Bill Gross | August 2010
"...That return journey will be all the more difficult to accomplish, however, because of demographics, an influence that much like gravity is hard to see but whose effect is all too powerful. Demographics – or in this case population growth – is so long term in its influence that economists and observers are inclined to explain the functioning of economic society without ever factoring in the essential part that it plays in growth. Production depends upon people, not only in the actual process, but because of the final demand that justifies its existence. The more and more consumers, the more and more need for things to be produced. I will go so far as to say that not only growth but capitalism itself may be in part dependent on a growing population. Our modern era of capitalism over the past several centuries has never known a period of time in which population declined or grew less than 1% a year. Currently, the globe is adding over 77 million people a year at a pace of 1.15% annually, but slowing. Still, that’s 77 million more mouths to feed, 77 million more pairs of shoes to make, 77 million more little economic units of demand – houses, furniture, cars, roads, oil – more, more, more...
The lack of population growth was likely a significant factor in the leveraging of the developed world’s financial systems and the ballooning of total government and private debt as a percentage of GDP from 150% to over 300% in the United States, for example. Lacking an accelerating population base, all developed countries promoted the financing of more and more consumption per capita in order to maintain existing GDP growth rates. Finally, in the U.S., with consumption at 70% of GDP and a household sector deeply in debt, there was nowhere to go but down. Similar conditions exist in most developed economies.
The danger today, as opposed to prior deleveraging cycles, is that the deleveraging is being attempted into the headwinds of a structural demographic downwave as opposed to a decade of substantial population growth. Japan is the modern-day example of what deleveraging in the face of a slowing and now negatively growing population can do. Prior deleveraging periods such as what the U.S. and European economies experienced in the 1930s exhibited a similar demographic with the lowest levels of fertility in the 20th century and extremely low population growth. Things did not go well then. Today’s developed economies almost assuredly offer substantially less population growth than the 1.5% rate experienced over the prior 50 years. Even when viewed from a total global economy perspective, population growth over the next 10–20 years will barely exceed 1%.
The preceding analysis does not even begin to discuss the aging of this slower-growing population base itself. Japan, Germany, Italy and of course the United States, with its boomers moving toward their 60s, are getting older year after year. Even China with their previous one baby policy faces a similar demographic. And while older people spend a larger percentage of their income – that is, they save less and eventually dissave – the fact is that they spend far fewer dollars per capita than their younger counterparts. No new homes, fewer vacations, less emphasis on conspicuous consumption and no new cars every few years. Healthcare is their primary concern. These aging trends present a one-two negative punch to our New Normal thesis over the next 5–10 years: fewer new consumers in terms of total population, and a growing number of older ones who don’t spend as much money. The combined effect will slow economic growth more than otherwise."