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April 18, 2011

Major market indices were mixed last week. The DJIA gained 0.03%, the S&P 500 lost 0.32%, and the Nasdaq declined 0.33%. Value stocks outperformed growth stocks. And the small cap index lost 0.69%. The 10-Treasury yield closed 14 basis point higher at 3.58%.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, columnist par excellence for the London Telegraph, last month wrote an interesting piece on a recent study that counters the widely held belief that China will be the dominant global hegemon of the twenty first century.

The report, completed by Citigroup and HSBC, proposes a starkly different picture of what the world will look like in 2050. The study proposes multiple views of things to come. Some optimistic. Some not.

First, the lighter fare:

-- Indonesia will become an Islamic industrial powerhouse, matching the combined GDP of Germany, Italy, Britain and France.

-- The economies of China and India will together be four times the size of the United States, returning the historic order of Asian dominance before Europe's navies changed the global dynamic in the 16th Century.

-- "Sustained growth prospects in per capita incomes across the world have not been as favorable as they are today for a long time, possibly in human history," states one of the report's authors.

-- Africa will finally awake from its slumber and become the fastest growing global region, with growth of 7.5% a year over the next two decades.

-- Global growth will speed up, and GDP will quadruple from $73 trillion to $378 trillion.

Of course, so much can transpire between now and 2050 (remember the Butterfly Effect?) that none of this could come to pass. Economic development never progresses across a linear path. Instead, it occurs in fits and starts. Violence leads to peace. And peace gives way to war.

And when you think something dynamic may soon occur, some overly intrusive government steps in and puts the screws down.

The HSBC report projects an era of unprecedented prosperity. And that era does not include the decline of the western world. According to the report, China will slightly overtake the United States, but will then lose momentum.

The great benefit in the U.S., the report explains, is our fertility rate of 2.1. This buffers us from the demographic decline likely to occur in Asia and Europe.

China, Singapore, Korea, Germany, Italy and Russia, each has a fertility rate that is nearly half of ours. China's workforce peaks (in absolute terms) within four years. While the population will continue to grow into the 2020s, it will age rapidly. Chinese demographers even warn of a possible suicide epidemic as the elderly take their own lives in order to protect their children from the burden of caring for them.

Evans-Pritchard notes that the Chinese fertility rate is collapsing for the same reasons as are those of Japan and Korea: affluence, women's education, late-age pregnancies, in-law responsibilities, and the rising costs of housing. And these factors cannot be quickly reversed. Turning around trends like these can take 50 years or more.

George Magnus, global analysis chief at UBS, writes in a new book that China faces a "triple whammy of aging." Children under 14 will decline by 53 million by 2050. The workforce will contract by 100 million. And those over sixty will increase by 234 million, from 12% to 31% of the workforce.

Moreover, Magnus disputes the "muddled thinking" of those forecasting hyper-growth in emerging markets, or the idea that the global credit crisis will serve as the catalyst for the west's demise and Asia's transcendence to the pinnacle of global leadership.

Summarily, let's not assume that the BRIC nations will come to dominate the next half century. They may just as likely blow it. One never knows what waits around the next curve in the road.

So, before you hire that mandarin tutor, you may want to rethink your tactics. Though it may make sense to acclimate the little ones to dim sum, rice and tea, just as a hedge. Stay tuned...

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