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Demography is Destiny

This week we will look at the very long term trends in demographics. I find this whole topic fascinating and one that is fraught with investment implications, not to mention the basic issues of life with which we will soon be dealing.

But first, I want to bring a couple of items to your attention. Last week, I lead off with a few paragraphs from a 1946 article from Life Magazine talking about how we won the war in Europe but were losing the peace. I was not trying to make some comparison between Iraq and Europe after their respective wars. I clearly know the situations were, and are, radically different. The success in Europe in no ways predicates success in Iraq. The point I was trying to make was that the press coverage was similar: focusing on the more emotionally impacting negative aspects of the events rather than the more mundane successes.

Secondly, I need to let those readers who have signed up for my Accredited Investor E-letter know why they have not been getting the letter. The simple answer is that I have not written one in 4-5 months. I am working almost obsessively on finishing my book. Between this letter, and my actual work, not to mention family and some occasional fun, there are only so many hours. But I am committed to getting the book to my publisher in another 2-3 weeks, and will return to a more normal writing schedule, which means the Accredited Investor Letter will once again resume its monthly schedule. As usual for me, I simply bit off more than I can chew. I apologize for any inconvenience.

For those who are interested and who qualify, I write a free letter on hedge funds and private offerings called the Accredited Investor E-letter. You must be an accredited investor (broadly defined as a net worth of $1,000,000 or $200,000 annual income - see details at the website.) You can go to www.accreditedinvestor.ws to subscribe to the letter and see complete details, including the risks in hedge funds. (In this regard, I am a registered representative of the Williams Financial Group, an NASD member firm.)

This is a short work week for me, as I am speaking and meeting with clients at the New Orleans Investment Conference. Next week, I hope to touch on the very interesting and somewhat disturbing negative growth recently in the money supply. If it does not soon reverse itself, this trend has the potential to become quite the story, as such liquidity reversals often run hand in hand with stock market losses. Plus, we need to explore the very positive quarterly growth in the GDP of 7.2%. Does this mean Muddle Through is dead? Have the facts changed and thus must I therefore change? It will make for a very interesting letter, I think.

But today, I am going to give you a portion of my book dealing with international demographics. I have touched on this before, but in editing this chapter I was struck by how important these trends are going to be over the next 10-20-30 years. Long before we get to the "crisis," there will be very material changes in the world in which we live and we will need to deal with the problems. And now to the chapter.

Demography is Destiny:
Is It Something In the Water?

Now, lets look away from the US, and focus our eyes on the rest of the world. If we think the retirement problems facing the US are severe, then the facts suggest the rest of the developed world is facing a major crisis. Over the next few decades, we are going to see a shift in economic and political power that is simply staggering in its implications. Let's look at facts first, and then draw conclusions.

I am going to quote at length from a study by the respected Bank Credit Analyst. Martin Barnes and his crew at BCA are some of the most respected analysts in the world, earning their reputation by simply being as accurate as any letter in the world for decades. They give us some sobering thoughts (you can see their work and subscribe at www.bcaresearch.com):

The population of the "developed countries" will drop rapidly over the next 50 years, while those of undeveloped countries, especially Islamic countries, will rise dramatically. Germany will experience no population growth and will remain at 80 million people, while Yemen grows from 18 million to over 84 million.

Russia will drop from 145 million to slightly over 100 million. Iran grows from 66 million to 105 million. Japan drops to 109 million, while Iraq and Saudi Arabia grow to 110 million. Italy declines from 57 million to 45 million, while Afghanistan grows from 21 to 70 million.

This underscores the 100-page CIA report released in July 2001, entitled Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape. The following are some quotes from that report:

"Dramatic population declines have created power vacuums that new ethnic groups exploit. Differential population growth rates between neighbors have historically altered conventional balances of power....Our allies in the industrialized world will face an unprecedented challenge of aging. Both Europe and Japan stand to lose global power and influence... The failure to adequately integrate large youth populations in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to perpetuate the cycle of political instability, ethnic wars, revolutions and anti-regime activities that already affect many of these countries. Unemployed youth provide exceptional fodder for radical movements and terrorist organizations, particularly in the Middle East."

The Canadian based BCA concludes: "The cynical view is that the U.S. desire to attack Iraq is mainly about oil. That may be part of the agenda, but other long-term strategic considerations are probably at work. The growing number of young people in a number of unstable or troubled countries could work both ways. For example, there are signs that many young people in Iran want the country to move away from fundamentalism toward a more relaxed regime. The rising power of youth can be a force for positive change as opposed to instability. However, there will be a huge challenge in bringing democracy to countries that have no history of it. This will be especially true if the global economy is struggling because poor demographics are undermining demand in the industrialized world." (emphasis mine)

Let's look at some of their other conclusions (the following are direct quotes):

Declining aggregate demand in the developed world. Sharp declines in working-age populations in Europe and Japan will lead to large falls in the demand for consumer goods and real estate. Demand for aging-related services will rise, but not by enough to offset the growth-sapping impact of falling demand in the prime income-earning age group.

Full employment and labor shortages in the industrialized economies. There will not be any problem finding jobs and a negligible unemployment rate implies that real wages should tend to rise. This will be good for per capita incomes, but not for profit margins.

Steady demand growth in emerging countries. Rising populations hold out the hope that demand growth in many parts of the developing world will offset the weakness in industrialized countries. However, there will be huge regional differences within the emerging markets, with Asia likely to be the star performer, and Africa remaining mired in crisis.

Continued transfer of manufacturing production to Asia. The shift in manufacturing capacity to Asia will continue, not least because of weak demand and labor shortages in the developed world. Even the auto industry may eventually move away from Europe and the U.S. The developed economies will thus continue to become increasingly service oriented.

The welfare state will be under threat. It will be difficult to maintain the current level of public sector services and transfer payments as fiscal strains rise. It is almost inevitable that the retirement age will rise in most advanced economies and real benefits may be cut. Meanwhile, aging populations will put immense pressure on state-funded health care facilities. New medical technologies could even exacerbate the problems by creating expensive new treatments and boosting life expectancy rates.

It may be difficult to keep the euro area intact. Europe's grim fiscal outlook raises a big question mark about the sustainability of the euro zone. The Stability and Growth pact will eventually have to be scrapped, and different fiscal positions across countries will create enormous strains, given a common monetary policy and currency. Meanwhile, expanding the European Union eastwards will not alleviate Europe's demographic problems as all the new prospective members (Turkey excepted) have even weaker population dynamics than existing EU members.

China will face many of the same problems as the West. The Chinese economy currently is booming, but it too faces demographic challenges down the road. The fertility rate is below replacement level and the working-age population is projected to peak in around 2025. This will make it easier to employ those workers flowing from rural areas to cities, but, as in other countries, the aging population will create a large fiscal problem, albeit later than in the West. Other important issues discussed in the CIA report include the implications of increased urbanization in a number of unstable countries, the global spread of infectious diseases, and the adverse environmental consequence of rapid population growth in the developing world.

The long-run picture for Europe and Japan looks bleak in that a deteriorating fiscal picture will be bearish for bonds while weak aggregate demand is bearish for stocks. Those two trends would be consistent if the eventual outcome is a stagflationary environment, which could occur in the context of labor shortages and attempts to inflate out of a government debt trap. (emphasis mine)

Age Vulnerability: Your Pension or Your Life

Let's next look at a lengthy report entitled "The 2003 Aging Vulnerability Index" by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Watson Wyatt Worldwide (Richard Jackson and Neil Howe were the authors of this extremely well researched article. They are to be congratulated for avoiding the usual indecipherable academic language and writing a very readable paper. You can read the entire piece at http://www.csis.org/gai/challengeglobalaging.pdf. FYI, Howe is also the co-author of one of the more important (and very readable) books on the future I have read called The Fourth Turning.)

The report analyzes the cost of public pension funds (like Social Security, the state retirement funds mentioned above, etc.) for 12 different developing countries. It then analyzes how the various countries will fare in the future, factoring in their economies, taxes, costs, and the actual circumstances surrounding retirement. (For instance, it makes a difference on whether you are likely to be supported by your kids or out on your own.)

In short, it clearly shows us that there will be staggering budget problems for these countries, and some more than others. The report categorizes Australia, the UK and the US as low vulnerability countries. Given what we know of potential US problems from an aging population, this means the report posits grim news for certain countries, especially the mainstay countries in Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands). Howe and Jackson give a whole new meaning to the concept of "Old Europe."

Let's look at a few salient items:

"Today, there are 30 pension-eligible elders in the developed world for every 100 working age adults. By the year 2040, there will be 70. In Italy, Japan, and Spain, the fastest-aging countries, there will be 100. In other words, there will be as many retirees as workers. This rising old-age dependency ratio will translate into a sharply rising costs for pay-as-you-go retirement programs - and a heavy burden on the budget, on the economy, and on working age adults in any country that does not take serious steps to prepare... public benefits to the elderly will reach an average of 25% of GDP in the developed countries by 2040, double today's level."

"... In Japan, they will reach 27% of GDP; in France, they will reach 29%; and in Italy and Spain, they will exceed 30%. This growth will throw into question the sustainability of today's retirement systems - and indeed, society's very ability to provide a decent standard of living for the old without overburdening the young.... It is unclear whether they can change course without economic and social turmoil. (emphasis mine)

"For most of history, the elderly - here defined as adults aged 60 and over - comprised only a tiny fraction of the population, never more than five percent in any country. Today in the developed countries, they comprise 20 percent. Forty years from now, the share will reach roughly 35 percent. And that's just the average. In Japan and some of the fast-aging countries of continental Europe, where the median age is expected to exceed 50, the share will be approaching 50 percent."

Today, looking at the data, the five main economies of the European Union spend about 15% of their GDP on public benefits to the elderly. This will rise rapidly to almost 30% by 2040. Japanese benefits will rise 250% to 27% in 2040 from today's "mere" 11.8%.

Contemplating the Impossible Events

How do you pay for such increases? If the increase were paid for entirely by tax hikes, not one European country would pay less than 50% of its GDP in taxes, and France would be at 62%. By comparison, the US tax share of GDP would rise from 33% to 44% (I assume this includes all level of taxes). Japan's taxes would be 46% of GDP.

It should be clear to everyone that such an outcome would be an utter economic disaster. Taxes for the working population would be consuming 80-90-% of their income. It would be an economic death spiral. Whatever economic growth might be possible in an aging US, Europe or Japan will be completely squelched by such high taxes. The "giant whooshing sound" would be that of young workers leaving for more favorable working and tax conditions.

If the increase in benefit costs were paid for entirely in cuts to other spending projects, Japan would see its public benefits rise to 66% of total public spending, France and the US to 53% and Germany to 49%. Today, these expenditures are all around 31%. What do you cut? In the US, you might cut defense spending, but there is little to cut in Europe and Japan. Education? Welfare? Parks? Transportation? Medicare or health programs for the working? It gets so very ugly. Since such an outcome (50% of GDP for pensions) is impossible, long before that type of debacle is reached, other solutions, painful as they are, will have to be chosen.

The following is a quick table of when government debt reaches 150% of GDP if the various governments decide to pay for the costs by running deficits (borrowing).

Country Year
---------- ------
US 2026
Japan 2020
France 2024
Germany 2033
Canada 2024

Some other gleanings: a mere 10% cut in benefits pushes approximately 5% of the elderly population into poverty in Europe - think what a 20% cut in benefits would do. Japan is ranked in the middle of the vulnerability pack, despite their poor economic outlook, because over 50% of the elderly live with their children. The three most vulnerable countries are France, Italy and Spain. Australians will live longer (86.7 years) than any group except the Japanese, who are expected to live to an average of 91.9 years.

In France, 67% of the income of their elderly population comes from public funding, in Germany it is 61%, compared with 35% in the US and Japan. These are projected to rise only slightly over the coming decades, but because the elderly population is growing so rapidly, actual outlays will soar.

Not surprisingly, if you add in medical costs, the percentage of public spending increases significantly, assuming no new benefits.

Demography Is Destiny

The world economy is currently dominated by the US, Europe and Japan. These studies suggest that there will be little or no help from Europe and Japan in regards to world growth. The world is already far too US-centric. Everyone wants to sell to the US consumer. Our international trade deficit for 2003 was over $500 billion, which simply cannot be sustained.

BCA suggests that the Japanese government debt will grow to 300% of GDP over the coming decades. To put this into perspective, that would be the equivalent of a $36 trillion dollar US debt. Even with zero interest rates, that is a staggering sum. The Japanese economy cannot handle such a deficit without turning on the printing press in a manner unprecedented for major countries. It is hard to imagine the dollar, as weak as some think it is, to drop long-term against such massive and mounting deficits which will have to be financed by attempts at inflation.

Europe is already spending a very small percentage of its budget on defense. As one wag puts it, they will be faced with the choice of "guns or rocking chairs?" With a declining population, they will be hard-pressed to find enough bodies to man their military as it currently exists.

Unless they unwind their pension promises, Europe will play a smaller role in the world of the future, notwithstanding the view from France. The role of Asia, especially China and India, will be far more significant in the future world of our children.

The problems outlined in the two studies suggest that turmoil is coming to the developed countries of Europe and Japan. They cannot pay for their promises to retirees and still grow their economies. They will have to choose one or the other. If they choose higher taxes and fewer opportunities, the best youth of Europe will vote with their feet, as did their ancestors in the 18th and 19th century. That will only make their situation worse. But can a retiring population which will be in the voting majority actually vote to cut their own benefits?

In short, for the world economy to grow, developing countries are going to have to look to themselves for growth. The aging developed countries will simply not provide the growth engine they have been for the last half of the last century.

For forward looking investors, that means there will be real business growth opportunities in the emerging markets and those countries which can sell to them.

As strange as it may seem today, in a few decades China will be complaining about cheap labor in the Middle East and Western Asia. If that sounds too far-fetched, think Japan only a few decades ago. The next stock market bubbles will be to the west of our shores.

As BCA noted, it is critical that the Iraqi experiment in democracy be successful for the future stability of the world. In 1945, there were many who thought it would be impossible for the regimented Japanese to establish a successful democracy. Today we watch as China moves to a capitalist economy and democracy. What stock market did the best in 2002? It was Russia, which not coincidentally has some of the lowest tax rates.

Call me naive, but I do not think the primary consideration for the Iraqi war was/is oil, American hegemony or establishing a democracy in Iraq. But I think that the current US administration intends to use the event to do its best to bring about a thriving Islamic democracy.

The Iraqi people are educated, are quite entrepreneurial and business oriented. Given the chance, I expect (or at least fervently hope) they may surprise many in the world with how fast they rebound. Given their explosive population growth rate, they could become an engine for growth in the region. If Bush is serious about helping Iraq, he should get rid of any and all trade barriers with the new regime and stand back and let the free market work.

Only a few years ago, we were fearful of the Chinese hordes and their army. They were the enemy. Today, our economies are so inextricably interwoven that it is our best interest to work any problems out peacefully. We now depend upon each other. If we want to find peace with the Arab world, we need to find ways to establish economic ties with them as well. If we do not, the demographic issues I outlined above will have very negative consequences for us, our children and our grandchildren.

Finally, if I were young and aggressive or starting out (or starting over) I would seriously consider learning a second and third language, moving overseas and looking for opportunity. I would learn a business here and go and reproduce it offshore. Or you could consider backing a younger person with the time and energy to start a business in a foreign country. But be prepared to travel, and even if you are "only" the investor, learn the local language and customs and be prepared for changing course quickly.

New York in December

As I mentioned above, I am in New Orleans. One of my favorite things in life is to get a group of old and new friends together at Commanders Palace. I will after many years get to meet Marc Faber, the well known investment writer from Hong Kong (Gloom, Boom and Doom Report) and author of the well written book Tomorrow's Gold: Asia's Age of Discovery. If Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin get off the plane in time, they should be there as well. Their book, Financial Reckoning Day, just hit #5 on the Wall Street Journal list. (To see reviews or order them, click here. Fortunately, Jon Sundt of Altegris will be there, as one of my second favorite things is to find someone to pick up large dinner checks after I get to select the wine. Sundt has been working out of late, so he should be strong enough to pick this check off the floor. I also must confess that later I will wander down Bourbon Street just to view (and not participate in, of course!) the bacchanalia on Halloween night. Simply part of the required due diligence process, you understand.

In between these two paragraphs, I slipped down to the conference to hear Marc Faber speak. Quite an impressive performance. When you get a standing ovation for an investment speech you know you are on the top of your game. It makes me think I need to go back to speaker's school to learn the trade. I hope to get permission tonight to post some of his charts on Asian growth potential and comment on them next week as well. It underscores the powerful force of the demographic trends we touched on this week.

Speaking of speaking, I will be in New York the first week of December making a presentation to a private conference for the Bank of New York on hedge funds. I will be making time to meet with clients, hedge funds and managers and share a few adult beverages with friends. (save a seat at the table for me, Art).

Your looking forward to getting home and seeing his bride and kids analyst,

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