This is a two-part article that addresses economic and investment implications of demographic trends. Today, I look at what happens when we ignore demographics. In tomorrow’s column, I look at some investment opportunities supported by population and demand trends.
I still remember presenting David Foot’s book “Boom, Bust, and Echo” in my high school economics class. It was the first time I was exposed to the idea. It was clear, succinct, and for me, absolutely mind-blowing (I was 17, ok?). Its sociological, marketing, economic and political implications kept me engaged and excited for weeks leading up to my talk. I still remember feeling exasperated at not being able to present the explanatory power of this concept within an hour of allotted time. This was before Powerpoint came along to provide structural assistance and graphics entertainment. So God bless my fellow classmates for sitting through the hour of what must’ve been an excruciatingly boring experience: me, with questionable level of articulateness, wildly gesticulating with my right hand, while waving pages of notes with my left.
It’s been a while since high school, and the over-use and abuse of the term has since left me disillusioned with its clairvoyance. The rest of the world must have discovered the magical potential of a concept that is always readily available to provide digestible explanations for, well, everything.
When I worked in the oil boom town of Calgary in western Canada, any high school drop-out rig worker or administrative assistant, when asked about the sustainability of sky-rocket crude prices, would shrug their shoulders and say: it’s China and India, they need oil, it’s all about demographics. The same line of reasoning was used to explain the rise of food prices last year: developing countries are getting richer and eating better, there’s an increase in demand, again, it’s demographics. The same explanation sufficed for the bio-tech and pharmaceutical stock rally every few years: the baby boomers, they’re getting older and need medication, it’s demographics!
Then the oil boom ended, the food crisis abated, and has anyone heard anything about the explosive growth of the pharmaceutical industry lately? For a while, demographics became a mere pop-cultural sound bite: a convenient simplification of complex problems. The flagrant abuse of the term, combined with its questionable predictive powers, led me to more or less abandon my earlier enthusiasm.
Lately, the idea of demographics has returned in a slightly different incarnation. As frivolous as some broad-brush generalizations of this concept can be, I found numerous instances of past disaster and future opportunities off the backs of demographics. I’m now convinced that demographics is still a credible tool, but only when paired with common sense. Here’s an example of what happens when we desert demographics and common sense.
Demographics and housing prices
One school of thought that addresses the “irrational exuberance” of the property bubble is this. There was no underlying demographic trend that supported the astronomical rise in housing prices. The population demographics signaled no spike or increase in the demand for real estate.