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Technology Can Be Inflationary!

"Technology is deflationary", they say. But wait, so why is inflation trending higher ever since the Covid Pandemic hit the world? Perhaps, the general consensus about technology being deflationary has a blind spot towards events that are outside the influence of technology. What the pandemic has shown is, how unprepared the world is on these blind spots. There are at-least 5 blind spots that I could see.

Finite-ness Of Non-Renewable Resources

Technology does improve productivity and efficiency in tapping commodities such as fossil-fuels, minerals & metals, lumber. But these commodities are finite. The technological advancement of refining these material makes it cheaper to produce. But the cost of technology to unearth / produce these basic material will go up when the material becomes more and more scarce. During the early years of discovery, it is easier to explore and mine for commodities such as fossil fuels and metals. But once the easy deposits are mined, it becomes more and more difficult to find new reserves. This increases the cost of discovery. To add more complexity, the newer deposits are smaller and has less content per area mined, making it less lucrative and less productive despite improvement in technology. The "Peak Oil" theory explains just that, where the production of oil would peak when the easiest reserves are found and tapped, leading to lesser availability in future, like a bell curve. This is true for every other commodity as well. So scarcity of commodities will ALWAYS overcome the deflationary pressure of technology. Basic materials would continue seeing price inflation punctuated only by supply-demand cycles.

Push Towards Green Energy

Coming to the current context, the global push towards green energy has worsened the cause of inflation. With countries pushing towards cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, hydro, solar energy etc., too soon, technology is unable to rapidly replace fossil fuels. Manufacturing hubs such as China are facing an energy crisis. But unsupported climatic conditions makes the renewable energy sources unreliable, at-least in the near term. The over dependence on fossil fuel is exposed. 70% of our industries run on fossil fuels. Despite the fast adoption of renewable energy, ever growing energy consumption would always have a shortfall. Depleting fuel reserves and the difficulty in finding new reserves has an upward pressure of fuel prices which in-turn affects every other commodity. Energy is the primary commodity that drives the production of every other commodity and it has a direct impact on goods and services prices. An energy crisis has a spillover effect. Insufficient energy has caused production cuts in every other industry as seen in China currently. This in turn leads to supply chain issues such feeds inflation.

Technological imbalances between services & manufacturing sectors

The positive impact of technology to the services sector is immense. But the inadequate penetration of technology is a cause of concern for the manufacturing sector. This is evident when you see the top companies of the world, all being consumer facing, service providers, like the FAANG. Even the startup revolution seen in India are focusing on the internet-based service sectors and not on the manufacturing sector. Technology has made the demand side of the equation robust. But the supply side is left under prepared. To setup a manufacturing facility or a mining facility is costlier, time consuming and not easy to scale. Yes, technology has improved the efficiency and productivity aspect of the manufacturing sector, but it hasn't addressed the availability of raw materials. Take the semiconductor shortage issue causing production cuts for automobile and electronic appliance manufacturing. Countries are unable to scale semiconductor production as fast as demand is propped up by consumer tech companies. By having easy demand growth but tougher supply growth, technology has only made inflation a reality. This is a major concern for the Western countries, as they haven't developed their manufacturing sectors for decades and are highly dependent on import. Its ironical that an energy crisis in China is impacting supply chains in countries like the US that actually does not face an energy crisis!

This trend of imbalance in technology on manufacturing sector is visible in India too. India has seen a tech boom only in the services sector. Most of the IPOs launched in the last one year are consumer based tech companies only. The doors are open for inflation due to the skew in focus areas of technology. Demand growth due to technology adoption would outpace supply growth, which means technology is indirectly an inflationary force. Also, globalisation and modernisation of developing economies need more supply of basic materials and energy. With depleting reserves, demand will always grow to put a consistent pressure on the supply-side.

Over supply & Over consumption

Technology cannot create more of finite resources, it can only aid faster depletion. Proponents of the deflationary theorists never acknowledge it. With technological advancement in both consumer and production side, the rate of discovery, it's mining and it's consumption expands rapidly. The perceived abundance of a resource gets exploited until it's supply starts to thin. Then comes the urge for efficient usage, after the resource has already reached its peak production. Over supply and over consumption over the decades has led to reducing basic materials which in-turn leads to sustained commodity inflation. This is more visible in the real inflation of consumer products that you purchase off the shelf of a store which ultimately matter.

Global monetary & fiscal policies

A popular argument of technology being deflationary is it's downward pressure on labour cost, as technology brings efficiency through automation. AI & IOT (Internet of Things) has penetrated the manufacturing sector to improve efficiency through lower labour costs. But there are caveats to the deflationary argument which are ignored, like the Monetary & Fiscal policy that a government enforces. Despite technology being widely adopted since the outbreak of Covid, labour cost has actually sky-rocketed. Suddenly, the expected downward pressure on labour cost is no longer valid because central banks and sovereigns have bumped up money supply through monetary and fiscal measures. People who are not on payroll are able to push prices higher due to the money supply. And this might not be temporary as the sovereigns of the world cannot afford to stop money supply, so as to maintain solvency of the high debt levels it has accumulated over the decade. This is a global phenomenon. In the US, the stimulus cheques has lead to increased demand even though the supply is constrained due to the various factors discussed earlier in the article. With inventory running low on stores, people are forced to purchase available inventory even at higher costs. For example, with the semiconductor shortage, which is made worse by the demand growth due to fiscal stimulus in the US, inflation in the auto sector has started to hurt. With less inventory available to consume immediately, consumers are bidding out for used cars. Used cars has become a hot market in the US, similar to how real estate was (and still is) a few months back. Supply chain issues were assured to abate early in 2021 when the global economy opens up, but we are discovering hurdles after hurdles. With countries scrambling to secure raw materials and goods, inflation is slowly becoming a central theme. Countries have already taken steps to shore up domestic production by relaxing fiscal prudence to build infrastructure. But everybody has been caught on the back-foot. The monetary policies have also led to asset price inflation, which has only made it difficult for consumers.

Technology has no control on these factors. Despite the best efforts of technology, the inflation dynamics are too complex to be contained by technology.

So what's the take-away? Its simple, tech has been the outperforming theme over the past few decades, but there could be a shift in market leadership with commodity and energy being the front-runners. The economic, environmental and social conditions of the post-covid world could mean the deflationary cycle lead by technology might be replaced with an inflationary cycle lead by commodities and energy. Though the tech space would still in the mix of things, perhaps its time to explore other themes as well and question the status quo by asking what-if.

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