What really controls the economy? Forget interest rates, forget deficits, forget the Fed, forget IRAQ, forget which party is in office. In fact, forget just about everything that permeates the news. The greatest force that has controlled the long-term trend of the economy for at least the last century doesn’t give a fig about any of these side-shows. And just what is this "greatest force" now telling us in 2005? The same thing that it has been telling us for at least the last twenty years - that the onset of a catastrophic depression, unprecedented in history, has been marching silently and steadily towards us, and that it is now just a few years away.
It has long been suggested (and feared) that the 77 million or so US Baby Boomers will tank the economy big-time as they begin to pull their savings out of Wall Street when they start retiring around 2011. Well, first of all there are not 77 million. There are really over 100 million American Baby Boomers because the birth upswing actually began in the late thirties not the, "traditionally" chosen, erroneous, post war year of 1946. This means that whatever problems they might created just got 30% worse, and true earliest Baby Boomer retirement began around 2001. Secondly, the hard evidence of nearly a century shows that people retiring has never been a force in the overall trend of the economy. Let’s get back to basics to see why.
It is a well established economic fact that around 60-70% of the GDP (gross domestic product) is simply consumers spending just about all of their hard-earned income. What many people don’t know, or at least don’t think about, is that it’s more than 90% when national and local government expenditures, first taken in from consumers’ incomes as taxes of all kinds, are included. The bottom line is that the consumer is always the greatest force in the economy - and it is overwhelming! It’s just a simple, hard economic fact. It is therefore only common-sense that the long-term trend of the economy must be controlled somehow by this absolutely massive consumer spending component. In the short-term (1 to 3 years) many factors, such as war, terrorism, oil and corporate scandal can seriously affect the economy, but they are always side-shows to the much bigger "hidden" picture.
To figure out what is happening in this hidden picture we must look at who we the consumers are with regard to our ability to spend. Obviously, a thousand middle-aged men or women earning and spending $40,000 a year are going to have a vastly different effect on the economy (GDP) than a thousand 15 year-old teenagers spending an allowance of $1000 a year. According to data published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics the group with the biggest spending by far is the 45-54 year-olds. This makes total sense of course. They are at their peak earnings with huge matching expenditures to support teenage and college kids, their biggest mortgage, their best cars etc. If five year groupings (45-49 in 1920, progressing for logical reasons to 50-54 by 2000) within the 45 to 54 year-olds in the US population is plotted against the Dow Jones Industrial Average (the economy), adjusted for inflation using the CPI (Consumer Price Index) issued by the US government, a breathtaking, near glove-fit correlation covering the best part of a century is revealed. (See the chart within the referenced website). This isn’t conjecture. It’s a hard economic fact.
The greatest force in the economy can be indisputably demonstrated to be consumer demographics, and within that the 45 to 54 year-olds demographic is just as clearly all-powerful. Things like interest rates, deficits, who is elected, and inflation are followers or consequences of the economy, not the makers of it. The Fed raises or lowers rates because the economy tells it to. Stock market crashes don’t cause recessions or depressions. It is the other way around. The DJIA is simply following the 45 to 54 year-olds demographic down to reflecting the new lower value of stocks as the economy declines. For easy to understand, fundamental reasons the economy has followed the big-spending 45-54 year-olds demographic for nearly a century. History shows that the economy always declines when the number of big-spending 45 to 54 year-olds in the population declines, a full 11 to 20 years before they retire. This happened rapidly in the early 1930s, slowly thank goodness in the 1970s, and will happen again from 2013 to 2025, rapidly, relentlessly and catastrophically. This must not be confused with Baby Boomers retiring. They retire 11-20 years after their peak spending years end. While their retirement independently creates major unprecedented problems with social security and Medicare, the inevitable depression they cause by stopping their big-spending, happens first. If you accept their inevitable, later demographic impact on social security and Medicare, you must, for the same underlying reasons, accept their earlier bigger impact on the economy, even though tragically virtually no one is talking about it - yet.
Picture this: The great American economy is an ocean whose total depth is made up overwhelmingly of the combined spending of all the various age groups. The heaving waves on the surface of this deep ocean are always the big-spending of the 45 to 54 year-olds group. These waves produce the peaks and troughs of the economy - the long-term booms and busts. They can and have both raised and sunk ships. We will soon have to man the lifeboats as the greatest demographic wave in history crashes down with a thunderous roar! Like the great Titanic, there will not be enough time or enough lifeboats onboard, and only very limited rescue available. The USA has just a few more years left of solid economic growth with an accompanying rise in the DJIA. After that, starting no later than 2012-13, and perhaps as early as 2009-10, an economic decline of terrible proportions begins and lasts until about 2025. Unlike their parents, Baby Boomers everywhere are truly not going to have a pleasant retirement. Starting in 2003-2004, the economy resumed its march upwards right in line with the 45-54 demographic, accompanied by the matching rise in the DJIA. The next several years up until 2012 latest represent the last chance for a very long time to make any money by traditionally investing in stocks. From 2013 to 2025 the big-spending 45 to 54 year-olds that control the trend of the economy will only be there in relentlessly declining numbers. Just how big is this catastrophic depression going to be financially? In the US stock market crash from 1929 to 1932, the value of stocks dropped approximately $90 billion. When expressed in year 2000 dollars and adjusted to match the size of the population now versus then (284M vs 123M), this is a drop of about 2.6 TRILLION dollars. It directly affected the less than five percent of the US population who owned stocks at the time. The population at large was affected by job loss and the ensuing poverty. When the 2013 to 2025 decline of the DJIA is converted with simple arithmetic to the loss in the value of all stocks in the same year 2000 dollars, it is a staggering 18 TRILLION dollars. This is seven times as bad as 1929 to 1932. This is all awful enough, but there is a terrible difference this time. This time the loss directly affects the more than fifty percent of the US that now own stocks either directly, or indirectly in mutual funds, pension plans, IRA or 401K type plans. It will be a financial holocaust. This however will be just the beginning.
In the depths of the depression of the 1930s US unemployment reached 25%. With a depression that is financially about seven times as deep as the 1930s, what will unemployment reach this time? As in the 1930s, home values will also plummet destroying much of homeowners’ equity, or all of it for those who buy homes in the years leading up to 2012-13. It is rightly said that when America sneezes the world catches a cold. If in a few short years America contracts pneumonia, what on earth will the world contract? Will what is happening in China change things? In a word, no! Our economy is driven overwhelmingly by consumer spending, no matter what we spend it on, including gasoline. Boomers will continue to unavoidably spend until their big-spending age limit is reached. When that happens the depression begins, regardless of China. China will however feel the impact in terms of the plummet in our imports that will then take place.
This catastrophic depression will happen. Our immutable demographics make it absolutely inevitable. It’s nobody’s fault. It cannot be fixed or wished away. The federal and state governments cannot prevent it anymore than they could prevent 2000-03. It’s just as unstoppable as a tidal wave. We have to accept the reality that it is coming, and plan for it as best we can. Imagine it is 1925 and you know with certainty that the crash of 1929-32 and the depression of the 1930s are coming. What will you do? The precious few years that are left before this coming 2013-2025 depression, that will dwarf the 1930s, must be used to their fullest starting immediately. It still won’t be enough time for many, but at least forewarned is forearmed. © Copyright 2005 Daniel Arnold
Daniel Arnold is a graduate of the Victoria University of Manchester in the UK with Bachelor and Master degrees. After a seventeen year management and consulting career with The General Electric Company in the US, he started and ran a successful manufacturing company in Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) California for ten years. After being bought out by a larger company he focused on investment and understanding the economy's long-term trends. This work lead directly to his shocking book The Great Bust Ahead, ISBN 159196153X available only through amazon.com with world-wide shipping. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/159196153X The book’s own website with charts can be found at http://www.thegreatbustahead.com
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