Here are the stories that will matter in the years ahead.
Forget monthly jobs reports, GDP releases, and quarterly earnings. As I see it, there are eight important economic stories worth tracking right now that could have a big impact in the coming decades.
1. The U.S. population age 30-44 declined by 3.8 million from 2002 to 2012. That cohort is now growing again. By 2023 there will be an estimated 5.8 million more Americans aged 30 to 44 than there are now, according to the Census Bureau. This is important, because this age group spends tons of money, buys lots of homes and cars, and start lots of new businesses.
2. U.S. companies have $2.1 trillion cash held abroad. Much of this is because we have an inane tax code that taxes foreign profits twice: Once in the country they’re earned in, and again when companies bring that money back to the United States. If Congress ends this rule and switches to a territorial tax system — in which countries can bring foreign-earned cash back to their home country without paying another layer of taxes, as every other developed country allows — there could be a flood of new dividends, buybacks, and investments in America. It’s huge, pent-up demand waiting to be spent.
3. U.S. infrastructure is in disastrous shape. Roads, bridges, dams, and other public infrastructure have been neglected for years. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $3.6 trillion in new investment is needed by 2020 to bring the country’s infrastructure up to “good” condition. Will this happen soon? Of course not. This is Congress we’re talking about. But the good news is that this work must eventually be done. You can’t just let critical bridges and water structures fail and say, “Damn. That Brooklyn Bridge was nice while we had it.” Things will have to be repaired. Sooner rather than later would be smart, because we can borrow now for zero percent interest. But someday, it will happen. And it’ll be a huge boon to jobs and growth when it does.
4. The whole structure of modern business is changing. I’m not sure who said it first, but this quote has been floating around Twitter lately: “In 2015 Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory, and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate.” Fundamental assumptions about what is needed to be a successful business have changed in just the last few years.
5. California is one of the most important agricultural states, growing 99% of the nation’s artichokes, 94% of broccoli, 95% of celery, 95% of garlic, 85% of lettuce, 95% of tomatoes, 73% of spinach, 73% of melons, 69% of carrots, 99% of almonds, 98% of pistachios, and 89% of berries (the list goes on). And the state is basically running out of water. Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote last week: “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year megadrought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.” This could change rapidly in one good winter, but it could also turn into a quick tailwind on food prices. It could also be a huge boost for desalination companies.
6. New home construction will probably need to rise 40% from current levels to keep up with long-term household formation. We’re now building about 1 million new homes a year. That will likely have to rise to an average of 1.4 million per year, which combines Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ projection of 1.2 million new households being formed each year and an annual average of 200,000 homes being lost to natural disaster or torn down. This is important because new home construction is, historically, one of the top drivers of economic growth.
7. American households have the lowest debt burden in more than three decades. And the largest portion of household debt is mortgages, most of which are fixed-rate. So when people ask, “What’s going to happen to debt burdens when interest rates rise?”, the answer is “Probably not that much.”
8. America has some of the best demographics among major economies. Between 2012 and 2050, America’s working-age population (those ages 15-64) is projected to rise by 47 million. China’s working-age population is set to shrink by 200 million, Russia’s to fall by 34 million, Japan’s by 27 million, Germany’s by 13 million, and France’s by 1 million. People worry about the impact of retiring U.S. baby boomers, but the truth is we have favorable demographics other countries can’t even dream about. This is massively overlooked and underappreciated.
There’s a lot more important stuff going on, of course. And the biggest news story of the next 20 years is almost certainly something that nobody is talking about today. But if I had to bet on eight big trends that will very likely make a difference, these would be them.