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Economic Insights

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How will U.S. manufacturers adapt to future labor shortages? Strategist Milton Ezrati takes a look.

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Narrator: This is Lord Abbett's Investment Perspectives featuring Milton Ezrati, Partner and Senior Economist and Market Strategist for Lord Abbett.

Mike Weldon: This is Mike Weldon, Partner and Director of Marketing at Lord Abbett. Joining me today is Milton Ezrati, Partner and Senior Economic Strategist. Milton, this is the fourth part in our series on demographics and the impacts on the U.S. economy. First, can you bring us up to speed on kind of where we are in the series?

Milton Ezrati: Yes, well initially what we did is we looked at the demographic future of the United States and its pretty bleak. The important thing here is, is that because of increasing longevity and because we are having a shortage of babies and have for several decades, what effectively is happening here is we have an overhang of retirees and too few people of working age relatively, not absolutely. So whereas today we have about 5.2 workers per retiree, by 2030, we'll have closer to three and that's going to strain both finance and economics. It's going to slow our growth rate.

And we talked about ways that the economy could rectify this situation: getting more productivity out of workers, bringing more people into the work force, women/older people extending their careers, immigration. And one of the things we settled on was trade as an important way to do this. Effectively, we send the labor-intensive activities overseas, import the goods and concentrate in this economy on more value added, high-tech industrialized activities and that's where we left it off.

Mike Weldon: Okay, and what's our topic for today?

Milton Ezrati: Well our topic today is to look at how the economy is going to have to accommodate this trade solution to our demographics. So while we relinquish these labor intensive industries, the textiles, a lot of the things that we traditionally have done for centuries now in differ ways and refocus our economy on more high value activity. And that is an essential part of the solution and it is unavoidable if we are to protect our prosperity from the demographic strains that we're anticipating.

Now the good news is that we're already doing this, a lot of it. We've seen the textiles depart the country, the United States is reorienting toward things where it has a comparative advantage. And I'll give you an example. I think the hallmark of this was in 2004 when IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo, the Chinese firm. What IBM effectively said in their press release was part of this they said PC construction is too commoditized. It's not suitable for our highly trained work force. So they sold that business off and turned toward consulting which, of course, does that.

We've seen General Electric take the manufacture of parts to their generating equipment, their big generating division, send that overseas but keep the installation, and the training, the development in the United States. DuPont recently announced that they were going to sell off their commodity chemicals but keep the specialty stuff and this is the way we've been going, and effectively the momentum is going to have to increase.

We've also seen because we are upgrading that we are demanding more of our workers in terms of training and it's remarkable. In 1980, the average American worker had about 10 years of formal schooling. Today, it's more than 13 years of formal schooling, effectively, a year after high school. So we're moving in that direction but we're going to have to accelerate to pace if we are to accommodate this need to deal with our demographics.

Mike Weldon: So is there any way we can help the process?

Milton Ezrati: Well this is an interesting because there is and now to some extent, what the government can do to help the process is to get out of the way. John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, once said that what really drives the economy is the animal spirits (that was his words) of business people and we can see that it's already starting and business does respond to need and comparative advantage. But the government can help in certain ways.

What we have to do is two things in order to accommodate this need. One is encourage more innovation than ever before and the other is train all workers to be able to work in the innovative industries. Now the innovation it's an interesting thing about innovation. It really has two pieces and they're almost antithetical, they're almost contradictory.

On the one hand, you need the R&D word, concentrations of engineers, concentrations of a lot of financial resources because innovation is a risky business. You got to have people who are willing to lose money and they do the actual scientific work. And then what you need to implement it is you'll have a chaotic process where much less high-tech people find applications, combine old technologies with new, and find a series of particular economic implications, very different activities.

Now how can we encourage both at once? Well part of it is the tax code. If we make it profitable for people to put money at risk to innovate they will do both parts of this. The government, of course, likes to direct things, but that is not the way it should proceed. It should make it easy for others to respond to the economic need.

So two things: we make it easy to depreciate equipment, we make it easy to expense activities like R&D and we also reform our tax codes so the people who have put money at risk get to enjoy the fruits of their innovation. That serves both purposes.

The second one, the more chaotic one, what the government can do there is to streamline its regulations, licensing, zoning so that it's easier for a business to be able to realize the applications from the technology, not the development part but the application part. And this is an area where government is going to have to work very hard to realize, not to say that their regulations are inappropriate, not to say that we don't need to protect the public, we do. But to take into account the applications that need to be made.

The other thing is training and this is even more problematic. Now we (the United States), the Europeans, the Japanese have poured billions into training and a lot of it has failed, particularly the public efforts. And what the research shows is that what the government tries to do is to do too many things at once. So they're training young people, they're retraining people who are 20 years into their career, and they're taking the underprivileged and trying to teach them how to be in the workplace and sometimes in the same classroom. That doesn't work. The most successful training has occurred in firms that have specific training for specific jobs and that's where we've seen the greatest success in bringing people's skillset up.

Of course, that doesn't work for displaced workers who've been thrown out of the textile industry because they don't have a job anymore and they don't work for a firm. But we've actually seen several places where they're trying to combine these too, especially in the south, which has lost the textile industries. A lot of counties there have actually worked with firms to bring firms into the county and they've assigned their community colleges to produce workers for those workers and that seems to be working.

Whether we find the solution or not, we're going to have to find the solution because otherwise, we will not have the industries that we will need to cope with this situation. We will also have a lot of very angry, displaced workers who will look to the political process that could interfere with this necessary adjustment to deal with our demographics.

Mike Weldon: Okay, so a lot that needs to be done but I think you've laid out a pretty easy roadmap to follow.

Milton Ezrati: It is amazing that the answers are apparent. It's just a question of seizing them.

Mike Weldon: Okay, thanks, Milton. This has been Lord Abbett's Investment Perspectives. Thanks for watching.

Narrator: For more information on this topic, or to access other videos, audio files, articles or commentary, please explore Lordabbett.com.

The sources for this video are as follows:
Analysis in this entire series comes from a new book, Thirty Tomorrows, due out in April 2014.
Internetnews.com, December 2, 2004.
Maureen Farrell, "Dow Chemical: The Latest to Carve-Out/Spin-Off," The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2013.
Calculation from data reported in "Battelle- R&D Magazine 2009 Funding Forecasts," December 18, 2008, Battelle Memorial Institute website, www.battelle.org.
Ann Huff Stevens, "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Trends in Long-Term Employment in the United States, 1969-2002," working paper 11878, National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2005.
Claude Barfield, "The Fast Track Trade War," The American, May 7, 2008.

This broadcast serves as reference material for information purposes only; does not constitute an offer to acquire, solicitation for an offer to acquire, an offer to sell or solicitation for an offer to buy, any securities, nor is intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research, or investment advice on any securities, and cannot be used for any of the foregoing.

The views and opinions expressed by the Lord Abbett speaker are those of the speaker as of the date of the broadcast, and do not necessarily represent the views of the firm as a whole. Any such views are subject to change at any time based upon market or other conditions and Lord Abbett disclaims any responsibility to update such views. Neither Lord Abbett nor the Lord Abbett speaker can be responsible for any direct or incidental loss incurred by applying any of the information offered.

The value of investments and any income from them is not guaranteed and may fall as well as rise, and an investor may not get back the amount originally invested. Please consult your investment professional for additional information concerning your specific situation.

This broadcast is the copyright © 2014 of Lord, Abbett & Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved. This recording may not be reproduced in whole or in part or any form without the permission of Lord Abbett. Lord Abbett mutual funds are distributed by Lord Abbett Distributor LLC.

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