Predicting the (Immediate) Future

By: Verne Harnish “Growth Guy”

Oct 15, 2010 1:00:00 PM ET

… steel prices have gone through the roof; and oil prices have doubled! These are all things China needs.

WARNING – the following is not actual investment advice! In most cases by the time us mere mortals learn of investment trends (think stocks and real estate) it’s too late. However, driving business decisions based on demographic trends is always a smart idea.

The following are several sure bets if you can figure out how you and/or your business can capitalize on these trends.

Whatever China needs! Arthur Lipper, my long-time mentor and coach, made this comment during our last session together. Global demographics have always been powerful market drivers. China is building, so is it any wonder why copper prices have doubled; Caterpillar Tractor was the best performing stock in the U.S. the past five years; steel prices have gone through the roof; and oil prices have doubled! These are all things China needs.

What’s appealing about several of these “China needs” is that they are commodities. And commodities don’t require you to bet on management! It’s a pure supply and demand market play.

Whatever the U.S. baby boomers need! I’m in Panama for a month and construction is going crazy – it looks like China! Why? Because Panama has become the new Costa Rica for U.S. baby boomers looking to retire. The first baby boomers turn 62 in 2008 (early retirement); they start to turn 65 in 2011.

These trends also make me skittish about tax deferred investments. The historical top tax rate has always been 75% and I can see it going there again as the only way for the U.S. to pay for all the baby boomer retirement obligations coming our way.

Whatever FORTUNE 500 companies need! The average after tax profit of the 500 largest U.S. companies has historically been around 3%. In 2004 and 2005 it was almost double at 5.9%. As a result, they are going on a spending spree, including buying up smaller firms and their own stock in the marketplace.

Why the boost in profitability? Productivity is up 60% the last two years as measured by revenue/employee and this has been mainly driven by technology. We’re finally getting a real boost in productivity after 30 years of playing with computers (it took the same time to see gains from electricity!)

Whatever aligns with your passion! Trying to guess business trends, people are always asking me what business they should start. My answer is always the same “whatever aligns with your passion.” And if it happens to align with demographic trends around the world, that’s even better.

The July issue of Popular Mechanics (p76) has a great story about Richard Sachs, likely the best custom bike-frame builder in the world. Handcrafting on average two frames a week for the last 34 years, my guess he’s earning a half million dollars per year while biking 250 miles per week and cycling in 40 to 50 races per year. And with the baby-boomers retiring and wanting to get in shape, they can afford these luxury bike frames.

Therefore, pick a passion and stick with it for 30 years! You need the passion to get over the many hurdles that come with launching and growing a business. And you need thirty years to get up the learning curve and become a true master of anything.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, stated it best when he declared “I’m always amazed how overnight successes take a hell of a long time!”

Whatever involves water! However, when I was pressed to name the best business in the world by an Australian reporter, my answer was “anything having to do with water.” China needs it. The baby boomers (and the whole of civilization) want to live near it and play in it. Think bottled water and boat docks! And the best real estate investment advice I ever received was to “buy overlooking water in the flight path of growth.”

If they were to do a modern version of the classic movie “The Graduate” this would be my choice to replace the equally classic “plastics” answer in the movie. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that the famous oil speculator, T. Boone Pickens, has turned his sights on buying up water rights like he used to buy up oil rights.

The best seminar I ever attended? And my vote for the most boring was led by an expert on demographic trends. In reality, everyone simply perceived it would be boring and stayed away, so the six of us that risked attending found the Northwestern University professor highly entertaining and amazingly insightful.

As you prepare for your normal fall planning cycle, pick up a copy of American Demographics magazine and start plotting your moves.