Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake on Capitalism without Capital

Early in the twenty-first century, a quiet revolution occurred. For the first time, the major developed economies began to invest more in intangible assets, like design, branding, R&D, and software, than in tangible assets, like machinery, buildings, and computers. For all sorts of businesses, from tech firms and pharma companies to coffee shops and gyms, the ability to deploy assets that one can neither see nor touch is increasingly the main source of long-term success. But this is not just a familiar story of the so-called new economy. Capitalism without Capital shows that the growing importance of intangible assets has also played a role in some of the big economic changes of the last decade.

What do you mean when you say we live in an age of Capitalism without Capital?

Our book is based on one big fact about the economy: that the nature of the investment that businesses do has fundamentally changed. Once businesses invested mainly in things you could touch or feel like buildings, machinery, and vehicles. But more and more investment now goes into things you can’t touch or feel: things like research and development, design, organizational development—“intangible’ investments. Today, in developed countries, businesses invest more each year intangible assets than in tangibles. But they’re often measured poorly or not at all in company accounts or national accounts. So there is still a lot of capital about, but it has done a sort of vanishing act, both physically and from the records that businesses and governments keep.

What difference does the rise of intangible investments make?

The rise of intangible investment matters because intangible assets tend to behave differently from tangible ones—they have different economic properties. In the book we call these properties the 4S’s—scalability, sunkenness, synergies, and spillovers. Intangibles can be used again and again, they’re hard to sell if a business fails, they’re especially good when you combine them, and the benefits of intangible investment often end up accruing to businesses other than the ones that make them. We argue that this change helps explain all sorts of important concerns people have about today’s economy, from why inequality has risen so much, to why productivity growth seems to have slowed down.

So is this another book about tech companies?

It’s much bigger than that. It’s true that some of the biggest tech companies have lots of very valuable intangibles, and few tangibles. Google’s search algorithms, software, and prodigious stores of data are intangibles; Apple’s design, brand, and supply chains are intangibles; Uber’s networks of drivers and users are intangible assets. Each of these intangibles is worth billions of dollars. But intangibles are everywhere. Even brick and mortar businesses like supermarkets or gyms rely on more and more intangible assets, such as software, codified operating procedures, or brands. And the rise of intangibles is a very long-term story: research by economists like Carol Corrado suggests that intangibles investment has been steadily growing since the early twentieth century, long before the first semiconductors, let alone the Internet.

Who will do well from this new intangible economy?

The intangible economy seems to be creating winners and losers. From a business point of view, we know that around the world, there’s a growing gap between the leading businesses in any given industry and the rest. We think this leader-laggard gap is partly caused by intangibles. Because intangibles are scalable and have synergies with one another, companies that have valuable intangibles will do better and better (and have more incentives to invest in more), while small and low performing companies won’t, and will lag ever further behind.

There is a personal dimension to this too. People who are good at combining ideas, and who are open to new ideas, will do better in an economy where there are lots of synergies between different assets. This will be a boon for educated, open-minded people, people with political, legal, and social connections, and for people who live in cities (where ideas tend to combine easily with one another). But others risk being left further behind.

Does this help explain the big political changes in recent years?

Yes—after the EU referendum in the UK and the 2016 presidential election in the US, a lot of pundits were asking why so many so-called “left behind” communities people voted for Brexit or Donald Trump. Some people thought they did so for cultural reasons, others argued the reasons were mainly economic. But we would argue that an intangible economy, these two reasons are linked: more connected, cosmopolitan places tend to do better economically in an intangible economy, while left-behind places suffer from an alienation that is both economic and cultural.

You mentioned that the rise of intangible investment might help explain why productivity growth is slowing. Why is that?

Many economists and policymakers worry about so-called secular stagnation: the puzzling fact that productivity growth and investment seems to have slowed down, even though interest rates are low and corporate profits are high, especially since 2009. We think the growing importance of intangibles can help explain this in a few ways.

  • There is certainly some under-measurement of investment going on—but as it happens this explains only a small part of the puzzle.
  • The rate of growth of intangible investment has slowed a bit since 2009. This seems to explain part of the slow-down in growth (and also helps explain why the slowdown has been manly concentrated in total factor productivity)
  • The gap between leading firms (with lots of intangibles) and laggard firms (with few) may have created a scenario where a few firms are investing in a lot of intangibles (think Google and Facebook) but for most others, it’s not worth it, since their more powerful competitors are likely to get the spillover benefits.

Does the intangible economy have consequences for investors?

Yes! Company accounts generally don’t record intangibles (except, haphazardly, as “goodwill” after an acquisition). This means that, as intangible assets become more important, corporate balance sheets tell investors less and less about the true value of a company. Much of what equity analysts spend their days doing is, in practice, trying to value intangibles.

And there’s lots of value to be had here: research suggests that equity markets undervalue intangibles like organizational development, and encourage public companies to underinvest in intangibles like R&D. But informed investors can take advantage of this—which can benefit both their own returns and the performance of the economy.

Jonathan, you’re an academic, and Stian, you are a policymaker. How did you come to write this book together?

We started working together in 2009 on the Nesta Innovation Index, which applied some of the techniques that Jonathan had worked on to measure intangibles to build an innovation measurement for the UK. The more we thought about, the clearer it became that intangibles helped explain all sorts of things. Ryan Avent from the Economist asked us to write a piece for their blog about one of these puzzles, and we enjoyed doing that so much we thought we would try writing a book. One of the most fun parts of writing the book was being able to combine the insights from academic economic research on intangibles and innovation with practical insights from innovation policy.

CapitalismJonathan Haskel is professor of economics at Imperial College Business School. Stian Westlake is a senior fellow at Nesta, the UK’s national foundation for innovation. Haskel and Westlake are cowinners of the 2017 Indigo Prize.