Looking Back from 2025

, Hong Kong

I recently found the script of a talk I did in December 2015 called Looking Back from 2025: The Future of the Global Economy. at the world’s most prestigious real estate conference , MIPIM at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong. I thought it would be fun to reprint it. In it, I acted as a person who had been beamed back from the future (2025)  to report on what ‘happened.’

Interestingly I anticipated  Trump’s Presidency, cyber attacks in the West, a financial collapse and then the re-emergence of order in the global system by 2025Its not negative per se (I think its pretty optimistic)  it just points to an arc – the coming disorder and then emergence of order by 2025. I am optimistic about driverless cars, India and a transformation in the West. I still think much of these themes stand and the time line could also work if we do enter crisis by 2018.

In retrospect I missed a bunch of stuff out (should have discussed the new financial architecture more , but I guess it WAS a real estate conference).

In the Q&A I highlighted the importance of biomimicry and innovation in real estate as disruption was clearly coming to this industry which hasn’t changed for a long time.

Looking Back from 2025: The Future of the Global Economy

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am back came back from the Future, 2025 to let you know how we – humanity – are doing , and give you a few other tips. But I have signed an NDA on football scores and the Hong Kong horse racing…so sorry those topics are off limits.

According to Greek mythology, at the beginning of time – in fact, before time or Chromos existed – there was Chaos. This was the Divine state, from which anything was still possible. From Chaos came, Gaia or Mother Earth. Gaia represented order and through her the universe was born. Life, then was the dance between Chaos and Gaia.

So back in 2015, I was writing about the Great Paradox that we faced, the concurrent existence of both the forces of order and disorder. The exponential growth of technologies or 20 Guttenberg moments – according to the founder of Singularity University vs increasingly precarious nature of the world; the economy, society, geo-politics and the state of the planet.  Sometimes in 2015 – especially when in the energetic cities of London, Singapore or HK I felt like I was in the hedonistic Pompei before the explosion of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius.

First there were financial markets.  Over the previous 18 months financial markets were starting to resemble the so-called critical state in complexity theory, like the unstable snowpack that exists before an avalanche. One just doesn’t know which snowdrop could catalyst a large avalanche. Oil prices had more than halved, a G7 Currency (namely the Swiss Franc) moved an unprecedented 40% in one day, shipping rates had plummeted – the baltic dry index was its lowest EVER, liquidity was drying up in major markets even treasuries, the NYSE had mysteriously stopped trading for a few hours and the EM countries, especially BRIC were all suffering from severe economic stress. Margins borrowing on the NYSE made up 25% of all commercial loans in the US. But the US stock market – still regarded as a barometer of the health of the global economy – was still near its highs. Unbeknownst to most investors it was largely stock buybacks that were driving the market, because CEOs were not optimistic enough in their operating environments to spend more money on capex. The US market was also receiving a safety premium, a little like London real estate.

Back in December 2015 global geo-politics were severely worsening. Of course, many of the compassionate people of Europe were opening their doors for the refugees of Syria and elsewhere but they didn’t realise that this was partly the blowback from failed policies in the Middle East. So when the killings by ISIS gunmen occurred in Paris in November, this just accelerated the West’s military activities in Syria and the Middle East. And it felt that we were entering a vicious circle. Tension between NATO and Russia was intensifying especially after a NATO country – Turkey – had shot down a Russian jet for the first time since the 1950s.

Then there was social unrest. With the gap between the rich and poor – as per the Gini co efficients – hitting record highs in some countries, along with the stressful lives that many faced trying to make ends meet. Many took to addictive behaviours as a way of escaping. Heroin-related deaths had risen 400% over the previous 10 years in the United States and there was a pandemic of legals highs and opiate pharmaceutical drugs around the world.  Others were becoming incensed by government and approval ratings were plummeting across the world. No wonder that Donald Trump, from the Right,  was the favourite candidate in the US and Jeremy Corbyn, who emerged from the Left, who became the leader of the Labour Party in the UK. The world felt a little bit like a tinderbox especially with so many young people without a job.

And of course there were concerns about the environment running into COP21 in Paris. The Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years and in a mere 300 years (since a Devonshire goldsmith , Thomas Newcomen, invented the steam engine) we had wiped out 90% of marine life and the collapse in biodiversity was being called by some scientists as the “Sixth Extinction.” And severe climate change was feared – NASA had even mentioned the possibility of the irreversible collapse of industrial civilisation.  A friend of mine who wrote a climate and risk site said wrote a blog suggesting that climate change will make ISIS look like amateurs for all the damage it will do.

From the vantage point of 2015, though, many positive trends were emerging. Technologies were advancing exponentially – the favourite buzzword in Silicon Valley. I would come out of meetings with scientists working in the biotech field who were immensely excited by new cures for cancer that harnessed the body’s ability to heal itself rather than blast it with chemotherapy. AI, virtual reality, driverless cars and nanotech were all see amazing developments.

In some ways, large creative shifts in history like the enlightenment in Europe or the Renaissance were catalysed by a collision of ideas from different disciplines.  Last time it was transpiring in the coffee houses of Europe but this time it was happening on an accelerating scale through the internet. There was also a wave of entrepreneurship that was crossing the globe. Even countries like Korea that were dominated by the Chaebol – large corporations – were seeing a proliferation of entrepreneurs – and in 2015 one survey suggested that this was the favourite destination for new graduates (but not their parents yet!).

Miraculously we made into 2025. And I would say that we are quite optimistic now, although we are still feeling the hangover of past excesses. At least the path forward is clearer.

There were quire a few surprises. Just like in 2000 one might not have expected the emergence of China and its growth to the second largest economy in the world. Or back in 1989 one might not have expected the fall of the Berlin Wall or the imminent collapse of the Japanese economy, which was destined to become No 1 in the world in many people’s minds. In fact that was the year that influential writer Ishihara and Sony founder Morita wrote the book “The Japan That Can Say No.” History is determined by non-linear events. This is also the big challenge of finance – we try to produce linear returns from non-linear events.

Economy

 The world was paralysed by overcapacity. In the 1930s it was arguably Europe that was the epicentre of aggregate demand and the US was the factory of the world. This time there is too much supply in places like China and insufficient aggregate demand in the West.

Its bizarre to think that after 600 rate cuts by Central Banks around the world without the world seeing escape velocity in its economic recovery, that people back in 2015 thought the elusive recovery was still on its way. Most Central Banks that tried raising rates were forced to cut them because of the powerfully deflationary environment due to excess overcapacity. But the Fed made a colossal policy error on the 16th December of 2015 – following what Fed member Lacker said before that  they really needed to raise rates in order to instil confidence. This didn’t work for the Japanese back in 2002 and it didn’t work for the Fed.

US stock markets fell over 50%.

US

The US remained as a dominant global power and China will not have overtaken it as is often predicted now. The US’s strength in technology as well as the geo-political advantage it has is too strong.  The US had some buffer from the effects of GFC 2.0 because there was a perceived safety premium. But the US went through its Dark Night of the Soul.  GFC2.0 was worse than GFC1.0 because it was accompanied by unrest and conflict. Many thought that a non-politician President would make a difference – but President Trump was a bit of a disaster. He tried to make some sensible business reforms but he was kicked out in the 2020 election. The race-led riots in LA, Atlanta and other major cities and the drafting in of Federal agents and the military didn’t go down well. The public wanted a more pro peace leader – in fact there have been anti-war protests across the globe. America voted in its first Independent since George Washington in 2020 , now he is in his second term and he is promising to cut the number of overseas military bases.

At the same time the US has had a number of bad weather events and many Californians have started moving North up in to Portland because of the continued droughts. This might slow down though, it seems that California might be saved by advances in nanotech — we are about to see mass commercialisation of desalinization and it seems that this might save Silicon Valley. But tech firms had already proliferated in other major cities like NYC. LA really suffered though, and Hollywood’s move to Vancouver and elsewhere accelerated.

Russia

There was constant conflict with Russia through proxy fights. There were some close calls in Syria, which NATO and the US used as a reason to ratchet up economic sanctions and in 2016 Russia lost hosting the 2018 World Cup. Then in 2017 a major cyber-terrorist attack on an American nuclear power station put a large amount of the East Coast in to a blackout. This was initially blamed on Russia and there were fears that the US would go to war over it. This was one of the scariest periods but in the end, calmer heads prevailed. But with low energy prices and ostracism from the global community, the Russian economy eventually imploded and Putin was actually ousted in the end. Turkey and Poland have increased their influence in this period and are growing powers. In 2025, we are now trying to figure out relations with Russia but we are optimistic. Many in the West appreciate Russian scientists and their leadership on issues like banning GMO.

UK

The UK has ended up on its feet. The ISIS attacks in European and UK cities in 2017 were quite horrific as was the ensuing – temporary – lockdowns. The World Cup in 2018 went ahead in London instead of Russia as it was the only country that had the infrastructure to host the games at the last minute. In the end the UK public got fed up with the government’s foreign policies. There were numerous marches against war of over one million people.  In the end against all odds elected in Prime Minister Corbyn – it was a close call. The labour Party had many second thoughts about him. In the end he had to upgrade in a new wardrobe of suits and got used to kissing the Queen’s hand. London continues to he a hub of creativity but other UK cities – now highly internationalised – are also increasingly attractive, helped by high speed trains that are finally being built.

China

China faced largely a lost decade in terms of headline growth after the world’s largest investment boom – in 2011-2013 China consumed more cement than the US did in the entire 20th Century! After the stock market crash of 2015, it was followed in 2016 by a wave of bankruptcies and bond market events. It does not war with the West despite the various war games in the South China Sea. In fact, China endeavours to join the global community at various levels with the RMB becoming a reserve currency in the IMF’s basket of the SDR, which is now a virtual currency that can be used by anyone. Cash has disappeared. The West endeavours to support China’s transition in many ways as internal stresses are building and the old historical forces of fragmentation are getting stronger. Just like back in the 19th Century when the gap between the rich coastal cities and the poorer hinterlands ended up in Mao’s peasant revolution. One thing that China has got right is trying to shift to alternative energy — they’ve been quite pre-emptive. Perhaps because many of their politicians are scientists whereas in the West they often have law or business backgrounds. After having reformed the banking sector, there is a wave of Chinese green companies including property and finance going through IPOs in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Koreas

 In 2022 with the co-operation of China, North and South Korea have been allowed to merge with strict promises of no American troops allowed up in the North. We are expected a tricky transition period but given the innovative power of the Koreans (for example advances in robotics at world leading KAIST), and their hard-working nature, many economists are forecasting a united Korea to be a much bigger power in 2030 and beyond. At the moment they are bickering over who gets to put the world’s largest theme park in Pyongyang.

India

 India surprises many by continuing to attract FDI. The benefits of technology enable them to continue to do well in spite of having infrastructure poorer than China. But they valiantly try to upgrade this. Their English speaking prowess, high level of education and also their ancient philosophies that fit in with the new sciences result in a surge of Nobel Prize winners from India. The Indian diaspora continue come back from Silicon Valley and all over the world just as the Chinese did after China joined the WTO. The challenge for India has been major floods in Bangladesh which caused 100s of thousands of climate refugees. Some climate scientists are worried that we will see an event that drives millions from their homes as this country has over 160MM people.

Japan

 Japan is doing pretty well. They hurt a lot in the GFC2.0 but like many Asian societies they didn’t see the violence that broke out in many Western cities and the people pulled together. The Tokyo Olympics of 2020 was not ostentatious, like the Beijing Olympics of 2008, but it was appropriately understated and was a good opportunity for the word to come together in peace after the madness of 2016-2018. Japanese artisanship and culture are being appreciated again in the world. And they are pioneering much work in alternative energy and green solutions. Just like after the WW2, they are benefiting from a lot of technological co-operation with the Americans. Many people that dismissed Abenomics were unaware of these important dynamics. Other cities like Osaka and the industrial port of Kobe are having a renaissance.

Earth

One of the biggest surprises – especially to some of the futurists of Silicon Valley – is the shift to a more Earth-based economy. It all started at the Paris COP21, where consciousness really shifted in an strange alliance of the Pope, Obama, the bankers and the environmentalists.  Not everything went through then but it was the start. It accelerated after emergency meetings of the IPCC and the UN, and the CIA declassified some scary scenarios from project Medea.

There is a real love being rekindled for the planet. Some people are saying that in time NASA scientist James Lovelock will be recognised at the new Gallileo. Galileo made us look at the planets differently – whereas Lovelock made us look back at Earth with renewed wonder. He made us realise that the planet itself is an intelligent system – some say living organism. Why else has it been able to regulate perfect conditions for life for millions of years even though the sun’s luminosity has risen by 30%. Children now learn that trees communicate with each other through the fungi in the Earth and that trees even regulate rainfall through bacteria being emitted to the clouds.

It does seem that the next bubble in financial assets will be green-related services. But at least humanity is putting resources to work in an important area and least there are stricter limits on leverage in the financial sector now after GFC2.0 and. Also whats rather exciting is that New Scientist this week predicted that we are getting closer to gathering solar energy in space and beaming it down to Earth. Funnily enough it was Edison that said that his bet was on solar all those years ago.

There have been some really interesting corollaries to that. One is biomimickry. Steve Job’s comment that the “the biggest innovation of the 21st Century will be at the intersection of biology and technology” was quite prophetic. A renewed love and interest in the Earth, accelerated the wave of biomimicry and helped accelerate our technological advances, including in the property and real estate markets. In fact, study of termites for example have totally revolutionised air conditioning systems.

Biomimickry is also present in how we organise ourselves. The theme of collective intelligence is embraced by all major companies now. The intelligence of self-organsing systems like swarms of bees and murmurations of birds is much better appreciation. Back in 2015 it was a small group like Tony Hsieh embracing the system Halocracy, now it has gone mainstream. Harvard Business Review recognises that its the biggest change in the way we organise ourselves since the Industrial Revolution. And it looks like it will eventually have implications for our democratic institutions as well.

So whats daily life like now?

On the way to work I can chill out in my driverless car and watch the news and answer e mails. I am still meant to be awake at least when the car is in motion but that law will change soon we think. My daughter – now 11 years old – is unlikely to ever drive — its kind of seen as archaic by the younger generations. We don’t type as much as we did before, I talk to my phone to give instructions from online banking to e mails. My house has now gone all hi-tech with the IOT. Everything talks to each other and the house regulates itself. Of course, I talk to the Steven who is the robot that runs the house as well – directing the temperature, lighting etc if it not to my liking.  But nature has been brought into the cities as well – there are more plants and more gardens than you would imagine. And cars are less the centre of cities – many more banned cars in the centre or put them underneath the city like Masdar.

Well Ladies and Gentlemen I hope that was useful but I really have to go now. I want to get back to watch the reruns of Harry Potter – this time in virtual reality. It’s pretty phenomenal especially the game Quidditch that you do on the flying broomsticks.

I would just urge you as business people, fathers, mothers and responsible citizens, that the next 10 years will be very disruptive on a scale we haven’t seen since the Second World War and the building of the United Nations. Don’t wrest of your laurels, be pre-emptive and make wise choices. Then you’ll come out of this pretty well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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