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BlackRock Commentary: Aging raises cost of curbing inflation

Jean Boivin – Head, together with Wei Li – Global Chief Investment Strategist, Alex Brazier – Deputy Head, and Nicholas Fawcett – Macro research, all forming part of the BlackRock Investment Institute, share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.

Key Points

A stark trade-off: Aging has worsened labor shortages, raising the cost of taming inflation. We see the Federal Reserve living with some inflation, so we like inflation-linked bonds.

Market backdrop: Stocks edged higher, rallying more than 10% from October lows. They aren’t reflecting the recession we expect. The yield curve remains deeply inverted.

Week ahead: Labor supply is a major factor in determining the recession cost of trying to tame inflation. That’s why this week’s jobs data are key for the Fed and markets.

The share of the U.S. population in work or seeking a job is still below pre-Covid levels. This shortfall won’t be made up: A bigger share of people are older than the normal retirement age – a major constraint. That makes it hard for the economy to operate at current activity levels without fueling inflation. The Fed would need to crush activity to push inflation back to its target. We see the Fed causing recession, with persistent inflation. We’re underweight stocks and like inflation-linked bonds.

Aging behind workforce decline

A smaller share of the U.S. population is in the workforce than pre-Covid. That’s unlikely to change, we think. Why? The participation rate, or the share of people aged 16 and over that have or are looking for work, nosedived when the pandemic hit and people left the workforce (orange line in chart). Some of that sharp decline has been made up as people return. But we don’t see it recovering further because the effects of an aging population account for most of the remaining shortfall. More people have hit 64 years old, the age at which most retire. That’s taken 1.3 million out of the workforce as of October, we find. Another 630, 000 left as the pandemic caused fewer people to work past retirement age and hastened retirement for people coming up to 64. An aging population is increasingly cutting into the participation rate (yellow line) and shrinking the labor force.

These trends explain why the U.S. participation rate is below its pre-Covid level and yet unemployment is still at a 50-year low. The share of the population aged over 64 has been increasing since 2010 and it’s set to keep rising. The effect of this demographic shift on participation won’t reverse without massive structural changes in workforce behavior over time, in our view. That implies the workforce will keep shrinking relative to the population. Economic activity will need to run at a lower level to avoid persistent wage and price inflation, especially in the labor-heavy services sector, in our view.

Inflation concerns

Interest rate hikes can’t cure production constraints like labor shortages. So the Fed today faces a sharp trade-off between either creating a recession to slam economic activity down to levels that the economy can more comfortably sustain or living with more persistent inflation. For now, the Fed seems to be trying to do the first, we think, with its “whatever it takes” stance trying to quickly stomp inflation down to its 2% target. In the face of production constraints, bringing inflation down to target would require a deep recession, in our view – a roughly 2% hit to activity. That’s why we think a recession is foretold. Yet we
think the Fed will ultimately stop as the damage from rate hikes becomes clearer and before generating a deep recession. We think that means the U.S. will be in a recession and still living with inflation persistently above target.

An aging population will hurt the U.S. economy’s ability to grow without creating inflation longer term. A lower birth rate may eventually offset some of that effect as household formation and housing demand fall – but only after the costs tied to the aging baby boom generation play out. Demographic trends also suggest the labor pool will expand much more slowly in the next 20 years than it did in the past 20. If individual worker productivity keeps rising at the same rate, annual GDP growth would average just 1.8% – about two-thirds the average from 1980-2020 and the slowest 20-year period since data began.

What this means for investing

We stay overweight inflation-linked bonds because we think inflation will ease up but still be above the Fed’s target for some time. We’re underweight U.S. stocks in the short term because they haven’t fully priced in the recession and corporate earnings downgrades we expect, especially as margin pressures mount from higher wages due in part to labor shortages. We’re also underweight Treasuries – long-term bond yields don’t reflect inflation’s persistence or that investors will demand more compensation for holding them as a result. We instead prefer attractive income in short -end bonds and high-quality
credit. Long term, we’re overweight equities and think stocks’ overall return will surpass fixed income. Watch for our 2023 Global Outlook, out on Nov. 30, for more details on our views.

Market backdrop

U.S. stocks edged higher last week, having rallied 15% from October lows. Long-term U.S. Treasury yields fell, causing the yield curve to invert by the most since the early 1980s. We don’t think stocks are fully pricing in the recession we see from the Fed overtightening policy, even as U.S. PMI data confirmed a deeper contraction in activity. We think the Fed will eventually stop its rate hikes next year, but we’re not expecting the swift rate cuts that the market is pricing in.

We’re watching the U.S. labor market this week as worker shortages are a key production constraint.  Euro area inflation and unemployment data are also important given the European Central Bank’s latest hawkish rhetoric. Inflation remains stubbornly high, so we see the ECB pushing ahead with higher rates even as the economic damage becomes clearer.

Week Ahead

Nov. 29: U.S. consumer confidence

Nov. 30: Euro area inflation; U.S. job openings

Dec. 1: Euro area unemployment; U.S. PCE

Dec. 2: U.S. payrolls report

BlackRock’s Key risks & Disclaimers:

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of 28th November, 2022 and may change. The information and opinions are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This material may contain ’forward looking’ information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader.

The information provided here is neither tax nor legal advice. Investors should speak to their tax professional for specific information regarding their tax situation. Investment involves risk including possible loss of principal. International investing involves risks, including risks related to foreign currency, limited liquidity, less government regulation, and the possibility of substantial volatility due to adverse political, economic or other developments. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging/developing markets or smaller capital markets.

Issued by BlackRock Investment Management (UK) Limited, authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered office: 12 Throgmorton Avenue, London, EC2N 2DL.

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