Monday, June 15, 2009

Commodity v. High Tech: How we need new technology in automobiles

I think you will notice that most of the companies that have filed bankruptcy over the past 9 months are producing commodities as opposed to high tech products. In fact, many high tech companies, including RIM and Apple are actually doing quite well. In contrast to lots of the other negative news out there, I think this is actually a good sign. Moreover, if the government takes note, it will encourage it to take the right steps with regard to the ongoing automobile bankruptcies.

A commodity, as defined by Webster's dictionary is:

A physical substance....... which is interchangeable with another product of the same type, and which investors buy or sell, usually through futures contracts. The price of the commodity is subject to supply and demand. Risk is actually the reason exchange trading of the basic agricultural products began. For example, a farmer risks the cost of producing a product ready for market at sometime in the future because he doesn't know what the selling price will be.

High tech proprietary products, however, are not subject to the same economic principals as commodities. For instance, Apple has essentially been able to set the price of Iphones for the last few years. As such, it is generally better for a company to be selling high tech proprietary products, as opposed to commodities.

Alas, all products become commodities. Even Iphones are having significant pricing pressures as competitors such as the Palm Pre enter the market.

The genius of the U.S. capitalist system is that it has always provided the greatest incentive for the creation of high tech proprietary products. That is why we lead the way in early industrialization, the computer revolution, and the information technology boom. Unlike our European counterparts, we were not hamstrung by entrenched businesses and the business interference of royalty that were able to mold the laws and markets to encourage the continued purchase of their outdated and fungible products.

In contrast to the U.S., look at countries that really heavily or solely on a commodity based economy. Take for instance, Saudi Arabia. When the price of oil drops, so does Saudi Arabia's economy.

Unfortunately, while we have benefits by a diverse and fluid economy in which new technology is always replacing tired commodities, some businesses have worked against this dynamic system to stack the deck in their favor. Many of our industries have promoted laws and regulation that encourage the artificially inflated prices for their commodities. There is no better example of this than the pharmaceutical companies. The same companies that created lifesaving drugs during the first half of the 20th century, but morphed into sales, marketing and lobbying companies during the second half. Name one drug that has cured anything over the past 25 years. Can't, can you? However, you can probably name 5 diseases that didn't exist 25 years ago, and the corresponding drug that can "cure" it. Yes, I know, we are all grateful that "restless leg syndrome" has been eliminated from our life. All of this culminated with the Medicare Prescription Drug Modernization and Improvement Act, signed into law in 2003, which made it a crime to negotiate with the drug companies for lower prices.

Applied to the automotive industry and the recent bankruptcies, a substantial part of the vehicle has become a commodity. Don't cry to much, as the industry has had almost a century of operating as a high tech businesses with the same technology. That is why Hyundai has one of the top luxury cars in the world, the Genesis, at such a cheap price. The reason for this, is twofold. First, that the existing infrastructure is set up to make the internal combustion engine. I have blogged about this in detail, as well as the need for the government to facilitate a move to new technology. The second, is government incentives that encourage consumption of petroleum. This lead to GM tabling the eclectic car, though it had an over 12 year head start. This needs to be eliminated immediately. If higher gas taxes aren't palatable, substantial investment in new propulsion technology is crucial. After all, the Pruis, which is the only production car with a high tech engine is selling like crazy. Why? Well there is a certain amount of brand status, but also because it is a silent engine. This was emphasized on the show Weeds, where UTURN, the local drug dealer outfitted all of his couriers with Prius, so "no one knew when they were coming." If the current automotive bankrupties are done right, we can revolutionize the automobile with high tech proprietary technology, no one will know that America is coming, and we will rule the next generation of car manufacturing.

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