Google ad revenue falls – what does it mean for the internet economy?

The internet economy is developing before our very eyes. Is it a gold mine? Looking only at the Silicon Valley Ferraris, you might conclude yes.

Or is it going to destroy value and jobs everywhere? Looking only at the newspaper industry you might conclude that every job that involves storing, processing and weighing information – from lawyers to bankers, doctors to teachers – is in deep trouble.

The internet reduces a lot of costs. As consumers we are comfortable with the concept of zero marginal costs. We breathe the air, look at the views, bask in the sunshine.

But as producers, as workers, we get worried. There are no jobs in the “Air Industry.”

The internet means a lot of work is about to be done at zero marginal cost. You build a system that teaches kids their time tables, you can roll it out across the English-speaking world. Teachers quake. Build a system that retrieves data from legal cases and roll it out across the jurisdiction. Lawyers will quake. Build a system that uses symptom data to develop diagnoses and hospitals will take it up while Doctors rend their garments.

But all this is a long way off.

For now, the internet is a lot simpler. The only industries that have been transformed so far are ones where data is simply displayed, not manipulated. Industries like advertising. 

Google shows you ads all over the internet – in your email, when you surf the web, etc. And this transformation has reaped it a large and growing pile of money. 

Until now.

Google revenues have fallen in all categories in the first quarter of 2014.

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Meanwhile, costs rose and operating margins fell to 27 per cent. This was quite a surprise and the stock fell sharply in after hours trading.

Of course Google is still profitable, and Q1 2014 beat Q1 2013, but the movement in the trend provides another data point to support the second hypothesis above, that the internet-isation of our economy will not involve a lot of money.

The internet is just a distribution mechanism. Making information for distribution still takes work, at least for now. But economic theory says the cost of a good will fall to its marginal cost. The predictive power of economics is pretty impressive when you look at how many newspapers are free, how many TV stations are free, and how many movies get pirated.

Whether companies will find ways to get people to pay for information products is an open question.

 

But if the “zero marginal cost” feature of the internet economy proves to be decisive, investors will lose a lot of money. Evolving views on this “big question” may explain why the Nasdaq – the technology stock index – surges and falls with more volatility than other bourses.

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Some investors clearly already worry about the profitability of technology companies.

But money is not everything. The world in which zero marginal cost is decisive could be a good one.

Imagine if air was made in big O2 factories, and you had to buy a subscription. Would you be better off, or worse off?

So it could be with a lot of technology. We may be better off in an economy where there are slightly fewer jobs but much more that you can consume for free.

Even if the robots don’t get up to scratch and we need people to make information products for free, will we be able to expect them to do so? Let’s look past the evidence that they will (YouTube, blogs, most short films, most bands, Open Office, a lot of apps, Wikipedia, etc.) to the theory.

The concept rests on the idea that people have a “cognitive surplus.” You can meet your basic needs (food / housing) without using up all your week. Then you have time you can spend doing things that look like work. 

This cognitive surplus may come in a certain phase of life. You may be a child or a student or retired. Or you may have a cognitive surplus because you work part-time, or because you are still full of beans in the evening when you get home from your “real” job.

The you use that cognitive surplus to do things that look, to the outside observer, like “work.”

The fact that a cognitive surplus needs to be defined and explained, really shows the incredible power of one of economics simplest models: breaking your day up into Leisure and Labour. 

The model is pervasive. People use it to do all sorts of calculations about how much they should pay to save an hour of leisure, etc. But it’s also kind of stupid. Commuting is neither leisure nor labor. Neither is washing your work shirts. The category of unpaid labour is invented. For washing the floors, sure. But does it include baking a cake? Digging in the garden? Building a treehouse? You can enjoy unpaid labour.

Slate economics blogger Matthew Yglesias goes on and on about the enjoyment of your job, calling job amenity value the most neglected subject in economics. Of course you can enjoy paid labour too. This is just another way in which the binary “paid labor vs unpaid leisure” model of life is defunct. 

 

The internet could end up making the leisure/labour model look even more stupid, if people accept they won’t get paid for things that were once deemed work, and do them anyway.

They’re spending their cognitive surplus. Is it leisure or labour? Wrong question.

If the zero marginal cost economy takes hold, quality of life may even go up, because people can consume more. It’s the same sort of change that came upon society when the printing press was invented – a huge decrease in the cost of distributing information, and a lot fewer book-binding jobs for monks, which caused a fuss at the time.(And of course the printing press itself wrecked a few legacy institutions.)

But a zero marginal cost economy won’t wreck the whole economy. There will always be plentiful jobs in things that are not zero marginal cost. Humans need food and housing and transport and always will.

If you’re worried about the rise of the internet, invest in something concrete. Like iron ore mining, or potato farming, or logistics. These industries will continue to sell things, hire people, and make money.  

A surprising thing about Google, and the economics lesson it teaches us.

I learned something surprising about Google this week.

Their spam-filtering software lives an amazing double life.

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I’ve known for some time that if you fill in this form (to post a comment on a blog, or whatever), you need only type the number on the right – it will ignore the number in the photograph. That was perplexing.

Then I discovered Google is using us. When you type the number in the photo, that gets sent to Google Maps, where it answers a question being asked by Streetview – ‘what street number is this?’.

This is quite brilliant. They apparently also use this program, called ReCAPTCHA, to decipher words the software can’t untangle when scanning books. So every time you post on a blog, you’re contributing to the quality of streetview, or scanned books.

Ingress by GoogleThe idea is so clever that Google now has software that is entirely designed to trick us into doing work for them.

I am talking about the “game” called Ingress. I downloaded this last week, because it was free and the Google App store told me it was highly regarded.

I opened the app and when it told me I had to “walk” to achieve the missions, I started pinching the screen, tapping, even shaking my mobile device to figure out how to “walk.” Soon it dawned on me. “Walk” meant “walk”. 

The app is designed to collect data on the walking distances, way-finding and walking time between landmarks, especially those which are in pedestrian areas not covered by the Google streetview system. (The game itself is pretty intriguing but also pretty confusing.)

The lesson of all this is the power of a big company – there are amazing things you can do inside a company that you couldn’t do outside.

One of the last century’s most famous economists – Herbert Simon (Nobel Prize in Economics 1978) argued the existence of companies actually showed markets’ weaknesses. (Here’s his great 1991 paper, Organisations and Markets.)

Inside companies, exchanges are based on relationships, not market payments. Unless you get paid piece-work, you are rewarded for being there, not for every article you write, or every ministerial briefing, or every line of code. You do the work because they trust you to do it. You are getting paid, sure, but you trust that working hard now will lead to reward down the line. It’s not specified in the contract.

Every time a company expands, they are saying that they have more faith in using relationships to get the output of the people they just hired, than using the market. The reason is transaction costs. 

Google is a monstrous, monstrous beast. It now has 47,756 employees, and if they are as happy as my friend who works there, they are very happy indeed.

While Google is tricking us into doing work for it via non-market transactions, Amazon is arranging to pay people to do similar work.

They have a “marketplace” called Mechanical Turk, where you can get stuck into the task of diong things computers can’t. Maybe selecting which photo of a landmark is clearest and best, transcribing some audio, or similar.

But it has been controversial. Bloggers complain the pay is too low and the jobs listed are themselves spam, the term digital sweatshop is being thrown about, and the Huffington Post has written about “Amazon’s new underclass.”

But there are many tasks, like completing surveys or any crowd-sourcing task, where low effort from lots of people delivers a better result than lots of effort from a few well-paid people.  Google seems to have this figured out - the market is not always the best solution.

Why Labor should have made equality a key budget figure.

The Budget comes out on 13 May, and when it does, one thing is for sure. Everyone will get in a flap and a lather over the wrong things.

The Budget is a whopping lump of documentation, and many of the people sent to cover it are inexpert in matters fiscal.

So at the end of the day, an inordinate number of stories will be simply about “the deficit.”

It’s one of only a few simple numbers in the whole Budget. Earnings minus Spending, delivering a binary result: Surplus/Deficit. Good vs Bad. It’s quite graspable.

But it is very hard to find experts that care about each year’s budget deficit. (1, 2, 3, 4.)

Forecast deficits are more important, but the actions that need to be taken to get the ship in order long-term are often counter-productive if you want a surplus ASAP.

Stressing over one year’s budget deficit is akin to stressing about the score in a five minute period of a game of football. Sure, the end result is made up of periods just like this one. But experts understand that the game turns over a longer period than just five minutes.

Sometimes you are kicking into the wind, and a deficit score can be okay. Sometimes you run a deficit on purpose, to prop up the economy or grease the wheels of reform.

Raising funds to cover a deficit is easy and cheap at the moment.

Headlines that scream Deficit! and Surplus! – complete with a cartoon of a treasurer either pulling out his pockets to show they are empty, or otherwise evilly grinning and hoarding cash – would be better spent focusing on what matters.

The way to train people’s focus onto certain matters is to measure and report them.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t (media) manage it,” as they say.

Labor had the opportunity to remake the focus of the Budget, but lacked the foresight.

They could have put the budget balance in size eight font and tucked it away down the back. Obviously you can’t take away the food bowl and expect the media to sit there wagging their tail. You’d need to give them something else.

When in power, Labor could have chosen any number of other measures to make the focus. Productivity, the need for tax reform to fund the NDIS and Gonski, composition of revenue, efficiency of government service delivery broken down by department, or even equality.

Politically speaking, this last one might have been quite useful.

The Australian economy has been characterised by a fall in the compensation of employees (COE), relative to profits.

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The National Accounts, from where these graphs come, note: “The profits shares recorded since the late 1980s are at a distinctly higher level than those reported at any time since 1959–60.”

I do not suggest that at the moment there is a crisis in equality in Australia, but I suspect many people think Australia could do better. And there is a choice to be made as Australia equips itself with policies for the next decade. Do we want to be Sweden or America?

People realise policies that promote freedom and small government can lead to inequality of outcomes. Mostly they accept that, until the inequality is bad enough to undermine the society expected to enjoy that freedom.

In the US, inequality is so bad that Walmart now is forced to declare as a material risk to its earnings, any changes to  Government welfare cheques that would further impoverish its customers. (from the Wall Street Journal).

It’s hard to have a mass market business if the mass market is so poor. And in America, the focus of inequality is no longer on the 1 per cent but the 0.01 per cent.

The evidence is not finalised but much of it is pointing in one direction – rules that promote equality inside a market economy are correlated with happier people. The Labor party has as its assistant Treasurer a man who authored a lot of the research on inequality in Australia, Andrew Leigh.

The Budget is the best time to try to introduce a new concept or issue into the economic debate, because that is when the greatest number of Australians are paying attention. Using the budget to shape the environment in which economic policy is played is going to yield better long-run outcomes than playing another round of The Deficit/Surplus Game.

Even if the other side gets back in and removes that statistic from the Budget, the public – by then attuned to expect this data – gets the sense the new team is hiding something.

If the Coalition wants to be smart, they can pick a concept (assuredly not inequality, but perhaps labour productivity, days lost to industrial action, rising health spending or a measure of how free Australian markets are) and use that as a central theme.

Market Forces: Should a taxi ride cost even more?

In the rain on Wednesday night, I got a cab home from the city – a $15 fare. Near my house the driver had to turn from a busy road into a side street, across oncoming traffic.

As the windscreen wipers flicked back and forth, the oncoming headlights of a bus distorted into a kaleidoscope of colour in the raindrops. At that exact moment, the driver took his foot off the brake and began to make his turn.

Every muscle in my body tensed and I opened my mouth to shout something, but then he stopped again. The bus had to swerve past the yellow bonnet of the car. Once it was gone the driver proceeded.

And I’d rate this guy as one of the better drivers I’ve had in recent times. At least he didn’t drive on the footpath.

So when the state government announces it is raising the fares on taxis, what do I think? I say thank god. Let’s make driving a taxi rewarding enough that people with a will to live and proper skills want to do it.

The government is proposing to raise flagfall from $3.20 to $5.20 after 5pm and to $6.20 on Friday and Saturday nights.

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A sheltered industry

The market for taxis has long been a mess. A big part of the problem is the lack of actual market forces. The industry has long been regulated to within an inch of its life. The biggest single rule has been a cap on the number of taxis in Melbourne, that drives up the value of a cab.

The licenses (aka plates, aka medallions) that permit you to have a taxi in Melbourne are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The owner gets half the money you pay. The value of the medallion exists only because the number of taxis is regulated.

As the medallion owner reaps return on the investment, the cab driver gets screwed. An Age journalist recently trained and worked as a cab driver and made $8 an hour for his troubles.

One of the reforms proposed by the Victorian government’s taxi review was for the split of revenue to change from 50:50 to 55:45. A ten percent increase for the driver is hardly earth-shattering, but it has been opposed by the Victorian Taxi Association. That is the peak body for the industry. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t effectively represent the users of taxis or the casual drivers. It is backed by the money.

It also opposed the big reform proposed by the taxi industry review, increasing the number of cabs in Melbourne. Despite its arduous work in representing the interests of the medallion holders, that reform has driven down the price of a taxi license. (In 2012, licenses were changing hands for as much as $500,000.)

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The government has agreed to a clever approach – leasing 12 month taxi licenses at $22,000 a year. This price is indexed at below the rate of inflation. The eventual effect is that the price of a taxi license approaches zero, and the market is no longer held hostage by the medallion holders.

The other big change that is being stealthily introduced is deregulation of fares. Part of the problem is that a taxi is just a taxi. There’s no easy way to get a good one. No way to offer a better service and charge a higher price.

Quality lottery

Another yellow ball bouncing round the barrel of the quality lottery

But in country areas, the government is introducing a rule that allows taxis to set their own fares. I see a link with today’s announcement. Might higher fares in the city build a consensus that really, deregulated fares are the desirable outcome?

Hopefully by that point, the taxi industry as we know it will cease to exist anyway. The hire car and limousine market has also been given freer rein under these reforms. Hire cars differ from taxis because they cannot pick up fares on the street –  they have to be booked. Pre-smartphone, this was an impediment. Now booking your ride is only an app away.

The biggest player in this space is Uber.  It started as a a way for towncar and limo drivers in the US to make money in their downtime, and is now available worldwide. The little car-hailing company that could is now worth an estimated $3.5 billion. According to their website, riding from my house to the city could cost as little as $10 and you might end up riding in a Prius or a Mercedes.

If they put our yellow cabs out of business, I won’t shed a tear.

Unemployment is down! We Think!

Aside

Unemployment numbers are out and they look like good news. Unemployment fell 0.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent. This matters to everyday life in the following four ways.

1. Lower unemployment should mean bigger pay rises, and more options if you lose your job.

2. Lower unemployment increases the chance the Reserve Bank will hike interest rates, which will get you a better return on the money you have stashed in the bank.

3. Lower unemployment tends to force up the Australian dollar, creating cheaper holidays and cheaper imports. (It jumped over US94c this morning for the first time since last November.)

4. Lower unemployment increases the chance of the incumbent government doing well in the polls. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But…

There’s not total absence of doubt.

If you look at the numbers more closely, there’s a few little things that might make you worried.Image

For starters, while the latest data, seasonally adjusted, shows the unemployment rate falling sharply, the trend data (calculated over a longer period) actually has unemployment rising.

There are things doubters can always say about the monthly data, that are not especially helpful.

“It’s just one month!”

“The standard error of the unemployment rate estimate for this survey is 0.2 per cent!”

“Seasonal adjustment is not perfect!”

The top two complaints are true and can only be resolved by waiting for more data (which will, itself, be subject to the same issues…).

But the ABS manages seasonal adjustment pretty well. They even account for the fact that Easter was in March last year and in April this year

March is a big month for falling unemployment.

Red line represent falls in March

Red lines represent March

On average, unemployment has fallen in 19 of the last 20 Marches, by an average of 44,000. Why? perhaps it’s only now that businesses are getting over the summer lull.

The ABS takes that effect out systematically. The red lines are the last 20 Marches, almost all of which show falling unemployment. But the average of the blue lines is just about zero:

Red dots are original data, blue lines are seasonally adjusted.

Red dots are original data, blue lines are seasonally adjusted. (data for last 20 Marches.)

We can trust this data for now. But it will be very interesting to see if April results in the effect being magnified or reversed.

Ethical economics: the externalities of eating meat.

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Australians get through a lot of meat. The ABS released its meat and livestock series this week, and it caught my eye. Every month we kill and eat (or export) this many of the following animals:

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I’m an ex-vegetarian.

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A pork belly sandwich with which I crossed paths recently…

So this is not a diatribe or an attempt to persuade you to stop eating meat. It’s an attempt to persuade you that economics provides ways of thinking about issues beyond what you may expect.

Meat-eating can be considered as an economic issue. There are externalities to take into account.

CO2 emissions is one (agriculture is omitted from our carbon tax). But another is the ethical issue of killing. That might not seem like an externality – it’s central to the process – but it is external to the market. There is no price mechanism that accounts for the slaughter of the animal.

If we model that as an externality, there are important differences in the number of kills per mouthful of meat.

Here’s the monthly tonnage the industry produces.

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The result of that is that every meal represents a different amount of the externality in question.

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This is important information. If we aim for a buddhist ideal of minimising killing, perhaps we ought to eat only very large animals?

But deaths are not equal. Even fervent vegans would place more ethical and emotional weight on the death of an elephant than a fly (I think).

What happens if we weight these creatures by their brain size?

Cow 450g
Pig 180g
Sheep 140g
Chicken 4g
(Humans, for reference, have brains weight around 1.4kg.)

In this case, the chicken races up the league table to be a relatively ethical choice. The sheep, with a modest body size for its biggish brain, becomes the least ethical choice.

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Of course brain size is not the only measure of intelligence. (And intelligence remains a highly disputable way to measure the possible ethical externalities of killing animals.)

If you are interested in reading a bit more about animal intelligence, I found this article particularly amazing.

Do you really get a job by looking at job ads?

How exactly do people get jobs?

A few people I know are currently looking for work. I began to wonder if combing through advertised jobs is enough, and thought a little sample of my own experience might help answer that question.

1996. My first ever job was selling ice-creams at a festival in Melbourne called Moomba. I got the job through a friend’s dad. Pay and conditions were great.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 100%.

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Back when I wore a watch

1998 After I finished school I got a job as a busboy at a cafe in a shopping centre. It wasn’t advertised but I handed my resume out to 20 businesses near my house and this one had an employee quit the next day. $8.50 an hour in cash seemed pretty good to me.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 100%. Inside running: 0%.

2000 I became a waiter at Pancake Parlour. Pay was a whopping $7.27 an hour. It was an advertised job for which I went through a quite involved interview process.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%.

2001 Waiter at italian restaurant. Through a friend. I lasted about three weeks.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 100%.

2002. Market research interviewer. A friend who worked there told me the place was hiring. Great pay and conditions so I joined the union. Ended up doing market research for big tobacco, but I didn’t mind because smokers loved to chat about smoking. It beat asking people about banks.
Ad: 80%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 20%.

Teaching english2003 I applied to an ad for an English teacher in the small town of Qinhuangdao, China, where I found I could go months without seeing another foreigner.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%.

2004. I parlayed my meagre teaching experience into a job as a tutor in the first-year economics subjects, which was among the best and most convenient jobs for a student ever.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2005. My first full time job. I became a graduate Treasury policy analyst, living in Canberra.Treasury shot tidied up Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2005. Ski instructing at Perisher Blue. A week-long “hiring clinic” for which you have to pay hundreds of dollars serves as both interview process and training.
Ad: 100%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0%

2008. Nauru budget adviser. I happened to have just finished my tutoring contract when I was asked by someone I knew in the federal government to come to an interview. I don’t think they interviewed anyone else.

nauru office Ad: 0%. Luck: 20%. Inside running: 80%

2009 Victorian government policy officer. Through a recruitment company.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 0%. Inside running: 0% (I’d say it was 100 per cent luck but luck should be good and this job wasn’t.)

2010. Journalist at the Financial Review – I applied at a timely moment when a bunch of people had quit. But there was no job advertised and I had someone on the inside put in a good word for me.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 30%. Inside running: 70%

2013 – Freelance writing. I sell things mostly to people I know from my other jobs, but also via some cold calling.
Ad: 0%. Luck: 20%. Inside running: 80%

After having had 17 jobs, just six came from simply seeing an ad and applying. My crude averaging of the numbers (including some jobs I didn’t go into above) says ads explain 46 per cent of my jobs, inside running 32 per cent, and luck 22 per cent.

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(I should note luck played a pretty big part in being born to a family that cared a lot about education and invested in my future. It also doesn’t hurt to be in a bunch of categories that are unfamiliar with the sting of discrimination. Is my experience strongly shaped by these privileges?)

The common trope is that 70 per cent of all jobs are not advertised.

Economic theory suggests a great benefit and a great cost. If firms are able to fill jobs quickly and minimise their search costs, that could be an advantage. But if it means they miss out on the best human resources, they suffer.

Despite the risks of hiring through word-of-mouth, the approach is not about to go away. This paper finds that firms that hire through referrals may be more profitable.

This expert recommends job hunters should spend: “20% of the time responding to job postings … another 20% ensuring your resume and LinkedIn profile are easy to find and worth reading, and the remaining 60% networking to find jobs in the hidden market.”

If my experience holds for everyone, its going to be advantageous to keep working in the same city, or at least the same country, where you have a bunch of connections. It also doesn’t hurt to be on LinkedIn.

But I want to know if the same is true for you. Have you got your jobs by responding to ads and going through rigorous processes? Have you been lucky? Made your own luck? Deliberately developed and used your networks? Please share your experience in the comments! (Look for the words “Leave A Reply” below)