Cook's words of wisdom

The real lesson of the recent stock market correction is that we've entered a whole new phase and our economy is only now beginning to catch up. This isn't just a twist of the existing structure but a whole new ball game - a new economy.

Do you listen to Alistair Cook's Letter from America on National Radio?

After many years in the wilderness (Auckland's Queen Street) where radio reception is nigh-on impossible, I've moved out to the 'burbs, and can happily listen in on that incredible voice and mull over both the message and the mind behind it. Of course you can listen online these days or even read the text of each Letter yourself, but it's not really the same.

Why am I telling you this? The first Letter I managed to catch after moving house was about the Nasdaq crash and as usual, Cook has captured the moment in history. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve is quoted as saying we have "entered into an entirely new economy we don't yet know how to cope with" which is both good and bad. It's good that Alan understands the importance of this latest event - it's bad that New Zealand doesn't seem to have a clue.

The stock market, it seems, is built on a history of boom-and-bust cycles. This isn't new to anyone who watches the big board numbers, but what I hadn't realised is that each boom is accompanied, if not created, by a leap in technology.

Cook quotes from the history books about recent cycles of prosperity. The late 19th century, from about 1880 onward, saw a period of stable growth unheard of before. This was brought about, in no small part, by the development of new technologies such as the railway, telephone, telegraph and electricity. America, we are told, overtook Britain as the world's leading manufacturer for the first time. Europeans began investing heavily in US stocks, even though many rich folk were unwilling to have this newfangled "electricity" thing in their homes.

The Roaring 20s ended, of course, in the Great Depression, but what fuelled the growth in the first place? The development of cheap mechanised transport in the form of the Model T and its successors.

The recent boom of the 1990s is due entirely to one thing - the productivity gains brought about by IT, and to suggest otherwise would seem ludicrous.

Yet many surveys and reports suggest just that - where are the so-called gains, they bleat, pointing to data that white-collar productivity has failed to match let alone beat blue-collar gains. They now point to the collapse of the Nasdaq as a further symptom - this was an economic house of cards that couldn't withstand even the slightest change in fortunes, they say.

That is, of course, nonsense. What the recent correction has proved is that borrowing money to speculate on future profits is a bad thing and shouldn't be undertaken. Is that really a new lesson or is it one the Americans forgot? It's the same lesson learned after the first example above - the Europeans who borrowed to buy shares in the new boom were badly burned when it fell over.

The real lesson of the recent correction is that we've entered a whole new phase and our economy is only now beginning to catch up. This isn't just a twist of the existing structure but a whole new ball game - a new economy.

Greenspan is quoted, in his usual oracle-esque manner, as saying: "Familiar as we are with the patterns, the cycles of the present industrial economy, it could well be that there are developing new patterns, new cycles, that we shall learn to cope with."

The IT revolution is far from over. That doesn't mean individual companies will succeed simply by calling themselves e-companies and declaring themselves to be Internet stocks. Hopefully those days are over, and that we've survived them at all is testament to the strength of this new economy. Sure, IT might not have taken over from the oil barons just yet, but that day can't be too far off. Then we will have new commodities - bandwidth, processor power, storage and a whole new market to try to understand and live in.

Paul Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen.

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Tags new economytechnology stocksNasdaqstock market

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