Demographics and markets: The effects of ageing
Will the rising number of retirees cause inflation and help lift the economy?
by: John Authers
The new Fed paper suggests that “demographic factors alone account for a 1.25 percentage point decline in the natural rate of real interest and real gross domestic product growth since 1980”. This is a huge claim, as it implies that demographics — rather than fiscal or monetary policy, technology or other changes in productivity — are responsible for virtually all of the decline in economic growth over the past 35 years.
As this period also saw increased savings activity as baby boomers scurried to get ready for retirement, slow economic growth was accompanied by long bull markets in both stocks and bonds in the US. Thus the phenomenon of ageing baby boomers helped to explain rising inequality. Increasing asset prices raises the wealth of those who already have savings, while a lack of bargaining power kept wages down for the rest.
But as the chart (top left) shows, the US, western Europe and Japan have all reached the “tipping point” when the numbers of people in work compared with old and young dependants has peaked and started to fall. In all three examples, that moment came just as the country suffered a major market crash. But the growing weight of the elderly in society has not, yet, started to push up interest rates, which remain at historically low and sometimes negative levels.
The Fed research paper suggests the effects could be permanent. It is common to blame either loose monetary policy or the overhang of debt from a crisis. But the Fed economists warned of a “risk that permanent effects of demographic factors could be misinterpreted as persistent but ultimately transitory downward pressure on the natural rate of interest and net savings stemming from the global financial crisis”.
In short, low yields may be unavoidable and much of the current policy debate may be misguided.