Our Current Obsessions

Journalists in most news organizations have fixed “beats”: bond markets, personal technology, international trade, and so on. At Quartz we organize ourselves around the seismic shifts that are changing the shape of the global economy. We call these topics our “obsessions,” and they evolve over time. (Here’s more on the philosophy behind them.) These are our current obsessions.

The mobile web

The web was born on desktop computers in Western countries. But more a tenth of the world’s web traffic is now on mobile phones, and it’s the so-called “developing” world that is leading the charge, with more than half of web use in some countries coming over mobile. Between ever-cheaper smartphones and “dumbphones” which cost as little as $10, plus the dawn of banking, messaging and social networking services that can run on any device, the possibility that everyone on earth could be connected is more real than ever. How will this disrupt existing internet giants, telecoms companies and the supply chain that creates mobile devices? How will new form factors, like watches and face-based computers, change our experience of the web? And how will we solve the problem of transmitting all this data within the limits of the electromagnetic spectrum?

Digital money

Credit-card companies make money on every transaction. But the web, mobile phones and new sales terminals are making possible payment mechanisms that improve on credit card transactions or do away with them all together. That’s a lucrative business, which is why the payments sector has seen some of the highest pre-IPO valuations of any in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the rise of bitcoin and its imitators means that a stateless virtual currency could become a serious intermediary between other currencies, or payment method in its own right. And in emerging markets, payments via mobile phone are already turning telecoms companies into banks. All these changes are wresting the control of money from its traditional guardians.

Energy shocks

For years, nations and companies around the world fretted over a coming age of oil and natural gas scarcity. There was talk of dark cities, collapsing economies and resource war. Now, a competing scenario has emerged that describes a world awash in oil and natural gas. Which scenario is valid, and what are the geopolitical implications? Will OPEC slide into obscurity? Is the United States on the cusp of a new industrial revolution? Does Russia face a long economic and political decline? How will China choose to slake its increasingly massive energy thirst? And with renewable energy and battery technologies also developing fast, will the rejuvenation of hydrocarbons reduce the momentum for cleaner energy?

Euro crunch

The euro-zone crisis threatens to throw some countries into default and ever deeper recession, and roil global markets. But crisis fatigue has set in, turning the news from Europe into a mind-numbing succession of policy pronouncements and political spats. Rather than tracking every detail, we will boil our coverage down to a simple guide to the level of threat facing European unity. And in parallel we will focus on two questions: who is winning and losing in Europe’s turmoil, and what are the methods that people and companies are using to adjust, cope with, and even profit from the shifting economic circumstances?

China’s transition

Decades of state-led investment and financial repression have made China the world’s second-biggest economy, and its biggest exporter, holder of foreign reserves, and consumer of many commodities. But this model can’t last. To keep growing, China must now get its 1.35 billion people to consume more, while simultaneously righting global trade imbalances, ramping up its service sector, and managing the debt it has racked up. Under its latest set of leaders, how will China cope with these challenges to its economy—and how will its successes and failures affect the global economy too?

The future of finance

Since the global financial crisis, the world’s biggest banks have been figuring out the “new normal” and how to adjust to it. Increased regulation, pressure on return on equity, and falling pay have roiled the industry, and banks are still having a hard time managing risk and keeping scandals at bay. This is not only changing the way they do business, but also represents a cultural shift for the men and women who were used to being masters of the universe.

The cloud

The key to the “mobile” revolution is in fact gigantic, immobile data centers, containing the millions of servers that, collectively, comprise the “cloud.” The cloud uses both electricity and silicon more efficiently than personal computers, and as it moves into ever more nooks and crannies of our lives and brings about the genesis of an “internet of things”—from biosensing clothing to vast arrays of environmental monitors—profound shifts in how we live and work will result. What will be the effects on labor as software eats all routine cognitive tasks? Will “big data” result in profound new insights or only marginal improvements? And which of the companies that build and service the cloud will win or lose, as efficiencies are wrung from every part of it?

How we buy

As the global middle class keeps swelling, consumer spending on everything from corn to cars to air conditioners is hitting new highs and moving online, and doing so especially fast in emerging economies. How are the newly affluent changing the face of luxury as well as the mass consumer market? What sorts of companies and products are meeting these changing demands? How is spending in developed economies shifting? What is the future of physical retail stores? Is the context between e-commerce operations and brick-and-mortar stores really a zero-sum war? How will spending shape global trade and economics, and how do shifting political tides affect spending?

Debt

During the boom years before the 2008 financial crash, few warned of the dangerous build-up of debt among the developed world’s governments, corporations and consumers. Yet when the debt bubble burst, it nearly brought the global economy to its knees. Now, just a few years on, pockets of the world economy—from China’s construction sector to US student borrowing—are again leveraging up. Where, when and why are certain areas proving irresistible magnets for investor cash? And when—it’s not a question of if—will debt, capitalism’s most powerful tool, will see another blowup?

Borders

In a global economy, we pay attention to what happens in the grey area in between states: How goods, currency, and people are crossing borders for business. Multinational businesses operating in a world of nations must negotiate (or exploit) different countries’ approaches to regulation, taxation, and trade. We’ll track the tariffs, scope out the offshore banking, spot the currency manipulators and see where the capital (human and financial) is headed.

Space Business

Can businesses really make money in space, or is the extra-terrestrial sector just the provenance of billionaires living out science fiction dreams? As space exploration becomes an increasingly private commercial endeavor, companies with plans from tourism and mining to communications and trash removal are leaving the atmosphere, with the potential to be technology innovators—or just the latest launch failure.

Abenomics

The crash of its real estate and stock markets in the early 1990s trapped Japan in a deflationary spiral and a state of perpetual low growth. Prime minister Shinzo Abe is now trying to spring that trap. Aggressive monetary policy, fiscal stimulus and structural reform are the pillars of this approach, which the world has nicknamed “Abenomics.” No government has ever tried anything so bold before. But neither has a country suffered from chronic deflation for so long. Can Abenomics succeed in reviving Japan? Or is it already too late for the world’s third-largest economy?

US Immigration

America’s creaky immigration regime has created a huge black market of unauthorized low-skilled labor; an enormous backlog of people waiting for citizenship; and, some companies say, a shortage of skilled labor. This year lawmakers in Washington see the chance to pass the first major reform in decades, and businesses and workers in sectors from agriculture to technology, and in countries from India to Mexico, are waiting (or lobbying) for a bill that could transform the US labor market.

Past obsessions

The fiscal cliff (September-December 2012)
On Dec. 31, 2012, an automatic austerity package of tax hikes and spending cuts starts to kick in, with a recession to follow. The US government can make a deal to avoid that fate, but long-standing differences over government’s role in the economy haven’t disappeared. Both American businesses and global marketplaces depend on a solution, and the outcome will depend at least partly on the presidential election result. Can the two parties agree on deal that reduces the debt without reducing the economy to cinders? How will the repercussions affect American businesses and their trading partners? And will American sovereign debt be downgraded yet again, as it was in 2011 over the same sort of political deadlock?

Modern states
The nation-state is struggling to keep up with the demands of the global economy. Multinational corporations, demographic trends, new technology and ways of doing business have reinvigorated old debates about the role of the public sector in the economy. After the global financial crisis, developed nations are trying to grow fast enough to support their standards of living, even as emerging markets challenge free-market capitalism with state-sponsored enterprise and industrial policy. What are the advantages and limits of state capitalism? Can struggling rich-world nations overhaul sclerotic institutions? How are state institutions adapting to rapid demographic and socioeconomic change? And how are national legal frameworks adapting to an increasingly transnational business world?

Low interest rates
In their attempt to quell the financial crisis of 2008-2009, central banks embarked on unprecedented new policies to flood the financial system with money. Today the crisis is over, the global economy is crippled, and those policies remain in place—indeed, central banks are likely to keep interest rates low for years to come. Savers, corporations, governments, and regulations are caught in the crossfire. What are the unexpected side-effects of low interest rates? Who will win and who will lose in this uncharted territory?

The next crisis
Economists now see the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession as the culmination of years of poor policies and bad practices. In the ashes of the crisis, politicians and business leaders are establishing the framework of a new global system. But the reforms are the product of a mass of conflicting interests, and few doubt that it’s just a matter of time until the next bubble bursts. What are the new sources of financial instability and imprudent investment? Where is regulation still weak? And who stands to gain from the flaws still inherent in the global financial system?

Startups
A growing group of emerging-market startups are launching new business models, exporting them to other developing regions and even back to rich countries, adding new currents to the global flow of innovation. Startup culture is itself an economic indicator, reflecting and driving the kind of education and financing that makes countries competitive. Global venture capitalists are paying attention, even as new emerging-market investors emerge to capitalize on local growth rates and fresh capital protections. What does it take to foment a startup culture and which countries are doing it best? What are entrepreneurs and investors in emerging markets learning from their rich-country counterparts, and vice versa? What differences in entrepreneurial cultures and institutions will persist, and which will blur into universal trends?

China slowdown
China’s economic growth seems to be decelerating from its eye-popping highs, just as the country is going through its once-a-decade leadership transition. How will the new leadership set economic policy in the light of rivalry between political clans? How will it adjust to social unrest? And what effects is the economic slowdown having on industries and countries around the world that have come to depend on Chinese demand?

Consumer class
As the global middle class continues to swell, consumer spending on everything from corn to cars to air conditioners is hitting new highs, moving online and into emerging economies less affected than stagnant rich countries by recent recessions. How will consumer tastes evolve across borders? What sorts of companies and products will meet these changing demands? How will spending shape global trade and economics, and what are the political implications of more disposable income and time?

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