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“The Great Demographic Reversal”

July 6, 2022 4 comments

I don’t often write book reviews and, strictly speaking, this isn’t one. I am not going to go into great detail about The Great Demographic Reversal, by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. And yet, if you are reading about inflation – and in particular, you’ve read what I’ve written about inflation – then I think this is a book that you should read. It is important.

One of the dilemmas that people who model inflation have is that any given model of inflation in the United States tends to have a state shift around 1992 or so. Any model that you design works at best on the pre-1992 period or the post-1992 period. I mention this a lot, because while modern-day economists and policymakers are very content with their models because they’ve worked well for nearly 30 years (until 2021-2022, when the Fed has been so befuddled that Chairman Powell last week admitted that “We’ve lived in that world where inflation was not a problem.  I think we understand better how little we understand about inflation”), in my view they don’t really understand the underlying dynamics of big inflation shifts unless they can explain the state shift in or around 1992.

The most popular explanation is that inflation expectations abruptly became anchored at that point, causing inflation to suddenly become mean-reverting in a way it never did before. There have been plenty of takedowns of this idea, most notably by the Fed’s own Jeremy Rudd. My theory for some time has been that the sudden globalization and expansion of Free Trade following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet sphere of influence in the late 1980s, most-aptly summed up in this chart from Deutsche Bank, gave us a better tradeoff of growth and inflation for a given amount of money supply growth, but that that game was coming to an end at about the time Donald Trump was elected.

Goodhart and Pradhan, in the book I’ve referenced above, provide some additional support for that view but also go much farther and highlight the massive demographic wave that was cresting over the last quarter-century. It isn’t just the Baby Boom generation in the United States, but also (and critically) the opening up of China and the movement of rural Chinese to the cities that caused a massive outward shift of the labor supply curve. Since the title of the book gives away the ending I don’t mind sharing the point they make that the China demographic is shifting into reverse (as a foreseeable consequence of the one-child policy) and many other demographics-related trends are also. One of their big conclusions is that “for the past few decades, central banks have given too much credit to their own inflation targeting regimes and too little to demography in accounting for the disinflation we have seen.” (p.189-190)

The authors discuss the changing demographic landscape, and how this leads to a resurgence of inflation. They address a number of counterarguments, including (thank heavens) the “Why Didn’t It Happen in Japan” argument, and examine whether there is likely to be sufficient contrary forces coming from (for example) automation and the continued growth of India and Africa. They tinker with various policy proposals. I should say that I disagree with many of their policy proposals, which are redolent of some of the redistributional schemes common on the left.

But while I don’t like their solutions, I agree that they’ve identified the right problems and supported those views with plenty of charts and data. The book was published in late 2020, before the current inflation spike makes them look prescient. It was written prior to the COVID crisis, and there is an addendum chapter where the authors discuss whether and how Coronavirus changes their views. However, I think the authors would admit that they weren’t writing about the inflation spike of 2021-202x. They are really looking farther out. In their view – which I share – the basic forces which made the disinflation of the last 40 years possible (and possibly even inevitable) are moving into reverse, and we will struggle for many years with the difficult choices an underlying inflationary dynamic forces upon us.

I highly recommend this book.

Developed Country Demographics are Inflationary, not Deflationary

July 17, 2018 4 comments

I’m a relatively simple guy. I like simple models. I get suspicious with models that seem overly complicated. In my experience, the more components you add to a model the more likely it is that one of them ceases having explanatory power and messes up your model’s value. In this it is like (since tonight is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game I thought I’d use a baseball analogy) bringing in relievers to a game. Every reliever you bring in has some chance that he just doesn’t have it tonight, so therefore you ought to bring in as few relievers as you can.

Baseball managers don’t seem to believe this, so they bring in as many relievers as they can. Similarly, economists don’t seem to believe the rule of parsimony. The more complexity in the model, the better (at least, for the economist’s job security).

Let’s talk about demographics and inflation.

Here’s how I think about how an aging population affects inflation:

  1. Fewer workers in the workforce implies a lower unemployment rate and higher wages, c.p.
  2. A higher retiree/active worker ratio implies lower saving, which will tend to send interest rates higher and equity prices lower, and tend to increase money velocity, c.p.
  3. A higher retiree/non-retiree ratio probably implies lower spending, c.p.

It seems to me that people who argue that aging populations are disinflationary don’t really have a useful model in mind. If they do, then it revolves only around #3, and the idea that spending will diminish over time; if you believe that inflation is related to growth then this sounds like stagnation and deflation. But if there’s lower spending, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a wider output gap because of #1. The best you could say about the effect on the output gap of an aging population is that it is indeterminate: potential output growth should decline because of workforce decline (potential output growth » growth in the # of workers + growth in productivity per worker), while demand growth should also decline, leading to uncertain effects on the output gap.

I think that most people who think the demographic situation of developed nations is disinflationary are really just extrapolating from the single data point of Japan. Japan had an aging population; Japan had deflation; ergo, an aging population causes deflation. But as I’ve argued previously, the main cause of deflation in Japan was overly tight monetary policy.

The decrease in potential growth rates due to the graying of the population is real and clearly inflationary on its face, all else equal. Go look at our MVºPQ calculator and see what happens when you lower the annual real growth assumption, for any other set of assumptions.

So, my model is simple, and you don’t need to have a lot of extraneous dynamics if you simply say: slower potential growth implies higher potential inflation, and demographics implies lower potential future growth. Qed.

One other item I would point out about the three points above: all three are negative for stock markets. If you truly believe that the dominant effects are lower spending, less savings, and higher wages the you can’t possibly think that demographics are anything other than disastrous for equity valuations in the future.

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