Project Syndicate

The rise of intangible capitalism

| Article

PARIS – In a 2014 book, the Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald argued that the most important societal endowment is the ability to learn. Today, it is increasingly evident that the “learning society” has not only been created, but is starting to drive our economies.

From the nineteenth century until about 25 years ago, businesses largely invested in physical infrastructure and machinery, from railroads to vehicles. But in the past quarter-century, investment in so-called intangible assets – such as intellectual property, research, software, and managerial and organizational skills – has soared. Recent McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) research found that, by 2019, intangibles accounted for 40% of all investment in the United States and ten European economies, up 29% from 1995. And intangibles investment appears to have surged again in 2020 as digitalization accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We believe that this trend strongly hints at the emergence of a new model of capitalism, in which companies’ success will be measured more by their people and their capabilities than by their machines, products, or services. Moreover, we think there is no going back. Firms such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are clearly scaling up dramatically and achieving hypergrowth.

Intangibles may well be driving this phenomenon. After all, there is certainly a correlation between investment in intangibles and higher productivity and growth. MGI’s research found that companies in the top quartile for growth invest 2.6 times more in intangible assets than the bottom 50% of firms. Similarly, economic sectors that have invested more than 12% of their gross value added (GVA) in intangible assets grew 28% faster than other sectors.

Economies in which intangible investment is increasing are also posting growth in total-factor productivity. Notably, the only companies that were able to maintain 2019 rates of growth after the pandemic hit in early 2020 were those that had invested significantly in the full range of intangibles: innovation, data and analytics, and human and brand capital.

In a dematerialized, digitized, knowledge-driven world, corporate returns, productivity, and economic growth will increasingly be tied to such assets. But unlocking their true value requires not only investing in them, but also developing the skills and managerial know-how, or human capital, needed to make effective use of them. An MGI survey of more than 860 executives indicates that the major difference between fast-growing and slow-growing firms is that the former not only invest more in intangibles and appreciate their importance for boosting competitive advantage, but also focus on deploying them effectively.

The growing salience of intangibles thus makes the imperative of raising skills and capabilities even more acute. This emerging new form of capitalism is potentially marvelous for qualified people with highly portable skills, but somewhat scarier for the less skilled and less digitally savvy. Companies that lack the resources to make necessary investments in intangibles also could fall further behind. The dematerialized economy, if not managed well, thus risks being a recipe for inequality.

Previous MGI research found that a key distinguishing feature of “superstar” companies is their investment in intangibles, including large-scale spending to raise the skills and capabilities of their people. Back in 2019, for example, Amazon announced plans to spend $700 million over six years to retrain 100,000 employees. Other tech giants, including Google and IBM, have developed similar schemes.

But the growing concentration of revenue and profit in a small group of successful firms risks increasing disparities of income and wealth. Intangibles-heavy superstar firms tend to employ fewer, more highly skilled, and better paid people who are generally more productive than employees in less digitized businesses. If these superstars pull even further ahead, then labor’s share of national income – the percentage that goes to worker compensation – could decline even more.

This is not to argue that successful intangibles-based firms should be constrained from expanding further or from training their own people. Such firms are important sources of innovation and high-productivity growth, and have formidable incentives to continue investing in intangibles. Rather, companies and governments should do everything they can to spread the skills that will open up opportunities for more individuals and firms in the digital economy.

Huge value is at stake. Given the mounting evidence of the correlation between intangibles investment and GVA growth, executives and policymakers should ask themselves what it will take to realize the opportunities intangibles represent. If an additional 10% of companies were to attain the same share of intangibles investment and GVA growth as top growers, this could produce an additional $1 trillion in GVA, or a 2.7% increase across sectors in OECD economies.

Governments can play a key role in reskilling and in ensuring that the right knowledge infrastructure is in place. That means focusing on education, internet and other communications technologies, urban planning, and public science spending.

The digitized, dematerialized economy is already here, and its spread is unstoppable. The challenge is to manage the transition in a way that benefits the many and not just the few.

This article originally appeared in Project Syndicate

Explore a career with us