Central banks’ reliance on defunct economic theory makes people worry their children will be worse off than themselves

“Average UK wages in 2022 could still be lower than in 2008” 
UK Office for Budget Responsibility

While Western stock markets boom under the influence of central bank money-printing, wages for ordinary people are not doing so well.  So it is no wonder that Populism is rising, as voters worry their children will be worse off than themselves at a similar age.

The chart above is the key to the story.  It shows births in the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA) since 1921.  They are important as until recently, they represented around 50% of the global economy.  Equally important is the fact that consumer spending represents 60% – 70% of total GDP in each country.

As the chart shows, the absolute number of consumers saw a massive boost during what became known as the BabyBoom after the end of World War 2:

  • The US Boom lasted from 1946 – 1964, and saw a 52% increase in births versus the previous 18 years
  • The Boom lasted longer in the other G7 countries, from 1946 – 1970, but was less intense
  • In total, there were 33 million more G7 births in 1946 – 1970 versus the previous 25 years
  • This was the equivalent of adding a new G7 country the size of Canada to the global economy

Today’s dominant economic theories were also developed during the BabyBoom period, as academics tried to understand the major changes that were taking place in the economy:

  • Milton Friedman’s classic ‘A Monetary History of the United States’ was published in 1963, and led him to argue that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”  
  • Franco Modigliani’s ‘The Life Cycle Hypothesis of Saving‘ was published in 1966, and argued that consumers deliberately balanced out their spending through their lives

Today’s problem is that although both theories appeared to fit the facts when written, they were wrong. 

We cannot blame them, as nobody during the 1960s realised the extraordinary nature of the BabyBoom.  The word “BabyBoom” was only invented after it had finished, in 1970, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Friedman had no way of knowing that the number of US babies had risen by such an extraordinary amount.  As these babies grew up, they created major inflation as demand massively outgrew supply.  But once they entered the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age cohort in large numbers and began working, supply began to catch up – and inflation to fall.

Similarly, Modigliani had no way of knowing that people’s spending began to decline dramatically after the age 55, as average US life expectancy during the BabyBoom was only around 68 years.

But today, average US life expectancy is over 10 years higher.  And as the second chart shows, the number of households in the 55+ age group is rocketing, up by 55% since 2000.  At 56m, it is fast approaching the 66m households in the critical 25 – 54 Wealth Creator cohort, who dominate consumer spending:

  • Each Wealth Creator household spent an average of $64k in 2017, versus just $51k for those aged 55+
  • Even this $51k figure is flattered by the large number of Boomers moving out of the Wealth Creator cohort
  • Someone aged 56 spends almost the same as when they were 55.  But at 75+, they are spending 47% less
  • Older people already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement

Unfortunately, today’s central bankers still base policy on these theories, just as Keynes’ warned:

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”.

The result is seen in the third chart from the Brookings Institute.  It highlights how labour’s share of income has collapsed from 64% in 2000 to 57% today.  The date is particularly significant, given that the oldest Boomers (born in 1946), reached 55 in 2001 and the average US Boomer became 55 in 2010.

  • Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan tried to compensate for this paradigm shift from 2003 by boosting house prices – but this only led to the 2008 subprime crisis which nearly collapsed the global economy
  • Since then, Fed Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have focused on boosting the stock market, as Bernanke noted in November 2010:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.

But fewer Americans own stocks than houses – only 54% versus 64% for homes.  So “printing babies” cannot work.

The real issue is that the dramatic increase in life expectancy has created a paradigm change in our life cycle:

  • It is no longer based on our being born, educated, working, retiring and then dying
  • Instead, we have a new stage, where we are born, educated, work, and then retrain in our 50s/60s, before working again until we retire and then die

This transition would have been a difficult challenge to manage at the best of times. And having now gone in the wrong direction for the past 15 years,  we are, as I warned last year, much closer to the point when it becomes:

“Obvious that the Fed could not possibly control the economic fortunes of 321m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted as a result. The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard indeed.”

 

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US tax cuts will fail as Trump’s demographic deficit replaces Reagan’s demographic dividend

No country in the world now has a top quality pension system.  That’s the conclusion from the latest Report by pensions consultants Melbourne Mercer.  As the chart above shows:

  • Denmark and The Netherlands have fallen out of the top category
  • In the G7 wealthy nations: Canada is in category B; Germany and UK in C+; France, US and Italy in C; Japan in D
  • In the BRICS emerging economies: Brazil is in category C; India, China and S Africa are D; and Russia’s system is so poor it is unclassified

Unsurprisingly, the cause of the problems is today’s ‘demographic deficit’, as the authors highlight:

“The provision of financial security in retirement is critical for both individuals and societies as most countries are now grappling with the social, economic and financial effects of ageing populations. The major causes of this demographic shift are declining birth rates and increasing longevity. Inevitably these developments are placing financial pressure on current retirement income systems. Indeed, the sustainability of some current systems is under threat.”

These problems have been building for years, as politicians have not wanted to have difficult conversations with voters over raising the retirement age.  Instead, they have preferred to ignore the issue, hoping that it will go away.

But, of course, problems that are ignored tend to get worse over time, rather than go away.  In the US, public pension funds saw their deficits jump $343bn last year to $3.85tn – making it almost certain that, eventually, pension benefits will have to be cut and taxes raised.

The issue has been that politicians preferred to believe central bank stimulus programmes could solve the deficit by cutting interest rates and printing large amounts of virtually free cash.  And unfortunately, when it became clear this policy was failing to work, the banks “doubled down” and pursued negative interest rates rather than admitting defeat:

  • Currently, 17% of all bonds (worth $8tn), trade at negative rates
  • Swiss bond yields are negative out to 2027, as the Pensions Partners chart shows
  • Most major European countries, and Japan, suffer from negative rates

2 years ago, Swiss pension experts suggested that its pension system would be bankrupt within 10 years, due to the requirement to pay retirees an annuity of 6.8% of their total savings each year.  This rate is clearly unaffordable with negative interest rates, unless the funds take massive risks with their capital.

The US faces similar problems with Social Security, which is the major source of income for most retirees.  The Trustees forecast its reserves will be depleted by 2034, when benefits will need to be cut by around a quarter.  Medicare funds for hospital and nursing will be depleted by 2029.  And as the Social Security Administration reports:

173 million workers are covered under Social Security.  46% of the workforce in private industry has no private pension coverage.  39% of workers report that they and/or their spouse have not personally saved any money for retirement.”

Rising life expectancy is a key part of the problem, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported in May.  Back in 1889, life expectancy was under 50 when Bismarck introduced the world’s first state pension in Germany.  Today, the average baby born in the G7 countries can expect to live to be 100.  As WEF conclude:

“One obvious implication of living longer is that we are going to have to spend longer working. The expectation that retirement will start early- to mid-60s is likely to be a thing of the past, or a privilege of the very wealthy.” 

Sadly, politicians are still in denial, as President Trump’s proposed tax cuts confirm.

Today is not 1986, when President Reagan cut taxes in his October 1986 Tax Reform Act and was rewarded with higher tax revenues.  30 years ago, more and more BabyBoomers were entering the wealth creating 25 – 54 age group, as the chart from the Atlanta Fed confirms:

The issue is the ageing of the Boomers combined with the collapse of fertility rates:

  • The oldest Boomers left the Wealth Creator cohort in 2001, and the average Boomer (born in 1955) left in 2010
  • The relative number of Wealth Creators is also in decline, as US fertility rates have been below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman) for 45 years since 1970

Inevitably, therefore, Reagan’s demographic dividend has become Trump’s demographic deficit.

As I warned back in May, debt and demographics are set to destroy Trump’s growth dream.  And without immigration, the US working age population will fall by 18m by 2035, making a bad situation even worse.  Instead of tax cuts, Trump should instead be focused on 3 key priorities to:

  • Design measures to support older Boomers to stay in the workforce
  • Reverse the decline that has taken place in corporate funding for pensions
  • Tackle looming deficits in Social Security and Medicare”

Future retirees will not thank him for creating yet further debt headwinds by proposing unfunded tax cuts.  These might boost GDP in the short-term.  But they will certainly make it even more difficult to solve tomorrow’s pension deficits.

The Great Reckoning for policymakers’ failures has begun

Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2018-2020 period. The aim, as always, will be to challenge conventional wisdom when this seems to be heading in the wrong direction.  Before publishing the new Outlook each year, I always like to review my previous forecast. Past performance may not be a perfect guide to the future, but it is the best we have:

The 2007 Outlook ‘Budgeting for a Downturn‘, and 2008′s ‘Budgeting for Survival’ meant I was one of the few to forecast the 2008 Crisis
2009′s ‘Budgeting for a New Normal’ was then more positive than the consensus, suggesting “2010 should be a better year, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP
The 2010 Outlook was ‘Budgeting for Uncertainty’. This introduced the concept of Scenario planning, to help deal with “today’s increasingly uncertain New Normal environment.”
2011 was ‘Budgeting for Austerity’. It anticipated weak growth across Europe as a result of the austerity measures being introduced, and disappointing global growth, whilst arguing that major new opportunities were opening up as a result of changing demographic trends
2012 was ‘Budgeting for an L-shaped recovery’, arguing that recovery was unlikely to meet expectations
2013 was ‘Budgeting for a VUCA world‘ where Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity would dominate
2014 was ‘Budgeting for the Cycle of Deflation‘, 2015 was ’Budgeting for the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus’, 2016 was ‘Budgeting for the Great Reckoning’

Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

My argument last year was that companies and investors would begin to run up against the reality of the impact of today’s “demographic deficit”.  They would find demand had fallen far short of policymakers’ promises.  As the chart shows, the IMF had forecast in 2011 that 2016 growth would be 4.7%, but in reality it was a third lower at just 3.2%.   I therefore argued:

“This false optimism has now created some very negative consequences:

 Companies committed to major capacity expansions during the 2011 – 2013 period, assuming demand growth would return to “normal” levels
 Policymakers committed to vast stimulus programmes, assuming that the debt would be paid off by a mixture of “normal” growth and rising inflation
 Today, this means that companies are losing pricing power as this new capacity comes online, whilst governments have found their debt is still rising in real terms

“This is the Great Reckoning that now faces investors and companies as they plan their Budgets for 2017 – 2019.”

Oil markets are just one example of what has happened.  A year ago, OPEC had forecast its new quotas would “rebalance the oil market” in H1 this year. When this proved over-optimistic, they had to be extended for a further 9 months into March 2018. Now, it expects to have to extend them through the whole of 2018.  And even today’s fragile supply/demand balance is only due to China’s massive purchases to fill its Strategic Reserve.

Policymakers’ unrealistic view of the world has also had political and social consequences, as I noted in the Outlook:

“The problem, of course, is that it will take years to undo the damage that has been done. Stimulus policies have created highly dangerous bubbles in many financial markets, which may well burst before too long. They have also meant it is most unlikely that governments will be able to keep their pension promises, as I warned a year ago.

Of course, it is still possible to hope that “something may turn up” to support “business as usual” Budgets. But hope is not a strategy. Today’s economic problems are already creating political and social unrest. And unfortunately, the outlook for 2017 – 2019 is that the economic, political and social landscape will become ever more uncertain.”

As the second chart confirms from Ipsos MORI, most people in the world’s major countries feel things are going in the wrong direction.  Voters have lost confidence in the political elite’s ability to deliver on its promises.  Almost everywhere one looks today, one now sees potential “accidents waiting to happen”.

Understandably, Populism gains support in such circumstances as people feel they and their children are losing out.

The last 10 years have proved that stimulus programmes cannot substitute for a lack of babies.  They generate debt mountains instead of sustainable demand, and so make the problems worse, not better.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2018 – 2020 period, and the key risks that have developed as a result of the policy failures of the past decade.

 

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Baby boomers’ spending decline has hit demand and inflation

FTThe Financial Times has kindly printed my letter below, wondering why the US Federal Reserve still fails to appreciate the impact of the ageing BabyBoomers on the economy

Sir, It was surprising to read that the US Federal Reserve is still puzzled by today’s persistently low levels of inflation, given that the impact of the ageing baby boomers on the economy is now becoming well understood (“An inflation enigma”, Big Read, September 19).

As the article notes, factors such as globalisation and technological advances have all helped to moderate price increases for more than two decades. But the real paradigm shift began in 2001, when the oldest boomers began to join the lower-spending, lower-earning over-55 generation. As the excellent Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) confirms, Americans’ household spending is dominated by people in the wealth creating 25-54 age cohort. Spending then begins to decline quite dramatically, with latest data showing a near 50 per cent fall from peak levels after the age of 74.

This decline was less important when the boomers were all in the younger cohort. BLS data show it contained 65m households in 2000, with only 36m in the older cohort. But today, lower fertility rates have effectively capped the younger generation at 66m, while the size of the boomer generation, combined with their increased life expectancy, means there are now 56m older households.

Consumer spending is around 70 per cent of the US economy. Thus the post-2001 period has inevitably seen a major shift in supply/demand balances and therefore the inflation outlook. So it is disappointing that the Fed has failed to go up the learning curve in this area. Demographics are not the only factor driving today’s New Normal economy, but central bankers should surely have led the way in recognising their impact.

Paul Hodges
Chairman,
International eChem

Political risk and interest rates rise in US, UK and Japan, as debt and dysfunctionality grow

Debt Jul17

It was almost exactly 10 years ago that then Citibank boss, Chuck Prince, unintentionally highlighted the approach of the subprime crisis with his comment that:

We are not scared. We are not panicked. We are not rattled. Our team has been through this before.’ We are ’still dancing’.”

On Friday JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, provided a new and more considered warning:

“Since the Great Recession, which is now 8 years old, we’ve been growing at 1.5% – 2% in spite of stupidity and political gridlock….We have become one of the most bureaucratic, confusing, litigious societies on the planet.  It’s almost an embarrassment being an American citizen traveling around the world and listening to the stupid s— we have to deal with in this country. And at one point we all have to get our act together or we won’t do what we’re supposed to [do] for the average Americans.”

The chart above, from OECD data, highlights one key result of the dysfunctionality that Dimon describes:

  Central bank stimulus has proved to be a complete failure, as it cannot compensate for today’s “demographic deficit”
  UK debt as a percentage of GDP has more than doubled from 51% in 2007 to 123% last year
  US debt has risen from an already high 77% in 2007 to 128% last year
  Japanese debt has risen from an insane 175% in 2007 to an impossible-to-repay 240%

Debt is essentially just a way of bringing forward demand from the future.  If I can borrow money today, I don’t have to wait till tomorrow to buy what I need.  But, I do then have to pay back the debt – I can’t borrow forever.  So high levels of debt inevitably create major headwinds for future growth.

IMF growthUnfortunately, central banks and their admirers thought this simple rule didn’t apply to them.  They imagined they could print as much money as they liked – and then, magically, all the debt would disappear through a mix of economic growth and inflation.  But as the second chart shows, they were completely wrong:

  In April 2011, the IMF forecast global GDP in 2016 would be 4.7%
  In April 2013, they were still convinced it would be 4.5%
  Even in April 2015, they were confident it would be 3.8%
  But in reality, it was just 3.1%

And meanwhile inflation, which was supposed to help the debt to disappear in real terms, has also failed to take off. US inflation last month was just 1.6%, and is probably now heading lower as oil prices continue to decline.

May, Trump, AbeIn turn, this dysfunctionality in economic policy is creating political and social risk:

  The UK has a minority government, which now has to implement the Brexit decision.  This represents the biggest economic, social and political challenge that the UK has faced since World War 2.  But as the former head of the UK civil service warned yesterday:

“The EU has clear negotiating guidelines, while it appears that cabinet members haven’t yet finished negotiating with each other, never mind the EU”. He calls on ministers to “start being honest about the complexity of the challenge. There is no chance all the details will be hammered out in 20 months. We will need a long transition phase and the time needed does not diminish by pretending that this phase is just about ‘implementing’ agreed policies as they will not all be agreed.”

  The US faces similar challenges as President Trump aims to take the country in a completely new direction.  As of Friday, 6 months after the Inauguration, there are still no nominations for 370 of the 564 key Administration positions that require Senate confirmation. And last week, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, highlighted some of the challenges he faces when contrasting his role as ExxonMobil CEO with his new position:

“You own it, you make the decision, and I had a very different organization around me… We had very long-standing, disciplined processes and decision-making — I mean, highly structured — that allows you to accomplish a lot, to accomplish a lot in a very efficient way.  [The US government is] not a highly disciplined organization. Decision-making is fragmented, and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions. Coordination is difficult through the interagency [process]…and in all honesty, we have a president that doesn’t come from the political world either.”

  Then there is Japan, where Premier Abe came to power claiming he would be able to counter the demographic challenges by boosting growth and inflation.  Yet as I noted a year ago, his $1.8tn of stimulus has had no impact on household spending  – and consumer spending is 60% of Japanese GDP.  In fact, 2016 data shows spending down 2% at ¥2.9 million versus 2012, and GDP growth just 1%, whilst inflation at only 0.4% is far below the 2% target.

As in the UK and US, political risk is now rising.  Abe lost the key Tokyo election earlier this month after various scandals. Voter support is below 30%, and two-thirds of voters “now back no party at all” – confirming the growing dysfunctionality in Japanese politics.

WOULD YOU LEND TO A FRIEND WHO RUNS UP DEBT WITH NO CLEAR PLAN TO PAY IT BACK?
So what is going to happen to all the debt built up in these 3 major countries?  There are already worrying signs that some investors are starting to pull back from UK, US and Japanese government bond markets.  Over the past year, almost unnoticed, major moves have taken place in benchmark 10-year rates:

  UK rates have nearly trebled from 0.5% to 1.3% today
  US rates have risen from 1.4% to 2.3% today;
  Japanese rates have risen from -0.3% to +0.1% today.

What would happen if these upward moves continue, and perhaps accelerate?  Will investors start to agree with William White, former chief economist of the central bankers’ bank (Bank for International Settlements), that:

“To put it in a nutshell, if it’s a debt problem we face and a problem of insolvency, it cannot be solved by central banks through simply printing the money. We can deal with illiquidity problems, but the central banks can’t deal with insolvency problems”.

White was one of the few to warn of the subprime crisis, and it seems highly likely he is right to warn again today.

 

Chemical industry downturn challenges stock market optimism

ACC Jun17Stock markets used to be a reliable indicator for the global economy, and for national economies. But that was before the central banks started targeting them as part of their stimulus programmes.  They have increased debt levels by around $30tn since the start of the Crisis in 2008, and much of this money has gone directly into financial markets.  Today, Japan is a great example of the distortions this has produced, as the Financial Times reports:

□  The Bank of Japan (BoJ) has been buying stocks via its purchases of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) since 2010
□   Last July, it doubled its purchases to ¥6tn of ETFs($58bn) per year, focused on supporting Abenomics policy
□   Analysis by Japanese bank Nomura suggests its purchases have since boosted the Nikkei Index by 1400 points

Even more importantly, the BoJ is particularly active if the market looks weak.  Between April 2013 – March 2017, it bought on more than half of the days when the market was down.

The distortion ins’t just limited to direct buying by the BoJ, of course.  It is magnified by the fact that everyone else in the market knows that the BoJ is buying.  So going short is a losing proposition.  Equally, investors know that the BoJ is guarding their back – so they are guaranteed to win when they buy.

This manipulation by the BoJ is just an extreme form of the intervention carried out by all the central banks.  It means that the stock market has lost its role as an indicator of the economy.  And so all those models which include stock market prices in their calculations are also over-optimistic.

This is why the global chemical industry has become the best real-time indicator for the real economy.  As I noted back in January, it has an 88% correlation with IMF data for global growth – far better than any other indicator:

The logic behind the correlation is partly because of the industry’s size.  But it also benefits from its global and application reach. Every country in the world uses relatively large volumes of chemicals, and their applications cover virtually all sectors of the economy, from plastics, energy and agriculture to pharmaceuticals, detergents and textiles.

Latest data on Capacity Utilisation (CU%) from the American Chemistry Council is therefore very worrying, as the chart shows:

□   Since 2009, the CU% has never recovered even to the 1987 – 2008 low of 86.4%
□   It has been in a downward trend since January 2016, when it peaked at 81.4%
□   April’s CU% fell to 79.9% versus 80.7% in April last year
□   This was very close to the all-time low of 77% seen in March 2009

The problem is that central banks have moved from the pragmatism of the 1980s to ideology.  They have become, in Keynes’s famous phrase “slaves to some defunct economist” – in this case, Milton Friedman and Franco Modigliani, as we argued in our evidence earlier this year to the UK House of Commons Treasury Committee:

“Friedman’s analysis of the effectiveness of monetary policy, when he argued that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”, is therefore no longer valid.  Modigliani’s “Life Cycle theory of consumption” is similarly out of date. … Friedman and Modigliani’s theories appeared to make sense at the time they were being developed, but they clearly do not fit the facts today.”

Instead of the promised economic growth, the central banks have in fact simply piled up more and more debt – which can never be repaid.  2 years ago, the global total was already $199tn, and 3x global GDP, according to McKinsey. Just in the US, this means net interest payments will cost $270bn this year, and total $1.7tn over the next 5 years, according to the impartial Congressional Budget Office.

Stock markets may continue in their optimistic mode for a while longer.  But in the end, the lack of promised growth will force the central banks to stop printing money.  They will then have to abandon their ideological approach, and instead accept the common sense argument of our Treasury Committee evidence:

Monetary policy should no longer be regarded as the key element of economic policy.   This would then free policymakers to focus on the real demographic issues that will determine growth in the future – namely how to encourage people to retrain in their 50s and 60s to take advantage of the extra 20 years of life expectancy that we can all now hope to enjoy.”