Sep 4, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome back from the summer, and to the new 5X/week Future. Thanks for subscribing.

Situational awareness: Amazon today reached $1 trillion in market value. Almost half that value came just this year, as its share price surged by 75%. The U.S. now has the only two trillion-dollar companies — a month ago, Apple reached the benchmark.

Let's start with ...

1 big thing: Big companies overpower workers

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

In the U.S., Europe and beyond, big companies are squeezing workers, overpowering their ability to negotiate wages, and leaving them with at best stagnant living standards, according to new studies.

What's going on: In March, we wrote about a decades-long reduction in the traditional share of the economic pie going to workers, a shift that economists call a primary reason for growing inequality.

  • But in new papers and speeches, economists say the problem is global, not just in the U.S., cutting across developed and emerging nations.

Economists largely blame the problem on outsized market power of big companies — among them Amazon, Apple and Google in the U.S., HSBC and Tesco in the U.K., Siemens in Germany, and Alibaba and Tencent in China.

Driving the news: Amazon today reached $1 trillion in market value — like Apple — reflecting the remarkable change it has wrought on employment, economics and human behavior around the world.

  • Medium-size and merely large companies have not had such impact and are not to blame for flat wages, said John Van Reenan, an economics professor at MIT.
  • He said labor associated with most U.S. companies has not seen a shift. "It’s all coming from what’s happening to the top amongst the largest firms," he told Axios.
  • In a talk last month, Van Reenan and his colleagues coined such gargantuans as "superstar companies," which he said mainly grow up in what have become "winner-take-all" sectors.

The trend began earlier outside the U.S. In Europe, the labor decline began in the mid-1970s, a decade and a half before it was noticed in the U.S., according to a recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund said a half-century low point in labor's share of the economic benefits was reached before the financial crash and has not recovered since, according to a July 2017 paper.

  • In an interview, Mitali Das, who led the IMF research team, said globalization has played no role in the labor decline in advanced economies. Instead, it's been caused by technological advances including automation.
  • Das said her team's results align with Van Reenan's at MIT. "For one thing, the superstars in their analysis are those that adopted technology in spades — Facebook, Google, Apple, etc."

Go deeper: Robots are shifting income from workers to owners

2. In one corner of the battery war

1801: Alessandro Volta presents his invention — the battery — to Napoleon.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most confounding areas of research is the battery, a technology that, while invented more than two centuries ago, is still frustrating scientists. But amid robust electric-car competition pitting the U.S. against Germany, China and other nations, researchers say their hopes are growing for a breakthrough.

Driving the news: One of the companies that has attracted much attention is Sila Nanotechnologies, an Alameda, Calif., startup that claims to have figured out how to build a working silicon anode, one of the two electrodes that make lithium-ion batteries work.

Why it matters: A breakthrough using silicon would pack much more energy than the standard graphite anode. The problem with silicon, however, is that it expands dramatically in use, shattering the battery.

What they did: Sila says it has solved this problem and raised battery performance by 20% over current commercial rivals.

  • Gene Berdichevsky, Sila's CEO, tells Axios that the company's anodes still swell, but that the structure of the electrode absorbs most of the expansion.
  • "We solve this by compensating for it in the particle structure (creating room for its expansion correctly)," he says.

What's next: The anode will undergo its first commercial test in consumer devices next year, Berdichevsky adds.

Be smart: A significantly better battery is still years ahead. Even companies such as Sila that claim to have resolved a fundamental technical roadblock say they will need to try out their batteries first in small devices, not electric cars.

  • A further reason for caution: The most-discussed startups, including Sila, aren't fully revealing the data behind their claims. In the past, this was a red flag for batteries that were more ideas than commercial breakthroughs.
3. Five jobs that stay ahead of inflation

Bank tellers have consistently beaten inflation. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

While wages have been almost flat since the financial crash for most unskilled jobs, raises have easily beaten inflation in a few occupations over the last three years, according to data provided to Axios by Glassdoor, the jobs search site.

What's happening now: Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor's chief economist, says that the crash was so severe that companies simply didn't have to raise wages as they hired workers, and that now there is a "hangover — companies are used to not raising wages." Inflation has eaten up most or all the increases that have come.

But here are five jobs that have consistently beaten the 7.8% of cumulative inflation since January 2015, Chamberlain says:

  • Bank teller: 18.5% cumulative pay increase since January 2015
  • Barista: 17.7%
  • Cashier: 16.2%
  • Pharmacy technician: 14%
  • Restaurant cook: 13.8%

One dynamic responsible for the pay surge for, say, bank tellers has been a hike in minimum wages to $15 an hour in places like Seattle. "That puts pressure on banks, because they definitely don't want to be seen as paying tellers a minimum wage," Chamberlain says.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The volcanic guide to other worlds (Shannon Hall -— Quanta)

The future of drug-resistant infections (Eileen Drage O'Reilly — Axios)

The Frankenstein algorithms (Andrew Smith — Guardian)

What ails democracy — a lack of free play (Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff — NYT)

Venerable Waymo and its self-driving woes (Amir Efrati -— The Information)

5. 1 cosmetic thing: An anti-aging boom

In Tokyo, a 24-karat anti-aging face mask. Photo: Junko Kimura/Getty Images

As the average age in developed economies rises in the coming years and decades, one of the next big economic disruptions may be in anti-aging medicines, according to a report by Citi.

Why it matters: Already, the anti-aging market is about $200 billion, and the new boom could be in drugs that slow, reverse or prevent age-related disease, Citi says. On the other hand, if people are aging more slowly and diseases are slowed or prevented, then other drugs, treatments and surgeries, which earn billions of dollars, may not be necessary.

"Over human history, there has been an interest in slowing down aging," said Vanessa Colella, Citi's chief innovation officer and head of its venture capital unit.

The details:

  • Among the most promising drugs under development are ones that would attack "senescent cells," which Citi says are blamed for numerous age-related diseases including arthritis, retinal degeneration and Alzheimer's.
  • One study cited by Citi said the elimination of senescent cells could increase the human lifespan by about 35%.
  • One anti-senescent drug is in a clinical trial on humans with osteoarthritis in their knees, and researchers expect data in the first quarter of next year.

Colella tells Axios, "It's very early and there's lots more work needed to be done" on whether such drugs are effective.

The bottom line: If such drugs pass the clinical trials, they could not only become big sellers, but undercut standard anti-aging drugs that earn billions of dollars and eliminate the need for some knee replacement surgeries, the report says.

Bryan Walsh

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