’t it just like many other products? For luxury products, yes. Basically for things people don’t actually need, you can allow the whims and fancies to be shaped by the market. But when it comes to insurance, you want the market to deliver an outcome so you need to design the boundaries and structure to make it work.
The story of insurance should be that of mandates, regulation, and basic necessity and right of people. We come together to live in highly urbanised environment and it should be a no brainer for us to risk-pool and mutually insure. There’s no excuse for this market to be hijacked to support high-flying salespeople.
In general, The Economist adopts a rather sarcastic tone when discussing Alan Greenspan’s role in the build up to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in 2007. They are arguing that central bankers are around to ensure macroeconomic stability and therefore are expected to ‘play safe’ and manage the economy. That is, if reducing short-term interests rates could rein in the housing boom, that should have been applied. Even if Greenspan couldn’t have identified the bubble, and that the house prices are not related to the interest rates that central bankers could influence, the leverage growth in securitised markets might be worth managing:
By looking only at the effect of monetary policy on house prices, Messrs Bernanke and Greenspan also take too narrow a view of the potential effect of low policy rates. Several economists have argued convincingly, for instance, that low policy rates fuelled broader leverage growth in securitised markets.
Of course, having just read Dot.con and Lord of Finance, I do realise that central bankers’ attempts at interfering with specific market booms have often been ineffective or with rather disastrous results and thus choose to focus only on economic fundamentals like price inflation. Greenspan does have a point when he suggests that the central bankers are unable to deal with a global force that are changing the conditions of the economy. Very often, these efforts may create further imbalances that merely postpones a crisis.
Like I say, no one claims monetary policy is easy to conduct – it’s too often more of an art than a science.
Many have attributed the housing bubble that eventually resulted in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis to the previous, one of the longest serving Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. We are pretty familiar with Greenspan, who have written Age of Turbulence. In his book, he highlighted his general argument against anyone who would finger-point him as allowing a bubble to inflate. He pronounce that it is impossible for anyone, whether the regulatory body or not, to accurately identify a bubble.
As for the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, politicians in the United States still blames it somewhat on Alan Greenspan and now that everything is cooling down, Greenspan offers his own defence. Although Greenspan was nicknamed ‘the Maestro’, he subtly attributes the period of great prosperity and low inflation to the globalization forces and technological advancement more than his skills at handling the monetary policy of US. In any case, he outlines his job at the Federal Reserve as an observer trying his best to keep to fundamentals of the economy and the crisis therefore comes as a surprise both because of how the economic agents have basically defied market assumptions namely on the issue of counter-party surveillance. Essentially the government cannot possibly provide the ‘self-interest’ that is supposed to drive the free market.
No one says that managing the economy is an easy job. Sound economics decisions by governments often turns out to be political disasters anyways so sometimes politicians stop heeding economists altogether. The recent issues that confront Tim Geithner is essentially similar; the economy is picking up thanks to his plans but people are unhappy with him. Figures on employment are not helping him anyways since the recovery is ‘jobless’ so to speak. Management of the economy is a huge balancing act for the government.
The idea of government has gone really far since the days of Locke’s conception of the social contract. The philosophy of governance in the modern world is just getting more complicated.
You must be logged in to post a comment.