Economists Just Don’t Grasp the Power of Demographics

I had a debate recently on Maria Bartiroma’s “Closing Bell” show with Ron Insana. He’s a major contributor to CNBC.

I’ve watched Ron over the years and I like him. He’s a smart and reasonable guy with good analysis, like many economists and economic analysts.

But in that debate he violated the “D” word: demographics…

I was presenting my more bearish views of what lies ahead for the economy and markets and he was countering with his more bullish outlook.

Now I am used to debating people who look at the current trends and project them into the future as if life and our economy grow in a straight line. They don’t. Life and our economy follow very clear cyclical patternrns that history and a more realistic view clearly demonstrates.

But that wasn’t the problem I had with him that day.

What really got under my skin was when he said…

“Robert Malthus, the economist in Britain, taught us that demographics do not have a very strong predictive value…”

The only response I could give him?

“Hey Ron! You and this guy don’t know what you’re talking about!”

(You can listen to the debate here if you missed it.)

Demographics absolutely matters.


Ron went on to say that Baby Boomers will spend more as they get older. He’s wrong again. They will NOT spend more as they get older.

We have very clear and irrefutable statistics on this. The typical household’s spending peaks around age 46. From there on, it spends dramatically less, especially after age 53.

Ron also pointed out that Baby Boomers are now staying in the workforce longer… so they’ll keep spending money. I’ll concede on the former point, but definitely not on the latter.

Yes, in this economy Baby Boomers are being forced to work past their retirement age. But they’re not doing this so they can increase their spending. They’re doing it so they can make up for the savings they don’t have any more, thanks to their record low savings rates and bad bet on the wrong assumption that real estate and stocks would go up forever. They will have to save any money they can get their hands on.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Ron that doesn’t grasp the power of demographics…

Economists Just Don’t Get It

The debate with Ron reminded me of my interview with Gene Epstein at Barron’s. While we were talking he said, “Consumers are a constant… it’s only cycles in business and governrnment that drive our economy and its cycles.”

With all due respect: what a moron!

I encountered the same ignorance when I did a talk to a major real estate group about a decade ago. They also had this economist from Wharton talking. She had a minor in demographics.

I thought, “Finally, an economist that will agree with me!”

But no. She proceeded to argue why demographics have nothing to do with macro-economic trends.

That’s when I gave up on economists. Obviously most of them have never had sex or run a business. How else could they not know anything about consumer or business behavior?

Most economists know nothing about demographics because that’s not what they were taught in school. Worse still, some try to quote or talk about demographics, mostly because we have made it more popular, and they are almost always wrong. They don’t understand it. They haven’t studied it. When they open their mouths to talk about it, they violate the “D” word…

And when I’m around to hear that, it means war!

Do yourself a favor. Don’t listen to other economists when they sprout uneducated, un-researched BS about demographics. Here’s what you need to know:

– Before we reach the age of 18-22 when we enter the workforce, we spend very little money. Up to that point, our parents spend money on our behalf, paying for our education, our necessities and our entertainment.

– Between the ages of 18 and 28, we leave the nest to build our careers, get married and rent our first apartment.

– Around 26 to 32 years of age, we start a family, have children and buy our first home. We become highly productive, driving the economy forward… not only with our contribution at work, but also in the checkout line as our spending accelerates more than any time in our life.

– During our late 30s or early forties we upgrade our homes to the biggest home we’ll own, and then spend the next few years furnrnishing the house. We’re paying for college for the kids, we’re buying more cars and we’re investing in holiday homes. We peak in our consumer spending between age 46 on average and about five years later for more upscale households.

– There after we start to cut back. We spends less not because we live worse, but we don’t have the kids to raise and educate any more. We begin to save for retirement.

– The last stage is retirement itself at age 63 on average, during which we spend even less than in previous years. Retirement is likely to shift to higher ages as more Baby Boomers realize they can’t afford to retire in a bad economy.

Very simply, it looks like this:

See larger image

I have studied demographics up and down, inside and out, right and left, past and future. If you can find a better expert on demographics, refer them to us.

We know most things that households do, from cradle to grave, in more detail than anyone we know.

More importantly, we have spent over two decades documenting and establishing how demographics and the associated consumer spending trends affects the overall economy and major sectors… everything from when we buy camping equipment to when we buy the most potato chips.

And what our research shows is that we will endure continued slowing over this decade, despite desperate stimulus. There will be a bias towards deflation, not inflation. And there will be no major recovery in the housing market for years to come.

That should change everything about how you invest and conduct business in the years ahead.




Ahead of the Curve with Adam O’Dell

An Update on Gold Profits

A little over a month ago I analyzed the gold market, highlighting the range between $1,900 and $1,500 that prices have been stuck in since mid-2011. You can reread that article here.



Harry Dent

Bestselling author and founder of Dent Research, an affiliate of Charles Street Research. Dent developed a radical new approach to forecasting the economy; one that revolved around demographics and innovation cycles.