Crisis Means a New Business Era; Cheap energy, a shift from China and remote work will all shape the long-term economy.

15 Mar 2020 | Wall Street Journal (Online) | Andy Kessler.

The junk-bond-financed $6.75 billion buyout of United Airlines collapsed on Friday, Oct. 13, 1989. The stock market immediately dropped 191 points or almost 7%, equivalent to a 1,500-point drop today. Scary.

Rod Berens, head of research at Morgan Stanley at the time, called a department-wide meeting after the market closed. I dreaded going. I had a list of tech stocks I was recommending that got killed that day. When I showed up, I noticed several cases of champagne—a weird way to celebrate the loss of wealth. But why not? I grabbed a glass; it was Friday.

And then my boss headed toward me. Uh oh, I thought, he's going to fire me. Instead, he smiled, gave me a high-five and said, "Congratulations, now it's your turn," and clinked my glass. Talk about confused—one of the worst days in my professional life and I get congratulated?

I didn't see it at the time, but he was dead right. Eras change, sometimes overnight. Over the next decade, the stock market shifted from junk-bond-fueled buyouts, a dominant Japan and the Cold War to highly valued emerging technology companies, ending with the dot-com blowout.

The current market turmoil tells me a new era is breaking, so question everything. Will cable, energy, mobile and social media ever come back? And if not, what's next?

Well, the knee-jerk reactions will come first. Most think the 2003 SARS epidemic in China ushered in that country's era of e-commerce, but it was going to happen anyway—the crisis only accelerated it. So be wary about talk of robot and drone deliveries. It may come to that if the virus spreads, but the economics still seem far out.

Will energy stay cheap forever after this week's devastation? I doubt it, but the economy can finally benefit from fracking's cheap natural gas. I'd bet so-called clean and renewable energy was set back a decade by having to compete with lower prices. Cheap fossil fuels may also push back any new adoption of carbon-free nuclear energy.

More interesting is the emptying of countless college campuses, sending students home. Classes will be online-only until further notice. Smart. But at some point parents will surely ask, "Why again are we paying 78 grand a year?" Is the end of universities far behind?

Similarly, lots of companies are telling employees to work at home. Will an era of telecommuting and no rush-hour traffic finally arrive? Maybe not. Recall that early in Marissa Mayer's tenure as Yahoo CEO, she banned working from home because so many people were, as they say, mailing it in.

The end of China's dominance is certainly coming. No one will ever again concentrate manufacturing in China alone. Vietnam and other countries with low-cost labor will benefit. Maybe this is Africa's moment. Related: A louder globalization backlash may arise again—but since consumers like cheap goods, it will flame out.

Another observation: Interest rates and the Federal Reserve may be increasingly irrelevant. The Fed's job seems to be to ensure the availability of Treasurys—mostly, as we wrote last September, as collateral for the repo market, which finances an increasing share of global trade. The $500 billion announced Thursday is encouraging.

What about mobile and cloud computing, and even the stock market and its trillion-dollar valuations? It's worth asking, as venture capital and private equity using cheap debt are keeping companies private longer, or forever. Others think it is value stocks' turn to shine, but that usually requires a period of inflation that I certainly don't see coming. Quite the opposite.

No, growth will still rule, but with a different set of leaders. In the bio world, DNA sequencing and Crispr gene editing are starting to ramp up. Health care will be transformed by new ways to detect and treat cancer and other ways to cure previously incurable diseases like sickle-cell anemia.

In the high-tech world, mobile seems tired. Apple's hottest product is AirPods Pro, those Star Wars-inspired white sticks hanging out of everyone's ears. That's an accessory, not an innovation. Here's hoping for some knock-your-socks-off new mobile products. Note also that we're only about a third of the way into the cloudification of enterprises. And we're only beginning to master machine learning and artificial intelligence, with their ability to find patterns that humans can't. I think the next tech era will be driven by implementation of AI-infused systems into every business.

Finally, I asked the man himself, Rod Berens, whom he'd high-five today. He says that the past 30 year's tech abundance means the developing world's billions will finally see productivity improvements and attract an increasing share of investment. That's probably right.

New eras are notoriously hard to predict. So instead of focusing on which cities are quarantined, start thinking about what's next. Very few investors do.

last updated 10 weeks ago