National Post (Latest Edition)


- david rosenberg

“When all the experts and forecasts agree — something else is going to happen.” — Bob Farrell, Wall Street veteran

“Sell the front page news and buy the back page news on the way to the front page.” — Don Coxe, veteran investor

Can you believe that we now have three magazine covers — The Economist, Bloomberg Businesswe­ek and Moneyweek — talking about the Roaring Twenties? I don’t think in my entire career that I have seen a fairy tale like this emerge as a given by Wall Street seers and the mainstream media.

Why anyone would compare today’s landscape to what happened after the Spanish flu (and the devastatio­n from the First World War) is anyone’s guess, except for the reality that this is the story that most investors yearn to hear. But outside of the fact that these two periods shared a health crisis, there are no other comparison­s to be made that are relevant. I highly recommend that nobody draw inferences from what happened in the 1920s, for several reasons, aside from the fact there is no global boom coming once we get past this crisis since a lot of time and effort will be spent cleaning up all these debt excesses.

For one, coming out of the First World War, which was ending as the Spanish flu was starting, the United States had come to account for half of global manufactur­ing production. That’s because the war savaged the entire European economy and gave U.S. industry the opportunit­y to grab global market share in exports and industrial production.

Second, the U.S. dealt with the Spanish flu totally differentl­y. The economy never went into full lockdown. People just learned to live with the disease, which ultimately vanished on herd immunity. Back then, nobody turned to the government for help; it was all about community and charity. These were the days before welfare and unemployme­nt insurance benefits and company bailouts. Public attitudes toward illness and death were far different and there was no internet or social media to try to influence people’s perception­s and stir up emotions.

The economy did collapse back then, but the government did not blow its brains out on fiscal largesse. We went into the 1920s with tremendous pent-up demand once the crisis ended, and balance sheets were in far better shape. Government debt-to-gdp was 10 per cent, not more than 100 per cent. And that better public-sector balance sheet allowed the federal government to cut taxes by the mid-1920s: top marginal rates for corporatio­ns were initially raised from 10 per cent in 1920 to 13.5 per cent by 1926 but cut to 11 per cent by the end of the decade; for individual­s, the rate went from 58 per cent after the war to 24 per cent by 1929. Does anyone think taxes are going to be coming down in the U.S. any time soon?

We also have to remember that, in the 1920s, we had a rural economy become more urban. Half the population back then lived in rural areas, compared to one in five today. We saw first-hand in China during the past two decades how urbanizing the population is massively stimulativ­e to the economy. That impetus to growth hardly exists today — if anything, people are leaving the inner city to the sparse areas of the country. And we had a 25-per-cent homeowners­hip rate back then versus 64 per cent today — we were on the precipice then of people shifting from being renters to homeowners. That arithmetic­ally is less possible today, but that shift in the Roaring Twenties was very much pro-growth.

Also, keep in mind that the share of the economy that was “non-essential” (that could be shut down, such as cyclical services) back then was less than 10 per cent versus more than 70 per cent today. In the 1920s, we made things: manufactur­ing commanded one-third of the workforce compared to less than 10 per cent now. The economy was so much more geared towards industries that were “essential” (that could not be closed down) and carried with them powerful multiplier impacts through the rest of the economy. There is a common refrain that “demographi­cs is destiny.” The difference between then and now is that we had a population profile with so much more vitality in the 1920s. We started that decade with a median age of the population at 29 years; today it is 38 years. The share of the population over the age of 65 in the 1920s was seven per cent; today, that share is on the precipice of hitting 20 per cent for the first time in recorded history. Not to detract from retirees and their dominance, but they are savers, not spenders. When you have half the population under 30 years of age, as you did in the 1920s, well, that does blaze the trail for a spending boom.

And guess what? There was capital deepening back then. Company executives were less focused on financial engineerin­g than they were on improving the capital stock. The 1920s was renowned for a decade that posted five-per-cent annualized growth in manufactur­ing productivi­ty. We had a central bank then that seems to have understood that we can actually tolerate mild deflation, as was usually the case in peacetime periods (as my old financial analyst chum Gary Shilling always points out). Only today is inflation seen as a desirable outcome, because today’s central bankers are consumed with bailing out debtors and penalizing savers. But inflation erodes real purchasing power, something today’s central bankers don’t tell you.

We had solid growth in productivi­ty and we had growth in the working-age population of around two per cent annually in the 1920s. For the next 10 years, such growth in the U.S. is destined to come in south of 0.5 per cent per year. There simply is not the potential supply-side dynamics today compared to the 1920s. Plus, the mild one per cent per year decline in consumer prices was tolerated, not resisted, and this massively supported real spending power. We ended up with real GDP growth per capita of more than three per cent in the 1920s. What is the math that brings us back to that trend in the coming decade? There is no math, that is the answer.

As for the stock market, indeed, it did rally 250 per cent from the beginning of 1920 to the pre-crash 1929 peak. But the starting point on the CAPE multiple then was below 6x, not at 35x. Even adjusting for interest rates, the stock market today is 2½ times more expensive than it was when the Roaring Twenties began. Not only is the outlook for demographi­c support, productivi­ty, debts and taxation so vastly different, but so is the starting point on valuations for the stock market.

Financial Post Join me on Webcast with Dave! I will be hosting Bleakley’s chief investment officer and author of The Boock Report, Peter Boockvar, as my guest on April 6. Learn more on my website: rosenbergr­

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 ?? AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? A view of Wall Street in New York during the financial crisis of October 1929, when the stock market crashed and prices fell so far that in just a few hours they wiped out all the gains that had been made in the previous year.
AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES A view of Wall Street in New York during the financial crisis of October 1929, when the stock market crashed and prices fell so far that in just a few hours they wiped out all the gains that had been made in the previous year.

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