Yesterday, the GDP figures were released for the first quarter of the year, and they showed that the economy is flatlining. We grew at only a pitiful 0.5%. Much of it was caused by a huge decline in business investment, which saw the biggest monthly drop since the recession.
This is mostly blamed on the troubles in the oil and gas industry, but output in other areas of the economy also showed weakness. Factory orders dropped and have remained flat the past several months. Car sales plummeted 2.1% last month, their biggest drop in a year. With gas prices low this is the one thing we should see rising. The car industry stumbling means there may be some other underlying problems.
The conventional wisdom, on the other hand, views this as just a blip. The winter season in the post-recession era has usually been the weakest time of year only to be followed by a rebound into the rest of the year. The exception was 2012 where the high hopes at the start gave way to the rising probability of an Obama reelection. The economic shock spread during the year, and the traditional holiday hangover came a little early in the wake of the electoral wreckage. This year, with the jobs market expected to stay strong and the Fed signaling it will put the brakes on further interest rate increases, the economy is seen bouncing back as the rough waters give way to the calm port.
It may very well turn out that way for all I know. My crystal ball has been a little foggy lately, so I wouldn’t venture a guess either way. However, there may be some other causes for concern further down the road. This week the McKinsey Institute just issued a research report on the stock market, ominously titled, Diminishing returns: Why investors may need to lower their expectations. In it they provide a detailed analysis of why the next 30 years will see lower stock market returns than the previous few decades.
Now admittedly, most analysts’ forecast for the next 30 days can usually be attributed to luck. A forecast for the next 30 years probably isn’t something you want to bet the whole farm on. A small corner of the barn maybe, but I would save the rest of the homestead to see how things actually unfold.
The report lays out in detail why the oversized returns between 1985 and 2015 were possible, and the reasons they say are because of four factors: low interest rates, low inflation, high productivity from technological advances, and favorable demographics from emerging markets entering the global economy. Nothing controversial there. The first three elements increased profit margins, and the last one provided cash influxes, which kept interest rates low, which in turn increased the others. Virtuous cycle – wash, rinse, repeat. They also include some calculations, but the self-evidence is apparent enough.
The wrench in the works is going to be the fact that those elements won’t have the effect that they once had. Interest rates are already rock bottom, and in some cases even below that. Squeezing more out of low yields is going to be tougher and tougher. In 1980 inflation was 13% and interest rates were 20%. Now they’re currently at 1.6% and 0.5% respectively. There’s nowhere to go but up. Sideways is always a possibility, but we’re still in the same boat. That won’t drive future growth either like it once did.
Demographic growth may still hold up. There’s still a whole lot of world out there with the potential to drive a modern global economy. The question is will they be capable of replicating what we saw in the recent past with hundreds of millions of Chinese rising out of the Maoist ashes and into the middle class? Any new emerging markets will have a lot more work to do. The report points out that the countries with the largest economies have seen slowing population growth, and that will continue to decelerate
In Western Europe, aging is more striking than in the United States. In France, for example, the share of the working-age population is expected to decline from 63 percent to 58 percent over the next 20 years. In Germany, the fertility rate has exceeded replacement rate in only seven of the past 50 years. Employment has already peaked in Germany, and its labor pool could shrink by up to one-third by 2064. Until the 2015 influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, the German population was expected to shrink by as much as 0.3 percent per year over the next 20 years.
Germany has decided to address their demographic collapse by welcoming in an unproductive culture. Either way they haven’t much left to contribute in preventing the forecasted shortfall.
McKinsey does hold out hope for some technological breakthroughs which could pick up the slack in productivity. Whatever it may be, they say it will need to have a bigger impact than the previous computer and internet revolutions because of the other headwinds. The best scenario would be in some combination with fast growing emerging market or industry. The problem with that happening is now that taxes and regulation are increasing, companies involved in fast growing sectors will tend to want to stay private, so equity returns will be elusive for only a select few.
Interestingly, one sector highlighted that will benefit from higher interest rates is insurance companies. The era of low to zero interest rates has made it difficult for them to make any money on annuities. Their annuities pay out guaranteed yields to customers, but ZIRP and NIRP keep profits low. Fixed income annuities in which insurers bear most of the risk will benefit from higher yields.
However, variable annuities where the customers share the risk have more exposure to equities, so they would be vulnerable to the lower growth/lower returns environment. Providers of variable annuities along with other asset managers will need to adjust their investment strategies:
To confront this, asset managers may have to rethink their investment offerings. One option would be for them to include more alternative assets such as infrastructure and hedge funds in the portfolios they manage. Such alternative assets already account for about 15 percent of assets under management globally today.
To chase returns, investors will be forced into riskier assets, possibly with dubious intentions, i.e. government boondoggles otherwise known as shovel ready infrastructure projects. We may already be seeing something like this with the imminent government takeover of financial advisors
The Department of Labor dealt a bit of a surprise blow to fixed indexed annuities in the final iteration of its rule, issued Wednesday, by lumping the annuities into a more complex and costly regulatory regime than they have presently, representing an about-face from the department’s original proposal.
Just like Obamacare pushes out the small to medium firms that can provide much needed innovation in order to capture the market, the new DOL fiduciary rules will push out small to medium sized advisors to replace them with automated puppets that will be programed to herd investors into investing in government programs.
There’s a good reason the Obama Administration is currently fighting so hard to keep these rules. It’s a template for taking over other industries. And with that it’s another impediment to productivity growth and innovation which reinforces the grim forecast of diminishing returns by McKinsey.