The blog’s 11th birthday – and a look forward to 2021

The blog has now been running for 11 years since the first post was written from Thailand at the end of June 2007.  And quite a lot has happened since then:

Sadly, although central banks and commentators have since begun to reference the impact of demographics on the economy, they have not changed their basic belief that the right combination of tax and spending policies can always create growth.

As a result, the world has become a much more complex and confusing place.  None of us can be sure what will happen over the next 12 months, given today’s rising geo-political tensions.

In times of short-term uncertainly, it can be useful to take a longer-term view.  It is therefore perhaps helpful to look back at Chapter 4 of Boom, Gloom, which gave Our 10 predictions for how the world would look from 2021: 

  • “A major shake-out will have occurred in Western consumer markets.
  • Consumers will look for value-for-money and sustainable solutions.
  • Young and old will focus on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’.
  • Housing will no longer be seen as an investment.
  • Investors will focus on ‘return of capital’ rather than ‘return on capital’.
  • The term ‘middle-class’ when used in emerging economies will be recognised as having no relevance to Western income levels.
  • Trade patterns and markets will have become more regional.
  • Western countries will have increased the retirement age beyond 65 to reduce unsustainable pension liabilities.
  • Taxation will have been increased to tackle the public debt issue.
  • Social unrest will have become a more regular part of the landscape.

“The transition to the New Normal will be a difficult time. The world will be less comfortable and less assured for many millions of Westerners. The wider population will find itself following the model of the ageing boomers, consuming less and saving more. Rather than expecting their assets to grow magically in value every year, they may find themselves struggling to pay-down debt left over from the credit binge.

“Companies will need to refocus their creativity and resources on real needs. This will require a renewed focus on basic research. Industry and public service, rather than finance, will need to become the destination of choice for talented people, if the challenges posed by the megatrends are to be solved. Politicians with real vision will need to explain to voters that they can no longer expect all their wants to be met via endless ‘fixes’ of increased debt.

“We could instead decide to ignore all of this potential unpleasantness.

“But doing nothing is not a solution. It will mean we miss the opportunity to create a new wave of global growth from the megatrends. And we will instead end up with even more uncomfortable outcomes.”

Most of these forecasts are now well on the way to becoming reality, and the pace of change is accelerating all the time.  It may therefore be helpful to include them in your planning processes for the 2019 – 2021 period, to test how your business (and your personal life) might be impacted if they become real.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT OVER THE PAST 11 YEARS
It is a great privilege to write the blog, and to be able to meet many readers at speaking events and conferences around the world.   Thank you for all your support.

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The tide of global debt has peaked: 8 charts suggest what may happen next, as the tide retreats

The results of the central bankers’ great experiment with money printing are now in, and they are fairly depressing, as the charts above confirm:

  • On the left are the IMF’s annual forecasts from 2010 – 2018 (dotted lines) and the actual result (black)
  • Until recently, the Fund was convinced the world would soon see 5% GDP growth, or at least 4% growth
  • The actual outcome has been a steady decline until 2017 and this month’s forecast sees slowing growth by 2020

As the IMF headlined last week,current favorable growth rates will not last”.

  • On the right, is the amount of money the bankers have spent on money printing to achieve this result
  • China, the US, Japan, the Eurozone and the Bank of England printed over $30tn between 2009-2017
  • So far, only China – which did 2/3rds of the printing, has admitted its mistake, and changed the policy

The chart above shows what happens if you spend a lot of money without getting much return in terms of growth.  Again from the IMF, it shows that total global debt has risen to $164tn.  This is more than twice the size of global GDP – 225%, to be exact, based on latest 2016 data.  The IMF analysis also highlights the result of the money printing:

“Debt-to-GDP ratios in advanced economies are at levels not seen since World War II….In the last ten years, emerging market economies have been responsible for most of the increase. China alone contributed 43% to the increase in global debt since 2007. In contrast, the contribution from low income developing countries is barely noticeable.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the result of this failed policy, which is shown in the above IMF charts:

  • Global debt to GDP levels are higher than in 2008 and in the financial crisis; only World War 2 was higher
  • Debt ratios in the advanced economies are at their highest since the 1980s debt crisis
  • Emerging market ratios are lower (apart from China), but this is because of debt forgiveness at the Millennium

CAN ALL THIS DEBT EVER BE PAID PACK?  AND IF NOT, WHAT HAPPENS?
As everyone knows, borrowing is easy.  Almost all governments and commentators have lined up since 2009 to support the money-printing policy.  But the hard bit happens now as it starts to become obvious that the policy has failed.

We now have all the debt, but we don’t have the growth that would enable it to be paid off.

It would be easy to simply end here, and point out that John Richardson and I set out the reasons why money-printing could never work in 2011, when we published Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Ageing of the BabyBoomers is Changing Demand Patterns, Again.  Our conclusion then was essentially based on common sense:

Central bankers simply confused cause and effect: demographics drive the economy, not monetary policy. 

Common sense tells us that young populations create a demographic dividend as their spending grows with their incomes.  But today’s ageing Western populations have a demographic deficit: older people already own most of what they need,and their incomes decline as they enter retirement.

But having been right in the past doesn’t help to solve today’s problem of excess debt and leverage:

  • Common sense also tells us that leverage equals risk – if it works out, everything is fine; if not…..
  • If you have a lot of debt and the world moves into recession, it becomes very hard to repay the debt

Financial markets are doing their best to warn us that the problems are growing.  Longer-term interest rates, which are not controlled by the central banks, have been rising for some time. They are telling us that some investors are no longer simply chasing yield.  They are instead worrying about risk – and whether their loan will actually be repaid.

Essentially, we are now in the and-game for stimulus policies.  Major debt restructuring is now inevitable – either on an organised basis, as set out by Bill White, the only central banker to warn of the 2008 Crisis – or more chaotically.

This restructuring is going to be painful, as the chart above on the impact of leverage confirms.  I originally highlighted it in August 2007, as the Crisis began to unfold – unfortunately, it now seems to have become relevant again..

PLEASE DON’T FIND YOURSELF SWIMMING NAKED WHEN THE TIDE OF DEBT GOES OUT 
Leverage makes people appear to be geniuses on the way up.  But on the way down, Warren Buffett’s famous warning is worth remembering: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

 

*Return on Equity is the fundamental measure of a company’s profitability, and is defined as the amount of profit or net income a company earns per investment dollar. 

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West’s household spending heads for decline as population ages and trade war looms

As promised last week, today’s post looks at the impact of the ageing of the BabyBoomers on the prospects for economic growth.

The fact that people are living up to a third longer than in 1950 should be something to celebrate.  But as I noted in my Financial Times letter, policymakers are in denial about the importance of demographic changes for the economy.

Instead, their thinking remains stuck in the past, with the focus on economists such as Franco Modigliani, who won a Nobel Prize for “The Life Cycle Hypothesis of Savings”, published in 1966.  This argued there was no real difference in spending patterns at different age groups.

Today, it is clear that his Hypothesis was wrong.  He can’t be blamed for this, as he could only work with the data that was available in the post-War period.  But policymakers should certainly have released his theories were out of date.

The chart highlights the key issue, by comparing average US and UK household spending in 2000 v 2017:

  • In 2000, there were 65m US households headed by someone in the Wealth Creator 25-54 cohort, and 12.5m in the UK.  They spent an average of $62k and £33.5k each ($2017/£2017)
  • There were 36m US households headed by someone in the 55-plus New Older cohort, and 12.4m in the UK, who spent an average of $45k and £22.8k each
  • In 2017, the number of Wealth Creator households was almost unchanged at 66m in the US and 11.9m in the UK.  Their average spend was also very similar at $64k and £31.9k each
  • But the number of New Older householders had risen by 55% in the US, and by 24% in the UK, and their average spend was still well below that of the Wealth Creators at $51k and £26.4k respectively

Amazingly, despite this data, many policymakers still only see the impact of today’s ageing Western populations in terms of  likely increases in pension and health spending.  They appear unaware of the fact that ageing populations also impact economic growth, and that they need to abandon Modigliani’s Hypothesis.

As a result, they have spent trillions of dollars on stimulus policies in the belief that Modigliani was right.  Effectively, of course, this means they have been trying to “print babies” to return to SuperCycle levels of growth.  The policy could never work, and did not work.  Sadly, therefore, for all of us, the debt they have created can never be repaid.

This will likely have major consequences for financial markets.

As the chart from Ed Yardeni shows, company earnings estimates by financial analysts have become absurdly optimistic since the US tax cut was passed.

The analysts have also completely ignored the likely impact of China’s deleveraging, discussed last month. 

And they have been blind to potential for a global trade war, once President Trump began to introduce the populist trade policies he had promised in the election.  Last week’s moves on steel and aluminium are likely only the start.

Policymakers’ misguided faith in Modigliani’s Hypothesis and stimulus has instead fed the growth of populism, as the middle classes worry their interests are being ignored. This is why the return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018.

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West faces “demographic deficit” as populations age

Rising life expectancy, and falling fertility rates, mean that a third of the Western population is now in the low spending 55-plus age group.  Given that consumer spending is around two-thirds of the economy in developed countries, the above charts provide critically important information on the prospects for economic growth.

They show official data for household spending in 3 of the major G7 economies in 2017 – the USA, Japan and the UK:

  • Each country reports on a slightly different basis in terms of age range and headings, but the basics are similar
  • US spending peaks in the 45 – 54 age group: Japanese spending peaks at age 55; UK spending peaks at age 50
  • After the age of 75, US spending falls 46% from its peak and UK spend falls 53%: after the age of 70, Japanese spending falls 34%

The data confirms the common sense conclusion that youthful populations create a potential demographic dividend in terms of economic growth.  Conversely, ageing populations have a demographic deficit and will see lower growth, as.older people already own most of what they need, and their incomes go down as they enter retirement.

The Western world has been, and still is, a classic case study for this demographic effect in action, as the second chart shows:

  • In 1950, only 16% of Westerners were in the New Old 55-plus age group; 39% were in the 25-54 age group that drives economic growth and wealth creation; and 45% were under 25 as the BabyBoom got underway
  • But by 2015, the percentage of New Olders had doubled to 31%, whilst the percentage of Wealth Creators was virtually unchanged at 41% and only 28% were under 25 (as fertility rates collapsed after 1970)

The Boomers were the largest and wealthiest generation that the world has ever seen, and as they joined the workforce they created an economic Super-Cycle. This was turbo-charged by the fact that, for the first time in history, Western women began to re-enter the workforce after childbirth:

  • In the US, for example, women’s participation rate nearly doubled from 34% in 1950 to a peak of 60% in 1999
  • And after the Equal Pay Act of 1963, their earnings rose to 62% of men’s by 1979 and to 81% by 2005 (since when it has flatlined)

But since 2001, the oldest Boomer, born in 1946, has been leaving the Wealth Creator age group.  By 2013, the average Boomer had left it.  And since 1970, Western fertility rates have been below replacement levels (2.1 babies/woman).  So the Western economy now faces a double squeeze:

  • The Boomers who created the SuperCycle are no longer making a major contribution to economic growth
  • The number of new Wealth Creators is now relatively smaller, due to the collapse of fertility rates

In the past, very few Boomers would have lived beyond retirement age, as the 3rd chart confirms based on UN Population Division data.  So, sadly, they would have been irrelevant in terms of economic growth.  But, wonderfully, this is no longer true today:

  • In 1950, average US life expectancy for men was just 66 years and 72 years for women.  UK men died at age 67, and women at age 72.  Japanese men died at age 61, and women at age 65
  • Today, US men are living an extra 11 years and women 9 years more.  UK men are living an extra 12 years and women 11 years more.  Japanese men are living an extra 19 years and women 22 years more
  • By 2030, the UN forecasts suggest US men will be living 20% longer than in 1950, and women 16% longer.  In the UK, men will be living 23% longer and women 18% longer.  In Japan, men will be living 35% longer, and women 37% longer

By 2030, 36% of the Western population will be New Olders, almost equal to the 37% who are Wealth Creators.

Clearly there is no going back to SuperCycle growth levels.  I will look at this critical issue in more detail next week.

 

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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.

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.”