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Baruch Lev observes that it can be difficult to measure intangible assets, because they can exist in the form of physical assets and labour, and they interact.
“Intangibles are frequently embedded in physical assets (for example the technology and knowledge contained in an airplane) and in labour (the tacit knowledge of employees), leading to considerable interactions between tangible and intangible assets in the creation of value. These interactions pose serious challenges to the measurement and valuation of intangibles. When such interactions are intense, the valuation of intangibles on a stand-alone basis becomes impossible.”
In other words, the classical economic quantitative measurement methods are not working. What to do? How can we find a way out and measure the intangible assets? Economists envisage two ways today.
One way is to try to quantify the qualitative intangible assets. And this is what the majority of economists are doing today. This is like trying to recuperate those new post-industrial concepts into the classical "industrial" frame of thinking. It is truly understandable, although it is perhaps not the way to the future. Nevertheless, KPMG has even invented a mathematical formula111. Others like Leif Edvinson and Stewart himself have proposed rating the intellectual capital. Others like the Saratoga Institute are proposing a "human capital index"112.
The alternative is to say, “Okay, those intangibles are qualitative. This is almost impossible for classical economy to cope with. But we accept the situation and we try to invent a new economic approach which is more qualitative.” Here, we accept that we are in another values system. But the difficulty is that shifting to a non-material qualitative approach will suppose a real paradigm shift in economic methods, and basic economic axioms. And there are not many publications speaking to this direction.113
The majority of economists agree that the EU and U.S. economies at least around 40% in the knowledge economy114. Therefore, the proportional importance of intangible assets in the evaluation of a stock must be around 40% at least, and in many cases much higher.
The more we enter into the knowledge economy worldwide, the more the intangible assets will become important. It is like a huge bulldozer advancing upon the industrial society and mowing it down in a very short period.
Now we are in a strange situation where a bit less that 40% of our economic indicators are "intangibles" and non-material, and we still do not know very well how to cope with them, how to measure them, how to give them the due importance in the stock markets.
Figure A1-1 is a variation of a figure prepared for a research project financed by the European Commission, in 2003115.
Figure A1-1: Relative importance of intangibles in the knowledge economy
This figure shows the growing importance of intangibles (including sustainability) in the knowledge economy. It illustrates that intangibles were negligible in the past (as recently as 10 years ago) but that today they have as much importance than tangible assets and in the future (perhaps 10 years from now), they could become twice as important as financial (tangible) assets. We are thus in a rapid and important change and we must prepare for it.
But I will end this appendix with two pieces of good news. First, the more we enter this knowledge economy, the more the content of the intangibles is evolving. The relative weight of sustainability and of social inclusion is growing in importance everyday. Second, the stock market analysts are like forerunning the community of the economists. They use their intuition to quantify the intangibles, into the actual values of most enterprises worldwide.
The more we enter in this world economic transformation, the more on one side we begin to feel more and more aggressive reactions against this "new management," "those networks," “this dematerialisation,” etc. Some industrial managers feel threatened by the changes going on. They more or less subconsciously feel that their power will diminish and die... and they begin to react negatively.
But on the other side, I am puzzled to observe that from year to year, as a dean of a business school, I see that our students are becoming more and more sensitive and interested to orient their companies toward full sustainability and social inclusion.
Some stock markets analysts tell me that it becomes more evident every day that the content of the intangibles are becoming more and more influenced by sustainability and social inclusion. The younger generation is increasingly eager to run companies that are "part of the solution". They do not want anymore be working in companies that are "part of the problem."
The shift is really rapid, and the intangible assets are like the driving belt of this paradigmatic change. They push through sustainability and social inclusion in the business' agenda, through the stock markets.
Yes, stock market analysts are silently measuring intangible assets. And speaking with them is very instructive. They are of a precious help in the transitional period.
NB: This appendix is a reprint (slightly revised) of an article published in “Banking and finance European platform for Financial professionals.” N°3 July August 2007. (www.bankinfandfinance.eu ) It is included here with their kind permission.
Ces messieurs ont appelé dame Bess, dit-il; mais dame Bess n’est pas au cottage