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Dark Matter By Any Other Name
... The United States miracle of the 1990s was that our productivity began growing faster than that of other countries, even though we were the richest to start with...
To explain the experience in the United States, one would have to believe that Americans have some better way of translating the new technology into productivity than other countries. And that is precisely what [London School of Economics] Professor [John] Van Reenen’s research suggests.
His paper “Americans Do I.T. Better: U.S. Multinationals and the Productivity Miracle,” (with Nick Bloom of Stanford University and Raffaella Sadun of the London School of Economics) looked at the experience of companies in Britain that were taken over by multinational companies with headquarters in other countries. They wanted to know if there was any evidence that the American genius with information technology transfers to locations outside the United States. If American companies turn computers into productivity better than anyone else, can businesses in Britain do the same when they are taken over by Americans?
And in the huge service sectors — financial services, retail trade, wholesale trade — they found compelling evidence of exactly that. American takeovers caused a tremendous productivity advantage over a non-American alternative.
When Americans take over a business in Britain, the business becomes significantly better at translating technology spending into productivity than a comparable business taken over by someone else. It is as if the invisible hand of the American marketplace were somehow passing along a secret handshake to these firms.
Sound familiar? If you can't quite put your finger on it, here's a refresher from Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger:
There is a large difference between our view of the US as a net creditor with assets of about 600 billion US dollars and BEA’s view of the US as a net debtor with total net debt of 2.5 trillion. We call the difference between these two equally arbitrary estimates dark matter, because it corresponds to assets that we know exist, since they generate revenue but cannot be seen (or, better said, cannot be properly measured)...
At least three factors account for the accumulation of dark matter. The first refers to foreign direct investment (FDI). Consider a simple example. Imagine the construction of EuroDisney at the cost of 100 million (the numbers are imaginary). Imagine also, for the sake of the argument that these resources were borrowed abroad at, say, a 5% rate of return. Once EuroDisney is in operation it yields 20 cents on the dollar. The investment generates a net income flow of 15 cents on the dollar but the BEA would say that the net foreign assets position would be equal to zero. We would say that EuroDisney in reality is not worth 100 million (what BEA would value it) but four times that (the capitalized value at our 5% rate of the 20 million per year that it earns). BEA is missing this and therefore grossly understates net assets. Why can EuroDisney earn such a return? Because the investment comes with a substantial amount of know-how, brand recognition, expertise, research and development and also with our good friends Mickey and Donald. This know-how is a source of dark matter. It explains why the US can earn more on its assets than it pays on its liabilities and why foreigners cannot do the same. We would say that the US exported 300 million in dark matter and is making a 5 percent return on it. The point is that in the accounting of FDI, the know-how than makes investments particularly productive is poorly accounted for.
That story might only go so far, as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Matthew Higgins, Thomas Klitgaard, and Cedric Tille claim...
... we review the argument that the United States holds large amounts of intangible assets not captured in the data—assets that would bring the true U.S. net investment position close to balance. We argue that intangible capital, while a relevant dimension of economic analysis, is unlikely to be substantial enough to alter the U.S. net liability position.
... but it's apparently more than a fairy tale.
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