Vault Series: Aegon Asset Management

On Demographics, Growth, and Investing: When the structural collides with the cyclical

Francis Rybinski CFA, treated CFA Society Chicago to his analysis of the current global demographic situation and its implications at the latest Vault Series lecture on March 12.  Rybinski is the chief macro strategist at Aegon Asset Management, responsible for guiding the firm’s global macroeconomic view pertaining to tactical and strategic asset allocation. His presentation included a wealth of statistics that highlighted the weak rates of growth of both population and productivity in developed economies around the world and how that situation limits investment managers.

Rybinski began with some observations on the trend in GDP growth in the U.S.:

  • Actual GDP growth has declined erratically from about 4% in the early post-World War II period, to 3% late in the last century, to just 2% since the last financial crisis. Growth above 2% in very recent quarters has not persisted long enough to define a change in trend.  (Slide 4)
  • Accompanying this change has been a decline in the volatility of the growth rate, both absolutely and relative to potential growth.
  • While growth has been slowing, the business cycle has been lengthening. The economy seems to be stretching out expansions by pacing itself at a slower rate of growth.

The two driving factors behind GDP growth are the rates of growth in the labor force, and in productivity. Both have been anemic with little expectation of a move to the upside. The Congressional Budget Office projects near term potential GDP growth at less than 2%, incorporating 0.5% growth of the labor force and 1.4% productivity growth. Rybinski argued that even if the labor force were to grow at 1.4% (the average since 1950) potential GDP would not reach 3%, and would trend downward after 2020.  Even boosting productivity to 2% gets GDP growth only to 2.5%. While President Trump claims his policies will increase productivity well beyond its recent trend, Rybinski is skeptical. He listed several forces most likely to boost productivity significantly including autonomous vehicles, robotics, 3D printing, genomics, and generally the internet of things. He doubted any of these could be as transformative as the forces that drove productivity higher in the 20th century such as the expansion of the electric power grid, telecommunications, and the development of computers. Maintaining a persistent 3% growth in GDP would take 2% productivity growth—a level last experienced in the 1990’s tech boom–and 1% labor force growth–which would be dependent on increased immigration.

Rybinski applied the term “demographic drag” to the situation he had described. Noting that it exists throughout developed economies, he concluded that “It’s a small(er) world after all”. (Or at least a slower growing world.) This situation, he thought, was at the root of many current global movements such as the new nationalism, anti-immigration stands, and the Brexit vote. The demographic situation also has implications for retirement investing and the social safety net. Lower prospective investment returns will require even higher amounts of savings to fund retirement, and/or an increased burden on government retirement plans.

Rybinski went on to present more demographic data to support his premise.

  • In the 1970’s, a demographic tailwind driven by the maturing of the baby-boom generation and the flood of women entering the work force, provided a big boost to GDP growth in the U.S. This has now become a tailwind as the baby-boomers reach retirement age and the increase in women in the work force has leveled off. This leaves only productivity to boost GDP growth.
  • The fertility rate in the U.S. declined by about 50% from 1960-75 and has been under the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman for a decade. Similar trends appear around the world in countries across the income spectrum.
  • The share of the U.S. population over age 55 is about 27% and continues to rise.  The share in the prime working years has been trending down for over twenty years and is now under 50%.  The share ages 16-24 is not growing, but is stagnant at about 15%.
  • The old age dependency ratio (ratio of people ages 20-64 vs. those older) has received a lot of attention because of its dramatic down trend. Rybinski showed that, when adjusted for the increase in the labor force participation rate since 1948, the decline is not as significant, but the trend is still negative. This is a common feature across developed economies.
  • Currently, immigration accounts for just over 40% of U.S. population growth and it is rising. Native births account for the other 60%, but the share is declining. Within ten years, these factors will be about equal and by 2045, immigration could provide more than 70% of population growth.
  • Average life expectancy continues to increase and has reached 72 years globally (80 years in high income countries).
  • Increasing life expectancies and earlier retirements mean more time is spent in retirement. In 2010 it reached 13 years in the U.S. and 18 years in Germany.  Even China has advanced to eight years from just two in 1990. This adds stress to retirement plans—an inauspicious factor in the U.S. where over 95% of public pension plans were underfunded to a cumulative total of $1.1 trillion by 2017.

Rybinski had one positive observation regarding inflation, based on the correlation between inflation and the dependency ratio. His data shows that countries with a worsening ratio (primarily the U.S., the E.U. and Japan) have experienced low rates of inflation (under 2%) for the past five years. Countries with higher inflation (such as India, Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa) have improving dependency ratios. Not only has inflation been low in developed economies, but it has also been less volatile. These two trends have put downward pressure on the term premia of sovereign debt. In fact, the term premium on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note is negative, and Aegon expects it to remain so, with the extremely low yields on German Bunds an important reason. 

With the Federal Reserve taking a less aggressive position on raising interest rates and inflation expectations anchored, Aegon expects rates on treasury debt to remain at their historically low levels. 

From his analysis Rybinski provided two implications for asset allocation:

  1. As inflation has declined secularly in the past forty years, the correlation of returns on treasuries vs. equities has fallen from strongly positive, to slightly negative. Thus, treasury debt has been a good hedge against equity markets. With Aegon’s forecast for low inflation to hold treasury yields lower for longer, he expects this hedge relationship to continue.
  2. Low growth of global GDP, and the worsening demographic situation, will place a premium on growth investments. Searching these out will be the primary challenge for investment managers in the foreseeable future. This would typically suggest emerging or frontier markets, but they present increased risks. Many are not easy places to conduct business. Managers will need to be highly selective on choosing which countries to invest in, and will also need to search for pockets of growth hidden in selected industries or companies within developed markets.

Supplement: Post-Event Q&A by Brian Gilmartin, CFA

The overall theme of the presentation was that as the US population has aged, from the 1960’s “baby boom” being in full swing to the Generation X, Y and Z’s, of today, US GDP trend growth has slowed, and the aging of the US population is presenting challenges for everything from retired workers outliving their savings to putting pressure on public and private pension fund plans.

In other words, the “demographic tailwind” has become a “demographic headwind” (per two slides within the presentation) for the USA, much like it has become in Japan.

“Trend” growth for the US economy was 6% in the 1960’s, slowing to 4% in the 1980’s and 1990’s and is now just 2.5% today. (My thought on this was that, the US economy – in terms of real GDP was also much lower in the 1960’s, just under $1 trillion in each of the 4 quarters in 1966 per the FRED database, to over $20 trillion by Q4 ’18. The logic being growth looks faster with a smaller denominator.)

Frank Rybinski noted the decline in global fertility as well as the increasing life expectancy and slowing population growth rates has resulted in a “global silver” economy as the number of countries with more 65+ adults than kids under the age of 15 has expanded from 30 in 2015 to a projection of over 60 by 2035.

From an investing perspective, the presentation noted that the older a society becomes, the slower the change in the CPI, and in the Q&A following the presentation, Frank was asked if this changes the role of the Fed as America ages. Frank Rybinski noted that finding the “optimal policy” for the Fed today is more challenging given demographics, since the “old rules” (and Frank Rybinski” specifically cited the Taylor Rule) may have diminished influence in the future.

From an asset allocation perspective, looking strictly at demographics, the Frontier and Emerging Markets are better longer-term equity investments given that GDP growth and productivity improvements are still to be seen by many of these economies while Japan and old world Europe and other mature countries (and even the US to some degree) are at the opposite end of the spectrum and bond market investments and US Treasuries should be held in portfolios, with Aegon calling Treasuries a “viable portfolio hedge” as structurally slower growth and low inflation keep inflation contained.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Frontier Markets and Emerging Markets should be held as equity investments given the longer-term GDP growth potential, while Treasuries and fixed-income should be held for clients in mature countries.

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