Just a Game by Bill Gross

If only Fed Governors and Presidents understood a little bit more about Monopoly, and a tad less about outdated historical models such as the Taylor Rule and the Phillips Curve, then our economy and its future prospects might be a little better off. That is not to say that Monopoly can illuminate all of the problems of our current economic stagnation. Brexit and a growing Populist movement clearly point out that the possibility of de-globalization (less trade, immigration and economic growth) is playing a part. And too, structural elements long ago advanced in my New Normal thesis in 2009 have a significant role as well: aging demographics, too much debt, and technological advances including job-threatening robotization are significantly responsible for 2% peak U.S. real GDP as opposed to 4-5% only a decade ago. But all of these elements are but properties on a larger economic landscape best typified by a Monopoly board. In that game, capitalists travel around the board, buying up properties, paying rent, and importantly passing “Go” and collecting $200 each and every time. And it’s the $200 of cash (which in the economic scheme of things represents new “credit”) that is responsible for the ongoing health of our finance-based economy. Without new credit, economic growth moves in reverse and individual player “bankruptcies” become more probable.

But let’s start back at the beginning when the bank hands out cash, and each player begins to roll the dice. The bank – which critically is not the central bank but the private banking system– hands out $1,500 to each player. The object is to buy good real estate at a cheap price and to develop properties with houses and hotels. But the player must have a cash reserve in case she lands on other properties and pays rent. So at some point, the process of economic development represented by the building of houses and hotels slows down. You can’t just keep buying houses if you expect to pay other players rent. You’ll need cash or “credit”, and you’ve spent much of your $1,500 buying properties.

To some extent, growth for all the players in general can continue but at a slower pace – the economy slows down due to a more levered position for each player but still grows because of the $200 that each receives as he passes Go. But here’s the rub. In Monopoly, the $200 of credit creation never changes. It’s always $200. If the rules or the system allowed for an increase to $400 or say $1,000, then players could keep on building and the economy keep growing without the possibility of a cash or credit squeeze. But it doesn’t. The rules which fix the passing “Go” amount at $200 ensure at some point the breakdown of a player who hasn’t purchased “well” or reserved enough cash. Bankruptcies begin. The Monopoly game, which at the start was so exciting as $1,500 and $200 a pass made for asset accumulation and economic growth, now turns sullen and competitive: Dog eat dog with the survival of many of the players on the board at risk.

All right. So how is this relevant to today’s finance-based economy? Hasn’t the Fed printed $4 trillion of new money and the same with the BOJ and ECB? Haven’t they effectively increased the $200 “pass go” amount by more than enough to keep the game going? Not really. Because in today’s modern day economy, central banks are really the “community chest”, not the banker. They have lots and lots of money available but only if the private system – the economy’s real bankers – decide to use it and expand “credit”. If banks don’t lend, either because of risk to them or an unwillingness of corporations and individuals to borrow money, then credit growth doesn’t increase.The system still generates $200 per player per round trip roll of the dice, but it’s not enough to keep real GDP at the same pace and to prevent some companies/households from going bankrupt.

The system still generates $200 per player per round trip roll of the dice, but it’s not enough to keep real GDP at the same pace.

That is what’s happening today and has been happening for the past few years. As shown in Chart I, credit growth which has averaged 9% a year since the beginning of this century barely reaches 4% annualized in most quarters now. And why isn’t that enough? Well the proof’s in the pudding or the annualized GDP numbers both here and abroad. A highly levered economic system is dependent on credit creation for its stability and longevity, and now it is growing sub-optimally. Yes, those structural elements mentioned previously are part of the explanation. But credit is the oil that lubes the system, the straw that stirs the drink, and when the private system (not the central bank) fails to generate sufficient credit growth, then real economic growth stalls and even goes in reverse.*

Chart I: Annualized U.S. Credit Growth

Chart I: Annualized U.S. Credit Growth

Source: Federal Reserve, Bloomberg.

  • To elaborate just slightly, total credit, unlike standard “money supply” definitions include all credit or debt from households, businesses, government, and finance-based sources. It now totals a staggering $62 trillion in contrast to M1/M2 totals which approximate $13 trillion at best.

Now many readers may be familiar with the axiomatic formula of (“M V = PT”), which in plain English means money supply X the velocity of money = PT or Gross Domestic Product (permit me the simplicity for sake of brevity). In other words, money supply or “credit” growth is not the only determinant of GDP but the velocity of that money or credit is important too. It’s like the grocery store business. Turnover of inventory is critical to profits and in this case, turnover of credit is critical to GDP and GDP growth. Without elaboration, because this may be getting a little drawn out, velocity of credit is enhanced by lower and lower interest rates. Thus, over the past 5-6 years post-Lehman, as the private system has created insufficient credit growth, the lower and lower interest rates have increased velocity and therefore increased GDP, although weakly. Now, however with yields at near zero and negative on $10 trillion of global government credit, the contribution of velocity to GDP growth is coming to an end and may even be creating negative growth as I’ve argued for the last several years. Our credit-based financial system is sputtering, and risk assets are reflecting that reality even if most players (including central banks) have little clue as to how the game is played. Ask Janet Yellen for instance what affects the velocity of credit or even how much credit there is in the system and her hesitant answer may not satisfy you. They don’t believe in Monopoly as the functional model for the modern day financial system. They believe in Taylor and Phillips and warn of future inflation as we approach “full employment”. They worship false idols.

Money supply or “credit” growth is not the only determinant of GDP but the velocity of that money or credit is important too.

To be fair, the fiscal side of our current system has been nonexistent. We’re not all dead, but Keynes certainly is. Until governments can spend money and replace the animal spirits lacking in the private sector, then the Monopoly board and meager credit growth shrinks as a future deflationary weapon. But investors should not hope unrealistically for deficit spending any time soon. To me, that means at best, a ceiling on risk asset prices (stocks, high yield bonds, private equity, real estate) and at worst, minus signs at year’s end that force investors to abandon hope for future returns compared to historic examples. Worry for now about the return “of” your money, not the return “on” it. Our Monopoly-based economy requires credit creation and if it stays low, the future losers will grow in number.

Culture Clash Janus, by Bill Gross

A respected reporter recently asked me what were a few important things I had learned from all this and all of that during the past decade and I surprised myself and perhaps him by answering that I now realized that younger generations – the Xers and Millenials – were far different generations from my own. “How so?” he asked. They are ephemerally connected as opposed to hardwired, I replied. They hold history less dear and appreciate freshly baked inclusiveness more; they are inclined to move on instead of settle and build, perhaps because employer loyalty has weakened as well; they are more temporary residents than architects. But they are the future.

The challenge for me as a Boomer, I said, was to understand this, yet not sacrifice my generation’s heritage that had made these evolving differences possible. This generation gap, I continued, was just that – a far distance from one side of a chasm to the other. And yet, I thought, (having concluded the interview) culturally we were much the same: making positive, sometimes obsessive contributions at work; loving our families, our pets. No chasm there to bridge. A common culture. But common cultures themselves morph and sometimes quickly so, producing substantial gaps from one figurative day to the next. Most humans who walked this Earth were alive inside a culture that was constant for centuries, yet now it seemed that technology was mutating standards like a cytoplast or perhaps at worst – a cancer cell. Who could say whether this new life form was positive or negative? Who could say that an older generation was any less an ideal than the succeeding one? My experience of the divide between Boomers and Xers is like that; I recognize that youth will be served, but not always for the better.

Yet, if I (you) understood that to be somewhat true, what should I (you) do differently? How to live a life – this Shakespearian brief candle? Should I listen to the beat of a bass drum instead of an ancient tom-tom? Would I dare dance to strange new music with a different step? “Forward” is my futile response. Forward – with difficult questions. John Denver expressed it succinctly, “If there’s an answer, it’s just that it’s just that way”.

Change propels economies as well as cultures, and sometimes before we are even aware of it. We listen to Trump and Bernie, then Cruz and Hillary as if one of them might be the mythical Wizard of Oz, guiding us down that yellow brick road to reinvigorate growth. They all try to emulate the Wizard of course. “Change you can believe in” was Obama’s mantra and then there was Clinton’s “I come from a city called Hope” and so on. Eisenhower was probably the last honest politician. “I like Ike” was his promise for the future, and I think many voters actually did – like Ike. But back then and certainly now, it was the economy that was changing, not politicians’ promises for a better future, and government policies usually took years to respond. If Thatcher and Reagan sparked a “revolution” of tax policy, it was a long lagged response to decades of growth constricting government policies. If the Great Recession exposed holes in those free market ideologies, then to my way of thinking, seven years of Obama have not yet addressed the cracks in our global financial system. Our economy has changed, but voters and their elected representatives don’t seem to know what’s really wrong. They shout: (1) build a wall, (2) balance the budget, (3) foot the bill for college, or (4) make free trade less free. “That will fix it” they discordantly proclaim, and after November’s election some unlucky soul may do one or more of the above in an effort to make things better. Similar battles are being fought everywhere. Brazil and Venezuela approaching depression’s edge; leftist and right-wing government elections in Euroland; Spain without a government; Brexit; China’s ever-changing five year plan; Japan’s obsessional quest for 2% inflation. “Fix it, fix it, restore our hope for a better future”, beats the world’s tom-tom. Or is it a bass drum? It’s loud, whichever generational beat you dance to.

But here’s the thing. No one in 2016 is really addressing the future as we are likely to experience it, and while that future has significant structural headwinds influenced by too much debt and an aging demographic, another heavy gust merits little attention on the political stump. I speak in this Outlook to information technology and the robotization of our future global economy. Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive in future years as new technology is assimilated into existing business models. Transportation is a visible example as computer driven vehicles soon will displace many truckers and bus/taxi drivers. Millions of jobs will be lost over the next 10-15 years. But medicine, manufacturing and even service intensive jobs are at risk. Investment managers too! Not only blue collar but now white collar professionals are being threatened by technological change.

Nobel Prize winning economist Michael Spence wrote in 2014 that “should the digital revolution continue…The structure of the modern economy and the role of work itself may need to be rethought.” The role of work? Sounds like code for fewer jobs to me. And if so, as author Andy Stern writes in Raising the Floor, a policymaker – a future President or Prime Minister – must recognize that existing government policies have “built a whole social infrastructure based on the concept of a job, and that concept does not work anymore.” In other words, if income goes to technological robots whatever the form, instead of human beings, our culture will change and if so policies must adapt to those changes. As visual proof of this structural change, look at Chart I showing U.S. employment/population ratios over the past several decades. See a trend there? 78% of the eligible workforce between 25 and 54 years old is now working as opposed to 82% at the peak in 2000. That seems small but it’s really huge. We’re talking 6 million fewer jobs. Do you think it’s because Millenials just like to live with their parents and play video games all day? I think not. Technology and robotization are changing the world for the better but those trends are not creating many quality jobs. Our new age economy – especially that of developed nations with aging demographics – is gradually putting more and more people out of work.

 

Chart I: Advance of the Robots, Retreat of Labor

 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

What should the policy response be? Retraining and education sound practical and are at the head of every politician’s promised ticket for the yellow brick road, but to be honest folks, I doubt that much of it will be worth the expense. Four years of college for everyone might better prepare them to be a contestant on Jeopardy, but I doubt it’ll create more growth; for the Universities perhaps, but not many good jobs for the students. Instead we should spend money where it’s needed most – our collapsing infrastructure for instance, health care for an aging generation and perhaps on a revolutionary new idea called UBI – Universal Basic Income. If more and more workers are going to be displaced by robots, then they will need money to live on, will they not? And if that strikes you as a form of socialism, I would suggest we get used to it. Even Donald Trump claims he won’t leave anyone out on the street – a liberal Republican thought if there ever was one. And they are on the street you know. Check out any major downtown in the U.S. if you want to see our future culture. Not the stadiums with the box seats; the streets with the tents and grocery carts. But the concept of UBI is not really new or foreign to capitalistic cultures like that of the U.S. We already have sort of a UBI floor. It’s called food stamps and the earned-income tax credit, but those alone will not keep the growing jobless and homeless off city and suburban streets. The question is how high this UBI should be and how to pay for it, not whether it’s coming in the next decade. It is. Strangely, the concept is endorsed more by conservatives than liberals and in Silicon Valley as well. Even with a theoretical $10,000 UBI per eligible citizen, the cost of $1-2 trillion dollars is seen as an income pool to consume many of the high tech products they produce. 

Higher taxes are one way to pay for it, but let me suggest another – something that a Rand Paul or father Ron would have been good at. Drop the money from helicopters. Now, even though this idea sounds more fictional than Trump’s 15 foot wall, it really isn’t. Milton Friedman, then Ben Bernanke and now a host of respected economists including the conservative Economist magazine itself are introducing the idea. These advocates do not really intend to throw money out of choppers. In broader terms, they are advocating fiscal stimulus but stimulus that isn’t paid for with private borrowing or taxes. That last sentence is critical – “not with private borrowing or taxes”. Democrats and Republicans alike can endorse that.

Instead, the money can be printed by central banks as it has been recently. It’s a hard concept to understand and that’s why politicians never discuss it – nor do most central bankers, who want to preserve the sanctity of their “balance sheets” and independence of their institutions. But the independence between central banks and government is rapidly eroding – a new culture is forming if only by necessity. Printing money via QE is in effect a comingling of monetary and fiscal policy, of central bank and treasury. The Fed, the ECB, BOJ and BOE have in effect bought bonds from their treasuries for 6 years now in order to allow them to spend money in support of their sagging economies. They buy the bonds by printing money or figuratively dropping it from helicopters – expanding their balance sheets in the process. They then remit any net interest from their trillions of dollars or Yen bond purchases right back to their treasuries. The money in essence is free of expense and free of repayment as long as the process continues uninterrupted. Technically, the central bank will argue, they have not allowed their treasuries to finance for free because they will sell the bonds back to the free market one day. Not a chance. The only way out for Japan for instance with 350% of debt to GDP and much of it owned by the BOJ is to extend and extend maturities at 0% interest until private markets catch on. Which frankly is what they want. Global markets wising up to the scheme will precipitate the sale of the remaining JGB’s, weaken the Yen and create their magical 2% inflation!

Oh this sounds too good to be true. Just print the money! Well to be honest, a politician – and a central banker – should admit that increasing joblessness must be paid for somehow.

1. Raising taxes (not lowering them, Donald) is one way.

2. Issuing more and more debt via the private market is another (not a good idea either in this highly levered economy).

3. A third way is to sell debt to central banks and have them finance it perpetually at low interest rates that are then remitted back to their treasuries. 

Money for free! Well not exactly. The Piper that has to be paid will likely be paid for in the form of higher inflation, but that of course is what the central banks claim they want. What they don’t want is to be messed with and to become a government agency by proxy, but that may just be the price they will pay for a civilized society that is quickly becoming less civilized due to robotization. There is a rude end to flying helicopters, but the alternative is an immediate visit to austerity rehab and an extended recession. I suspect politicians and central bankers will choose to fly, instead of die.

 Private banks can fail but a central bank that can print money acceptable to global commerce cannot. I have long argued that this is a Ponzi scheme and it is, yet we are approaching a point of no return with negative interest rates and QE purchases of corporate bonds and stock. Still, I believe that for now central banks will print more helicopter money via QE (perhaps even the U.S. in a year or so) and reluctantly accept their increasingly dependent role in fiscal policy. That would allow governments to focus on infrastructure, health care, and introduce Universal Basic Income for displaced workers amongst other increasing needs. It will also lead to a less independent central bank, and a more permanent mingling of fiscal and monetary policy that stealthily has been in effect for over 6 years now. Chair Yellen and others will be disheartened by this change in culture. Too bad. If there is an answer, the answer is that it’s just that way.

Investment implications: Prepare for renewed QE from the Fed. Interest rates will stay low for longer, asset prices will continue to be artificially high. At some point, monetary policy will create inflation and markets will be at risk. Not yet, but be careful in the interim. Be content with low single digit returns.

Zeno’s Paradox Janus, by Bill Gross

 

 

I once wrote that a good “bond manager” should metaphorically be composed of 1/3 mathematician, 1/3 economist and 1/3 horse trader. I still stand by that, although I would extend it now to the entire investment arena, especially after experiencing several years of “unconstrained” asset management. Surprisingly though, upon reflection, I find that personally I was never really an “A+ student” at any of the 3 but good enough at each to provide consistent long term alpha and above average profits for clients. In math, for instance, I was a 720 SAT guy but certainly nowhere near 800 status. In economics, I never got beyond Samuelson and an introductory MBA class at UCLA Anderson, but was self-educated enough to have forecast and ridden the secular bond bull market beginning in 1981, and fortunate enough – though “addled” – to have predicted the housing crisis, as well as named and described the “New Normal” that would follow. Horse trader? Well that’s an even more subjective assessment but I can remember being a rather mediocre fraternity poker player. You could usually bluff me out of a big pot, and these days in the market I find myself turning right sometimes when I should be going left. Whatever. B+, A-, B is how I would grade myself but the returns and the relative alpha compared to contemporaries proved to be the real scorecard, and I’m happy with the result, acknowledging of course that some in the “classroom” I worked and work with at PIMCO and Janus earned Summa Cum Laude status and more themselves.

But back to the 1/3 math thing. It’s there that I find the average lay and even many professional investors still thinking and managing assets at the grade school level. The childlike “teeter totter” principle, for instance which couldn’t be simpler in its visualization of bond prices going up when interest rates go down, produces foggy-eyed reactions from a majority of non-professionals, and from a few supposed experts as well. And too, the concept of longer maturities inducing more risk for bond holders seems to stump many. Heaven forbid the introduction of the more refined concepts of duration and forward yield curves as well as the extension into stocks with the addition of an equity “risk premium” and how it might be calculated. “Forget about the math,” many investors really seem to say – “let’s stick to the old Will Rogers adage, ‘If a stock is going to go up – buy it. If it ain’t going up – don’t buy it’!”

Well today’s markets are markets that increasingly will be dominated by math, not Will Rogers. And negative interest rates are front and center. To explain, let me introduce a twister I first came across during one of my high school math classes known as Zeno’s paradox. Zeno was an ancient Greek who posed the following conundrum: Imagine a walker heading towards a finish line 10 yards away but every step he took was half of the length of the step he took before. If so, even if he walked an infinite amount of steps he could never reach his destination. Mathematically correct but the real world resolution was that Zeno’s walker and everything else that we experience moves forward in full step integers as opposed to fractions. It was a mathematical twist only.

But there is no “math only” twist to today’s bond and investment markets. Negative interest rates are real but investors seem to think that they have a Zeno like quality that will allow them to make money. In Germany for instance, 5 year Bunds or OBL’s as they are called, yield a negative 30 basis points. That produces a current price of 101.50 at a 0% coupon that guarantees, guarantees that an investor will get back 100 Euros 5 years from now for every 101.50 Euros she invests today. Why would a private investor (the ECB has a different logic) buy a 5 year OBL at a minus 30 basis points and lock in a guaranteed loss? Well credit and electronic money has its modern day disadvantages in that you can’t withdraw billions of physical Euro Notes from the local bank, nor can banks withdraw some from the central bank. You have to buy something and that’s the yield that’s artificially being imposed. Besides, the purpose of it is to force the investor to buy something with a positive yield further out the maturity spectrum or better yet with a little or a lot of credit risk to get inflation and the economy’s growth engine started again. Seemingly logical, but as I’ve pointed out in recent years – not working very well because zero and negative interest rates break down capitalistic business models related to banking, insurance, pension funds, and ultimately small savers. They can’t earn anything!

Anyway, for those private investors that continue to hold 5 year OBL’s and lock in a guaranteed loss 5 years from now, many of them are using a bit of Zeno’s paradox to convince themselves that they will never reach the loss-certain finish line at maturity. They think that because 4 year OBL’s yield even less (-40 basis points), the 5 year OBL’s will actually go up in price (remember the teeter totter?) if 4 year rates stay the same over the next 12 months, and the ECB has sort of – sort of – promised that. Whatever it takes, you know. If so, the private investor will actually make a little money over the next year (10 basis points) and she can give herself a slap on the back for having eluded the ECB’s negative interest rate trap!

Ah but Zeno’s, Draghi’s, Kuroda’s, and even Yellen’s paradox is actually just that – a paradox. Some investor has to cross the finish/maturity line even if yields are suppressed perpetually, which means that the “market” will actually lose money. Yet who cares about Zeno and a bunch of 5 year OBL investors? Well 30-40% of developed bond markets now have negative yields and 75% of Japanese JGB’s do. Still who cares about them, just buy high yield bonds or even stocks to avoid Zeno’s paradoxical trap. No! All financial assets are ultimately priced based upon the short term interest rate, which means that if an OBL investor loses money, then a stock investor will earn much, much less than historically assumed or perhaps might even lose money herself. Yields have been at 0% or negative for years now across most developed markets and to assume that high yield bond and equity risk premiums as well as P/E ratios have not adjusted to this Star Trek interest rate world is to believe in – well to believe in Zeno’s paradox.

The reality is this. Central bank polices consisting of QE’s and negative/artificially low interest rates must successfully reflate global economies or else. They are running out of time. To me, in the U.S. for instance, that means nominal GDP growth rates of 4-5% by 2017 – or else. They are now at 3.0%. In Euroland 2-3% – or else. In Japan 1-2% – or else. In China 5-6% – or else. Or else what? Or else markets and the capitalistic business models based upon them and priced for them will begin to go south. Capital gains and the expectations for future gains will become Giant Pandas – very rare and sort of inefficient at reproduction. I’m not saying this will happen. I’m saying that developed and emerging economies are flying at stall speed and they’ve got to bump up nominal GDP growth rates or else. Cross your fingers. Zeno’s paradox was a mathematical twist only and the artificial/ negative interest rate world created by central bankers has similar logic. The real market and the real economy await a different conclusion as losses from negative rates result in capital losses, not capital gains. Investors cannot make money when money yields nothing. Unless real growth/inflation commonly known as Nominal GDP can be raised to levels that allow central banks to normalize short term interest rates, then south instead of north is the logical direction for markets.

It’s a Xanax World (Bill Gross) Janus, by Bill Gross

The Romans gave their Plebian citizens a day at the Coliseum, and the French royalty gave the Bourgeoisie a piece of figurative “cake”, so it may be true to form that in the still prosperous developed economies of 2016, we provide Fantasy Sports, cellphone game apps, sexting, and fast food to appease the masses. Keep them occupied and distracted at all costs before they recognize that half of the U.S. population doesn’t go to work in the morning and that their real wages after conservatively calculated inflation have barely budged since the mid 1980’s. Confuse them with demagogic and religious oriented political candidates to believe that tomorrow will be a better day and hope that Ferguson, Missouri and its lookalikes will fade to the second page or whatever it’s called these days in new-age media.

Meanwhile, manipulate prices of interest rates and stocks to benefit corporations and the wealthy while they feast on exorbitantly priced gluten-free pasta and range-free chicken at Whole Foods, or if even more fortunate, pursue high rise New York condos and private jets at Teterboro. It’s a wonderful life for the 1% and a Xanax existence for the 99. But who’s looking – or counting – even at the ballot box. November 2016 will not change a thing – 8 years of Hillary or 8 years of a non-Hillary. Same difference. Central bankers, Superpacs, and K street lobbyists are in control. Instead of cake, the 49.5% (males) will just have to chomp on their Carl’s Jr. hamburger and dream of a night with 23-year-old Kate Upton lookalikes that show them how to eat it during Super Bowl commercials. And if that’s too sexist, then Carl’s is substituting six-pack hunks instead of full-breasted models to appease the other 49.5% (females). It’s a Xanax society. We love it.

But I kid my readers – (that’s what comedians say on TV when they approach an edge). Kidding aside, however, if the 99 think they’ve got it good (bad) now, just wait 10 or 20 more years until their bills really come due. Of course by then, the 1% likely won’t be doing so well either, but there’s the hope that each and every one of them (us/me) can sell before the deluge. I speak specifically though to liabilities associated with the Boomer generation: healthcare, private pensions, Social Security and the unestimable costs of global warming, but let me leave the warming of the planet out of it for now. Let me try to convince you with some hard, cold facts, many of which are U.S. oriented but which apply as well to much of the developed world, because we’re mostly all getting older together. Demography rules.

Explaining this demographic countdown requires an impolitic concession that the world’s population is gradually aging, some at a faster rate than others (Japan, Italy, Taiwan!) but mostly in developed vs. undeveloped countries.

And it is the elderly that require more services and expenses than newborns, although at first blush it would seem that an infant in diapers requires more attention and healthcare than a 70-year-old retiree. Not really. To focus on some U.S. centric mathematical realities, several years ago Mary Meeker in a 500 page, softbound edition entitled “USA Inc.” put together a series of U.S. Treasury and other government reports that outlined just how dire America’s future demographic is in terms of financial liabilities. It is one thing to put readers to sleep with a 2030 forecast for aging boomers, as shown in Chart 1 but another to use the government’s own present value of these debts as of 2016. If financial market observers seem aghast at current Greek or Puerto Rican debt traps, they would surely take a double dose of Xanax when confronted with this: Fact – The U.S. government has current outstanding debt of approximately $16 Trillion or close to 100% GDP. The present value, however of Medicaid ($35 trillion), Medicare ($23 trillion), and Social Security ($8 trillion) promised under existing program totals $66 trillion or another 400% of GDP. We are broke and don’t even know it, or to return to my opening analogy, we are having our cake, eating it at the same time and believing that a new cellphone app will be invented in the near future to magically deliver more of the same. Not gonna happen folks.

Some politicians like Paul Ryan who argue for balanced fiscal budgets are intelligent sounding but relatively clueless. “Austerity – if not now, then when?”, he would argue in Reaganesque twitter. “Let’s slow down or even stop the inexorable clicking of the debt clock: 16 trillion, 17 trillion, 18 trillion”…he would add. Well yes, every little bit helps, Mr. Ryan, but the fact of the matter is (a great political phrase, is it not?) that reducing the growth rate of current government debt does little to help what in essence is a demographic not a financial problem: too few Millennials to take care of too many Boomers. Social Security “lock boxes” or Medicare/Medicaid “trust funds” which in essence represent “pre-funded” liability systems, cannot correct this demographic imbalance, because financial assets represent a “call” on future production. If that production could possibly be saved like squirrels ferreting away nuts for a long winter, then Treasury bonds or purchasing corporate stocks might make some sense. But they can’t. Future healthcare for Boomer seniors can only be provided by today’s Millennials and even doctors yet to be born. We cannot store their energy today for some future rainy day. Nor can we save food, transportation or entertainment for anything more than a few years forward. Each of those must be provided by a future generation of workers for the use of retired Boomers. And as Chart 1 points out, the ratio of retirees to workers – the dependency ratio – soars from .25 retirees for every worker to .35 over the next 10 years or so.

Chart 1: United States Elderly Dependency Ratio

 

There’s your problem, and neither privatization nor any goodly number of government bonds deposited in the Social Security “lock box” can solve it. While these paper assets may “pay” for goods and services, their value will be market adjusted in future years to exactly match the quantity of things we buy, and that quantity will be substantially a function of the available workforce and the price they command for their services. This is another way of saying that the value of Treasury bonds and even private pension held stocks will be marked down in price as they are sold to pay for future goods and services, and that the price of these goods and services will be marked up (inflation) to justify their reduced demographic supply. Productivity gains are often advanced as a solution but productivity gains have been shrinking in recent years, and even so, employed workers cannot be expected to hand over future advances to retirees without a fight. Having more babies would also turn the trick, but at the moment, making fewer seems to be the going trend.

Investment implications? Well it is true that if much of the developing world is younger demographically (think India), then developed nations could and should transfer an increasing percentage of their financial assets to emerging markets to help foot the demographic bills back home. Long-term then, as opposed to currently, think about increasing your asset allocation to the developing world. It’s also commonsensical that if higher Millennial wages are the probable result of a shortage of healthcare workers relative to Boomer requirements, then an investor should go long inflation and short fixed coupons. U.S. 10-year TIPS at 80 basis points seem like a good hedge in that regard. And of course in terms of specific equity sectors, healthcare should thrive, while liability handcuffed financial corporations such as insurance companies as well as the bonds of underfunded cities and states such as Chicago and Illinois, should not. Other countries have similar burdens. The Financial Times reports that the UK pension industry faces a 20-year wait until they might have enough cash to meet their liabilities in 2036. Until then, they cannot. In general, it seems demographically commonsensical that Boomers have in part been responsible for asset appreciation during the heyday of their productive years and that now, drip by drip, year by year, they will need to sell those assets to someone or some country in order to pay their own bills. Asset returns will therefore be lower than historical norms, especially because interest rates are close to 0% in developed countries.

Demographics may not rule absolutely, but they likely will dominate investment markets and returns for the next few decades until the Boomer phenomena fades away. The 1% – in addition to the 99 – will need extra doses of Xanax, or additional slices of cake, to cope in the next few decades. Let the games begin.