NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The recent crashes and instability in the Chinese stock market continue. Even extraordinary government interventions (such as blocking large holders from selling for six months) have not stopped the bleeding.
This is not a real capitalist market (such a restriction on large stockholders could happen only in a state capitalist system). Meanwhile, a large chunk of the wider Chinese population uses the stock market as a form of gambling. So to assume there will be a bottom soon is risky. You are probably wise to avoid this whole market for the foreseeable future.
The crisis has woken up many people to the serious problem of the Chinese credit bubble and the likelihood that the country's economic growth will continue to slow. It may also underscore much deeper trends for the global economy.
Once upon a time, the majority of the population in the West was involved in agriculture. That began to end, at least in the U.S., more than 100 years ago. The cost of agriculture and hence food (and its share of total output; see the chart below) started to trend significantly downward. Today in America a small percentage of the population is involved in agricultural work. In the U.S., one can see vast wheat fields being managed by great machines, often with no drivers at all.
Industry eventually followed a similar trend. Greater and greater mechanization lead to cheaper and cheaper production throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and eventually industrial output became a smaller part of the U.S. economy, particularly over the last 30 or 40 years. Again, see the chart below.
Source: 1840-1900: Robert E. Gallman and Thomas J. Weiss. "The Service Industries in the Nineteenth Century." In Production and Productivity in the Service Industries, ed. Victor R. Fuchs, 287-352. New York: Columbia University Press (for NBER), 1969. 1900-1940: John W. Kendrick, Productivity Trends in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press (for NBER), 1961. 1950-2010: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts.
Then there was a shift of large chunks of productive capability eastward (e.g., to China) in search of even cheaper labor. The share of U.S. global manufacturing went from approx 29% in 1970 to approximately 10% in 2010, with China's share rising from 5% to nearly 20% in the same period, according to "The Data Mine" (part of CQ Roll Call), April 23, 2012. Hence, the cost of production trended, like that of farming, downward.
However, critically, the recent market collapses in China could be symptomatic of the beginning of the end of even the Chinese productivity growth phase. Perhaps China is simply seeing the bursting of credit-fueled bubble, but it's also possible that the country's current economic problems are part of the broader trend toward ever-lower costs of production.
In other words, we have entered more fully into the electronic "information" age and "knowledge" economy -- certainly in the advanced Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies. This is an era where the cost of food and productivity is trending toward such low levels that power and wealth become vested primarily in information, electronic data or knowledge.
It is this productivity message that may actually be the hidden story of the Chinese market crash (China being an industrial output-based economy).
To some this is an exciting prospect (e.g., Paul Mason in his book Postcapitalism). Mason and others argue that if food and goods become close to being free and power is vested in information, then we are destined for a new egalitarian future. It is argued after all that knowledge today is a "common good" and that the Internet allows us all to have access to it. We are, it is suggested, entering into a new quasi-utopian phase of human economic abundance and openness, at least in the developed world.
Mason however comes from a semi-Marxist, quasi-utopian background and there are reasons to be less optimistic. Although it seems the cost of production is now heading lower and lower, information may not be the universally accessible good that we would like to think.
There is real research that much of the information available to most people on the Internet is not ultimately very useful. Much of the information is inaccurate and filled with inconsistencies or bias. In fact, the Center of Economic Policy Research has argued the Internet may have exacerbated radicalization or irrational political fashions in the U.S. since it allows viewers to be selective with the information they review.
Robert Shiller, an economics professor at Yale, also argues the Internet has created greater volatility in our stock markets because it generates significant misinformation and bias, rendering many participants in the market not very rational at all. The "smart money" (he argues) is often crowded out of the market, creating constant bubbles (e.g., the current bubble in social media socks). How can you have the rational market of "efficient market theory" if so many of the participants in the market are not rationally informed?
The really valuable information such as patents, formulas, critical machine and pharmaceutical designs seem to remain largely the property of large corporations such as Apple (AAPL) - Get Report and Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report and big pharmaceutical companies. In this new information age, a new form of capitalism may be arising based on a monopolization of the control of information or knowledge sources.
A whole new form of econometrics may be arriving also. For a person to have an idea, he must eat, so we know there is some rough link between idea propagation and mass/energy. In a loose sense, ideas or information = mass/energy. In the human case this relationship is somewhat vague.
In the case of computer information, storage and processing this relationship can be very clear, however. Electrons generated by carbon brushes are being converted into information. Hence, we can measure exactly how much energy is required at any time for a given amount of information processing in a particular system. These types of correlations may in fact be the genesis of a whole new form of economic mathematics in the new electronic-based knowledge economy.
And the Chinese market crash tells us perhaps something else -- namely, that the need for still more developing "tiger" economies may be limited. The productivity revolution in China may have been enough to get that country heading toward First World status. But as the cost of production continues to trend lower, fewer and fewer Chinese-style economic "miracles" are needed.
A continent such as Africa, where the productivity revolution has hardly begun, may tragically be entirely too late for the whole game. That is, at least in the West, we may just not need (have demand for) further cheap productivity out of say Africa, because of the superabundance of low-cost output already achieved.
Meanwhile, to date, massive GDP growth from the IT revolution has not really been materially felt. This lack of GDP growth from the tech revolution has even been labeled the Solow computer paradox because of economist Robert Solow's 1987 comment, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." More recently, The Economist opined, "The digital revolution has yet to fulfil its promise of higher productivity and better jobs."
However, the tech revolution is still in its infancy. If agricultural and industrial production are becoming increasingly marginalized, future global growth may eventually revert to the OECD nations as the benefits of the knowledge economies start finally to show, in significant ways, in economic growth data. This, however, is still to be seen.
This is perhaps a quite frightening future. The costs of producing food and goods have tended to head lower, but this doesn't necessarily create some final nirvana. What, for example, will most people in the West do for a job? (We have already seen this problem in OECD countries.)
Well, one supposes the volume of services that can be offered could be infinite. A lady in the rich OECD can have a manicure not once a month, but every day, a man could have a massage every other day, not once a in a while, etc.
There will inevitably be large wealth disparities between those who control the "information" and those who provide these services in ever increasing volumes of sort of "quasi" jobs. Meanwhile, underdeveloped nations that missed the productivity boom may be left out of the economic growth equation entirely. Immigration issues in the rich OECD countries will continue.
All of this may create significant new questions of distributive justice. Whole new ideological issues may arise. We should recall that the division between left and right was really just a product of the industrial and French revolutions (originally simply indicating which side of the French Assembly you sat on).
But the notions of industrial capitalism or socialism are not necessarily eternal concepts -- they were intrinsically linked to the nature of industrial production and not after all notions of early ages (e.g., medieval or ancient agrarian economies). Likewise, in the knowledge economies, we may find the concepts of industrial capitalism/socialism have simply passed their sell-by dates. The clash of control over information in time to come may instead create its own radically new forms of political ideology and thought.
So there it is. Perhaps this is a somewhat doom-laden view of our economic future. In any event, this is only speculation, and the Internet may well be more of a liberator of information than suggested above. There may also be all sorts of new developments in productivity that we cannot currently foresee. Stuff happens (e.g., like the fracking revolution), humans persevere and find new solutions to new problems. Things tend to turn out in ways (good and bad) never envisaged by anybody.
Still, a few things seem reasonably clear. The Chinese crash may well be a harbinger of things to come, pointing to the ascendance of the information age and the end of the age of industrial capitalism.
Jeremy Josse is the author of Dinosaur Derivatives and Other Trades, an alternative take on financial philosophy and theory (published by Wiley & Co).
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.