Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cash cows and the permanance of capital investment

If you came of age in the 1970s or 1980s and bothered to open a business magazine you would have seen articles about the "S" curve.  It was taken as inevitable that technologies, products and corporations followed this curve.

An idea would be born in a lab.  It would smolder for years, perhaps decades as enabling technologies were developed.  One common example was the turbine engine.  It waited for metallurgy and production processes to catch up with the concept.  Then it would "break-out".  Enterprises would produce at a loss to build up market share and to slam the older, less competitive technology into the coffin.

Once the upward trajectory of the new technology was firmly established, firms would sink gonzo funds into product development and production facilities.

Slightly later, competition from other firms would start to blunt the stratospheric growth.  Also, initial pressures from even more advanced technologies might start bending the growth curve toward horizontal.

The final stage was that of cash-cow.  The goal was to push huge volume out the factory door before the technology was rendered obsolete.  Don't invest anything, just keep yanking on the arm of the slot machine.

Imagine that our technology is the second technology.  Image from HERE
This image shows our "S" curve in the context of more and less advanced technologies.

What is less clear about the "S" curve is what happens after "your" technology plays out.

Lag times
Picture an ecosystem dominated by one type of life.  For the sake of this essay let's pick a grass/clover pasture.

Then picture cattle to graze the pasture.

Then picture flies laying eggs on the cow pats and the resulting flies biting the cows.

Picture worms, and bacteria and fungi breaking down feces and bits of root sloughed off the grass and clover.

Picture birds winging in to peck at the fly larvae in the cow pats and to eat the worms.

Each trophic level lags the one it rests upon.  The cattle cannot expand more quickly than the pasture it depends upon.  The flies cannot increase in mass more quickly than the cattle they depend upon.  The birds cannot increase in aggregate more quickly than the flies and worms that they eat.

Those lag times imply that the number of pounds of cattle could be increasing even if every blade of grass and stem of clover died.  Those cows could continue to fatten on the standing hay of the dead sward.

The number of flies could continue to grow.

The birds winging overhead could continue to increase on the shear momentum of the resources stored up the (formerly) vigorous pasture.

Cities and other institutions
And so it would seem to hold with cities and other institutions.

Some natural competitive advantage causes one village to grow and absorb the surrounding villages.  It might be proximity to natural resources, a great harbor, fertile plains or even a pass through or around natural barriers.

The city grows helter-skelter.

In time, parties notice that the capital investments in the city are not very mobile.  It is difficult to move a harbor.  Rent seeking behaviors (strikes) occur.  Decision makers decide to forgo some profit to ensure production continues.  This is most pronounced during the cash-cow phase.

The parties become inwardly focused.  Labor seeks more rent from management.  Management focuses on labor.  Municipalities seek more rent from both labor and management.
Rail traffic map
They fail to see that canals are being replaced by railroads.  Railroads being replaced by interstate highways and air transportation.  Highways and air being replaced by information transmitted through fiber optics.

Higher tophic levels find themselves stranded atop a dead pasture.  Cattle wander the dusty plain looking for grass and finding none.  Later, birds look for flies on dried carcasses with equal futility.

A city at peak economic activity struggles to find employees.  Little does it know that those employees will become a huge burden as the tax base erodes even as the legacy costs grow.  The employee hired at age 19 might be alive at age 99 and still expecting a pension and healthcare benefits.

Thus we find the cities 1920s, the cities lionized by Carl Sandburg, cities of immigrants and former share-croppers working together to  muscle crucibles of molten metal about a factory floor; those cities struggling to make payroll in the 20teens.

I don't think this model is 100% deterministic.  But I think it should give the regions with booming economies pause.  Capital investment can grow legs and walk away.  Advancing technologies can make seemingly impenetrable fortresses a cost rather than an advantage.

It is good to remember that "Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered."  There is much art in knowing the difference between a pig and a hog.


  1. Well done, and it 'should' be of interest to those in 'power'...

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