How the Pill Gave Birth to Investment Opportunity
The date May 9 may not mean much to you unless it happens to be your birthday or anniversary. But on this day 59 years ago, something momentous occurred that had enormous repercussions for the global economy ever since.
That event also has huge implications for the stock market over the next decade and beyond. Below, I’ll explain how you can cash in on it.
On May 9, 1960, the United States became the first country to legalize the use of an oral contraceptive pill. That year, the U.S. fertility rate was 3.6 births per female. Over the next fifteen years, the fertility rate plunged to only 1.7 and has remained near that level ever since.
Births per Female in the United States by Year
Source: The World Bank
Why is that important to the global economy?
Economic productivity is primarily a function of two variables: the total number of hours worked and average production per hour.
Since 1975, the fertility rate in this country has been half of what it was before the pill was legalized. Last year, U.S. population growth hit an 80-year low of just 0.62%.
Baby Boomers in Retirement
While population growth has been waning, 10,000 baby boomers have been turning 65 every day since 2009. That trend is projected to continue through 2029.
Do the math. Fewer babies being born and more people retiring do not bode well for future productivity.
Add to the mix a more restrictive immigration policy that makes it harder for foreign-born workers to enter the country.
That’s not a political statement, just a simple observation of the population megatrends already in place.
Counting the Hours
The unemployment rate in the U.S. has dropped steadily over the past 10 years. On average, the number of people employed has increased by 1.2% each year since 2009. However, the total hours worked has grown by only half that amount, roughly 0.6% annually.
Last year, gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annualized rate of 2.9% in the U.S. That’s nearly five times the rate of increase in hours worked.
Therefore, the number of hours worked accounted for only a small fraction of the increase in GDP last year. That means the gain in average hourly productivity was a much bigger contributor.
If hourly productivity had remained constant, GDP growth in this country would have been under 1%. Here is a list of countries with GDP growth rates of less than 1% in 2018: Timor-Leste (0.80%), Lesotho (0.79%), Palau (0.79%), South Africa (0.76%), and Burundi (0.15%).
Not exactly a “who’s who” of economic powerhouses, is it?
The Rise of the Machines
Fortunately, information technology came on the scene at the same time population growth bottomed out. If not for the productivity enhancements made possible by the advent of personal computers and the Internet, the U.S. might have ceded its place at the top of the global pecking order a long time ago.
Of course, just the opposite occurred. The U.S. led the way in technological innovation, driven by fledgling tech startups such as Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). Now, Apple and Microsoft are the two most valuable publicly traded companies in the world, each with a market cap near one trillion dollars.
In fact, perhaps the reason why information technology grew so fast in the U.S. over the past 40 years is due to the huge drop in fertility rates. Without as many workers available to get things done, automation was the only solution.
For people that argue just the opposite is the case, bear in mind that the pill was legalized in 1960. That’s 15 years before the first personal computer was introduced in 1975, which also happens to be the same year that the birth rate bottomed out.
Okay, so all of that is now history. For investors, the critical question is what technology will drive productivity growth over the next 10 years?
Clouds and Robots
Cloud computing is where the action is now. That’s why Microsoft, International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM), and Amazon.com (NSDQ: AMZN) have each invested heavily in cloud infrastructure.
The cloud enables data-heavy applications such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. We are only in the early phases of development in those fields. I believe that’s where product manufacturers like Apple and Alphabet (NSDQ: GOOGL) will be heading over the next decade.
Recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated during an interview with CNBC, “If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ It will be about health.”
Cook believes the Apple Watch will soon be able to diagnose a wide range of diseases without patients ever stepping foot in a doctor’s office. Before a massive heart attack or stroke occurs, the watch will see it coming in time for a relatively inexpensive medical procedure to prevent it from happening in the first place.
That strikes me as a much more economically feasible solution to spiraling health care costs than the “Medicare for All” plan recently proposed by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Rather than spend $32 trillion of taxpayers’ money over the next 10 years subsidizing an inefficient system, I’d rather see our top tech companies invest their money in driving down medical costs.
If you think that sounds overly optimistic, keep in mind that 40 years ago nobody saw the smartphone coming. At that time, owning shares of General Motors (NYSE: GM) was considered the smart thing to do.
We all know how that turned out. GM went bankrupt ten years ago, then resumed trading the following year. Since then, AAPL has produced 40 times the return as GM to its shareholders.
Forty years from now (if not sooner), we will most likely have a universal health care system that is both inexpensive and effective thanks to advances in information technology. Making that happen will be advances in cloud computing and AI, thanks to an event nearly 60 years ago that forced our economy down the path of technological productivity.
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