It probably isn't at the top of most people's worry list right now, but the agony on Wall Street has the potential to create huge long-term problems for the IT industry.
If recession turns up in earnest it will be a very different one from the early 1990s. Recent reports have tended to spell out the obvious point that IT and technology are doing OK right now but will have a somewhat tougher time next year. If only it were that simple.
This much is known. A US and European recession will cut consumer and business spending on technology which, in turn, cuts demand. Some well-known companies will disappear, a few will merge, and a very few will, strangely, benefit as rivals falter. Squeezing from the other side will be the difficulty and much higher expense of borrowing money to invest, which will hit not only business demand but the ability of tech companies themselves to find investment capital to fund R&D and start-ups.
The recession of the early 1980s, and to some extent the early 1990s, were structural recessions that saw old industries dying as new ones dawned. Unemployment was desperately high in places such as the UK, in part, because too many people had the wrong skills, were living in the wrong place, and doing the wrong jobs.
Sorting out these industrial imbalances made billions for the software and knowledge-powered technology industries which came to be seen as a huge part of the new economy that would replace steel plants, ship-building, car making and digging black stuff out of the ground.
The Wall Street recession could undermine this new economy by cutting the one thing that fed it as it once grew - risk capital. Elements of this can be tinkered with but the one that can't is finding money to invest in start-ups, the lifeblood of new ideas, of new businesses (and ones that get bought by larger businesses). The US is famously good at creating such enterprises.
YouTube, for instance, is having a marked effect on the future of the massive global TV industry and yet it only three years old and has already been bought for billions. That is the power of the new. Then we come to social networking, and only a decade back to one of the brightest start-ups ever created, Google. The list goes on and on, but the innovation of this sector has been accelerating since the late 1960s. They have reshaped the world not merely by becoming massive companies (not all of them are) but by having massive ideas that nobody had dared to bother with before.
The Four Horse Riders of the Apocalypse haven't ridden off the plains yet, but at some point the US will have to look at how start-up capital is working to make sure that innovative new companies aren't being hoovered up by the huge cash pile of sovereign wealth funds or private risk capital located in other parts of the world.
There is a witty maxim supposedly uttered by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the early 1970s at a moment of national economic crisis. ‘King Canute would have had more success if the tide had been going out at the time'. Sometimes things go right because there were always going to, regardless of what politicians did.
The idea that Silicon Valley is the best place to create new ideas has had a few knocks over the years and it has come out each time even stronger. That doesn't mean that it can't be laid low one day by forces nobody saw coming.
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