Economic Outlook: Progress, very confusing

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  June 6, 2012 at 9:55 AM
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If it weren't enough for a financial crisis to blossom into an economic debacle, investors are stuck with technological progress as well.

That simply means that the digital age is wreaking havoc on old investment strategies and there isn't enough room, admittedly, in a month of columns to sort it all through.

Still it used to be easy to embrace technology. Look at that, there jalopy banging around the city streets scaring all the horses. They call it a Ford motor car. A few dag-nabits later and it was clear that investing in automobiles was a good play. The same goes for the light bulb, the electric typewriter, the railroad and the telephone. Some of those are still around.

Technology is now moving faster than the speed of sound. Just ask Hollywood Video. That was a pretty great idea for about three minutes.

Who could have imagined even 10 years ago that phones would be the plague-infested rat scrambling around the retail community? Heck, Best Buy sold plenty of phones. Now consumers walk into Best Buy, as if it were just a hands-on display case for the Internet. Having spotted and even tested the gadget on their shopping lists, the consumers then use their smartphones -- the ones they might have bought at Best Buy in the first place -- and find an online vendor with a better price. Then they walk out of Best Buy, having placed an order online from a company that will ship the product to their front door. A clerk asks, "Will that be paper or plastic?" The answer is, "Neither, thanks."

Wireless carriers are now on the front lines economically of two battle zones. The first is their concern that land lines -- the ones that connect Grandma to the local health clinic -- are no longer making money. Almost everyone has a wireless phone. So, why, the companies ask, should they spend enormous sums keeping land lines operable? A few concerned citizens believe phone companies have an obligation to keep Grandma connected to the rest of the world including, not to put too fine a point on it, the local healthcare system and local police. This hypothetical grandmother doesn't have an iPhone and doesn't play Angry Birds. She is, in fact, an angry old bird, and will be angrier if her land line is taken away.

Just as phones that Best Buy sells are now undermining Best Buy's revenues, the Internet is now undermining the pricing system for voice calls. Phones, that is, are not used for making phone calls as much as they used to be. Why call Grandma, for example, and wake her from her nap and ask for perhaps shaky directions to her house when a consumer can use the smartphone to get directions to her house online. Those directions always work and they're available 24 hours a day without having to disturb Grandma from her nap.

Phone companies are now wondering how to change their pricing patterns to reflect the point that people are spending more time sending smiley faces to each other in text messages than they are talking to each other. The average length of a telephone call has plunged from slightly more than 3 minutes in 2006 to 1.78 minutes in 2011, the trade group CTIA said.

Progress and technology are words that used to make Wall Street investors salivate. Now, the implications are not so clear. What made Facebook an overnight sensation, signing up at least 900 million members in eight years? Well, for one thing, it was free and General Motors recently said, "No, thanks," when it comes to advertising there.

It may be where things are happening. It also may be the largest paradox in corporate history -- the biggest nothing out there.

In international markets Wednesday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan gained 1.81 percent while the Shanghai composite index in China lost 0.1 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong added 1.43 percent while the Sensex in India gained 2.71 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia rose 0.29 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain added 1.18 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany gained 0.86 percent. The CAC 40 in France climbed 1.33 percent while the Stoxx Europe 600 gained 1.33 percent.

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