All the people, so many people: most of the growth in emerging markets

By Gregory Smith

Today is World Population Day, an event accompanied by some mind-blowing stats. Whilst demographics shift too slowly to matter in a given year, when viewed over a longer time horizon they are a megatrend that investors cannot ignore.

First to note is that the world population clock recently ticked past the 8 billion mark, double the number of inhabitants in 1973 (according to the United Nations). That spectacular growth over 50 years was driven by hard-won improvements in healthcare and longer lifespans.

Second, India has passed China as the world’s most populous country this year. One of many movements occurring among the relative sizes of the largest countries.  

Third, over past 20 years population growth has slowed further from peak global population growth recorded in the 1960s at around 2.3% per year. Since 2003, population growth has slowed in many countries characterised by ageing populations, while on the other hand many countries continue to grow rapidly on the back of success in meeting their development goals. Trends in this multi-speed world can create opportunities for emerging market investors.

Fourth, the global population is forecast to continue its growth until a peak at around 10 billion people at the end of the century, according to the United Nations. But predictions about the point when the global population will begin to fall are very sensitive to hard-to-predict demographic trends in many large frontier markets.

Fifth, migrants get a lot of coverage in the press, being too often presented as the scapegoat for politicians trying to divert attention from their policy failings. As defined by the World Bank, only 2.3% of the world population are living abroad (about 184 million people, of which about 37 million are refugees).

Changes in the table

The largest 20 countries by population are home to 70% of world population. That list has long been dominated by emerging markets, and is forecast to become more so over the next 20 years. For example, Japan and Germany are forecast to drop down the list, while Egypt, Vietnam, and Tanzania are forecast to climb into their places. With population size typically comes greater national income, but there is also potential to secure a demographic dividend, a period when a big boost economic progress can occur. 

Source: United Nations (July 2023)

Demographic dividend

When a country’s fertility rate declines, typically on the back of economic prosperity and the removal of hurdles to girl’s education and women’s access to the workforce, the number of people of working age increases relative to their dependents. This tends to rapidly raise standards of living over 20-30 years, as the population pyramid shifts from looking like a pyramid (or the Shard skyscraper for those looking out at London’s skyline) through to something more bulge like (think the Gherkin tower). A key driver is that smaller families tend to be able to invest more in a better quality of education and healthcare.

Source: United Nations Population Division (July 2023)

However, for this magic to happen the working population needs the opportunity to find jobs and cannot sit idle. The demographic dividend hasn’t happened everywhere. It was more common among East Asian countries and missed by many in Latin America. Careful analysis of middle-income countries is needed to detect where the job creation can occur.

Conversely, as many countries age over the next 20 years they will encounter a demographic deficit as proportion of the population dependent on those working increases.

The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

Gregory Smith

Job Title: Fund Manager

Specialist Subjects: Emerging markets, sovereign debt, ESG

Likes: Africa travel, cycling

Heroes: Arthur Lewis, Joseph Stiglitz, Carmen Reinhart

Blast from the Past logo Blast from the Past logo

17 years of comment

Discover historical blogs from our extensive archive with our Blast from the past feature. View the most popular blogs posted this month - 5, 10 or 15 years ago!

Recent Blogs