“American households have shifted their cash flows from illiquid real estate and consumer durables to paying down mortgages and consumer debt…It is this rapid rise in aversion to illiquid risk that explains a large part of the anaemic recovery in the US.” Greenspan
DRIVER OF REVIVAL: The US consumer has historically been a crucial driver of economic renewal
PRECARIOUS POSITION: Many worried about employment, have under-saved for retirement
STIFFLED STIMULUS: The propensity to spend (and boost the economy) will be limited
The importance of the consumer and the concerns surrounding the structural headwinds they face are undeniable. Consumer spending accounts for approximately 70% of US GDP (although I’ve read an interesting piece by Darren Marron arguing this figure is actually nearer 60% when spending on imports are dealt with more appropriately but nevertheless, this is still a significant percentage). The magnitude of the problem has been well described by John Maudlin who pointed out that versus the last recession, we have seen “double the asset deflation, triple the job loss, coupled with a collapse in credit.” It doesn’t look likely that the consumer will be bouncing straight back!
On the subject of unemployment, although it is universally monitored, what has been missed by many is what the rate does not take into account. Salaries have been cut and working hours reduced. This adds to the misery of many consumers. Furthermore, it is these people who are working part-time that will be hired back into full-time employment before companies reach out to the many unemployed. This must be assessed within the context of an expanding labour force where a substantial amount of new jobs are needed every month in the US.
Looking forward, another key limiting factor on the consumers’ propensity to spend is the move to save instead, as they look to fund their retirement / non-wage earning years. The “Baby Boom” generation is expected to account for nearly 60% of net US wealth by 2015, according to a study by McKinsey, and their turnaround from spending to focus on saving will be magnified by the fact that they have historically under-saved. The aforementioned report identified that as low as only 25% are “financially prepared for retirement”, thus the decrease in the spending habits of the vast majority will be significant. Inside Europe the story isn’t much brighter and the UK pension gap (the difference between the income needed to live a comfortable retirement and the actual income individuals can expect from their current pensions) has been heralded as the “biggest in Europe” by national papers. The OECD sets an average pension at around 59% of the earnings built during a full working career, a stark comparison with the UK’s 31%. With relatively small public pension, an individual will need to make extra savings to ensure their standard of living does not drop dramatically as they move into retirement. This is not an outlook that will encourage the spending that will boost or even support the economy. (For a deeper insight into the ageing populations of the developed world see What is a \”Structural limitation to growth\”? How can I exploit it?)
ECONOMIC IMPACT: This points to a muted recovery instead of a “V” shaped bounce-back.
INVESTMENT INSIGHT: Look at companies which aren’t as heavily reliant on the Developed Consumer but with an international reach and operations within Emerging Markets. To exploit the ageing of the “Baby Boomers” within Developed Markets, see What is a \”structural limitation to growth\”? How can I exploit it? and invest in companies positioned to benefit from an increased reliance on healthcare, nursing homes etc.