Arnott: Mind The (Expectations) Gap

July 03, 2013


All 12 countries will confront varying speeds of demographic headwinds in the coming decades, first in the developed economies, then in the older emerging economies (China and Russia), and finally in the younger emerging economies (Brazil and India). These headwinds get stronger over time and appear to stabilize in the developed world and the older emerging economies only after about 2040. For the younger emerging economies, the demographic headwinds do not become acute for perhaps another 20–30 years.

All 12 countries enjoyed demographic tailwinds during the past 60 years, so these headwinds will feel more obstructive than they are. It is human nature to consider our personal experience to have been "normal," so we evaluate subsequent events in comparison with this self-referential "norm." If the people of Japan consider the former tailwind of 2–3% to be "normal," then a future 2% headwind will feel like a ponderous 4–5% drag, relative to expectations. On average, the countries in this analysis enjoyed benign demographic profiles that boosted GDP growth by around 1% per year during much of the past six decades.

The first few decades of the sample were particularly beneficial to developed countries. China and Brazil seem to have experienced their peak demographic dividend recently. That said, a 2% erosion in high-single-digit growth is hardly a pessimistic forecast. Absent egregious policy missteps, these economies have ample room to catch up to the developed world, albeit at a gently decelerating pace. The young emerging economies, like India (where the median age today is still only 25), will continue to enjoy a demography-fueled tailwind over the next decade or two.

Our main goal in presenting these results is to correct the common misconception that developed countries went through a "normal" period of high growth, as if we are all entitled to fast-growing prosperity. In reality, the developed world is entering a new phase in which the low fertility rates of past decades lead to slow growth (in many countries, no growth) in the young adult population; young adults are the dominant engine for GDP growth. Mature adults, many of whom are at or near their peak productivity, are poised to retire, creating an impressive surge in the rolls of senior citizens. These newly minted senior citizens, transitioning from near-peak productivity to retirement in a single step, will be drawing on the economy while no longer producing goods and services. The unequivocal good news of a steady rise in life expectancy means that these retirees will create a very substantial drag on GDP growth, as these seniors move from peak productivity to negligible productivity in just a few years.

The danger is not in the slower growth. Slow growth is not a bad thing. It's still growth. The danger is in an expectations gap, in which we consider slower growth unacceptable. If we expect our policy elite to deliver implausible growth, in an environment in which a demographic tailwind has become a demographic headwind, they will deliver temporary outsized "growth" with debt-financed consumption (deficit spending). If we resist the necessary policy changes that can moderate these headwinds, we risk magnifying their impact.



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