In a population of roughly 300 million in the US, about a quarter consists of Baby Boomers, born in the years immediately following WWII. Another quarter are Millennials, born in the 1980-90 period.
During virtually my entire career, the economic behavior of Boomers has had the most important demographic impact on the stock market. But the leading edge of this group is already entering retirement–and being gradually pushed off the Wall Street stage by Millennials who are just entering the workforce in force.
This phenomenon is already having an impact on the stock market, I think. But we’re probably only in the early stages of what will be an increasingly important change.
1. The standard economic toolkit for dealing with recession is to shift economic power away from savers (Boomers) and toward spenders (Millennials).
To some degree, this influence has been offset in the first post-Great Recession years by the difficulty Millennials have had in finding jobs as they finish school. But employment is becoming progressively easier to come by. And we know the Fed is planning on keeping an emergency recession-fighting regimen in place for at least the next few years.
Speaking in over-simple terms, the emergency plan of any central bank is to make interest rates negative in real terms. During the emergency (we’re now ending year five) the elderly and the wealthy, who tend to save rather than spend and who have a strong preference for fixed income, lose out in a serious way. Their wealth diminishes in real terms as they receive interest payments on their savings that are less than the amount that inflation subtracts from their purchasing power.
Younger, less affluent people, on the other hand, get free lunch. They can borrow at very low rates, sometimes less than the rate of inflation. In the latter case, they get free money. They can also easily be in the situation where, say, the condo/house they buy goes up in value, while the real value of their mortgage shrinks’
By taking money away from savers and putting it into the hands of people who have a strong tendency to spend, the government spurs economic growth. Not fair, maybe, especially to Boomers, but that’s the way the system works.
the longer term
2. Younger people want different things from what their parents have.
Some of this is, depending on your perspective, either the perversity of youth or boldly striking out in a new direction. My parents lived in the suburbs, so I’ll live in the city. They have PCs and flip phones (ugh!), so I’ll use tablets and smartphones–and I’ll become a social media guru. They read newspapers, I’ll use the internet…
There’s also a stages of life component to this.
–Twenty- or thirty-somethings buy houses, furniture…, cars and suits (or other work clothing).
–Sixty-somethings buy jewelry and cruises. They downsize their houses and move to low-tax warm-weather locales. Or maybe they retire to the vacation house they bought ten years ago.
For my entire investment career, the changing purchasing patterns of Baby Boomers have been perhaps the most important factor in figuring out how to play the Consumer Discretionary sector–which is arguably the single most important one for a portfolio manager to outperform the S&P 500.
I think it’s still possible to hitch your star to the Baby Boom and outperform. But not for much longer, as the Boom wanes and Millennials wax.