The Economy’s New Boss: Demographics

The next President will have to contend with unfavorable demographics.

An enormous amount of money will be spent in the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign. Each side will promote its candidate and his platform with much passion and conviction. In the end, one side will treat victory as the road to salvation and the other will see defeat as an unprecedented and largely irreversible calamity. But in reality, this time around, the identity of the winner will probably matter less to future growth prospects than in previous contests. This is because the demographic input in the economy for the next four years is already programmed on an immovable trajectory and it is less positive than in the past.

Because of the overhanging debt and a poor demographic picture, the next four years will continue to be challenging (though not necessarily recessionary), regardless of whether Barack Obama is re-elected or Mitt Romney replaces him. Like it or not, the boss of the economy, and therefore to some degree of all of us, will be demographics. One could argue that this boss has been with us since at least 2005 when the dependency ratio started to rise again in the United States.

Among all the important factors which drive economic growth, the demographic factor is now weaker than it has been in decades and as a result, domestic demand for most goods and services will be weaker than it has been in a long time. The most telling numbers are as follows:

– The US population grew by over 1% a year until 2007 and is now growing by less than 1% per year. Its rate of growth will continue to decline as the number of baby boomer deaths rises relative to the number of new births.  Since 2008, the US total fertility ratio (TFR) has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 and is now approaching 1.9 children per woman. See the data here and here. (Note that the TFR is an imperfect measure and a decline may only mean that more women are delaying, not altogether foregoing, having children.)

– The total number of Americans aged 30 to 60 years, the most economically active bracket, grew by over 1% per year for 30 years, from the mid 1970s to around 2005.  It has levelled off and will essentially remain flat at around 120-125 million until the end of this decade. Stagnation in the size of the most economically active bracket combined with growth in the young and elderly brackets will result in lower economic growth. I made a case here that the resulting effect on housing will not be positive.

– The US dependency ratio, which is the sum of people under 14 and over 65, divided by the number of people aged 15-64, has declined for several decades from 0.67 in 1960 to 0.49 in 2005 but, according to UN estimates (see pages 478 and 479 of this UN report), it is now expected to climb back to 0.53 by 2015, 0.56 by 2020, 0.64 by 2030 and 0.67 by 2050. Discretionary spending is bound to come under pressure as more funds are diverted to take care of dependents. (Note that the dependency ratio as defined by the UN and others considers any person under 14 and over 65 to be a ‘dependent’.  This seems antiquated on both ends. In the US, a young person is still a dependent until at least 18, and in some measure as late as 25. And an older person may not become a dependent until the retirement age of 67, or more likely 70.  I ran the numbers for these brackets here and they show that raising the retirement age from 67 to 70 would buy us some time and help the economy.)

– Assuming a run rate of 1 million newcomers per year, immigration, though a clear net positive in the long run, will be insufficient to neutralize or reverse these negative effects in the short run. It would take a much greater number of immigrants to offset the slack. But as noted by some demographers, citizens of any given country become less welcoming of immigrants when that country’s fertility ratio declines or when the economy is weak.

Although much frustration is expressed on the stagnation of the economy, in particular the unemployment rate and the rising deficit, pinning the blame on one or the other of the two political parties ignores a stronger underlying dynamic. The next POTUS will be similarly constrained as POTUS 43 (Bush) in his second term and POTUS 44 (Obama) and will have to implement some steps to mitigate the negative demographic effect. If demographics are failing us, there are other levers to stimulate  growth but we will need to work them harder.