Capitalism without Capital, the rise of the Intangible Economy – Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. 


Valuation, the Old-Fashioned Way: or, a Thousand Years in Essex. 

Colin Matthews was vexed. To have valuers crawling all over his airport was the last thing he wanted. But after three years, it could no longer be stopped. It was the summer of 2012. For three years he had been fighting the UK competition authorities’ attempts to break up British Airports Authority (BAA), the company he ran and which owned most of Britain’s large airports.

He had exhausted his legal options and was giving up. So now the men and women with suits and spreadsheets and high-viz vests were going round his airports, working out how much they were worth to potential buyers. Accountants and lawyers and surveyors and engineers measured and counted, and bit by bit, they came up with a value for the whole of Stansted, Britain’s fourth-busiest airport, to the northeast of London.

They priced up the tarmac, the terminal, the baggage equipment. There was an agreed value for the parking lots, the bus station, and the airport hotel. There was some argument about the underground fuel pumps, but the calculation was not out of the ordinary for BAA’s accountants: the cost of the asset less its depreciation, with some adjustment for inflation.

Sure enough, when Stansted was sold in 2013 (for £ 1.5 billion), the price was pretty close to what the accountants had valued the business at.

In one sense, the valuation of Stansted looked like a quintessentially twenty-first-century scene. There was the airport itself. What could be a better emblem of globalized high modernity than an airport? There was the troupe of accountants and lawyers, those ubiquitous servants of financial capitalism. And, of course, there was the economic logic of the process: from the privatization that put BAA in the private sector in the first place, to the competition policy that caused the breakup, to the infrastructure funds that circled to buy the assets after breakup; all very modern.

But at the same time, the valuation of Stansted was the kind of thing that had been going on for centuries. The business of working out how much something was worth by counting up and measuring physical stuff has a long and noble tradition.

Nine and a quarter centuries before, Stansted, then just another country village, had played host to a similar scene. Reeves and messengers, the eleventh-century forerunners of the accountants and lawyers that had so vexed Colin Matthews, had converged on the place to assess its value for Domesday Book, the vast survey of England’s wealth carried out by William the Conqueror. Using tally-sticks rather than laptops, they carried out their own valuation. They talked to people and counted things. They recorded that Stansted had a mill, sixteen cows, sixty pigs, and three slaves. Then they measured what they counted and valued the manor of Stansted at £11 per year.

And although the value they put on the medieval village of Stansted was rather less than the £ 1.5 billion BAA got for selling the airport in 2013, the reeves and envoys who did the measuring for William the Conqueror were doing something fundamentally similar to what Colin Matthews’s accountants were doing.

For centuries, when people wanted to measure how much something ought to be worth—an estate, a farm, a business, a country—they counted and measured physical stuff. In particular, they measured things with lasting value. These things became the fixed assets on accountants’ balance sheets and the investments that economists and national statisticians counted up in their attempts to understand economic growth.

Over time, the nature of these assets and investments changed: fields and oxen became less important, animals gave way to machinery and factories and vehicles and computers. But the idea that assets are for the most part things you could touch, and that investment means building or buying physical things was as true for twentieth-century accountants and economists as it was for the scribes of Domesday Book.

Why Investment Matters

The nature of investment is important to all sorts of people, from bankers to managers. Economists are no exception: investment occupies a central place in much economic thought. Investment is what builds up capital, which, together with labor, constitutes the two measured inputs to production that power the economy, the sinews and joints that make the economy work.

Gross domestic product is defined as the sum of the value of consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports;

Of these four, investment is often the driver of booms and recessions, as it tends to rise and fall more dramatically in response to monetary policy and business confidence.

The investment element of GDP is where the animal spirits of the economy bark, and where a recession first bites. As a result, the statisticians whose job it is to work out national income have put long and sustained efforts into measuring how much businesses invest, year after year, quarter after quarter. Since the 1950s, national statistical agencies have sent out regular questionnaires to businesses to find out how much businesses are investing. Periodic studies are done to understand how long particular assets last and, especially for high-tech investments like computers, how much they are improving over time.

Until very recently, the investments that national statistical offices measured were all tangible assets. Although these investments represented the modern age in all its industrial glory (in 2015 in the UK, for example, businesses invested £ 78bn in new buildings; £ 60bn in IT, plant, and machinery; and £ 17bn in vehicles), the basic principle that investment was about physical goods would have made sense to William the Conqueror’s reeves.

The Dark Matter of Investment

But, of course, the economy does not run on tangible investment alone. Stansted Airport, for example, owned not just tarmac and terminals and trucks, but also things that were harder to see or touch: complex software; valuable agreements with airlines and retailers; internal know-how. All these things had taken time and money to build up and had a lasting value to whoever owned the airport, but they consisted not of physical stuff but of ideas, knowledge, and social relations. In the language of economists, they were intangible.

The idea that an economy might come to depend on things that were immaterial was an old one. Futurists like Alvin Toffler and Daniel Bell had begun to talk about the “post-industrial” future as long ago as the 1960s and 1970s. As the power of computers and the Internet became more apparent in the 1990s, the idea that immaterial things were economically important became increasingly widely accepted. Sociologists talked of a “network society” and a “post-Fordist” economy. Business gurus urged managers to think about how to thrive in a knowledge economy. Economists began to think about how research and development and the ideas that resulted from it might be incorporated into their models of economic growth, an economy parsimoniously encapsulated by the title of Diane Coyle’s book The Weightless World.

Authors like Charles Leadbeater suggested we might soon be “living on thin air.”

The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 dampened some of the wilder claims about a new economy, but research continued among economists to understand what exactly was changing.

It was in this context that a group of economists assembled in Washington in 2002 at a meeting of the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth to think about how exactly to measure the types of investment that people were making in what they were calling “the new economy.” At this conference and afterwards, Carol Corrado and Dan Sichel of the US Federal Reserve Board and Charles Hulten of the University of Maryland developed a framework for thinking about different types of investment in the new economy.

To get an idea of what these sorts of investment are, consider the most valuable company in the world at the time of the conference: Microsoft. Microsoft’s market value in 2006 was around $ 250bn. If you looked at Microsoft’s balance sheet, which records its assets, you would find a valuation of around $70bn, $60bn of which was cash and various financial instruments. The traditional assets of plant and equipment were only $3bn, a trifling 4 percent of Microsoft’s assets and 1 percent of its market value.

By the conventional accounting of assets then, Microsoft was a modern-day miracle. This was capitalism without capital.

Not long after the conference, Charles Hulten combed through Microsoft’s accounts to explain why it was worth so much (Hulten 2010). He identified a set of intangible assets, assets that “typically involve the development of specific products or processes, or are investments in organizational capabilities, creating or strengthening product platforms that position a firm to compete in certain markets.”

Examples included the ideas generated by Microsoft’s investments in R&D and product design, the value of its brands, its supply chains and internal structures, and the human capital built up by training. Although none of these intangible assets are physical in the way that Microsoft’s office buildings or servers are, they all share the characteristics of investments: the company had to spend time and money on them up-front, and they delivered value over time that Microsoft was able to benefit from.

But they were typically hidden from company balance sheets and, not surprisingly, from the nation’s balance sheet in the official National Accounts. Corrado, Hulten, and Sichel’s work provided a big push to develop ways to estimate intangible investment across theeconomy, using surveys, existing data series, and triangulation.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

And so the intangibles research program developed. In 2005 Corrado, Hulten, and Sichel published their first estimates of how much American businesses were investing in intangibles. In 2006 Hulten visited the UK and gave a seminar on their work at Her Majesty’s Treasury, which immediately commissioned a team (that included one of this book’s authors) to extend the work to the UK. Work also began in Japan. Agencies like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which were very early on the intangible scene (see, e.g., Young 1998), promoted the idea of intangible investment in policy and political circles, and the idea attracted some attention among commentators and the emerging economic blogosphere.

As figure 1.1 shows, mention of “intangible” became steadily more fashionable even in dry academic journals. Figure 1.1.

“Intangibles” references in scientific journals. Data are the number of mentions of the word “intangible” in the Abstract, Title, or Keyword in academic journals in the field “Economics, Econometrics and Finance” recorded in the database ScienceDirect. Source: authors’calculations from ScienceDirect.

But then something happened that changed the economic agenda: the global financial crisis. Economists and economic policymakers were, quite reasonably, less interested in understanding a purported new economy than in preventing the economy as a whole from collapsing into ruin. Once the most dangerous part of the crisis had been averted, a set of new and rather bleak problems came to dominate economic debate: how to fix a financial system that had so calamitously failed, the growing awareness that inequality of wealth and income had risen sharply, and how to respond to a stubborn stagnation in productivity growth.

To the extent that the idea of the new economy was still discussed, it was mostly framed in pessimistic, even dystopian terms: Had technological progress irreversibly slowed, blasting our economic hopes? Would technology turn bad, producing robots that would steal everyone’s jobs, or give rise to malign and powerful forms of artificial intelligence?

But while these grim challenges were dominating public debate on economics in op-ed columns and blogs, the project to measure new forms of capital was quietly progressing. Surveys and analyses were undertaken to produce data series of intangible investment, first for the United States, then for the UK, and then for other developed countries. Finance ministries and international organizations continued to support the work, and national statistical agencies began to include some types of intangibles, notably R&D, in their investment surveys. Historical data series were built, estimating how intangible investment had changed over time.

And, as we shall see, intangible investment has, in almost all developed countries, been growing more and more important. Indeed, in some countries, it now outweighs tangible investment.

Why Intangible Investment Is Different

Now, there is nothing inherently unusual or interesting from an economic point of view about a change in the types of things businesses invest in. Indeed, nothing could be more normal: the capital stock of the economy is always changing. Railways replaced canals, the automobile replaced the horse and cart, computers replaced typewriters, and, at a more granular level, businesses retool and change their mix of investments all the time.

Our central argument in this book is that there is something fundamentally different about intangible investment, and that understanding the steady move to intangible investment helps us understand some of the key issues facing us today: innovation and growth, inequality, the role of management, and financial and policy reform.

We shall argue there are two big differences with intangible assets.

First, most measurement conventions ignore them. There are some good reasons for this, but as intangibles have become more important, it means we are now trying to measure capitalism without counting all the capital.

Second, the basic economic properties of intangibles make an intangible-rich economy behave differently from a tangible-rich one.

Measurement: Capitalism without Capital

As we will discuss, conventional accounting practice is to not measure intangible investment as creating a long-lived capital asset. And this has something to be said for it. Microsoft’s investment in a desk and an office building can be observed, and the market for secondhand office equipment and renting office space tells you more or less daily the value of that investment. But there is no market where you can see the raw value of its investment in developing better software or redesigning its user interface. So trying to measure the “asset” that’s associated with this investment is a very, very hard task, and accountants, who are cautious people, typically prefer not to do so, except in limited circumstances (typically when the program has been successfully developed and sold, so there is an observable market price).

This conservative approach is all very well in an economy where there is little investment in this type of good. But as such investment starts to exceed tangible investment, it leaves larger and larger areas of the economy uncharted.

Properties of Intangibles: Why the Economy Is Becoming So Different

The shift to intangible investment might be a relatively minor problem if all that was at stake was mismeasurement. It would be as if we were counting most of the new trucks in the economy but missing some of them: an interesting issue for statistics bureaus, but little more.

But there is, we will argue, a more important consequence of the rise of intangibles: intangible assets have, on the whole, quite different economic characteristics from the tangible investment that has traditionally predominated.

First of all, intangible investment tends to represent a sunk cost. If a business buys a tangible asset like a machine tool or an office block, it can typically sell it should it need to. Many tangible investments are like this, even large and unusual ones. If you’ve ever fancied one of those giant Australian mining tractors, you can buy them secondhand at an online auction site called Machinery Zone; World Oils sells gently used drilling rigs; and a business called UVI Sub-Find deals in secondhand submarines.

Intangible assets are harder to sell and more likely to be specific to the company that makes them. Toyota invests millions in its lean production systems, but it would be impossible to separate these investments from their factories and somehow sell them off. And while some research and development gives rise to patents that can in some cases be sold, far more of it is tailored to the specific needs of the business that invests in it, certainly sufficiently so to make intellectual property markets very limited.

The second characteristic of intangible investments is that they generate spillovers. Suppose you run a business that makes flugelbinders, and you own a tangible asset in the form of a factory, and an intangible asset in the form of an excellent new design for a flugelbinder. It’s almost trivially easy to make sure that your firm gets most of the benefits from the factory: you put a lock on the door. If someone asks to use your factory for free, you politely refuse; if they break in, you can call the police and have them arrested; in most developed countries, this would be an open-and-shut case. Indeed, making sure you get the benefit from tangible assets you own, like a factory, is so simple that it seems a silly question to ask.

The designs, however, are a different business altogether. You can keep them secret to prevent their being copied, but competitors may be able to buy some flugelbinders and reverse-engineer them. You might be able to obtain a patent to discourage people from copying you, but your competitors may be able to “invent around” it, changing just enough aspects of the product that your patent offers no protection. Even if your patent is secure, getting redress against patent infringement is far more complicated than getting the police to sling intruders out of your factory—you may be in for months or years of litigation, and you may not win in the end.

After their world-leading first flight, the Wright brothers spent much of their time not developing better aircraft, but fighting rival developers who they felt were infringing on their patents. The tendency for others to benefit from what were meant to be private investments—what economists call spillovers—is a characteristic of many intangible investments.

Intangible assets are also more likely to be scalable. Consider Coke: the Coca Cola Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is responsible for only a limited number of the things that happen to produce a liter of Coke. Its most valuable assets are intangible: brands, licensing agreements, and the recipe for how to make the syrup that makes Coke taste like Coke. Most of the rest of the business of making and selling Coke is done by unrelated bottling companies, each of which has signed an agreement to produce Coke in its part of the world. These bottlers typically own their own bottling plants, sales forces, and vehicle fleets.

The Coca Cola Company of Atlanta’s intangible assets can be scaled across the whole world. The formula and the Coke brand work just the same whether a billion Cokes are sold a day or two billion (the actual number is currently about 1.7 billion). The bottlers’ tangible assets scale much less well. If Australians dramatically increase their thirst for Coke, Coca Cola Amatil (the local bottler) will likely need to invest in more trucks to deliver it, bigger production lines, and eventually new plants.

Finally, intangible investments tend to have synergies (or what economists call complementarities) with one another: they are more valuable together, at least in the right combinations. The MP3 protocol, combined with the miniaturized hard disk and Apple’s licensing agreements with record labels and design skills created the iPod, a very valuable innovation.

These synergies are often unpredictable. The microwave oven was the result of a marriage between a defense contractor, which had accidentally discovered that microwaves from radar equipment could heat food, and a white goods manufacturer, which brought appliance design skills.

Tangible assets have synergies too—between the truck and the loading bay, say, or between a server and a router, but typically not on the same radical and unpredictable scale.


These unusual economic characteristics mean that the rise of intangibles is more than a trivial change in the nature of investment.

Because intangible investments, on average, behave differently from tangible investments, we might reasonably expect an economy dominated by intangibles to behave differently too. In fact, once we take into account the changing nature of capital in the modern economy, a lot of puzzling things start to make sense.

In the rest of this book, we’ll look at how the shift to intangible investment helps us understand four issues of great concern to anyone who cares about the economy: secular stagnation, the long-run rise in inequality, the role of the financial system in supporting the nonfinancial economy, and the question of what sort of infrastructure the economy needs to thrive.

Armed with this understanding we then see what these economic changes mean for government policymakers, businesses, and investors. Our journey will take us past the appraisers of old into the unmapped territory that is modern intangible investment.



The Rise of the Intangible Economy

Capital’s Vanishing Act

Investment is one of the most important activities in the economy. But over the past thirty years, the nature of investment has changed. This chapter describes the nature of that change and considers its causes. In chapter 3, we look at how this change in investment can be measured. In chapter 4, we explore the unusual economic properties of these new types of investment, and why they might be important.

Investment is central to the functioning of any economy. The process of committing time, resources, and money so that we can produce useful things in the future is, from an economic point of view, a defining part of what businesses, governments, and individuals do.

The starting point of this book is an observation: Over the last few decades, the nature of investment has been gradually but significantly changing.

The change isn’t primarily about information technology. The new investment does not take the form of robots, computers, or silicon chips, although, as we will see, they all play supporting roles in the story.

The type of investment that has risen inexorably is intangible: investment in ideas, in knowledge, in aesthetic content, in software, in brands, in networks and relationships. This chapter describes this change and why it has happened.

A Trip to the Gym

Our story begins in the gym, or rather in two gyms. We’re going to step inside a commercial gym in 2017 and in 1977 and look at some of the differences. As we will see, gyms provide a vivid but typical example of how even industries that are not obviously high-tech have subtly changed the types of investment they make.

Gyms are an interesting place to begin our search for the intangible economy because at first glance there’s nothing much intangible about them. Even if you avoid gyms like the plague, you probably have an idea of the sort of things you would find there.

Our gym in 2017 is full of equipment that the business needs to run: a reception desk with a computer and maybe a turnstile, exercise machines, some weights, shower fittings, lockers, mats, and mirrors (“the most heavily used equipment in the gym,” as one gym owner joked).

All this kit is reflected in the finances of businesses that own and run gyms: their accounts typically contain lots of assets that you can touch and see, from the premises they operate in to the treadmills and barbells their customers use.

Now, consider a gym from forty years ago. By 1977 the United States was full of gyms. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout movie Pumping Iron had just been released, featuring scenes of him training in Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, which had been established in 1965 and was widely franchised across America. Other gyms contained machines like the Nautilus, the original fixed-weight machine, invented by Arthur Jones in the late 1960s.

If you were to look around a gym of the time, you might be surprised to see many similarities to today’s gym. Granted, there might be fewer weight machines and they would be less advanced. Membership would be recorded on index cards rather than on a computer; perhaps the physical fittings would be more rough-and-ready, but otherwise many of the business’s visible assets would look the same: some workout rooms, some changing rooms, some equipment.

But if we return to our 2017 gym and look more closely, we’ll notice a few differences. It turns out that the modern gym has invested in a range of things that its 1977 counterpart hasn’t. There is the software behind the computer on the front desk, recording memberships, booking classes, and scheduling the staff roster, linked to a central database.

The gym has a brand, which has been built up through advertising campaigns whose sophistication and expense dwarf those of gyms in the 1970s.

There’s an operations handbook, telling the staff how to do various tasks from inducting new members to dealing with delinquent customers. Staff members are trained to follow the handbook and are doing things with a routinized efficiency that would seem strange in the easygoing world of Pumping Iron.

All these things—software, brands, processes, and training—are all a bit like the weight machines or the turnstile or the building the gym sits in, in that they cost money in the short run, but over time help the gym function and make money. But unlike the physical features, most of these things can’t be touched—certainly no risk of dropping them on your foot.

Gym businesses are still quite heavy users of assets that are physical (all of the UK’s four biggest gyms are owned by private equity firms, which tend to like asset-intensive businesses), but compared to their counterparts of four decades ago, they have far more assets that you cannot touch.

And the transformation goes deeper than this. In one of its rooms, the gym puts on regular exercise classes for its members; one of the most popular is called Bodypump, or, as the sign on the door significantly puts it “Bodypump®.” It turns out the company that runs the gym is not the only business operating in the premises—and this second business is even more interesting from an economic point of view.

Bodypump is a type of exercise called “high-intensity interval training”(HIIT), where participants move about vigorously and lift small weights in time to music, but this description does not do justice to the intensity of the workouts or the adrenaline-induced devotion that well-run HIIT classes engender in their customers.

The reason for the registered trademark sign is that Bodypump is designed and owned by the other company at work in the building, a business from New Zealand called Les Mills International. Les Mills was an Olympic weightlifter who set up a small gym in Auckland three years after Joe Gold opened his first gym in Los Angeles. His son Philip, after a visit to LA, saw the potential for merging music with group exercise: he brought it back to New Zealand and added weights to the routines to produce Bodypump in 1997.

He realized that by writing up the routines and synchronizing them with compilations of up-to-date, high-energy music, he had a product that could be sold to other gyms.

By 2005 Les Mills classes like Bodypump and Bodycombat were being offered in some 10,000 venues in 55 countries with an estimated 4 million participants a week (Parviainen 2011); the company’s website now estimates 6 million participants per week.

Les Mills’s designers create new choreography for their programs every three months. They film them and dispatch the film with guidance on the choreography notes and the music files to their licensed instructors. At the time of writing, they have 130,000 such instructors. To become an instructor, you have to complete three days of training, currently costing around £ 300, after which you can start teaching, but to proceed further you have to submit a video of a complete class to Les Mills, which checks your technique, choreography, and coaching.

The things that a business like Les Mills uses to make money look very different from the barbells and mats of a 1977 Gold’s Gym. True, some of their assets are physical—recording equipment, computers, offices—but most of them are not. They have a set of very valuable brands (gym customers have been known to mutiny if their gym stops offering Bodypump), intellectual property (IP) protected by copyrights and trademarks, expertise on designing exercise classes, and proprietary relationships with a set of suppliers and partners (such as music distributors and trainers).

The idea of making money from ideas about how to work out is not new—Charles Atlas was selling bodybuilding courses a decade before Les Mills was born—but the scale on which Les Mills International operates, and the way it combines brands, music, course design, and training is remarkable.

Our excursion into the world of gyms suggests that even a very physical business—literally, the business of physiques—has in the last few decades become a lot more dependent on things that are immaterial.

This is not a story of Internet-driven disruption of the kind we are familiar with from a hundred news stories: gyms were not replaced with an app the way record shops were replaced by Napster, iTunes, and Spotify. Software does not replace the need to lift weights. But the business has nevertheless changed in two different ways. The part that looks superficially similar to how it did in the 1970s—the gym itself—has become shot through with systems, processes, relationships, and software. This is not so much innovation, but innervation—the process of a body part being supplied with nerves, making it sensate, orderly, and controllable.

And new businesses have been set up that rely almost entirely for their success on things you cannot touch. In the rest of this chapter, we will look at how the changes in investment and in assets that took place in the gym industry can be seen throughout the economy, and the reasons for these changes. But first, let us look more rigorously at what investment actually is.

What Are Investment, Assets, and Capital?

When we looked at the things that gyms bought or developed to run and make money, we were talking about assets and investments. Investment is very important to economists because it builds up what they call the “capital stock” of the economy: the tools and equipment that workers use to produce the goods and services that together make up economic output. But “investment,” “assets,” and “capital” can be confusing terms.

Take “investment.” Financial journalists typically refer to people who buy and sell securities as “investors,” and nervously diagnose the “mood of investors.” The same journalist might call a long-term financier like Warren Buffett an “investor” and his short-term rivals “speculators.” Someone considering going to college might be advised that “education is the best investment you can make.” The terms “assets” and “capital” are also used in a confusing variety of ways.

In his justly famous Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (2014) defined capital as “all forms of wealth that individuals  .  .  . can own.”

Marxist writers commonly ascribe to “capital” not just an accounting definition, but an entire exploitative system. “Assets” also have different definitions. Many firms think of their business assets as their stock of plant and equipment. For an accountant, business assets commonly include the cash in the firm’s bank account and bills its customers have yet to pay, which don’t seem to be machines used in the business production but rather the results of doing that business.

Because of these multiple meanings, and because we’ll be coming back to these terms frequently, it will be helpful to establish working definitions for investment, capital, and assets. We will stick to the internationally agreed definition of investment used by statistics agencies the world over when they measure the performance of national economies. This has the benefit of being standardized and the fruit of much thought, and of being directly linked to figures like GDP that we are used to seeing in news bulletins.

According to the UN’s System of National Accounts, the bible of national accounting, “investment is what happens when a producer either acquires a fixed asset or spends resources (money, effort, raw materials) to improve it.”

This is a quite dense statement, so let’s unpack what it means.

First of all, let’s look at the definition of assets.

An asset is an economic resource that is expected to provide a benefit over a period of time. If a bank buys a new server or a new office building, it expects to get a benefit that lasts for some time—certainly longer than just a year. If it pays its electricity bill quarterly, the benefit lasts for three months. So the server and the building are assets, but neither the electricity nor the fact of having paid the bill is.

Second, consider the word fixed. A fixed asset is an asset that results from using up resources in the process of its production. A plane or a car or a drug patent all have to be produced—someone has to do work to create something from nothing. This can be distinguished from a financial asset, like an equity stake in a public company. An equity stake is not produced (except in the trivial sense that a share certificate might be printed to represent the claim).

This means that when economists talk about investment they are not talking about investing in the personal finance sense, that is, buying stocks and shares. And because they are talking about fixed assets they are not talking about the accountancy concept of cash in a company bank account.

Third, there is the idea of spending resources. To be deemed an investment, the business doing the investing has to either acquire the asset from somewhere else or incur some cost to produce it themselves.

Finally, there is the word producers. National accounts measure production by firms or government or the third sector. Production by households (say, doing the laundry or cooking at home) is not included, and so neither is investment by a household, say, in a washing machine or stove. This is a definitional feature of the way national accounts are calculated, and it is one of the reasons people criticize GDP (not least because it is large, and because it excludes from the record a part of the economy that has historically been run primarily by women).

Perhaps one day “production” will have a broader definition in national accounts; for our purposes, most of the changes we describe in this book would, we believe, apply to the household sector as well as to so-called producers. So, in this book when we talk about “investment” we are not talking about the buying or selling of pieces of paper on a stock market or households paying university tuition. Rather, we are talking about spending by business, government, or the third sector that creates a fixed (i.e., nonfinancial) asset, that is, resources spent that create a long-lived stream of productive services. We shall call such a fixed asset providing these long-lived productive services “capital.”

Because both capital and labor produce such productive services, economists refer to them as “factors of production.”

Not All Investments Are Things You Can Touch

One of the examples of an investment in the section above was a drug patent, say, one owned by a pharmaceutical company. The pharmaceutical company is obviously a producer, not a household; the company has to expend resources to produce the patent or acquire it; the patent arises from a process of production—in this case, the work of scientists in a lab—and if the patent is any good, it will have a long-term value, since the company can develop it for future use and perhaps sell medicines based on it.

The patent is an example of an intangible asset, created by a process of intangible investment. So too were the various assets in the gym story, from the gym’s membership software to Les Mills International’s Bodypump brand. They arose from a process of production, were acquired or improved by producers, and provide a benefit over time.

These kinds of investments can be found throughout the economy. Suppose a solar panel manufacturer researches and discovers a cheaper process for making photovoltaic cells: it is incurring expense in the present to generate knowledge it expects to benefit from in the future. Or consider a streaming music start-up that spends months designing and negotiating deals with record labels to allow it to use songs the record labels own—again, short-term expenditure to create longer-term gain. Or imagine a training company pays for the long-term rights to run a popular psychometric test: it too is investing.

Some of these investments are new technological ideas. Some are other sorts of ideas that have less to do with high technology: new product designs or new business models. Some take the form of lasting or proprietary relationships, such as a taxi app’s network of drivers. Some are codified information, like a customer loyalty card database. What they have in common is that they are not physical. Hence we call them intangible investment.



Capitalism without Capital, the rise of the Intangible Economy


Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake.

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