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Investment views

Podcast: Debt and demographics

28 September 2018
Author: John StopfordHead of Multi-Asset Income

John Stopford argues that we need to be looking at more longer-term market forces as he describes the shift in demographic drivers and the debt supercycle.


Lindsay Williams: I received a piece of work a few days ago from the desk of John Stopford from Investec Asset Management in London. The piece was entitled: “Debt: Deleveraging and Demographics” and John Stopford is on the telephone now. John, I know this piece that you sent, brief as it was, was part of a much bigger presentation but what was the motivation behind it?

John Stopford: Well, essentially, most people I think focus on short-term drivers of markets and then maybe slightly longer-term drivers in terms of where we are in the business cycle, etc., but people tend not to focus as much on slow-moving, long-term determinants of market pricing and we think that the super cycle that we have been in in terms of debt linked to a switchover in terms of the sort of demographic drivers of growth, inflation rates and so on, those are very big changes and they will have profound consequences over coming years and we need to think about them and think about those consequences.

Lindsay Williams: I think demographics really do define the super cycle phenomenon and, if you have a look at, for example, The Economist at the moment, they talk about demographics in Africa, the “baby boom” they call it, the baby boomers – I can’t remember the title but anyway obviously terribly, terribly important and some people contend that if you can understand demographics, your long-term financial future is secure because it is so important. Do you agree with that?

John Stopford: Well, I think it’s one of the things that you can have a certain amount of foresight about simply because, you know, birth today will then affect population profiles many years into the future. You can play around with the importance if you are a government by changing things like retirement ages but a lot of elements are locked in and so demographics give you some idea of big picture changes over long periods of time and the changes we are going through at the moment we think are pretty profound.

Unlike the rest of the world, Africa has a youthful population. Everywhere else is seeing their populations gradually age and the number of people who are beyond retirement is increasing relative to people who are working age population. That has profound implications for spending patterns, savings patterns, growth, risk appetite and so on.

Lindsay Williams: Your first slide in the brief presentation that you sent me is entitled: “Leveraging a self-reinforcing tailwind to growth” and then there is a rather interesting circular graphic, which says: “A self-reinforcing cycle”. Maybe you could go through that.

John Stopford: Yeah. So really since the Second World War, against the background of youthful growing populations, economies have built up pretty significant amounts of debt and more recently they continue to build up debt to sort of try and keep the show on the road and central banks have sort of facilitated that with monetary policy.

That debt growth essentially is bringing forward future consumption. So, rather than waiting to earn the money, people are borrowing on the basis that the income that they are receiving and the economy is receiving will gradually rise over time and service that debt. Greater borrowing increases spending, which boosts profits, which boost sort of dividends and income and returns on investment back to consumers and businesses and so borrowing can increase off the back of that and so on. You know, you have borrowing to get growth to get more borrowing.

The problem with that is you get to a point potentially where debt levels are high and the appetite to take on more debt is diminishing and the capacity to take on more debt is diminishing and then the danger is that that cycle starts to go in reverse and, if it goes in reverse, it becomes a drag on growth, a drag on asset prices, a drag on incomes and that can also be to some extent self-reinforcing and that is clearly what governments and central banks are quite keen to avoid.

Lindsay Williams: That leads on us quite nicely to your second graphic, which is entitled: “Demographics no longer a tailwind”. When I think of demography, I think of Japan and I think of an aging population. I think of a population that doesn’t spend, a population that saves, well the older population anyway. The younger people in Japan don’t want to have children and it is almost the perfect demographic storm but your chart has a look at not only Japan but also China, the United States, Germany and Italy, so it is not confined to certain countries. It is almost a broad-based phenomenon.

John Stopford: Yes, I think that’s right. So I mean Japan to some extent led the process so Japan’s working age population started to decline sort of the end of the last century. Most other economies have seen a sort of continued modest growth in labour forces and in populations but they are all sort of now getting to a point where working age population growth is beginning to decline and that is a big concern because it is not just about the developed world. It is also about some parts of emerging markets, not least China, where the one child policy means that the demographic picture in China is also deteriorating. Demographics and population growth have been a very strong dynamic in terms of overall GDP growth and, if that is now going into reverse, it’s a problem.

Lindsay Williams: Yes, it is a problem and you talk about potential implications in your final slide, which isn’t a graphic but it’s a list of potential implications. It starts with slower growth and then it gets a little bit more disturbing after that – a beta desert, periodic acid bubbles (that’s the couple right in the middle of the list), rising inequality, money printing and inflation, populism, protectionism and then right at the end (with three exclamation marks after the word) wars.

John Stopford: Yes. If you look at historical precedents and you look at what we have already seen, I think you can extrapolate. I mean there’s obviously a danger in terms of going too far and it doesn’t mean that all of these things are guaranteed but we clearly already have seen a slowdown in growth and growth potential globally. We have I think seen, as a result of that, as a result of the build-up of debt, the sort of dis-inflationary sources that exist partly as a result of all of that, lower trend interest rates, lower policy rates, lower bond yields.

All of that then to some extent pushes also down the yield on other things and we have seen extraordinary monetary policy trying to keep growth afloat and that has tended to push up asset prices, which means it has sort of pushed down their future returns.

That is really where the beta desert comes in. You know what is out there than can offer attractive returns in the future? Are we gradually pushing everything to a point where future returns look somewhat skinny but also, if you are a central bank running very loose policy to try and keep economies afloat, is the danger then that you do actually just pump up certain asset classes and then they get overdone and then the asset bubble bursts? I think we have seen elements of that throughout the recent cycles.

Inequality, rising inequality – I think that has definitely been the case in this kind of environment where growth is weak, return on sort of safe assets is weak, wage growth is poor. You know the only real winners are the people who had got capital-ready, who can benefit from sort of loose central bank policy.

Debt defaults – I think that, given the level of debt, there are only certain ways you can address it. You know you can’t grow debt indefinitely I think. I mean that seems to have been the prescription so far – private sector trying to deleverage but the public sector taking on more debt to compensate. We are going to get to a point at some point where it is hard to push debt up further. So, to correct it, you have either got to grow your way out of debt (which we don’t think is very easy in the current environment), you can inflate (which isn’t proving to be particularly easy but clearly monetisation might be a last resort for some governments) or you might see some level of default.

All of those things, we are seeing elements I think already and then, linked to that, people are struggling to find a way out. Hence, we are sort of seeing things like the rise in populism, a rise in protectionism and all that is doing is unwinding the sort of geopolitical balance that we have had, the vested interest in countries working closer together and benefitting from each other and in previous episodes (the 30’s and before), those kind of dynamics ultimately led to armed conflict. I am not suggesting that that is necessarily the pattern. I am just saying that the danger is the more we get stuck in this debt deleveraging and sort of demographic drag and flail around for solutions and find solutions that are at odds with each other, the greater the risk that we are just repeating the errors of the past.

Lindsay Williams: Goodness me, I hope this is a really super long-term analysis you are doing here because I won’t be around to experience all the things you have just described as potential implications. John Stopford, thank you very much for your analysis. John Stopford is from Investec Asset Management in London.

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Investment involves risks. Past performance figures are not indicative of future performance.
This podcast is provided for general information only and assumes a certain level of knowledge of financial markets. It is not an invitation to make an investment and should not be construed as advice. The views in this podcast are those of the contributors at the time of publication and do not necessarily reflect those of Investec Asset Management.In South Africa, Investec Asset Management is an authorised financial services provider. In Hong Kong, this content has not been reviewed by the SFC and is issued by Investec Asset Management Hong Kong Limited. In Singapore, this content is issued by Investec Asset Management Singapore Pte Limited (Co. Reg. No. 201220398M).

John Stopford
John Stopford Head of Multi-Asset Income

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