Bridgewater's Ray Dalio believes four factors drive relative economic growth: competitiveness, indebtedness, culture, and luck. The returns from his machine-like investment process clearly indicate he is on to something as he notes that the most powerful influences of this relative income (and power) are 1) the psychology that drives people’s desires to work, borrow and consume and 2) war (which we measure in the “luck” gauge).
Throughout history, Dalio advises these two influences have changed countries’ competitiveness and indebtedness which have caused changes in their relative wealth and power. He goes on to add that since different experiences lead to different psychological biases that lead to different experiences, etc., certain common cause-effect linkages drive the typical cycle of a nation's growth, power and influence.
To summarize, we believe that countries typically evolve through five stages of the cycle:
1) In the first stage countries are poor and think that they are poor.
In this stage they have very low incomes and most people have subsistence lifestyles, they don’t waste money because they value it a lot and they don’t have any debt to speak of because savings are short and nobody wants to lend to them. They are undeveloped.
2) In the second stage countries are getting rich quickly but still think they are poor.
At this stage they behave pretty much the same as they did when they were in the prior stage but, because they have more money and still want to save, the amount of this saving and investment rises rapidly. Because they are typically the same people who experienced the more deprived conditions in the first stage, and because people who grew up with financial insecurity typically don’t lose their financial cautiousness, they still a) work hard, b) have export-led economies, c) have pegged exchange rates, d) save a lot, and e) invest efficiently in their means of production, in real assets like gold and apartments, and in bonds of the reserve countries.
3) In the third stage countries are rich and think of themselves as rich.
At this stage, their per capita incomes approach the highest in the world as their prior investments in infrastructure, capital goods and R&D are paying off by producing productivity gains. At the same time, the prevailing psychology changes from a) putting the emphasis on working and saving to protect oneself from the bad times to b) easing up in order to savor the fruits of life. This change in the prevailing psychology occurs primarily because a new generation of people who did not experience the bad times replaces those who lived through them. Signs of this change in mindset are reflected in statistics that show reduced work hours (e.g., typically there is a reduction in the average workweek from six days to five) and big increases in expenditures on leisure and luxury goods relative to necessities.
4) In the fourth stage countries become poorer and still think of themselves as rich.
This is the leveraging up phase – i.e., debts rise relative to incomes until they can’t any more. The psychological shift behind this leveraging up occurs because the people who lived through the first two stages have died off or become irrelevant and those whose behavior matters most are used to living well and not worrying about the pain of not having enough money. Because the people in these countries earn and spend a lot, they become expensive, and because they are expensive they experience slower real income growth rates. Since they are reluctant to constrain their spending in line with their reduced income growth rate, they lower their savings rates, increase their debts and cut corners. Because their spending continues to be strong, they continue to appear rich, even though their balance sheets deteriorate. The reduced level of efficient investments in infrastructure, capital goods and R&D slow their productivity gains. Their cities and infrastructures become older and less efficient than those in the two earlier stages. Their balance of payments positions deteriorate, reflecting their reduced competitiveness. They increasingly rely on their reputations rather than on their competitiveness to fund their deficits. They typically spend a lot of money on the military at this stage, sometimes very large amounts because of wars, in order to protect their global interests. Often, though not always, at the advanced stages of this phase, countries run “twin deficits” – i.e., both balance of payments and government deficits.
5) In the last stage of the cycle they typically go through deleveraging and relative decline, which they are slow to accept.
After bubbles burst and when deleveragings occur, private debt growth, private sector spending, asset values and net worths decline in a self-reinforcing negative cycle. To compensate, government debt growth, government deficits and central bank “printing” of money typically increase. In this way, their central banks and central governments cut real interest rates and increase nominal GDP growth so that it is comfortably above nominal interest rates in order to ease debt burdens. As a result of these low real interest rates, weak currencies and poor economic conditions, their debt and equity assets are poor performing and increasingly these countries have to compete with less expensive countries that are in the earlier stages of development. Their currencies depreciate and they like it. As an extension of these economic and financial trends, countries in this stage see their power in the world decline.
So the US (and much of the advanced economies of the world) are clearly in Stage 5 (or perhaps delusional still in Stage 4) and now we hope for a 'beautiful deleveragin vs an 'ugly deleveraging'