The photonics market, one year later

By Tom Hausken
Do you believe the stock market, GDP, or unemployment figures? Are we in a recovery, or still in recession? V-shaped, W-shaped, or U-shaped? As we do our annual survey and forecast for Laser Focus World magazine and the upcoming Marketplace Seminar , a lot of this gets mixed up. There will be more to come later, but here are some early thoughts.

Many public photonics companies have seen great stock returns. The stock market looks at future earnings--that is, profits--regardless of jobs or where the jobs are. A rising market says that investors think the future is good, and it's good for employee stock options and so forth. Some photonics stocks have shot way up, well beyond the average. LED companies in particular. Even those that haven't are seeing a bounce off the bottom, suggesting that it won't get worse. Stay tuned to this blog for more on this.

Small photonics companies span the spectrum. The stock market doesn't say anything about small businesses, but there are far more small, private photonics companies than public ones. I love these companies because many are much more profitable than their more visible brethren. For example, think of suppliers for military contracts, medical systems, and so forth. But, small businesses have very little wiggle room in a recession like this. California public radio explained it well in a piece today , using the example of a maker of tortilla-making equipment that sells for up to $3 million. It has gone from 55 employees to 9, and still has problems getting credit a year into the crisis.

Large capital equipment to make large capital equipment is hit hardest. The radio piece highlights a point I've been making, that the recession will be especially long for companies that make large capital equipment, and especially large capital equipment that makes large capital equipment. So for example, the market for welding systems for making cars is likely to be slow for another year or two, while the LED market will jump ahead next year.

Use economic indicators with caution. Use economic indicators with caution. One tool for forecasting is to look at economic indicators. Of course, they are complicated, but they can be very useful. But you do need to understand some of the limitations of the indicators, though. For example, Joe Webb points out in his blog article for the print industry how leading indicators often get it wrong . The blog piece is appropriately titled, "Beware the Cheerleaders."

Even as we all bask in the news that the economy grew last quarter, economists are working to correct errors that likely overstate the value of GDP growth. When goods and services are moved offshore, the total value may be counted in the current accounts, but it may not be allocated correctly to specific industries. It's as if you compare two companies that manufacture in China: one outsources it while the other operates it itself. The productivity of the former would look better than the latter if you don't count the outsourced labor.

A similar issue arises when you look at the trade deficit but not the entire current accounts, or for that matter, capital accounts. So what if iPhones are made in China? China adds only a few percent of the value, Japan adds much more, but the U.S. captures as much as 50% of the retail value. Yet, it looks as if it is imported from China so the other contributions are lost in our trade statistics. It should wash out in China's numbers, but not all of it will wash out in the U.S. numbers. But that is part of a very large topic, better saved for another time.

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