By Alexander Green
There’s a new scaremonger in town. And his name is Robert D. Arnott, a portfolio manager, asset-manager executive and Chairman of Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, California.
Mr. Arnott has a simple thesis. Over the next 10 years, the ratio of retirees to active workers will balloon. Retirees, of course, must eventually sell their stocks to support themselves. But there will be fewer young investors around to buy them. Ergo, returns on stocks over the next 10 to 20 years will be anemic.
If this sounds simplistic, congratulations. You probably have a brain and at least a modicum of common sense. This type of “stock market analysis” is really no analysis at all. More to the point, it doesn’t work. Just ask failed economic futurist Harry Dent, whom I’ve written about before.
While it’s inevitable that there will be 10 new senior citizens for each new working-age citizen over the next decade, that in itself doesn’t portend paltry equity returns.
For starters, let’s look at what’s happening to the world population as a whole. There are currently seven billion human beings living on the planet. At the current growth rate, that total is likely to hit eight billion within a decade.
Now, if you believe that investors in China, India, Brazil and other countries will have no interest in buying companies like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), or Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) in the future, no matter how inexpensively they’re priced, I guess you might put some credence in Mr. Arnott’s thesis.
But that’s highly unlikely. Citizens of capitalist countries are getting wealthier and better educated all the time. And the world is becoming more integrated. Would you really have a problem buying shares of Toyota (NYSE: TM), British Petroleum (NYSE: BP) or Nestle (OTCPK:NSRGY) if they were bargains?
Of course not, regardless of the demographic trends in Japan, Britain, or Switzerland.
Mr. Arnott doesn’t just miss the big picture about the future, however. He also misinterprets the past. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, for example, he talks about the collapse of Japan’s stock market over the last 23 years and blames it on the country’s aging population.
I have a better explanation. When the Nikkei 225, Japan’s leading stock market benchmark, climbed to nearly 40,000 in 1989, it was a bubble of epic proportions. Many stocks traded at more than 100 times earnings. And real estate was even more absurd. Just the 1.32 square miles that encompassed the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were valued at more than all the real estate in California combined.
Now that’s nuts. Crazier still were the Japanese banks that loaned money against these wildly inflated property values. This led to a protracted banking crisis that Japan’s political class refused to clean up.
To imagine that the two deflationary decades that followed this mania were the result of an aging population is like blaming this year’s warm winter on your aching big toe. Yet Arnott insists we should hunker down since “[Japan’s] demography is 10 years ahead of ours.”
Want to know what will really determine stock prices in the future? Earnings. I challenge you to look back through history and find even one publicly traded company that increased its profits quarter after quarter, year after year, and the stock didn’t tag along.
Perhaps our aging retirees will buy less in the future and contribute less to U.S. corporate profits. But there are billions of consumers around the world hungering for homes, computers, cars, phones, health insurance, credit cards, pharmaceuticals and golf clubs. They’re likely to be an engine of world economic growth – and rising U.S. corporate profits – for decades to come.
Don’t let anyone scare you otherwise.