Forecast 2014: The Killer D’s

By John Mauldin

January 12, 2014

Demographics – An Upside Down World
The Twin Dangers of Debt and Deficits
Deleveraging and Deflation – They Are Just No Fun
We Are in a Code Red World
China, Europe, and Japan – Crises in Waiting
Japan May Be a Moose in Search of a Windshield
Some Thoughts from Dubai

It seems I’m in a constant dialogue about the markets and the economy everywhere I go. Comes with the territory. Everyone wants to have some idea of what the future holds and how they can shape their own personal version of the future within the Big Picture. This weekly letter is a large part of that dialogue, and it’s one that I get to share directly with you. Last week we started a conversation looking at what I think is the most positive and dynamic aspect of our collective future: The Human Transformation Revolution. By that term I mean the age of accelerating change in all manner of technologies and services that is unfolding before us. It is truly exhilarating to contemplate. Combine that revolution with the growing demand for a middle-class lifestyle in the emerging world, and you get a powerful engine for growth. In a simpler world we could just focus on those positives and ignore the fumbling of governments and central banks. Alas, the world is too complex for that.

We’ll continue our three-part 2014 forecast series this week by looking at the significant economic macrotrends that have to be understood, as always, as the context for any short-term forecast. These are the forces that are going to inexorably shift and shape our portfolios and businesses. Each of the nine macrotrends I’ll mention deserves its own book (and I’ve written books about two of them and numerous letters on most of them), but we’ll pause to gaze briefly at each as we scan the horizon.

The Killer D’s

The first five of our nine macro-forces can be called the Killer D’s: Demographics, Deficit, Debt, Deleveraging, and Deflation. And while I will talk about them separately, I am really talking threads that are part of a tapestry. At times it will be difficult to say where one thread ends and the others begin.

Demographics – An Upside Down World

One of the most basic human drives is the desire to live longer. And there is a school of economics that points out that increased human lifespans is one of the most basic and positive outcomes of economic growth. I occasionally get into an intense conversation in which someone decries the costs of the older generation refusing to shuffle off this mortal coil. Typically, this discussion ensues after I have commented that we are all going to live much longer lives than we once expected due to the biotechnological revolution. Their protests sometimes make me smile and suggest that if they are really worried about the situation, they can volunteer to die early. So far I haven’t had any takers.

Most people would agree that growth of the economy is good. It is the driver of our financial returns. But older people spend less money and produce far less than younger, more active generations do. Until recently this dynamic has not been a problem, because there were far more young people in the world than there were old. But the balance has been shifting for the last few decades, especially in Japan and Europe.

An aging population is almost by definition deflationary. We can see the results in Japan. An aging, conservative population spends less. An interesting story in the European Wall Street Journal this week discusses the significant amount of cash that aging Japanese horde. In Japan there is almost three times as much cash in circulation, per person, as there is in the US. Though Japan is a country where you can buy a soft drink by swiping your cell phone over a vending machine data pad, the amount of cash in circulation is rising every year, and there are actually proposals to tax cash so as to force it back into circulation.

A skeptic might note that 38% of Japanese transactions are in cash and as such might be difficult to tax. But I’m sure that Japanese businesses report all of their cash income and pay their full share of taxes, unlike their American and European counterparts.

Sidebar: It is sometimes difficult for those of us in the West to understand Japanese culture. This was made glaringly obvious to me recently when I watched the movie 47 Ronin. In the West we may think of Sparta or the Alamo when we think of legends involving heroic sacrifice. The Japanese think of the 47 Ronin. From Wikipedia:

The revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin (???? Shi-j?-shichi-shi, forty-seven samurai) took place in Japan at the start of the 18th century. One noted Japanese scholar described the tale, the most famous example of the samurai code of honor, bushid?, as the country’s “national legend.”

The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (becoming ronin) after theirdaimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was K?zuke no suke. The roninavenged their master’s honor by killing Kira, after waiting and planning for almost two years. In turn, the ronin were themselves obliged to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder. With much embellishment, this true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that people should preserve in their daily lives. The popularity of the tale grew during the Meiji era of Japanese history, in which Japan underwent rapid modernization, and the legend became subsumed within discourses of national heritage and identity.

The point of my sidebar (aside from talking about cool guys with swords) is that, while Japan may be tottering, the strong social fabric of the country, woven from qualities like loyalty, sacrifice, and diligence, should keep us from being too quick to write Japan off.

“Old Europe” is not far behind Japan when it comes to demographic challenges, and the United States sees its population growing only because of immigration. Russia’s population figures do not bode well for a country that wants to view itself as a superpower. Even Iran is no longer producing children at replacement rates. At 1.2 children per woman, Korea’s birth rates are even lower than Japan’s. Indeed, they are the lowest in the World Bank database.

A basic equation says that growth of GDP is equal to the rate of productivity growth times the rate of population growth. When you break it down, it is really the working-age population that matters. If one part of the equation, the size of the working-age population, is flat or falling, productivity must rise even faster to offset it. Frankly, developed nations are simply not seeing the rise in productivity that is needed.

As a practical matter, when you are evaluating a business as a potential investment, you need to understand whether its success is tied to the growth rate of the economy and the population it serves.

In our book EndgameJonathan Tepper and I went to great lengths to describe the coming crisis in sovereign debt, especially in Europe – which shortly began to play itself out. In the most simple terms, there can come a

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