OP-ED: Changes that ripple through the economy

The pandemic has ushered in changes that will have a lasting effect

Little things can indeed just be little things. They can also be examples of larger changes that are going to ripple through the economy. 

One such is the observation that mobile financial services (MFS) use has leapt during the pandemic. 

Many to most of us just continue to do things in the old ways, queue up at banks to pay the utility bills for example, until there is some shove or pressure to change, like the pandemic-related closedowns and social distancing measures. 

It is then we wake up to the technologies already present in our mobile phones and realise that working out how to use that is better than queuing for an hour once a month just to pay the electricity bill. 

Okay, that is a nice little observation and while it is just great for the MFS suppliers — and will lead to more than a few bank tellers being out of a job, no doubt — it is not exactly one of those Earth-shaking things.  

However, as an example of larger changes, it is important. 

There is that observation about how hard it is to change ingrained habits. That MFS technology has been around for some years, but few used it. 

There was only a gradual growth — it took the pandemic to make usage leap. 

It is just not easy to get people to change the way things are done. 

This is a large issue; just how long things can last is what remains to be seen.

Last week saw the death of the last American Civil War widow. Yes, that’s the American Civil War that ended in 1865. Helen Jackson was 101 when she died and she had married when she was 17, a man who was himself in his 90s, but had fought in that war. 

Yes, obviously, military pensions are different from paying the electricity bill but it is another little story about how darn long things can carry on. 

Instant and complete change never does happen, and it is not always obvious that history is indeed just the past. 

We can also look at this as an example of what is currently happening out there, for there are other changes which have been accelerated by the pandemic. 

In the US, they are pointing out that the experiences of this past year show that around 40 per cent of all jobs can be done from home. 

No one invented any new technology, not in this past year, to enable this: the internet, the web, Zoom, all those things existed before. 

But necessity meant that people tried it and found that it could indeed be done. 

The expectation is that some to many will continue to do that work from home when this is all over. 

That has huge implications for the value of — among other things of course — office buildings. 

And yes, commercial office values are falling in expectation of this. 

If there are fewer commuters — or each commuter works part-time from home on any one day — then there are knock-on effects upon transport by train and bus, on sandwich shops feeding workers at lunchtime, on the sales of coffee shops and so on.

There is another equivalent change going on too. Online shopping is obviously expanding for those same lockdown reasons. 

Before Covid, some 18 per cent or so of all UK sales were online. 

Just last week, we were told that 50 per cent of all non-food (note that non-food is just a subset of all sales) retail is now online. 

Events have accelerated changes that were always underway, shocked people into changing habits just like with the MFS and bill paying. 

But this is also an example of how those changes are going to ripple out — as with the effect of home working on those sandwich bars in the business district.

This will probably have an effect on the garment industry in Bangladesh. 

Because online clothes sellers look for a different set of attributes in their suppliers than those selling from physical retail locations.

Okay, this is one of those things that are not exactly and wholly true — like so much in economics — but which is largely so. 

For an internet retailer, the speed of supply is much more important than it is to a brick-and-mortar seller. Because, trends and fashions change both more often and more swiftly online. 

Zara, which buys a lot from the Bangladeshi garment factories, is sort of a halfway stage here. 

Part of the secret of their success was that they did not run on predictable stock cycles. 

They did not have the four seasons of clothes each year running on predictable timetables. 

Rather, they had a constantly changing constellation of stock. To supply this, they would — and do — buy some substantial portion of their supplies from the big garment factories. 

But when they espied something that was selling well, they would top up that stock with something made in Spain or Northern Portugal. 

This is because, the time of supply was vitally important — it takes, perhaps, seven days to get it from Iberia instead of the 60 or 90 days it takes to source it from Bangladesh.

Online takes this a stage further. 

Boohoo, one of the largest e-tailers in the UK, might have something in stock only days after it was first seen on some TV programme. 

Someone fashionable wears something, folks want it, and it is copied and available near immediately. 

To do this, they use UK-based factories. The higher price of manufacture is more than covered by the speed of supply.   

This leads to the observation that to compete as a supplier to the online retailers Bangladesh’s garment factories will have to change more than a little. 

Increase the speed of supply, reduce order size perhaps — ever-changing fashions means fewer of any one style of a piece — and work out transport to Europe. 

That last part might be aided by insisting the government finally sort out Chittagong port or perhaps some other transport method might be better. 

This is not, by the way, advice to those in the garment industry, they know all of this better than I do. 

It is though, to use as an example of the way that changes happen. 

Just as with the coronavirus changing the way people pay the electricity bill, it is also going to have changes that ripple throughout the global economy.

Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London