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Posts Tagged ‘Demographics’

I wrote yesterday about “the world’s demographic problem,” citing a new study about the fiscal implications of aging populations. The report was produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is not my favorite international bureaucracy when they make policy recommendations, but I’ll be the first to admit that the bureaucrats produce some useful statistics and interesting reports.

To be succinct, the basic message of the study is that developed nations (the U.S., Europe, Asia, etc) face a demographic nightmare of increased longevity and falling birthrates.

It’s good that people are living longer, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with people choosing to have fewer kids. But since most governments maintain tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, the OECD report basically warns that those demographic changes have some very grim fiscal implications. In other words, the world’s demographic shift is actually a policy problem.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s a policy solution.

The aforementioned OECD study (which can be accessed here) is a survey of how retirement income is provided in key nations. So in addition to grim information about fiscally unstable government-run retirement systems we looked at yesterday, the report also has data about the nations that rely – at least to some degree – on private savings.

Let’s start with this helpful flowchart in the report. It illustrates that there are three approaches for the provision of retirement income. The first tier is government-run programs such as the U.S. Social Security system and the third tier is voluntary savings such as IRAs and 401(k)s in America.

For today’s discussion, let’s focus on the second tier. These are the systems that are “funded” with mandatory savings.

And I highlighted (in green) the two private options. In a “defined contribution” system, retirement income is determined by how much is saved and how well it is invested. Workers accumulate a big nest egg and then choose how to spend the money when retired. In a “defined benefit” system, workers are promised a pre-determined level of retirement income and the managers of their pension funds are expected to ensure that enough money will be available.

Yes, public options based on real savings do exist. And they presumably are better than the pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer schemes found in the first tier. But it’s also the case that these systems (such as pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) generally don’t work very well.

So now let’s look at another table from the OECD report. It shows nations that have some degree of mandatory private retirement savings, either defined contribution (highlighted in red) or defined benefit (highlighted in yellow). As you can see, there actually are a lot of “privatized” systems.

I’ve actually written about many of these systems, especially the ones in Australia and Chile.

And I have very recent columns on the Dutch and Swiss systems.

A common theme in these columns is that government-run systems are very risky because workers are at the mercy of politicians, who are great at making extravagant promises. But huge unfunded liabilities show that they’re not very good at delivering on those promises.

Nations with funded systems, by contrast, accumulate private savings. That’s not only good for workers, but it’s very beneficial for national economies.

This table from the OECD report shows that Americans and Canadians have managed to save a lot of money, but all of the other nations with pension assets of more than 100 percent of GDP have mandatory funded systems.

When I talk about how the United States would benefit by moving to a private retirement system, people sometimes say it sounds too good to be true.

That’s obviously not the case since other nations have very successful private systems. But there is a catch, as I acknowledged in 2015.

…a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades.

The appropriate analogy is that shifting to private retirement accounts for younger workers (while protecting current retirees and older workers) would be like refinancing a mortgage. The short-run costs might be higher, but that temporary burden is overwhelmed by the long-run savings. That’s a good deal, at least if the goal is fiscal stability and secure retirement.

Or we can stay with the current approach and become another Greece.

P.S. Social Security reform is especially beneficial for blacks and other minorities.

P.P.S. There is some risk with personal retirement accounts. But I’m not talking about the implications of a falling stock market crash (even a horrible crash would be offset by decades of compounding earnings). Instead, I’m referring to the possibility that future politicians might simply confiscate the money.

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I gave a speech last night at the University of Texas Arlington on the topic of “Is America turning into Greece? How the growth of government and debt risk creating a dismal future for young Americans.”

Not a very succinct title, I realize, but I wanted to warn students that they are the ones who will suffer if today’s politicians fail to enact genuine entitlement reform. And since I told them I wasn’t expecting reform with Trump in the White House, my message was rather gloomy.

My only good news is that I told students that nations such as Italy, Japan, and France likely would suffer fiscal crises before the you-know-what hit the fan in America.

Though it would have been better if my speech was today. I could have cited this Robert Samuelson column from the Washington Post.

No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics. But we haven’t taken heed by preparing for an unavoidable future. The “we” refers not just to the United States but to virtually all advanced societies. In fact, America’s aging, though substantial, is relatively modest compared with that of many European countries and Japan. …The problem is simple. Low birth rates and increasing life expectancies result in aging populations. Since 1970, average life expectancy at age 60 in OECD countries has risen from 18 years to 23.4 years; by 2050, it’s forecast to increase to 27.9 years — that is, to nearly 90. The costs of Social Security and pensions will explode. …The implication: Unless retirement ages are raised sharply or benefits are cut deeply, more and more of the income of the working-age population will be siphoned off through higher taxes or cuts in other government spending to support retirees.

Here’s a table from the article that shows the radical erosion in the age-dependency ratio for selected nations. To give you an idea what the numbers mean, a ratio of 33 (Greece today) means that each worker is supporting one-third of a retiree while a ratio of 73 (Greece in 2050) means that each worker is supporting three-fourths of a retiree.

The Greek numbers are grim, of course, and Italy and Japan are also in very bad shape.

And it’s worth noting that the ratio in China will rapidly deteriorate.

An article in New Scientist makes a similar observation about dramatic demographic change.

Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman… Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years.

The most sobering information is contained in a new report from my “friends” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I’m definitely not a fan of the OECD’s policy work, but it does a good job of collecting apples-to-apples data.

Let’s start with the OECD’s calculations of how the old-age dependency ratio will change in various nations.

It’s not good to have a very tall black line in Figure 1.1, so we can confirm the bad news about Italy, Greece, and Japan. But note that Spain, Portugal, and South Korea also face a grim future. Simply stated, tomorrow’s workers will face an enormous burden.

There are two reasons for these grim numbers.

First, we’re living longer. That’s good news for us, but it’s bad news for the sustainability of tax-and-transfer entitlement programs (i.e., this partially explains why Social Security in the U.S. has a $44 trillion shortfall).

This chart shows that increasing longevity is a big reason why both men and women are spending more years in retirement (though there’s a glimmer of good news since the data shows that we’re no longer retiring at ever-younger ages).

In addition to living longer, we’re also having fewer kids.

This is a big deal because more babies today mean more future taxpayers.

But you can see from this table that birthrates have declined in America, as well as in other developed nations (keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the native-born population from shrinking).

Even more shocking, check out the demographic data for Japan and South Korea. Birth rates in Japan already had fallen by 1960 and they’re even lower today. But the numbers for South Korea are staggering.

Wow.

I guess it’s now easy to understand this story from South Korea.

Students at two South Korean universities are being offering courses that make it mandatory for them to date their classmates as the country battles to reverse one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …She said: ”Korea’s fall in population has made dating and marriage important but young Koreans are too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances.” And as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month… Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I don’t know what’s the strangest part of the article, the part about having to date your classmates as part of homework (do you get extra credit if the girl gets pregnant?!?) or the part about the government squandering an astounding 50 billion pounds (about 67 billion dollars) on trying to encourage kids (I guess politicians never learn).

Or this story from Japan that brings back painful memories of high school.

Talk about a shrinking population. A survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that almost 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women are not in a relationship. Moreover, many of them have never got close and cuddly. Around 42 percent of the men and 44.2 percent of the women admitted they were virgins. The government won’t be pleased that sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up boosting the birthrate through support for child care, but until the nation bones up on bedroom gymnastics there’ll be no medals to hand out. …Boosting the birthrate is one of the coveted goals of the Abe administration, which has declared it will raise the fertility rate from the current 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025 or so.

The bottom line, as Samuelson suggested in his column, is that western nations are facing a baked-in-the-cake demographic-fiscal crisis.

What’s sad is that we know the crisis will happen, but politicians in most nations have no intention of solving the problems.

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Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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The world’s best welfare state arguably is Finland.

Yes, the burden of government spending is enormous and the tax system is stifling, but the nation gets extremely high scores for rule of law and human liberty. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies when looking at areas other than fiscal policy.

Indeed, depending on who is doing the measuring, Finland ranks either slightly above or slightly below the United States when grading overall policy.

Yet even the best welfare state faces a grim future because of demographic change. Simply stated, redistribution programs only work if there is a sufficiently large supply of new taxpayers to finance promised handouts.

And that supply is running dry in Finland. Bloomberg reports that policymakers in that nation are waking up to the fact that there won’t be enough future taxpayers to finance the country’s extravagant welfare state.

Demographics are a concern across the developed world, of course. But they are particularly problematic for countries with a generous welfare state, since they endanger its long-term survival. …the Aktia Bank chief economist said in a telephone interview in Helsinki. “We have a large public sector and the system needs taxpayers in the future.” …According to the OECD, Finland already has the lowest ratio of youths to the working-age population in the Nordics. …And it also has the highest rate of old-age dependency in the region. …The situation is only likely to get worse, according to OECD projections.

Here are a couple of charts showing dramatic demographic changes in Nordic nations. The first chart shows the ratio of children to working-age adults.

And the second charts shows the population of old people (i.e., those most likely to receive money from the government) compared to the number of working-age adults.

As you can see, the numbers are grim now (green bar) but will get far worse by the middle of the century (the red and black bars) because the small number of children today translates into a small number of working-age adults in the future.

To be blunt, these numbers suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis in Southern Europe spreads to Scandinavia.

Heck, it’s going to spread everywhere: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, the developing world, Japan and the United States.

Though it’s important to understand that demographic changes don’t necessarily trigger fiscal and economic problems. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low fertility rates, yet they don’t face big problems since they are not burdened by western-style welfare states.

By the way, the article also reveals that Finland’s government isn’t very effective at boosting birthrates, something that we already knew based on the failure of pro-natalist government schemes in nations such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan.

Though I’m amused that the reporter apparently thinks government handouts are a pro-parent policy and believes that more of the same will somehow have a positive effect.

Finland, a first-rate place in which to be a mother, has registered the lowest number of newborns in nearly 150 years. …the fertility rate should equal two per woman, Schauman says. It was projected at 1.57 in 2016, according to Statistics Finland. That’s a surprisingly low level, given the efforts made by the state to support parenthood. …Finland’s famous baby-boxes. Introduced in 1937, containers full of baby clothes and care products are delivered to expectant mothers, with the cardboard boxes doubling up as a makeshift cot. …Offering generous parental leave…doesn’t seem to be working either. …The government has been working with employers and trade unions to boost gender equality by making parental leave more flexible and the benefits system simpler.

Sigh, a bit of research would have shown that welfare states actually have a negative impact on fertility.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the only plausible way for Finland to solve this major economic threat.

P.S. Since the nation’s central bank has published research on the negative impact of excessive government spending, there are some Finns who understand what should be done.

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I’m rather pessimistic about Italy.

Simply stated, it’s economy is moribund. If you peruse the OECD’s economic database, you’ll see that both inflation-adjusted GDP and inflation-adjusted private consumption expenditure (in some ways a more accurate measure of actual quality of life) have grown by an average of just slightly over one percent annually this century.

And even though Italy’s population growth has been anemic, there are more people. And when you add a larger population to the equation, you get per-capita changes in output and living standards that are even less impressive.

But not everyone shares my dour outlook. I recently exchanged views with someone who said that Italy hasn’t increased the burden of government in recent years.

And that person is right. Sort of.

Here’s a chart showing Italy’s score from Economic Freedom of the World since the start of the 21st century. As you can see, it’s been remarkably stable.

But I have two reasons why I think policy stability is a recipe for economic decline.

First, you don’t win a race by standing still if others are moving forward. If you look closely at the above chart, you will see that Italy used to be ranked #36 in the world for economic freedom but it now ranks #69. In other words, Italy’s absolute level of economic freedom barely changed over the period, but its relative position declined significantly because other nations engaged in reforms and leapfrogged Italy in the rankings.

Second, Italy is in the middle of dramatic demographic changes that will have a huge impact on fiscal policy. People are living longer and having fewer children, but Italy’s welfare state was set up on the assumption that there would be lots of working-age taxpayers to finance old-age beneficiaries. In other words, policy stability will lead to fiscal crisis thanks to changes in the composition of the population. Think Greece, but on a bigger scale.

And when I refer to Greece on a bigger scale, I’m thinking another fiscal crisis.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is pessimistic about Italy and warns that high levels of red ink could cause a big mess.

We’ve got an Italian economy that is categorized by extremely high public debt. Their public debt level is now something like 132% of GDP, they’ve got a banking system that is bust, that banks have something like 18% of their loans non-performing, that is a huge amount, the economy is completely sclerotic, that the level of Italian GDP today is pretty much the same as it was some fifteen years ago. There’s been practically no growth, declining living standards… What also makes Italy very important from a global point of view is that we’re now not talking about a small country like Greece which doesn’t have that much systemic significance. We’re talking about the third largest country in the Eurozone. We’re talking about a country that has the world’s third largest sovereign bond market with something like two and a half trillion dollars of debt.

And don’t forget that these grim fiscal numbers probably mean even higher taxes on Italy’s young workers.

But those taxpayers aren’t captives. Cristina Odone, in a column for CapX, points out that young people are getting the short end of the stick.

Gerontocracy, stifling regulations and huge unemployment have hindered Italy’s prosperity for decades now. The country hailed for its economic miracle and famed for its creative and industrious entrepreneurs (at the helm, usually, of family-run businesses such as Gucci, Prada, and Ferrero) today comes second only to Greece (among EU countries) for the size of its national debt. …Italy’s unemployed youngsters, who constitute 40 per cent of under-24-year-olds, gnash their teeth at the unfairness of national life, where fossils control the levers of power while flouting their sinecures. A quarter of under-30-year-olds classify as NEETS, young people who are not in education, work or training. Contrast this with the UK, where only one in 10 under the age of 30 is in the same position. …Labour laws continue to blight young people’s prospects. …This sclerosis risks turning Italy into the sick man of Europe.

No wonder many young Italians are migrating to nations with more economic opportunity. AFP has a story on the dour outlook in Italy.

With the country struggling to kick an economic slump, some 40,000 Italians between 18 and 34 years old set out to seek greener pastures elsewhere in 2015, according to the Migrantes Foundation. “Just talking with people (in Italy) it’s clear going away might be the only solution,” said D’Elia, 26, who has spent the last five years in London, where he currently works as a barman, and intends to stay for now despite high living costs. …most of Italy’s youths are unwilling to return — and the country is seen as offering little to attract foreign graduates. …GDP is forecast to inch up just 1.3 percent this year. The jobless rate hovers at over 11 percent, well above the euro area average of 9.3 percent. Among 15 to 24-year olds it leaps to 37 percent, compared with a European average of 18.7 percent. …Sergio Mello, who set up a start-up in Hong Kong before moving to San Francisco, said Italy “does not offer a fertile environment to develop a competitive business”. …Mello says there are other problems: “The bureaucracy wastes a lot of time”, the red tape “drives you crazy”.

Unfortunately, rather than ease up on government burdens so that young people will have some hope for the future, some Italian politicians want new mandates, new spending, new taxes, and new restrictions.

I’ve previously written about new destructive tax policies that shrink the tax base. And I’ve written about wasteful new spending schemes, like a €500 “culture bonus.”

And now there’s something equally silly on the regulatory front being proposed by politicians. Here are excerpts from a report by Heat Street on the initiative.

Italy could soon become the first Western country to offer paid “menstrual leave” to female workers. …If passed, it would mandate that companies enforce a “menstrual leave” policy and offer three paid days off each month to working women who experience painful periods. …The Italian version of Marie Claire described it as “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability.” But the bill also has critics, including women who fear this sort of measure could backfire and end up stigmatizing them. Writing in Donna Moderna, another women’s magazine, Lorenza Pleuteri argued that if women were granted extra paid leave, employers would be even more reluctant to hire women, in a country where women already struggle to integrate the workforce. …Miriam Goi, a feminist writer, …fears that rather than breaking taboos about women’s menstrual cycle, the measure could end up perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and require special treatment.

It’s unclear if this policy was actually enacted, but it’s a bad sign that it was even considered. Simply stated, making workers more expensive is not a good way to encourage more job creation. Even a columnist for the New York Times acknowledged that feminist-driven economic policies backfire against women.

The bottom line is that Italy needs sweeping reductions in the burden of the public sector. Yet the nation’s politicians are more interested in expanding the size and scope of government. Perhaps now it’s easy to understand why I fear the country may have passed the tipping point. You can be in a downward spiral even if policy doesn’t change.

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I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterwards. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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