Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Peak Wealth?

Have we arrived (or even passed) "Peak Wealth"?  By Peak Wealth, I mean that on the average maybe we (in the G-7 countries, let's say) that there is NO more money to be made, NO more advances in standard of living, NO more confidence in the future (so people won't borrow) in the foreseeable future.

This is something I have been thinking about lately.  One source of ideas has been the new book The Demographic Cliff from Harry S. Dent, Jr.  I have not finished it, but he writes that we have indeed passed peak wealth (my term here) for demographic reasons.

His major point is that most countries in the world face a demographic problem that will lower spending power by consumers ("peak spending" happens around age 48 for example).

I will have more remarks in the near future when I have finished the book and better digested it.


Yet we see, almost everywhere, signs that prices for high-end goods can still be very high.  As an example, the picture below is the NEW Rolex watch that I had a chance to see at a high-end (very high-end) mall near us the other day.  The watch is the Rolex Sky-Dweller, it is a watch aimed at high-end pilots and those who like those kinds of watches.  This picture is from eBay, where they have (had) one for sale.  This is the only model I have seen.  Before you read on, LOOK at the picture carefully, there are a number of interesting little features, but I would like you to GUESS the retail price of this watch (answer further below):

The watch is made from white gold (only, apparently), not in stainless steel like you can get in many other models from Rolex.  The crown bezel is also white gold.  Features:

1)  the normal "hands, that show the current time of about 10:11

2)  the little red outlined triangle marks "military time" normally set at GMT

3)  above the date ("28") is a "fisheye lens", often seen in Rolex watches for men

4)  Do you see the tiny black rectangle just SW of 8:00 ("VIII")?  That marks the EIGHTH month (August in this case), so the time is 22:11 GMT on August 28.  If you look closely, you will see small WHITE rectangles beyond (toward the rim) of each hour, the watch moves the black one each month.

The price?  I was going to guess $12,000 or so based on looking at it through the window and assuming it was stainless steel.  But, when I went to ask at inside the store, the salesman told me that it was in white gold, which set my mental gears running to recalibrate, $25,000...?  The actual price: $49,000!!!

So, there is some lag in sectors.  The middle classes are getting squeezed, even the lower part of the 1% are not making gains (except those with lots of stock).  Who's winning?  The 0.01%, the demographic that the Rolex Sky-Dweller is aimed at...


Stocks are near their all time highs.  PEs are a relatively high (but not extremely high) 16:1 (S&P 500).  Net margin (borrowing money to buy stocks).  Real (after inflation) S&P 500 growth (starting in 2005) data in is blue (note that in real terms, the S&P 500 is NOT at its all time high, close though), margin (danger!) is in red:

(Thank you "Rocky Racoon" who sent me this from author Danielle Park at, her article with above graph and more is here):

Residential real estate has been going up.  The Purchase Price : Rents Ratio is also very high, see Zero Hedge article here:

The above article compares prices vs. rents that investors could get from buying in various markets.  It looks like real estate is in a bubble again, and unless interest rates stay low AND the Federal Reserve keeps printing (both are very possible) that real estate as a whole will not add to our national wealth...  There are reports that China is stepping to buy US real estate, reports are coming from Detroit (as well as NY state and Alabama) that China is buying LAND and even businesses (as well as investing in new production plants) with all of those dollars they hold.


Back to my contention that we may be near or even beyond "Peak Wealth".  An anecdote that some you (esp. in the USA) may enjoy, what I saw (but had no camera, argh!) when I took my wife to a low-end mall to get her Driver's License renewed.  There were several vacancies (OK, nothing unusual, retail is being hurt, yet we hear little about that), but what WAS unusual were the TWO groups signing-up people for Obamacare..., at the mall!  Both groups wearing green polo shirts, in front of computers, helping what "looked like" poor folk get signed up.  I saw some 50 people (total) working to get "their Obamacare"...

Famed uber-bear Jim Quinn has an article just out on Obamacare, Zero Hedge has it here:  In which JQ asks how many of those well-trumpeted 7.1 million enrollees have actually paid for their health care insurance?  Hmm?

More expensive and lower quality health care is anotehr symptom that our country may have passed its Peak Wealth.


The "BRIC" countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) seem to have hit a wall, the case of China is especially important as that country has been the largest contributor to world growth for years now.

China now has huge debts.  Yes, they have built lots of new infrastructure (too much?).  But, the "low hanging fruit" may have already been harvested (Germany and Japan grew quickly when they rebuilt their economies after WWII, now not so much)...  China is very polluted and has bad demographic problems.

Russia is hurting somewhat as well.  While the sanctions on Russia (re Crimea & Ukraine) are biting a little, one thing that seems to be true historically is that the Russian people can deal with adversity.  But, Russia is vulnerable to a drop in the price of oil (which a recent Barrons Cover Story said could happen), and also has bad demographics...  They also have Muslim countries as neighbors, not to mention China...

India is the "BRIC" country that has performed the most poorly in the past several years, in part due to a reluctance to reform their economic system as well as deal with their large-scale corruption problem.

Brazil is hurting because China is buying fewer raw materials now (Peru faces a similar risk).  Brazil is also spending large amounts of money to host the World Cup and the Summer Olympics (in 2014 and 2016).  Brazil has been lately scaring off outside investment under the somewhat erratic President Rousseff.

In summary, don't look for the BRICs to rescue the world economy as they have their own serious problems.


Europe will not be sharing in any net wealth generation either.  Their demographics are worse than ours!  And their systems are inflexible.

Enjoy what you have.  That may be about all you are going to get.

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