The Coming Global Generational Adjustment

All sorts of promises, explicit and implicit, were issued to win votes. All the promises are now empty, and we might as deal with this reality head-on.

Here’s what often happens when people start discussing Baby Boomers, Gen-X and Gen-Y online: rash generalizations are freely flung, everyone gets offended and nothing remotely productive results from the generational melee.

These sorts of angry, accusatory generalizations reflect what I call the Generational Monster Id (GMI), the urge to list faults in generations other than our own.

I think the source of generational angst and anger is the threat that the entitlements promised by the developed-world governments will not be delivered as promised.

These entitlements range from healthcare to education to old-age pensions to “a good paying job now that I have a college degree.”

The bottom line is that the promises cannot and will not be kept. The promises were issued in an era of cheap, abundant fossil fuels and favorable demographics: the next generation was considerably larger and more productive (due to more education, longer working lives, etc.) than the previous generation it would support through old age with taxes.

In that bygone era, there were as many as 16 workers for every retiree. Even 4 workers for every retiree is a sustainable level if energy remains cheap and full-time jobs remain plentiful.

But the global reality is the Baby Boom generation is so large that it dwarfs the younger generations. Regardless of any other conditions, this reality negates all the promises issued to retirees: as the ratio of workers paying substantial taxes on their full-time earnings to retirees slips below two workers to one retiree, there is no way the workers can support the lavish costs of healthcare and old age pensions without becoming impoverished themselves.

This is already a reality. As I have noted in this week’s series, there are 118 million full-time jobs in the U.S. and 57 million people drawing benefits from Social Security, and a similar number drawing Medicare and Medicaid benefits. As Boomers retire en masse in the decade ahead and full-time employment stagnates or declines, the ratio will slip to 1.5-to-1 or even lower.

Many low-birth-rate European nations are facing worker-retiree ratios of 1-to-1. This is simply not sustainable.

The prospects of the younger generations are much poorer than those enjoyed by their elders.

Adding to the unsustainability of the promises blithely issued to gain political approval, energy is no longer cheap.That means income that 30 years ago was available for taxes or discretionary consumer spending now goes to pay for energy. In effect, higher energy costs are a tax that does not support retirees or the government. The workers paying the energy tax are poorer, but the retiring generation is not wealthier as a result.

The Status Quo has compensated for this higher cost basis by lowering interest rates. The basic idea is that if wage-earners and companies pay less interest, then that leaves more for them to spend on taxes and consumption.

But lowering interest rates and making credit freely available–the basic strategies of central banks around the globe–have triggered structurally destructive consequences. These policies inflated credit bubbles that jacked up the value of assets such as houses, rendering them unaffordable to younger people, and they distorted the mechanics of the real economy, widening wealth and income disparity and creating systemic mal-investments that have led to a destabilizing dependence on zero-interest rates and credit/asset bubbles.

One way to understand this is: you can’t fool Mother Nature. You can print enough money and issue enough credit to create the illusion of solvency and sound collateral, but these claims come crashing down once you try to sell the overpriced assets en masse.

The unlimited printing of money and issuance of credit also has global unintended consequences, as these monetary manipulations destabilize the bond and currency markets.

I addressed these basic themes in detail in this week’s series:

The Happy Story of Boomers Retiring on Their Generational Wealth Is Wrong 
The Fed’s Hobson’s Choice: End QE and Zero-Interest Rates or Destabilize the Dollar and the Treasury Market 
The Generational Short Part 2: Who Will Boomers Sell Their Stocks To? 
The Next 20 Years Will Not Be Like the Last 20 Years–Here’s Why

There are four Grand Narratives at work: demographics, resource extraction, geopolitical conflict and the changing nature of the economy and paid work. The last two are heavily influenced by the first two; some studies suggest that large cohorts of unmarried, under-employed males are precursors to war, as political leaders channel that restless and potentially disruptive force against external enemies.

Economies based on endless resource extraction founder when the resources are found to be less than endless.

The Grand Narrative of the U.S. economy is a global petro-dollar empire that has substituted financialization for authentic, sustainable economic expansion. In shorthand, those people with access to the Federal Reserve’s “free money” credit have taken advantage of the asset bubbles financialization inflates. They have a chance to do very well for themselves, if they have the presence of mind to exit the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and real estate before they deflate.

Those people who do not have access to cheap credit and rentier assets become poorer. That is the harsh reality of neofeudal, neocolonial financialization: Neofeudalism and the Neocolonial-Financialization Model (May 24, 2012)

Large cohorts generate their own self-referential feedback loops. A large cohort of home buyers drives up real estate as demand exceeds supply, and those who get in early are handsomely rewarded. Those seeking similar returns provide the fuel for further advances. This is the basic story of housing from 1974 to 2006 and the stock market from 1981-2014, as the Baby Boom cohort bought houses and saved for retirement via stock and bond mutual funds.

As the Boomer cohort sells its homes, bonds and stocks, supply will exceed demand and prices will decline, especially if household capital and access to credit are also declining. This selling cycle will also be self-reinforcing.

Central banks have masked this generational selling by becoming buyers of last resort. The Fed has purchased trillions of dollars of Treasury bonds and home mortgages, to push interest rates to zero and prop up a generationally unsustainable housing bubble. But central bank buying of assets to prop up valuations also generates unanticipated blowback: To quote songwriter Jackson Browne: Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Mainstream financial pundits were crowing that household assets recently topped $80 trillion in the U.S. Inflate bubbles in real estate, bonds and stocks, and it’s not surprising that nominal net worth goes through the roof.

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I reckon $40 trillion or half of this sum is phantom, meaning that it will vanish into thin air when these enormous asset bubbles deflate.

These bubbles are all based on one-off conditions that cannot be repeated: the global boom fueled by a now-maturing China, the central banks pushing interest rates to zero and “solving” a credit crisis of phantom collateral by issuing an unprecedented flood of new credit and buying trillions of dollars of assets at bubble valuations, and a surge of new fossil fuels from Africa and North America.

The reality is that promises made two generations ago were made in circumstances that were not as sustainable as those making the promises believed. Extending linear projections in a non-linear world inevitably generates wrong conclusions. Promises made in one set of rosy circumstances are no longer valid in an entirely different and much less rosy set of circumstances. The citizenry will have to adjust to these systemic realities, and demanding we wuz promised is guaranteed to lead directly to failure.

All sorts of promises, explicit and implicit, were issued to win votes. All the promises are now empty, and we might as deal with this reality head-on–if we can muster up the almost-lost ability to deal with reality rather than rely on fantasy/wishful thinking. 

The ideal summer reading for recent graduates:
Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy
a mere $9.95 for the Kindle ebook edition and $15.47 for the print edition.

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