From Globalization to Gollum

My precious vaccine

If the coronavirus has, at a very broad level, set in train the post-globalization era, the search for a vaccine reveals the detail of what that world will look like.

A vaccine for a virus that is global should in many respects be a hopeful project, but this hope is also undercut by cynicism. Consider the events of the last week.

On Sunday night last, the Chair of the Federal Reserve declared that apart from the financial stimulus enacted by the authorities the best way out of the crisis was through the discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Then, on Monday details emerged of a positive vaccine trial from biotech company Moderna based on a very small group of people. This news led to a more than 20% spike in the company’s share price. Once the market closed, Moderna surprised investors with a rights issue, and it was announced that the individual heading the US’s Warp Speed vaccine program, would sell his USD 12mn holding in the company (he was a non-executive director). Other executives then also sold shares.

While some doubts have been cast on the early Moderna trial, the company will now move to a much bigger vaccine testing group (1,000 plus people) in the summer, with first results due late summer. If all goes well, an approved vaccine could be ready by the start of next year, and this then has to be mass produced and distributed (vaccinating the world will take three years at least).

If the case of Moderna demonstrates the uneasy intersection of science, ethics and money, the broader vaccine race will become even more complex.

Ideally, given the death toll, huge economic damage and societal disruption the coronavirus has caused, one could imagine a unified, global approach to constructing a pipeline (from research, testing, approval to manufacture and distribution) that would produce a ‘world’ vaccine. Previous pandemics such as Ebola, and HIV, demonstrate how collaboration can work and there are already provisions in the WTO framework that allow differentiated drug pricing between richer and poorer countries.

Instead, the quest for a vaccine has more resembled the Lord of the Rings, with the potential vaccine or ‘ring’ being guarded jealously. In a world that seems intent on replacing globalization with Gollum, the scramble for a vaccine (there are over 70 such ‘quests’ with Oxford University seemingly in the lead) will tell us much about how countries and companies organize themselves in the new world order.

The first is that, even in grave circumstances, collaboration between powerful countries and regions is limited. The US has alleged that China has tried to hack American vaccine researchers, and for China’s leader the prospect of a Chinese made, globally distributed vaccine has obvious geopolitical capital. The fissures undercutting this lack of collaboration are also undercutting two of the institutions of the 20th century, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, both of which have been poorly led.

The second trend is that the relationship between innovation and finance will need to be rethought and will in many countries incorporate the state as a player.  The capture of technological innovation by a handful of large tech and private equity and venture capital firms in both the US and China is producing inequitable outcomes, such as the absurd coincidence of near twenty percent unemployment in the US and a near record high level in the Nasdaq stock index. Corporate tax rises and regulatory pruning back of mega companies may be a trend of the future.

Relatedly, with globalization given way to a more geopolitically nervous multipolar world, governments will increasingly insert themselves into the innovation process. France was once derided for its ‘strategic yogurt policy’ but governments like it will increasingly regard cyber security, artificial intelligence, genetic editing and so on, as strategic industries where they need to be involved as core players.

In cases where the state has a competence, such as defense, infrastructure or aerospace related innovation, its involvement can be effective, and obviously much less so where it has little expertise to offer.  Clumsy redirection of supply chains and orchestration of drug production are generally not in the competencies of states and they should resist the urge to over control here.

In a world where economists debate whether we will see more deflation or higher inflation in the future, the effect of the two above trends will be to make economies potentially more fractioned and less effective.

To this end, the danger is that states that are over eager to control the innovation process, combined with an intense concentration in the ownership of the benefits of innovation (big tech, venture capital) creates a world where the benefits of innovation are lost to the broader economy and society. Both parties, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings regard innovation as too ‘precious’.

In that regard, the next phase in this debate should focus on finance and corporate governance – tax systems and ownership structures that encourage and spread the benefits of innovation.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

Sitting quietly

Blaise Pascal – for how long can he sit quietly?

At this stage in the coronavirus crisis, many of us consider ourselves experts on pandemics and biology. The speed of the coronavirus through our world is paced by the speed at which our concern and curiosity is fuelling a quest for information.

One thread that has become evident to me, is that historically epidemics have not always been greeted with calm and grace. In periods when medical knowledge was not as well developed as it is now, and when democracy and public health education were fledgling, epidemics were often met with violence and disorder.

For example, in the early 1830’s cholera spread across Europe but efforts to contain it in countries as diverse as Scotland, Prussia and Russia were greeted with public attacks on doctors, nurses, and quarantine officers. At times, anyone in a white coat was a target. The general fear was that authorities were using the cholera epidemic to poison people so as to reduce the burden on the state or that doctors simply wanted cadavers for anatomy schools. We trust experts more today!

Compared to the nineteenth century, what is remarkable today is the degree to which populations – mostly in Asia and Europe so far – have followed the lockdown guidelines. In general, adherence to the lockdown has been highest in countries where trust in government (and perhaps fear in some cases) is greatest.

The next stage of the crisis, coming over the next two weeks, will severely test this trust. Whilst I am now tired of reading commentators quoting Blaise Pascal’s ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, millions of people across the world will face severe stress in terms of how they sustain themselves. This much was made clear by last Thursday’s initial jobless claims figure in the USA. At the height of the economic pain of the global financial crisis (March 27, 2009) the jobless number hit 665,000. Last week’s figure was ten times that.

With the number of coronavirus deaths per capita, per day, in the US now higher than during the US Civil War, the pressure on the US economy and its healthcare system will grow. The same will be true of many other countries, and though part-time or partial work schemes in economies like France and Germany may lessen the economic uncertainty, it will still weigh heavily. For instance, the past week has already seen food shortages in Italy, mile long queues for food banks in Pennsylvania. In many cases, loans, compensation and government payouts in the US will not arrive in bank accounts for weeks.  

As this urgent, difficult stage of the coronavirus crisis develops, obligations on governments will grow. In Europe, there is an opportunity for what we might stereotypically call the ‘Northern’ countries to repair the diplomatic damage to the idea of EU solidarity of recent weeks (I am thinking of the Dutch in particular!) and undertake to ensure that food and basic staples can reach parts of the EU where they are needed.

In the USA, the past three years have seen a hollowing out of expertise in government. Consider that in 2017 and 2019 the Pentagon and White House economists respectively developed studies to plan for a coronavirus like pandemic, but the executive did very little to prepare for such an eventuality. In the longer-run, the state of healthcare and the fragility of the US labour market should become major political issues. In the meantime, I expect that both corporate America and the military will play a greater logistical role in meeting the needs of this next phase of the crisis in the US.

As this occurs, the debate on the marginal usefulness of the lockdown (in terms of its contribution to lives saved versus its economic impact) will grow. It has already been marked by what I call the ‘cure is worse than the problem itself’ brigade.

Two more weeks of lockdown in Europe will test the sanity of its citizens (though will I hope also show the value of this strategy) and business people. At very least, political leaders will have to outline some kind of roadmap to normalisation – the continued isolation of vulnerable members of society, wearing of masks, a gradual return to normal working patterns for example. Balancing this will be incredibly hard to do, and control. At this point, market volatility may give way to a pick-up in social and political volatility.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike