Macroeconomics

What is a “Structural limitation to growth”? How can I exploit it?

 

The ageing of the populations within, for example, the US and UK is a structural limitation to the growth of the economy. (See “isn’t the consumer dead?” for an insight into the amount of the country’s net wealth this part of the population account for and the degree to which they are ill-prepared financially for retirement).

 

Source: Office for National Statistics

 

Within the UK, the percentage of the population aged over 65 (retirement age) increased from 15% to 16% from 1984 to 2009, over the same time span going forward this is to increase from 16% to 23% by 2034. This is a substantial decrease in the percentage of the nation generating an income, spending and boosting the economy and instead increasing the proportion of the populace reliant on healthcare, a state pension and other costs to the government.

 

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: to exploit this long term secular trend, invest in specific healthcare companies, nursing homes etc. Be wary that they may underperform a raging bull market due to their “defensive” nature but as a long-term play they may “pay dividends” (excuse the pun!)

 

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“Isn’t the consumer dead..?”

 

“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

 

Highlights

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

 

 

Answer

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[1] 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!

 

Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index down 57% since 2007. Source: Bloomberg

 

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,[2] 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”[3] 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%[4]. 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?)

 

 

Savings Rate, US. Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis

 

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.

 

 

 

A “House View”

The search for yield is becoming an ever tougher quest for investors, especially the more cautious amongst us. Arguably, the easy money has already been made within the fixed income space; cash offers little as an investment vehicle and many question what the growth drivers will be behind many developed market economies and stock markets. Thus we are left asking, where should one invest?

We also need to question the type of environment we are investing in. Government action will be highly influential as it exits from its policy of Monetary Easing. Timing will be crucial but almost impossible to get right. Too early and we risk dipping back into recession and experiencing the destructive forces of deflation; too late and the threat of rampant inflation rears its head.  The consensus is that the government will favour the latter option as the lesser of two evils. Either way, any recovery the world sees may be a volatile one and clarity may remain elusive. Concerns over debt are still acute and here in the UK the Government predicts expenditure, revenues and debt are to get worse before getting better.

Thus I highlight the importance of an active management approach to investing, where the manager has the ability to react quickly to the changing environment and provide protection on the downside. Focus is also on being selective within each asset class. Although no longer a broad-based trade, opportunities remain within fixed income, with quality paramount and the focus on being name specific. Equities are looking more interesting. Nevertheless, with the potential for corrections in the markets in the near-term, investing with long / short managers, who have a proven track record of navigating the choppy markets of the last few years successfully and who are well-positioned to exploit opportunities both on the upside and downside, is attractive.

Emphasis is on being pro-active rather than reactive and continuing to monitor the changing economic and market environments closely.

INVESTMENT INSIGHT

ACTIVE MANAGEMENT

ALLOCATE TO EQUITIES

ANTICIPATE A MARKET PULLBACK (i.e. invest via long/short managers able to protect on the downside)