Thus far, analysis the financial collapse has been framed almost entirely in terms of money. All the research I’ve seen has delved into lending standards, securitization, inflation, interest rates, housing and the like.
Yet underneath this veneer lies one larger, mega-trend that has driven all of these themes to a greater or lesser degree. It created one of the largest stock bull markets we’ve ever seen from 1982-2001. It helped drive the Bubbles in Tech stocks AND Housing. And now it will guide the coming collapse in stocks and consumer spending.
That trend is AGE: specifically the Boomer generation and its retirement.
For the sake of simplicity, I will define a “Boomer” as someone born in the post war boom years from 1946-64. Using this data, today’s Boomers are between 45 and 63 years old. All told there are 76 million Americans in this age category. As of late 2008, Boomers:
§ Comprised 38% of the US population
§ Controlled $13 trillion (50%+) in American Household investable assets
§ Controlled 50% of all discretionary income
§ Purchased 43% of all new cars
§ Accounted for 79% of all leisure travel spending
§ Ate out four to five times a week
§ Outspent younger generations by 2 to 1
You can see Boomers’ imprints on every major investment trend of the last 30 years whether it’s the rise in consumer spending, the Tech Boom, the Housing Boom, etc. These folks ARE the investing crowd or tide as far as money goes.
Please understand, I am not BLAMING the Boomers for ANY of these developments. I am merely pointing out that these folks were the primary participants who drove ALL of these trends due to their ever-increasing economic clout. Between 1980 and 2007, Boomers were “the money” behind virtually every economic development in the US.
The Boomers first came of age in the ‘80s (they were 16-34 years old at the start of the decade). Boomers were the first generation to fully adopt credit cards: between 1980 and 1990, credit card spending increased more than five-fold while average household credit card balances quadrupled. They were also the first generation to see stocks as THE means of securing ones retirement: stock-based 401(k)s were introduced in 1983.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Boomers had completely entered the workforce (ages 26-44). Thanks to easy credit and cheap goods from China (formal trade with the US opened on 1971), the Boomers operated under the illusion they were getting richer almost every year, when in reality they were spending their and their parents’ savings.
Having seen stocks rise almost continuously from 1982-1990, Boomers were only too happy to take over own investment portfolios with the introduction of low cost online brokerage accounts. In 1950, 10% of US adults owned a stock. By the end of the ‘90s more than four in ten American adults were investing in the market. This massive influx of money helped, in part, to create the Tech Bubble.
By the end of the 20th century, Boomers were ages 35-53. They had truly come into their own as THE major wealth demographic, making most of the income and spending most of the money in the US. Having accrued debt for 30+ years without trouble and seen housing prices rise almost continuously during their lifetimes, they began speculating in homes and other higher value assets. This trend was fueled in large by Wall Street’s securitization and the dramatic drop in lending standards in the US.
Which brings us to last year.
In 2008, the Boomer generation was already in the process of or at least beginning to consider retiring. In the decade from 1992-2003, more than 70% of Boomers had seen their wealth increase by more than half. An additional 20% of them saw their wealth increase better than 25%. And they were set to inherit some $7.2 trillion in wealth from their parents over the coming decades.
Then the Financial Crisis hit and the Boomers got crushed.
Last year’s collapse in housing and stocks wiped out $11 trillion in household net worth in the US. That’s roughly 18% of total US household wealth at that time. Put another way, the Boomers just lost nearly 1/5th of their wealth in a single year (the same goes for they money they were set to inherit from their parents which was largely tied up in stocks and real estate).
Boomer wealth continues to plunge: commentators celebrated the fact that home prices ONLY fell another 0.6% in June, but none of them mentioned that this represents another $100 billion in US wealth gone.
Bottomline: the 20+ year expansion in Boomer came to a screeching halt last year. We’ve now entered what may in fact be the greatest period of wealth destruction in American history. The effects this will have on Boomer spending, investing, and the like will completely change the investing and economic landscape for the US REGARDLESS of what the Fed, Obama, or any other economic/ political authority attempts.
I’ll detail how this will all play out for both the economy and the stock market in tomorrow’s essay.