Don’t Mistake Tech Layoffs for a Recession

If job numbers are so strong, why is Elon Musk slashing Twitter’s workforce?

AccessTimeIconNov 4, 2022 at 5:01 p.m. UTC

Two seemingly contradictory pieces of news landed Friday morning, each weird and debatably unpleasant in its own special way.

On the one hand, we got news that Twitter, now owned by a visibly flailing Elon Musk, has threatened a round of layoffs that could cut as much as 50% of the social platform’s staff.

On the other, we got a jobs report that dramatically outperformed Wall Street projections. Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal predicted that an average of 205,000 jobs would be added this quarter. Instead we got 261,000 new jobs, blowing out expectations even as unemployment rose by a hair to 3.7%.

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The pair of items are a reminder of the deep disconnection between the tech sector and the rest of the economy. The Musk/Twitter situation is very unique and hilarious. But it’s also a typically Muskian exaggeration of the wider forces driving tech, at least for the moment, in the opposite direction of the rest of the U.S. economy.

Elon Musk is laying off half of Twitter staff because he bumbled and trapped himself into buying a pig in a poke. In April he made an unsolicited offer of $44.20 per share for the company. That looked vaguely like a good deal at the time because Twitter, along with every other “tech” or “stay at home” stock, saw an absurd and clearly unsustainable run-up in equity prices during the COVID-19 pandemic, because (never forget) equity investors as a whole are a bunch of lemmings.

See also: Reading Elon’s Tea Leaves / Opinion

Musk is apparently not any smarter than those lemmings, or at least not any better at controlling his emotions. That $44 billion is 20%-25% above the market cap Twitter had pre-pandemic, and Musk now has to finance a $13 billion mountain of debt that may well outpace Twitter’s own inconsistent and mediocre profit stream. This is, with little exaggeration, the equivalent of buying Peloton for $44 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020 because you thought people would continue buying overpriced stationary bikes forever.

That’s why Musk’s both throwing crew off the Twitter ship at a pace likely to destabilize operations, and floating revenue-focused ideas, like charging for verification, that seem to reflect a profound misunderstanding of how the platform works. Personally, things are already so unhinged I’m ready to predict that Twitter under Musk crashes and burns, forcing a fire sale and/or a fresh public offering that leaves Musk personally in the hole for billions of dollars.

But as much as this is peak Elon Musk clownish nonsense, it is also the story, in microcosm, of the larger tech sector. For roughly a decade, “tech” (formal definition: any company that can convince a venture capitalist that it is “tech”) has run substantially on debt. Financial debt, yes, eased by a zero interest rate era that is now coming to a violent close.

But tech has also run on a more conceptual sort of debt, underwritten by forward-looking promises priced into the equity even of profitable operations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook/Meta. Meta in particular, with its stock down an aneurysm-inducing 70% since January, is showing what happens when the future becomes the present and you haven’t risen to meet it.

Yet, it’s all happening at the same time as workers and companies in the rest of the economy are, if not entirely thriving, certainly healthy. Inflation is a serious looming worry – but it’s also deeply tied to this meta-economic rotation. The influx of cash that helped so many Americans during the pandemic is at least one factor in both current inflation and jobs strength. That cash plus the ensuing inflation is also likely driving a shift of wealth from the types of people who invest in venture-backed startups to the type of people who “invest” in food, cars, sneakers, gasoline and health care – categories among the top equity gainers right now.

The past decade in tech has given rise to not just holy fools like Elon Musk but to outright swindlers like Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann (who both, notably, pitched their non-tech companies under tech banners). Maybe a little harsh discipline isn’t such a bad thing – especially if the trade-off is more jobs for the rest of us.

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David Z. Morris

David Z. Morris was CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.