De-Politicizing Climate Activism

Or how Greta Thunberg can create more converts.

“Nature is not a temple. It is a workshop, and a human being is the worker in it.”                               _                                                                                                         Ivan Turgenev

Item 1: The outbreak of coronavirus that threatens to create a global pandemic and the tragic sudden death of basketball star Kobe Bryant both remind us that the unexpected can happen quickly and that we humans live in an environment that can at times be ruthlessly hostile.

Nature, fate, providence, or whatever one chooses to call it, works in inscrutable ways. The virus will spread and endanger millions, if humans do not stop it. It has no will or conscience and would inexorably destroy those who are dearest to us, in a matter of days. And, before downing Bryant’s helicopter and killing him, his young daughter and seven others, fate or gravity did not pause for a millisecond to ponder the sadness that it would inflict on hundreds of millions all over the world through such a senseless death.

Modern society is generally free of deadly viruses and helicopters are generally safe to fly. But it took centuries of human progress to get there in both instances. And it will take more human progress and ingenuity to seal the cracks in our vigilance that allowed the coronavirus to emerge and spread, and the helicopter to crash .

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 2.29.15 PM
CDC photo by Dr. Fred Murphy.

Item 2: Last week in Davos, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin volunteered that climate activist Greta Thunberg ought to get an economics degree before preaching her message to grown-up policy makers. That is more confidence in university economics departments than most of Miss Thunberg’s critics would be willing to concede. It is true that Miss Thunberg’s message is incomplete, but that is not for lack of economic pedigree. The building blocks that are glaringly missing from her campaign are 1) a better understanding of Turgenev’s aphorism on nature and man, and 2) a trip or two to China, India or other fast developing countries.

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Africa: 800 Million Jobs Needed

African economies are in a race to get ahead of the demographic boom.

“Let us share without fear the journey of migrants and refugees.” Pope Francis (@Pontifex) tweet on 27 September 2017.

While some people in the United States are sweating the presence, against the backdrop of a demographically stagnant white population, of the 11 million undocumented immigrants or of the 30+ million other foreign-born residents, there are far bigger numbers brewing in other parts of the world, numbers that are so large that they could affect, decades from now, the life of an American citizen far more than would the rare determined Mexican or Guatemalan who manages henceforth to scale President Trump’s purportedly impenetrable border wall.

In the next decades as was so often the case in history, the future shape of the world could once again be decided in Europe and by Europe’s and the West’s handling of Africa’s incipient demographic boom.

In fact, if you are a generous-minded European who shares the Pope’s noble sentiment and who views the ongoing wave of migrants coming into your country as a benign and positive development; or, if you believe that borders are outdated constructs and that all refugees and other immigrants should be welcomed into the rich world; indeed, if it is your view that anyone who stands in the way of this openness is misguided by racist and nefarious motives, then it behooves you to test the strength of your belief by examining the larger demographic data coming out of Africa and Asia. Read more

Talking About Brexit with Andrew Stuttaford

“So far as the original founders are concerned, the journey [of European integration] continues. The problem is it is not what most British people thought they were signing up for.” ____Andrew Stuttaford.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 6.15.53 AMAndrew Stuttaford is a British-born contributing editor at National Review and a frequent writer on British and European topics. In recent months, he has been an advocate of ‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. A few days before the June 23rd referendum, Stuttaford explains the factors that made him increasingly wary of further European integration. Read more

Demography, the Global Emergency

It is not an exaggeration to say that world demographics are entering uncharted territory. For the first time in a very long time, perhaps the first time ever, the dependency ratios (loosely, the ratio of dependents to workers) of all rich nations and of several emerging markets have started rising and will continue to rise for several decades.

This alone would be enough of a challenge for the world economy. But making things more complicated, it is taking place at the same time as the other big demographic transition of our age, the great population boom in some of the poorest nations of the world. Read more

The BRIC and I

The growth prospects of Brazil, Russia and China are dimming, while those of India are flaring.

If one is a lonely number, then ‘I’ could be a lonely letter, at least when it comes to the ‘I’ of the BRIC countries. Brazil, Russia and China all face mounting challenges in 2015 but the road ahead seems wide open for India. The main concern with this opening statement is that it seems to be the view of a large majority of observers.

Still, a majority is not the same as a consensus and certainly not the same as an extreme consensus. In investing, the consensus view is often right but the extreme consensus is absolutely and always wrong. For example, the consensus to buy tech stocks in 1997 was right but the extreme consensus to sell all non-tech and buy only tech in early 2000 was very wrong. When it comes to India, we are with the majority view, edging into consensus territory, but still far from extreme consensus. There remain enough doubters to ensure that this story still has plenty of time to play out.

Our approach to the topic is resolutely from the point of view of demographics. Demographics are not the be all and end all of an economy, but they are a very important vector, one of three very important vectors, the other two being innovation and institutional strength. Looking at the BRIC countries, the demographics of Russia and China are poor and those of Brazil are neutral. By contrast, the demographics of India, though challenging due to the large population size, could hold much promise if this huge newly created human energy can be harnessed and channelled in the right directions.

In general, the best demographic profile for an economy would be a rising population coupled with a declining dependency ratio (the ratio of dependents to workers). The increase in population means that demand for goods and services continues to grow. And the declining dependency ratio means that there is plenty of discretionary capital for consuming and for investing.

The US, Europe and China were in this sweet spot until six or seven years ago. Indeed, much of the world was in this sweet spot, a fact which largely explains the enormous creation of wealth and improvement in living conditions for billions of people in the past few decades. Things got more challenging in the middle of the last decade when dependency ratios in several countries bottomed out and started to rise.

BRIC Countries Total Dependency Ratios
BRIC Countries Total Dependency Ratios

We can’t blame the 2008 crisis on demographics alone. There were many abuses and excesses in the system which brought about the crisis. But it is worth noting that the crisis struck about the same time that a big reversal in demographics was taking place. A crisis would have come any way but instead of 2008, perhaps it would have come in say 2012 if the dependency ratio had bottomed four years later than it did.

Nor should anyone be surprised that Japan peaked in the late 1980s and has been struggling since then. Its dependency ratio bottomed in the early 1990s.  Or that China saw a huge boom since 1980 after it introduced its one-child policy, thus engineering a very steep decline in its dependency ratio. Or that the US recovery has been slow, given that its population growth has slowed down and its dependency ratio has been rising.

USA, Europe, Japan Total Dependency Ratios
USA, Europe, Japan Total Dependency Ratios

As shown in the first chart above, India is the only BRIC country with a declining dependency ratio between now and 2030. Russia and China’s are already rising and Brazil’s will bottom and rise by the end of this decade. Russia seems to be in the worst shape since it has both a declining population and a rising dependency ratio.

Finally two quick words on the other big vectors of economic growth: innovation and institutional strength. Innovation in Brazil, China (ex-Taiwan) and Russia has been slow and cannot be considered a factor in future growth. There was plenty of excess capital to invest in new businesses when the dependency ratio was declining in all those countries but it went instead into real estate and other unproductive investments. Innovation has been slightly better in India and could take a big leap forward with more capital investments in the decades ahead. India also has an immeasurably greater competitive advantage compared to the other BRIC members: its population speaks English.

Institutional Strength can be the subject of endless debate, especially if we try to draw comparisons across countries. All emerging countries have to make significant progress on this account.

European GDP: What Went Wrong

First the two world wars, then a decline in the birth rate.

Newspapers these days are full of stories on World War I which started 100 years ago. They are also full of stories on today’s anemic European economy, as for example with Italy’s negative growth rate in the second quarter and France’s struggle to reach 1% GDP growth this year. At first blush, these two sets of stories are unrelated. But on closer look, it is apparent that the economy today is a distant echo of the war a century ago. And it all comes down to Europe’s demographics.

4 August 1914
4 August 1914 (via Wikipedia)

In my view, there are essentially three main catalysts of economic growth: innovation, demographics, and a favorable institutional framework. To illustrate this, imagine that a firm develops the best smartphone in the world but that there is only a potential market of 1 million buyers. Clearly, the wealth created by this innovation would be far smaller than if the potential market was 100 million buyers. Thus the importance of demographics.

Now imagine that there is a market of 1 billion people but that there is no innovation of any kind. In this case, wealth creation would be greatly stunted and, with few new assets being created, wealth would become essentially a game of trading existing resources. Thus the importance of innovation. Finally, imagine a country where institutions are weak, where contract law is weak, where access to capital is difficult, where the government is corrupt and political risk is high. Here again there would not be much innovation because there would not be much capital or much incentive to innovate. Thus the importance of a favorable institutional framework.

Too many deaths

So going back to Europe, we could say that it has some innovation and that it has a favorable institutional framework, though in both cases to a lesser extent than the United States. What Europe lacks most is a strong demographic driver. It is enlightening in this regard to look at the sizes of European populations in the year 1900 vs. today:

 Population (millions)  1900 2014 Growth CAGR  TFR 
France 38 66 74% 0.5%  1.98
Germany 56 81 45% 0.3%  1.42
Italy 32 61 91% 0.6%  1.48
Russia 85 146 72% 0.5%  1.53
Spain 20.7 46.6 125% 0.7%  1.50
United Kingdom 38 64 68% 0.5%  1.88
Brazil 17 203 1094% 2.2%  1.80
China 415 1370 230% 1.1%  1.66
Egypt 8 87 988% 2.1%  2.79
India* 271 1653 510% 1.6%  2.50
Indonesia 45.5 252 454% 1.5%  2.35
Japan 42 127 202% 1.0%  1.41
Mexico 12 120 900% 2.0%  2.20
Nigeria 16 179 1019% 2.1%  6.00
Philippines 8 100 1150% 2.2%  3.07
United States 76 318 318% 1.3%  1.97

* includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.

Source: Various, United Nations. Data may include errors. Estimates vary due to shifting borders and uneven reporting.

Two important points stand out:

First, in 1900, European countries were not only the world’s economic and military powers. They were also among the most populous countries in the world. By contrast today, Russia is the only country in the top 10 most populous. Then Germany is 16th and France is 20th. More importantly, some of the new demographic powers, India, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico, the Philippines and Indonesia, are growing at a healthy clip, as can be seen from their Total Fertility Ratios (TFR, see table) whereas European countries are growing very slowly at TFRs that will ensure stagnation or shrinkage in the sizes of their population. A ranking ten or twenty years from now may show no European countries in the top 20 most populous countries.

Second, comparing European population sizes in 2014 vs. 1900 reveals a very slow annual increase in the 114 year period. And this is where the effects of the two World Wars, of the Spanish Influenza and of communism can be seen. Populations have grown with a CAGR of less than 1% per year for the last 114 years.

The United States had fewer casualties in the two World Wars, more immigration and a strong post-war baby boom, resulting in a healthy 1.3% population CAGR and a near quadrupling of the population over the past 114 years. However, as I wrote previously, the US faces slower, sub 1% population growth in the next few decades.

Here is the tally of deaths for some countries in the two World Wars:

 Millions of deaths  WW1 % of pop WW2 % of pop
 France    1.7 4.3%   0.6 1.4%
 Germany    2.8 4.3%   8.0 10.0%
 Italy    1.2 3.3%   0.5 1.0%
 Soviet Union    3.1 1.8% 22.0 14.0%
 UnitedKingdom    1.0 2.0%   0.5 0.9%
 United States    0.1 0.1%   0.4 0.3%

 Source: Various. Estimates vary widely and may include errors.

Estimates of deaths from the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19 vary widely from 20 to 50 million people worldwide. And Stalin’s purges are estimated to have killed over 20 million. Tens of millions of people and a larger number of descendants would have been added to today’s European population had these events not occurred. I made the case last year that Europe’s economies and markets suffer from weak domestic demand and have for a long time been driven by events outside of Europe itself.

Too few births

In general, a large number of countries are facing a more challenging demographic period in the next fifty years compared to the last fifty. Since the 1970s, there had been a steady decline in the dependency ratios (the sum of people under 14 and over 65 divided by the number of people aged 15 to 64) of the US, Western Europe, China and others. This decline is explained by a lower birth rate and was accelerated by large numbers of women joining the work force in several countries. There were fewer dependents and more bread winners than in previous decades.

In future years, dependency ratios are expected to rise due to the aging of the population in most countries and a decline in the number of workers per dependent. In the United States for example, baby boomers are swelling the number of dependents who rely on younger generations to support them in retirement (whether through taxes or through buoyant economy and stock market). But because boomers had fewer children than their parents, the burden on these children will be that much greater than it was on the boomers themselves.

In effect, our demographics have pulled forward prosperity from future years. Had there been more children in the West in the 1970-2000 period, there would have been less overall prosperity during that time, but we would now look forward to stronger domestic demand and a stronger economy going forward.

Note in the table below that the dependency ratio of Japan bottomed around 1990 which is the year when its stock market reached its all-time high; and that the dependency ratios in Europe and the US bottomed a few years ago around the time when stock markets reached their 2007 highs. The fact that several stock indices are now at higher peaks than in 2007 can be largely credited to America’s faster pace of innovation and to near-zero interest rates. Case in point: Apple’s market value has more than tripled since 2007.


India will soon be the most populous country in the world but because its dependency ratio is still declining, its growth profile may improve in future years. The same is true of Subsaharan Africa where the fertility rate is still high but declining steadily thanks to improved health care for women and declining infant mortality. As such both India and Subsaharan Africa could see faster economic growth than elsewhere, provided the institutional framework can be improved towards less corruption and more efficiency.

Europe is in a bind in the sense that, even if it had the wherewithal to do so, it cannot now raise its birth rate without making its demographic situation worse in the near term (by raising its dependency ratio faster). For the foreseeable future, its economy will become even more dependent on exports towards the United States and emerging markets. The new frontier for European exports may well be in the old colonies of the Indian subcontinent and of Subsaharan Africa.

Euro: Austerity, Breakup or Devaluation?

In a new book, Nomura’s lead currency strategist warns that the Euro is on an unsustainable path.

“I wrote this book because I care about Europe”, writes Jens Nordvig in the preface to The Fall of the Euro.

European by birth and living in New York, Nordvig, who is Global Head of Currency Strategy at Nomura, has a unique understanding of the factors that led to the creation of the Euro, and of the impact that the Euro crisis has had on financial markets.

He also has some unsettling insights about the future.

Breakup or Exit

Many people have speculated on the breakup of the Euro. But is a breakup feasible?

Legally speaking, It would be relatively easy for each Eurozone country to redenominate the Euro assets and liabilities which are within its jurisdiction back to its national currency. But, writes Nordvig,

“What would happen to financial assets and liabilities that were outside the jurisdiction of the Eurozone countries if the euro ceased to exist?… What would happen to a loan made in euros by a US investment bank to a big industrial company in Poland? Would the loan now be in US dollars? Would it now be in Polish zloty?… The lender might have one preference and the borrower another. There would be a potential dispute of this nature for every single financial contract…These disputes would be the catalyst for widespread legal warfare…There would be trillions worth of assets and liabilities denominated in “zombie euros” and outside the reach of Eurozone governments… There was no example of this in history.”

If the obstacles to a full breakup seem insurmountable, the exit from the Eurozone by one or several countries look by contrast to be more manageable. Here as with many Euro-related decisions, the outcome will likely be dictated by politics.

Although the weaker countries are seen as likely candidates for exit, Nordvig notes that any benefit they would derive from reverting to their weaker national currencies would be largely offset by the magnified burden of having to service their Euro-denominated debts.

Nordvig also explores the scenario of a German exit, an option which he views as feasible but improbable.

Austerity or Devaluation

A “hard currency equilibrium” has prevailed since 2012 but this equilibrium is entirely dependent on periphery countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus) sticking to tough austerity measures. In this scenario, adjustment will take several years before a strong recovery can return.

Should austerity prove unsustainable, the Euro may find a “soft currency equilibrium” in which debt limits are ignored and rescue conditions are relaxed. According to Nordvig, this could turn the Euro into a weak currency not dissimilar to the former Italian Lira.

Bond spreads have tightened and stocks have risen since the dark days of 2012 but Nordvig cautions against complacency:

“Investors should be on the alert and not be fooled by the relative market calm observed since the summer of 2012. There is a difference between bond yields that are consistent with fundamentals and yields that have been artificially pushed lower as a result of insurance from the core.”