It is clear to every intelligent observer that, in the next 12 months, global economic growth is highly uncertain, dependent as growth always is on two factors (investment and  productivity), which can be characeterised at present in the following way:

INVESTMENT

Right now, the gap between returns-on-cash and returns-on-equity has narrowed to the point that many investors have moved to cash.

In the immediately-foreseeable future:

EUROPE faces financial tightening annd raised risks because of talk of an end to quantitative easing from the ECB, along with developments in Italy, and the UK’s Brexit now utterly mindbending “non-drama”.

INDIA is a stumbling horse, mainly because it is unclear how the current ruling party (which has been extraordinarily beneficial to its friends) will fare in next year’s national elections.

CHINA’s government does seem willing to provide further stimulus … to slow down the deceleration of the economy, but not to enable any acceleration of it – at least, that is the only conclusion one can reach given the smoke puffs that emerge occasionally from Beijing: it is impossible to tell what China will do next or even to know what is really going on in the Chinese economy.

By contrast, the situation in the USA is relatively clear: The fiscal stimulus last year effected a short-term kick in the pants whose effect will dissipate over the next few months, and the outcome of the mid-year elections makes more of that sort of stimulus unlikely in the near future: very few American leaders are likely to supprort the inevitable widening of the deficit that will result.

Sooooo … as far as I can see, a recession in earnings will presage a decline in the real economy – pending (or, rather, when that follows!) productivity growth through the widespread application of new technologies.

PRODUCTIVITY

if the prospects of growth due to investment appear poor in 2018, what about the prospects of growth due to increased productivity by the deployment of new technologies?

This is certainly a huge potential growth-ally, given most really impressive new technologies (e.g. AI and robotics, with quantum computing further away) remain merely on the threshold in most areas of business.

How then are you and I to have any sense of how fast – and perhaps even more important, how effectively – new technologies are being adopted?!

Well, there isn’t really any way of doing so at all, at present,

All we have are substantively meaningless charts such as the one at the head of this blog.

Why is that one “substantively meaningless” in terms of any useful indication of productivity increase for the economy as a whole?

First because it doesn’t indicate anything for the globe as a whole, or even for global regions, on indeed even for nations as a whole… because its rating of countries is on the basis of the “the share of Fintech users in the digitally active population”!

The “digitally active population” is ill-defined (is a child of 5 “digitally active”? Is a grandmother of 90 who use her computer only to skype her family “digitally active?).

Not everyone who is “digitally active” is also financially active (and that can mean anything upwards from “occasionally uses a bank or other debit or credit card”!)

In any case, even if 100% of the whole population of a country used fintech, that wouldn’t amount to much if the country concerned were, say, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe.

That is why we urgently need not merely indices such as we currently have, of “fintech adoption”, but a more fully thought-through “Global Index of New Technology Economic Impact”.

None of the existing Productivity Indexes (Divisia, Geometric, Malmquist, Solow, Tornqvist, Translog…) do a good enough job of precisely what is needed in the context I have laid out above.

What should an adequate new Index do? It should assess the full impact on the global economy of productivity increases by the adoption of the newest technologies (including but probably not limited to AI, robotics, and quantum computing).  Initially, the Index will need to sector after sector, before moving to become genuinely global.  Perhaps start with Financial Services, then go on to Logistics, then Manufacturing, and so on.

At present, I can’t find a sufficient number of people interested in creating such an Index.

All offers of collaboration are welcome.

Smart Contracts are one of the three aspects of FinTech that have drawn most attention; the others are: digital currencies (Bitcoin, Ether, et. al.), and distributed ledgers (Block-chain, Ethereum, et. al.).

When did the term “smart contract” originate?  Apparently, in the mid-1990’s.  Who first used the term?  Apparently, Nick Szabo, a computer scientist and cryptographer. Here is his definition of a smart contract: “A computerized transaction protocol that executes the terms of a contract”.  That suggests something pretty basic, and the capabilities of Smart Contracts are pretty basic at present.

A fuller but still pretty simple and good explanation of Smart Contracts is available at:
http://www.visualcapitalist.com/smart-contracts-blockchain

The only problem with this, and with most other discussions, of Smart Contracts is that they are led by those who have a vested interest in popularising them.

As a result, they minimise, instead of acknowledging, the challenges entailed by Smart Contracts.  For example, in the short history of Blockchain we have already seen a lot of “accidents”.  By contrast, there is a seamless series of General Ledger entries with banks since the Middle Ages. This chain (although privately managed) has proven very reliable.  In banks, cheating and fraud may well have taken place in this or that way, however I cannot recollect any such incident in relation to ledger entries (have you experienced any fraud caused by your bank regarding your bank account? Or do you perhaps know anyone who has experienced cheating in relation to ledger entries regarding their account?).  In other words, Blockchain – so far as reliability is concerned – claims to solve a non-existing problem. Moreover, it is not clear whether the Blockchain solution regarding reliability is in fact less good than what we have already.

Here are some further difficulties:

1. Failure risk due to power failure (common in certain countries, and not unknown in others)

2. Failure risk due to hacking (theoretically impossible, but in practice not so; think Mount Gex, think DAO, think CoinDash, think Bithumb, think Bitcoin Savings & Trust, think Bitcoinica, think BitFloor, think BIPS, think Picostocks – should I really go on?)

3. Failure risk due to technical issues – e.g. in the programming (whether deliberate or accidental).

4. Legal risk: in the absence of a legal framework around Smart Contracts, it is uncertain who is liable for what if there is a failure of any sort.  Related to this is the central issue of the absence of a Smart Contract Standard, on which depends entirely the possibility of real-time analytics – and, indeed, the possibility of reducing the regulatory burden without resulting chaos, fraud or exploitation.  In order to understand this, please read the article, “From Digital Currencies to Digital Finance” by Brammertz & Mendelowitz (Dr. Willi Brammertz is Chairman of the ACTUS User Association, and Dr. Allan Mendelowitz is CEO of ACTUS) which is to be published in Vol. 19, Issue 1 of the Journal of Risk Finance.

5. Oligopoly Risk: at present, Smart Contracts are being sold to the public on the basis of savings “Smart contracts save you money by taking out the middleman”. It is true is that existing middlemen and middlewomen will be taken out by Smart Contracts. But it is not quite true that there will be no middlemen/ women any longer. The new middlemen/ women will be the owners of the technologies that make Smart Contracts possible – that is, the owners of the tech infrastructures involved. Here are the basic infrastructures involved: the energy system, the IT system, the Blockchain, the Blockchain Platform (e.g. Etherium or whatever else), and the payment medium (which could be Bitcoins or, in future, US Dollars or whatever). The important points about all this are the following:

A.  Capitalism encourages fizz at the start of any new technology but, later, encourages consolidation. Think of the number of car manufacturers at the start of the motor car industry compared to the number of such manufacturers now. In other words, Capitalism always tends to drive towards monopoly but, for various human, social and political reasons, is stopped short of that, resulting in oligopoly.

B.  All oligopolies tend to want to increase their profits, so that what appears free or cheap in the fizz phase, or even in the consolidation phase, tends to become more and more expensive when the industry is run by an oligopoly  – and that continues to be the case till incumbents are challenged by the rise of newer technologies and related new business models.

So what does all this mean for you?

Should you be a party to a Smart Contract?  Well, not till at least the legal issues are sufficiently sorted – unless you are simply experimenting with models to learn from them (and even then, I would be careful).

Should you invest in technologies associated with Smart Contracts?  Yes, to the extent that you have money that you are prepared to lose, considering that the most profitable phase in which to invest in any industry is the fizz phase – though that is also the riskiest phase.  As winners emerge, and the industry begins to consolidate, it becomes less and less risky, but it also becomes less and less likely to be dramatically profitable.

The golden rules remain: do not invest if you are not prepared to lose all the money you have invested *and* do not invest if you don’t understand the industry as a whole as well as the specific company and the related business opportunity involved.