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  But policymakers should certainly have released his theories were out of date.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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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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Investors fear Fed’s outdated theories have hit sell-by date

Index Jun16These are difficult times for companies and investors.  It is becoming more and more apparent that central bank stimulus policies have failed to counter today’s demand deficit, caused by ageing populations.  It is also clear that central bankers themselves have little idea of what is happening in the real economy.

They have based their programmes on outdated and unreliable theories from former gurus such as Milton Friedman and Franco Modigliani:

  • Friedman didn’t realise that a BabyBoom was taking place when he developed his theory that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”.  He therefore confused cause and effect, as hindsight tells us it was clearly excess demand from the young Boomers – when supply was literally “bombed-out” after World War 2 – that caused the inflationary problems of the 1960s/1970s
  • Modigliani’s lifecycle consumption theory was similarly flawed.  His view that people would even out their consumption in the best possible manner over their lifetimes appeared to make sense in the 1950s, when most people died before or close to pension age.  But it makes no sense at all when 65-year old Western pensioners now have 20 years of unexpected life expectancy ahead of them

Both Friedman and Modigliani can be forgiven their mistakes, as there was no reliable data at the time they were working, to explain the errors in their thinking.  But today’s central bankers have no such excuse.  Western fertility rates have been below the replacement level of 2.1 babies/woman since 1970 – making it obvious that spending and hence economic growth would slow, and then probably decline, as the Boomers moved into retirement.  And slowing demand would automatically reduce inflation, no matter what they did to the monetary supply.

Investors have chosen to ignore these factors until recently.  Instead they have taken advantage of the free cash available from central banks to boost the prices of financial assets – whether these were commodities such as oil and copper, or houses or stocks and shares.  But all good things come to an end.  And they are becoming unpleasantly aware that if central banks really don’t know what is happening in the real economy, then populist solutions provided by Donald Trump or Brexit leaders may end up causing chaos in their markets.

We saw these first signs of doubts on Friday, when the major decline in US jobs growth – which fell back to 2010 levels – clearly shocked the US Federal Reserve.  But far from celebrating the potential for new stimulus programmes, investors pushed US share prices down for the day.

This new caution is also reflected in this month’s Boom/Gloom Index above.  It has fallen back again after the euphoria that followed the Fed’s decision to back off the promised interest rate rise in March. Now, I suspect, many investors would prefer an increase to come quickly, to reassure them that recovery was still possible.

It could be a long and difficult summer, particularly if the Leave campaign maintains its current opinion poll lead into the vote itself – now less than 3 weeks away.  Attention is also shifting to the potential implications of a narrow Remain vote for the ruling Conservative Party.  Many believe the Party could split if this occurred, such has been the bad feeling during the campaign.  This could end up handing the keys for 10 Downing Street to the opposition Labour Party.

WEEKLY MARKET ROUND-UP
My weekly round-up of Benchmark prices since the Great Unwinding began is below, with ICIS pricing comments:
Brent crude oil, down 52%
Naphtha Europe, down 52%. “The loss of naphtha supply from French refineries has been offset by loss of naphtha demand from French crackers”
Benzene Europe, down 57%. “a steady flow of imports into Europe since the start of 2016 have kept the market well supplied.”
PTA China, down 41%. “Demand from spot buyers in the market was also lower, as the peak seasonal demand has started dipping”
HDPE US export, down 29%. “China’s market outlook is cautiously negative due to expectation of increased supply”
¥:$, down 4%
S&P 500 stock market index, up 7%