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Thoughts on the Market

U.S. Economy: The Next American Productivity Renaissance, Pt. 1

Thoughts on the Market
Thoughts on the Market

The COVID pandemic changed the way the U.S. engages with work, but how will these shifts impact structural changes to capital investment? Chief Cross-Asset Strategist Andrew Sheets and Chief Investment Officer for Wealth Management Lisa Shalett discuss.

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Andrew Sheets: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Andrew Sheets, Chief Cross-Asset Strategist for Morgan Stanley Research. 

Lisa Shalett: And I'm Lisa Shalett, Chief Investment Officer for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. 

Andrew Sheets: And on this special two-part episode, we'll be discussing what we see as the "Next American Productivity Renaissance". It's Thursday, March 2nd at 2 p.m. in London. 

Lisa Shalett: And it's 9 a.m. in New York. 

Andrew Sheets: So while everybody has been paying close attention, and rightly so, to 40 year highs of inflation that we've been having recently, there's another legacy from this pandemic that we want to dig into more deeply. We believe that the COVID crisis catalyzed an incredibly powerful regime shift, a once-in-a-generation shock to the labor markets which transformed the nature of work and is accelerating structural changes to capital investment. Lisa, you believe we're on the cusp of what you call the "Next American Productivity Renaissance", and this renaissance is underpinned by an upcoming capital spending supercycle. So, I guess the place to start is what does that mean and what's driving it? 

Lisa Shalett: I mean, I think that some of these trends were already beginning to take form before COVID struck, but COVID was really an accelerant. And so if we think about first the detachment from the labor force and the way COVID really transformed the way we think about work, and those jobs that maybe were not flexible to convert to a remote setting, or a work from home setting, and carried with them in-person high risk attributes. I think that was really one of the first dimensions of it, but then it was really about companies having to fundamentally rethink and re-engineer business models towards digitization, right? The removal of human contact. And then you overlay those two major pillars with things like decarbonization and the issues that emerged around how we make this transition to a cleaner energy mix around the world. Obviously COVID accelerated some of the issues around supply chain and deglobalization and how do we secure supply chains. And last but not least, I think it has really become clear we're talking about a world where incentives to invest either to substitute for labor, to strengthen our infrastructure, to commit to some of these climate change initiatives, to re-engineer supply chains or to deal with this new multipolar world. The incentives and the argument for capital spending has really changed. 

Andrew Sheets: So Lisa actually it's that last point on labor market tightness that I'd like to dive into a little bit more. Because I mean, it's fair to say that this would actually be a pretty normal cyclical phenomenon that as labor markets get tighter, as workers are harder to find, that companies decide that now it's worth investing more to make their existing workers more productive. Do you think that's a fair characterization of some past capital spending cycles that we've seen? And how do you think this one could fit into that pattern? 

Lisa Shalett [00:04:19] Yes, I think very often, you know, we've gone through these periods where the capital for labor substitution has been at the forefront. Now, one of the things that very often we have to wait for are what I call the supply side enablers of that. There have been eras where there's more automation-oriented technology that is available, and then there's eras where perhaps there's been less. And I think that one of the things that we're positing is that after the golden age of private equity that we're entering one of those periods of technology J-curve explosion, right, where the availability of automation-orienting technologies is there. So it enables part of the dialog around capital for labor arithmetic. 

Andrew Sheets: I also want to ask you about decarbonization as a theme, which you cited as one of these drivers of the productivity renaissance and capital deepening because I think you do encounter a view out there in the world that decarbonization and environmental regulation is negative for productivity. What do you think the market might be missing about decarbonization as a theme? And how does it drive higher productivity in the future rather than lower productivity? 

Lisa Shalett: I think fundamentally that there is no doubt that as we make this transition, there are going to be bumps and bruises along the road. And part of the issue is that as we move away from what is perhaps the lowest cost, but most dirty technologies that there may be pressures on inflation. But the flip side of that is that it creates huge incentives to drive productivity improvement in some of those cleaner technologies so that we can accelerate adoption through more compelling economics. So our sense is hydro and wind and some of these technologies are going to see material productivity improvements. 

Andrew Sheets: Well, Lisa, I think that's a great point, because also what we've certainly seen in Europe is a dramatic fall of consumption of natural gas and a dramatic increase in efficiency. As energy prices spiked in Europe in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, you did see an increased focus on energy-efficient investment, on the cost of energy. And I think it surprised a lot of people about how much more production they were able to squeeze out of the same kilowatt hour of electricity. So it's, I think, a really interesting and important point that might go against some of the conventional wisdom around decarbonization. But I think we have some real hard evidence in the last couple of quarters of how that could play out. And Lisa, the final piece that I think your thesis probably gets a little bit of debate on is deglobalization. Because, again this has been a macro and micro topic, you know, macro in the sense that you're seeing companies look to shorten supply chains after some of the major supply chain issues around COVID. They're looking to shorten supply chains, given heightened geopolitical risk. And, you know, this has often been cited as something that's going to reduce profitability of companies, is they're going to have to double up on inventory and make their supply chain somewhat less efficient. So again, how does that fit into a productivity story or how do you see the winners and losers of that potentially playing out? 

Lisa Shalett: I don't know that the deglobalization itself drives productivity per se, but what it does do is it creates a lot of incentives for us to rethink the infrastructure that underlies supply chains. So, for example, as companies maybe think about shortening supply chains, maybe it's that American companies don't want to simply be motivated by the lowest net cost of production. But perhaps to your point, the proximity and security of production. So suddenly, does that mean we will be investing in infrastructure across the NAFTA region, for example, as opposed to over oceans and through air freight? And as those infrastructures are strengthened, be those through highway infrastructure, rail infrastructure or new port infrastructure, there's productivity benefits to the aggregate economy as companies rethink those linkages and flows. 

Andrew Sheets: That's interesting. So when we're talking about deglobalization, maybe you run the risk of focusing very narrowly on some higher near-term costs, but thinking bigger picture, thinking out over the next decade, maybe you are ending up with a more robust, more resilient economy and supply chain that over the long run over cycles does deliver better, more productive output. 

Lisa Shalett: Absolutely. 

Andrew Sheets: Lisa, thanks for taking the time to talk. 

Lisa Shalett: It's my pleasure, Andrew. 

Andrew Sheets: Thanks for listening, and be sure to tune in for part two of this special episode. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts app. It helps more people find the show.

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