In his latest monthly newsletter, PIMCO’s Bill Gross presents the big four structural issues that will haunt the economy for years.They are: Debt, demographics, technology, and globalization.
Some good food for thought from the letter:
Developed global economies have too much debt – pure and simple – and as we attempt to resolve the dilemma, the resultant austerity should lower real growth for years to come. There are those that believe in the “Brylcreem” approach to budget balancing – “a little dab’ll do ya.” Just knock a few percentage points off the deficit/GDP ratio, they claim, and the private sector will miraculously reappear to fill the gap. No such luck after 2–3 years of austerity in Euroland, however. Most of those countries are mired in recession and/or depression. Political leaders there should have studied the historical evidence presented by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff in a critically important paper titled, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” They conclude that for the past 200 years, once a country exceeded a 90% debt/GDP ratio, economic growth slowed by nearly 2% for both developed and developing nations for an average duration of nearly a decade. Their work displayed below in Chart 1 shows the result in the United States from 1790–2009. The average annual U.S. GDP rate growth, while clearly influenced by the Great Depression, was -1.8% once the 90% barrier was exceeded. The U.S., by the way, is now at a 100% debt/GDP ratio on the basis of the authors’ standard measuring yardstick. (Note as well the 5½% average inflation rate during the same periods.)
In addition to sovereign debt levels which were the primary focus of the Reinhart/Rogoff studies, it is clear that financial institutions and households face similar growth headwinds. The former needs to raise equity via retained earnings and the latter to increase savings in order to stabilise family balance sheets. The combined need to increase our “net national savings rate” highlighted in last month’s Investment Outlook is a long-term solution to the debt crisis, but a near/intermediate-term growth inhibitor. The biblical metaphor of seven years of fat leading to seven years of lean may be quite apropos in the current case with the observation that the developed world’s growth binge has been decades in the making. We may need at least a decade for the healing.
Globalization has been an historical growth stimulant, but if it slows, then the caffeine may wear off. The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and the emergence of capitalistic China at nearly the same time was a locomotive of significant proportions. Adding two billion consumers to the menu made for a prosperous restaurant, increasing profits and growth in developed economies despite the negative internal effects on employment and wages. Now, however, these tailwinds are diminishing, producing an airspeed which inexorably slows relative to the standards of prior decades. Is it any wonder that markets now move up or down as much on the basis of policy changes coming out of China as opposed to the U.S. or Euroland? If China and the accompanying benefits of globalization slow, so too may developed economy growth rates.
Technology has been a boon to productivity and therefore real economic growth, but it has its shady side. In the past decade, machines and robotics have rather silently replaced humans, as the U.S. and other advanced economies have sought to counter the influence of cheap Asian labour. Almost a century ago, Keynes alerted the economic community to a “new disease,” what he called “technological unemployment” where jobs couldn’t be replaced as fast as they were being destroyed by automation. Recently, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at MIT have affirmed that workers are losing the race against the machine. Accountants, machinists, medical technicians, even software writers that write the software for “machines” are being displaced without upscaled replacement jobs. Retrain, rehire into higher paying and value-added jobs? That may be the political myth of the modern era. There aren’t enough of those jobs. A structurally higher unemployment rate of 7% or more is the feared “whisper” number in Fed circles. Technology may be leading to slower, not faster economic growth despite its productive benefits.
Demography is destiny, and like cancer, demographic population changes are becoming a silent growth killer. Numerous studies and common sense logic point to the inevitable conclusion that when an economic society exceeds a certain average “age” then demand slows. Typically the dynamic cohort of an economy is its 20 to 55-year-old age group. They are the ones who form households, have families and gain increasing experience and knowhow in their jobs. Now, however, almost all developed economies, including the U.S., are gradually ageing and witnessing a larger and larger percentage of their adult population move past the critical 55-year-old mark. This means several things for economic growth: First of all from the supply side, it means productivity and employment growth rates will slow. From the demand side, it suggests a greater emphasis on savings and reduced consumption. Those approaching their seventh decade need fewer cars and new homes as shown in Chart 2. Almost none of them have babies (thank goodness!). Such low birth rates and a significant reduction in demand have imperiled Japan for several lost decades now. A similar experience will likely turn many developed economy “boomers” into “busters” within the next several years.