Elections, Secular Stagnation, And Why You Should Care!

Tonight, on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, much of the United States is going to be glued to a TV, computer, or mobile screen watching the voting results get counted.

I equate the election media frenzy to watching paint dry — Boring as hell!

Instead, let’s talk about an issue that’s really important!  An issue that could have a significant effect on how everyone needs to be planning for retirement.


Secular Stagnation

Have you ever heard of secular stagnation?  Unless you constantly read business and economic news, probably not.

It’s actually a very old economic term — created in 1938 by an economist named Alvin Hansen.  Hansen used the term to describe the state of the U.S economy following the Great Depression.  In layman’s terms, secular stagnation describes a state of no economic growth (or very little) for a extended period of time in a market based economy.

As we all know from high school history class, the Great Depression ended in earnest with the start of World War II.  Government spending and the subsequent baby boom following the war set off an incredible period of economic growth in the United States.  The times were pretty good for the baby boomers.

In recent years, this concept of secular stagnation has started getting a lot more attention.  The large (4% or greater) growth rates our economy used to experienced appear to have come to an end.

A few very smart economists (most notably, Larry Summers) are now talking about this idea of secular stagnation again.  Big media outlets like Time, The Economist, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal seem to generally agree with this theory.  Why?

Low interest rates used to stimulate the economy seem to be barely working.  Growth rates have been minimal in the U.S. following the Great Recession.

Date Real GDP Growth*
Jun 30, 2016 1.28%
Dec 31, 2015 1.88%
Dec 31, 2014 2.49%
Dec 31, 2013 2.66%
Dec 31, 2012 1.28%
Dec 31, 2011 1.68%
Dec 31, 2010 2.73%
Dec 31, 2009 -0.24%
Dec 31, 2008 -2.77%

* Real GDP values courtesy of multpl.com

Those numbers are about half of recorded post war GDP growth averages.  Economic growth has been slowing…and economists are scratching their heads as to exactly why.

Maybe it’s demographics, with all those baby-boomers now retiring.  Maybe it’s because people don’t have as many babies anymore — birth rates slowed after the last recession.  Without population growth, it’s harder for the economy to grow.  

Or, perhaps it’s because productivity growth has lagged in recent years.  A good bet is that it’s some combination of all of those reasons.

Cortical Stimulators

It’s not just the United States seeing this phenomenon either.  Many European countries and Japan have also experienced similarly low growth rates.  Interest rates are now negative in several major economies, like Germany and Japan; all in an attempt to stimulate economic growth.

Japan (in particular) has been dealing with secular stagnation for the past 20 years, with little change in sight.

It’s a hard problem to solve.


Why Should I Care?

So why does any of this matter to you?  You could be watching the voting results on TV goodness sake!

I get it — GDP numbers and economic forecasts seem boring!  But if you plan to retire early, or even plan to retire at all, GDP growth is extremely important.

Why is that, you ask?  Most of us entrust our retirements to the stock market via 401k’s and index funds.  These are very broad investments that cover most segments of the economy.  When GDP growth lags, so will company earnings….and ultimately that means stock prices will lag too.  


Your Retirement Depends On Economic Growth

Let me throw out a wild idea that many will probably reject:  The average citizen’s ability to retire is entirely dependent on economic growth.

I probably need to explain this a little further — Most individuals use standard 401k investment plans and have low retirement savings rates (~10%).  Their retirement plan assumes enough stock market growth over 30 years to cover their retirement.

But what if it didn’t grow?  I believe the vast majority of people won’t have enough saved for retirement if the stock market stays flat for an extended period of time (i.e. secular stagnation).

In a flat economy, stock prices really shouldn’t go up because earnings won’t be going up.  They’ll bounce around, positive one year and negative another year.  On average, real investment gains after expenses are going to be minimal.  

Let’s not forget either — most retirement plans utilize some form of withdrawal rate because retirees frequently spend down capital, not just investment income.

Under such a scenario, the choice a retiree has is to either: 1. Continuously draw down precious capital.  2.  Live on interest and dividends alone (however small).  3. Go back to work.

None of these are bad strategies, just make certain they’re the strategy you actually WANT rather than the one you are FORCED to take.


What About The 4% Rule?

Personal Finance bloggers love to hold up the 4% rule as the “safe point” when savings are great enough to retire.  The Trinity Study created this magic number by back-testing stock market returns from 1925 to 1995….and the vast majority of those back tested years were periods of greater GDP growth (with the exception of the Great Depression).

I’ve argued in the past that the Trinity Study is actually pretty optimistic given current GDP growth rates (which are half of historical averages).

Think about it….why would the stock market provide similar results for retirees when economic growth is half of what it used to be?

Logic Dictates

Hell, even John Bogle (the founder of Vanguard) is suggesting returns are going to be lower in the future.  He believes returns of 4 to 5% may be the new normal.

When smart people talk, I try to listen.  Maybe you should too?


Hope, Optimism and Planning

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” at least once in your lifetime.  I think it’s good advice.

For myself, I’m optimistic that things will turn around.  Whichever candidate gets elected tonight, I hope they kick-off a new era of economic growth and prosperity.  My hope is that the future will be brighter tomorrow than it is today.

But when it comes to planning my financial life, I’m far more cautious.  What worked “theoretically” in the past may not work in the future.  I prefer to base my plan on data, not hope.

I think my family’s financial plan can handle a potential future with lower market returns:  We’ve adopted the 3% rule for planned retirement spending and we’re attempting to live off investment income, not capital.  The numbers indicate it should be enough.

Some personal finance bloggers like Stockbeard @ HowToRetireEarly tell me I’m overly conservative.  Maybe he’s right.  If he is, it’s one of those instances where being wrong is going to feel pretty damn awesome.

I’ll be overjoyed if economic growth improves and stock market gains continue at rates similar to those seen in the past.

Live long and prosper.


What do you think?  Are we in a period of secular stagnation?  Are we doomed to decades of economic stagnation like Japan?

14 thoughts on “Elections, Secular Stagnation, And Why You Should Care!

  • November 8, 2016 at 1:10 PM

    We will need several years of sub 4% returns to even out the last few years of our bull run, but if you were not heavily invested for the last few years getting 4% now and going forward could be a much harder challenge… so it all depends on when you entered the race. Either way, it sure seems prudent to go with 3% as a working model for people who are early into their FIRE phase – even if that means working a couple more years first. As one turns 50, 60, or even 70 missing by even a slight amount will add up.

    Thanks for the great article.

    • November 8, 2016 at 3:21 PM

      It certainly has been a good run, hasn’t it? I’d love it if the bull market just continued forever, but I know the world just doesn’t work that way.

      Acting with prudence makes sense.

  • November 8, 2016 at 1:40 PM

    I’m concerned about the extremely low interest rates that we’re seeing. 4% is a number that a lot of FIRE bloggers like to stick to, but ideally the safe withdrawal rate should be as low as freakin’ possible. I would argue that having X times your annual expenses is a better way to plan for retirement than relying on a 4% safe withdrawal rate.

    • November 8, 2016 at 3:08 PM

      Not sure I follow where you’re going. Most people view the two as the same thing –> 4% is the same as 25x annual expenses (1/25 = .04)

  • November 8, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    Oh man, we go from elections to doom and gloom! I will admit, it’s easy to look at the economic situation and be concerned that we are going to end up like Japan. And sometimes it can be even harder to be optimistic about the future because the things that worked for us before are not doing the trick anymore. But that has been the situation in the past as well, people didn’t see the internet coming, and all of the sudden we had dot com companies driving the economy. Then the dot com’s bubble burst and things swung around so that wall street and financials were driving the economy – maybe not for the best.

    Sure I am concerned about stagnation, but I’d rather stay optimistic. No one knows what the future holds. Let’s hope it’s filled with new technologies and innovations that propel us forward to keep us all healthy, wealthy, and happy 🙂

    • November 8, 2016 at 3:04 PM

      Are you sure you read the whole post Mr. Crazy Kicks? Who is thinking doom and gloom?

      I actually said that I’m hopeful for the future. But, I know lots of optimistic people that live in Japan too.

      As a smart man once said, “Hope is not a strategy…”

  • November 8, 2016 at 8:10 PM

    I’m watching the election coverage right now and it is crazy! It might not be interesting in a blowout but this thing is a nail biter!

    We’ve had years and years of relatively stagnant stock market returns if you roll it back to 2001 etc. I’m thinking we have much more good years to go based on the recent poor CAGR out of the stock market.

    Stock futures are down dramatically on the close election. The stock market assumed a Clinton win and is shocked that it may not happen. Mr. Market doesn’t like surprises.

  • November 9, 2016 at 4:18 AM

    In the long run we’ll be fine. I don’t foresee a Japan style long term stall in the economy. Mainly because while our market is currently over priced, it’s nowhere near to the extent of Japan in the 90s or even even the US in the dot com bubble. I do expect near and maybe even mid term low returns. The difficulty is defining those terms. My guess is 3-5 yrs of low returns would return us to normal valuations. As for GDP there are still a large number of people in the discouraged worker category of unemployment. If low rates continue both those workers truly unemployed and those currently in fire might be pushed back to work, which would increase returns in the market. I’m kidding about the those in fire part of course. 😉

    • November 9, 2016 at 8:58 AM

      Hehe, maybe. I suppose I could be called discouraged worker. It certainly was a discouraging situation some days.

  • November 9, 2016 at 9:20 AM

    I’m fundamentally a glass half full person, and I don’t believe the end times are upon us. However, I’m certainly not basing our retirement nest egg on 25x on what we absolutely need to live on. We are targeting a nest egg that will theoretically allow us to withdraw way more than we will hopefully ever need ($100k/year). We’re going to have to work longer to get there, but it is well worth the peace of mind for me (it certainly helps that neither Mr. BITA nor I dislike our day jobs).

  • November 9, 2016 at 11:50 AM

    The Japan parallels are haunting.

    -Popped real estate bubble (now reinflated).
    -High corporate leverage.
    -High national debt, questionable sustainability.
    -Population shift to older people.
    -Alternating stimulative/austerity policies.
    -Collapsing illusions of being the world’s leading economy.
    -Govt. subsidies for formerly successful economic activities like housing, manufacuring…

    I think I’ll look to India, Latin America, and maybe a little exposure to commodity countries like Australia, Chile, Canada, etc. That and maybe also select US tech stocks.

  • November 10, 2016 at 7:10 PM

    I think 3% is a great rule especially with the environment that we currently in. I rather be slightly more conservative than too aggressive and run out of money and having to go back to work at 90.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

    • November 10, 2016 at 7:44 PM

      I agree. Having to go back to work in my later years after spending 30+ years enjoying life would really suck.

  • December 9, 2016 at 9:41 PM

    I think the next 3-7 years will be very interesting economically. I hope they are not as bad for folks as I worry about. There will be rapid change. I’m looking forward to self-driving cars personally, but then I think of the millions of truck-drivers and livery who will be out of work. If they can’t adapt to the new skills needed in the economy, we’re all in for a rough ride.


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