Patrick O’Connormist on UK Demography – Truth and Consequences

Posted: June 3, 2013 in Debt, House Prices, Pensions, Politics, United Kingdom
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Uk Population

Here’s a chart for the UK population as of now with a line for the official projections 10 years hence.

As a tool for prediction this chart can be quite powerful; pictures speak a lot louder than words.  The way to use the chart is to imagine the blue and red lines being pulled across the page as we all move inexorably towards God’s waiting room on the right.

We’ll be pulled past 2 marks on the way. The left block shows where young people (16 – 24) might find themselves becoming employed and paying taxes – remember that 20% don’t though so the ‘new workers’ line is copied and shifted lower.

The next mark, for the retiring age for men, shows an ever increasing rate of retirees, after a very steep previous 10 years there will be another 7 million arriving during our 10 year look into the future. You might notice an almost mirror image of the lowered ‘new workers’ line but the unemployed are living off the state too, so there is another 1 million to be added to the line on the right if we want to balance workers vs. state supported.

Unfortunately, because the leading edge of retirees points up and the leading edge of new workers points down, things just get worse. While this demonstrates the ex-growth nature of the economy it is reassuring to compare the huge block of substantially employed people and the much smaller wedge shaped block of the already retired.

So it looks a lot less gloomy right now but as our 10 year view unfolds it builds to uncomfortable levels all the way up to and past the baby boomer’s peak in 15 years.

Note how the red projection line slumps after the retirement age. I’d like to think that this is not an early death syndrome but rather an indication that retired people like to head off to countries with blue skies and sunshine. As we have seen, the retiree level is really lower than the new workers level and that’s a significant first; it just gets progressively worse after this as the retirees line builds even steeper and the workers line pulls across a dip. Incidentally there are dips because WW1 and WW2 were one breeding cycle apart (27 years) and the resulting post war pulses have yet to die down.

If you are about 50 now you are at the population peak age. Births subsequently declined for 13 consecutive years, and that was another first, signalling the end of centuries of perpetual population growth. Because accounting practices, pension arrangements, government finance, and much more, all worked because growth conveniently forgave all sorts of silly thinking, there were, and still are, bound to be some serious consequences.  The way the world works has changed forever.

The workings of pension schemes are of particular interest. With perpetual growth there was always a bigger pool of funds to pay out the liabilities so nobody needed to be particularly efficient. That is no longer the case and you can be sure there will be a raft of pension scheme failures.

With such a huge pension liability arriving over the next 15 years the pension funds have to prepare by switching out of equities and into bonds and then progressively the bonds are then sold as net payouts increase. Logically we might expect weak equities and strong bonds eventually followed by weak bonds.  When the bond sell-off stage arrives one wonders how the Government finances will work – who will they sell bonds to then?

An ex growth world has some implications for equities. Shareholders have got used to accepting lower yields in exchange for corporate growth. As soon as the growth stops then a proper yield will be required. As an example a company yielding 2% and going ex-growth might have to yield 4% to remain attractive. So that means the share price would have to halve!  How likely is this scenario?

Well take a supermarket for example. As a footfall company, whose profits are directly linked to the traffic through the door, the impact of an ex-growth population will be severe. Actually the population is not quite ex-growth, it is just slowing down, but even so companies in this category are subject to massive falls as soon as their growth is seen to end. Just to be safe, sell all your growth stocks?

You can see why there was a property boom over recent decades as the only way the available housing stock grew was via owners dying or new houses being built. Looking back it seems so obvious that fewer old people (from a previously smaller population) supplying demand from a much bigger block of house seekers would result in big price rises.

The chart is giving a strong indication of a repeat performance. Note how there is a bulge moving into the first time buyers age groups and then compare that to the lower height of the chart where old people might shuffle off. Demand will clearly outstrip supply for a while and looking forward 10 years this is increased by immigration as can be seen by the way the bulge actually grows as it moves across. The low end of the housing market looks like a good bet and you can expect a rally in the house builders too.

All this is good for the economy with an added twist. The baby boomers already have a house and yet they are about to inherit their parents houses which can easily be sold on at today’s fairly substantial prices; an added boost to the economy for several years to come.

This last point reinforces the idea that retiring couples with windfall cash will head for the sun. That’s bullish for overseas holiday homes so get in while they are depressed.

Any negatives? Well the way the dotted red line sits above the blue line has implications for NHS services over the next 10 years. It doesn’t look much but in percentage terms there is a significant increase with a detrimental age bias to account for too. An already stretched service has a crisis looming.

The big bulge in the new adults group will all be driving cars for the first time; good for the motor industry but bad for traffic jams.

Conclusions:  No great dramas for the next 10 years but this is the lull before the storm. After 15 years the peak of the baby boomers will be at retirement age and from then on it is hard to see how the books stack up unless the, already brimming, country is filled with more foreigners.

The houses to buyers ratio is likely to top out, leading to a sustained bear market in house prices. The stock market will slump horribly as it goes absolutely ex-growth and the pension funds go into net draw down.  The Government will find it hard to fund the state pension burden and increased demands on public services. Borrowing to bridge the gap will be hard as traditional lenders, in the net draw-down scenario, have no need to buy bonds. Interest rates may well climb as a result and then the National debt financing costs spiral up. Pay more, borrow more, pay higher; sounds familiar.

A UK Government default before 2028?  Not so hard to imagine is it?

Data – The Office for National Statistics

Opinion – Patrick O’Connormist

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