Category Archives: Wealth inequality

2/9/19: One view of Austerity


A picture is worth a thousand words, some say. So here is a picture of austerity we've had (allegedly) in recent decades:


Source: @Soberlook 

The things are savage: debt is up from ca 70% to over 110%. Cost of debt carry is down from just under 4% to under 1.75%. So where are all those fabled public investments? And who has benefited from this massive increase in debt? Virtually all - financialized (a nice euphemism for being absorbed into financial assets valuations). Austerity, after all, is just the old-fashioned transfer of resources from the broader economy to the select few, made more palatable by the superficially low cost of borrowing.

3/5/19: The Rich Get Richer when Central Banks Print Money



The Netherlands Central Bank has just published a fascinating new paper, titled "Monetary policy and the top one percent: Evidence from a century of modern economic history". Authored by Mehdi El Herradi and Aurélien Leroy, (Working Paper No. 632, De Nederlandsche Bank NV: https://www.dnb.nl/en/binaries/Working%20paper%20No.%20632_tcm47-383633.pdf), the paper "examines the distributional implications of monetary policy from a long-run perspective with data spanning a century of modern economic history in 12 advanced economies between 1920 and 2015, ...estimating the dynamic responses of the top 1% income share to a monetary policy shock." The authors "exploit the implications of the macroeconomic policy trilemma to identify exogenous variations in monetary conditions." Note: the macroeconomic policy trilemma "states that a country cannot simultaneously achieve free capital mobility, a fixed exchange rate and independent monetary policy".

Per authors, "The central idea that guided this paper’s argument is that the existing literature considers the distributional effects of monetary policy using data on inequality over a short period of time. However, inequalities tend to vary more in the medium-to-long run. We address this shortcoming by studying how changes in monetary policy stance over a century impacted the income distribution while controlling for the determinants of inequality."

They find that "loose monetary conditions strongly increase the top one percent’s income and vice versa. In fact, following an expansionary monetary policy shock, the share of national income held by the richest 1 percent increases by approximately 1 to 6 percentage points, according to estimates from the Panel VAR and Local Projections (LP). This effect is statistically significant in the medium run and economically considerable. We also demonstrate that the increase in top 1 percent’s share is arguably the result of higher asset prices. The baseline results hold under a battery of robustness checks, which (i) consider an alternative inequality measure, (ii) exclude the U.S. economy from the sample, (iii) specifically focus on the post-WWII period, (iv) remove control variables and (v) test different lag numbers. Furthermore, the regime-switching version of our model indicates that our conclusions are robust, regardless of the state of the economy."

In other words, accommodative monetary policies accommodate primarily those with significant starting wealth, and they do so via asset price inflation. Behold the summary of the last 10 years.

1/4/19: Hollowing out of the American Middle Class: the High Earners, and the 1-percenters


An interesting and insightful 2016 paper from John Komlos of CESIfo, titled "Growth of Income and Welfare in the U.S. 1979-2011" (CESifo Working Paper No. 5880), paints the pretty dire picture of the post-1980s dynamics in the U.S. labor markets, that laid the foundations of the current acceleration and deepening of political populism and opportunism not only in the U.S., but also in Western Europe.

Kolmos estimated growth rates in real incomes in the U.S. from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) post-tax, post-transfer data. Kolmos also adjusts the real income data to improve the accuracy of the measures. The result is striking: "... the major consistent findings include what in the colloquial is referred to as the “hollowing out” of the middle class. According to these estimates, the income of the middle class 2nd and 3rd quintiles increased at a rate of between 0.1% and 0.7% per annum, i.e., barely distinguishable from zero. Even that meager rate was achieved only through substantial transfer payments." Of course, given that we have experienced positive growth in the aggregate economy in excess of these figures and well above the demographic change, this "hollowing out" of the middle class had to be accompanied by the "fattening up" of some other income classes, either the rich or the poor or both. Per Kolmos, it was the former one: "the income of the top 1% grew at an astronomical rate of between 3.4% and 3.9% per annum during the 32-year period, reaching an average annual value of $918,000, up from $281,000 in 1979 (in 2011 dollars)." Predictably, "...the post-tax, post-transfer income of the 1% relative to the 1st quintile increased from a factor of 21 in 1979 to a factor of 51 in 2011."

But what about the poor? Again, per Kolmos, "...income of no other group increased substantially relative to that of the lowest quintile. Oddly, the income of even those in the 96-99 percentiles increased only from a multiple of 8.1 to a multiple of 11.3."

Kolmos id this exercise for 'high' and 'low' ranges of income (depending on specific assumptions that were less and more conservative ratline to the CBO's raw data.

The results of the two calculations are shown in the chart below


Source: Kolmos (2016: 14)

In simple terms, this chart shows two interesting things:
1) The dramatic growth differential between income estimates for all quintiles compared to the top quintile is fully accounted for by the massive growth in income of the top 5% of the populations and especially by the growth in income of the top 1%.
2) The gap between high and low estimates for income growth are massive for the second and third quintiles (the middle class), and are relatively comparable for the first (low income earners) and 4th quintile (upper middle class). The gap becomes much smaller for the 5th quintile (high earners) and turns negligible for top 1%.

Kolmos attempts to convert income into more meaningful 9albeit harder to pin down) measure of well-being. To do this, he estimates the logarithmic utility function for the quintiles (logarithmic utility function preserves the property of the diminishing marginal utility - the idea that as our incomes continue to increase, each percent increase in our income results in progressively smaller gains in satisfaction/utility). Here is what he finds: "A logarithmic utility function yields a growth in welfare for the middle class of roughly 0.01% to 0.07% per annum, which is indistinguishable from zero. With interdependent utility functions only the welfare of the 5th quintile experienced meaningful growth while those of the first four quintiles tend to be either negligible or even negative." Chart below shows these estimates.


Source: Kolmos (2016: 15)

Focusing on the Percentiles section, markers 6-9 disaggregate the last 5th quintile into the ranges of top 81-90%, 91-95%, 96-99% and top 1%. It is quite evident that only top 5% (segments 8 and 9) experienced welfare gains of more than the 4th quantile cohorts.

This strongly implies that, contrary to some left-leaning policymakers' proposals and preferences, the problem of 'hollowing out' of the American middle class is not driven by the incomes of the top 81-90th percentiles, nor even by those in 91st-95th percentiles. The real source of the problem starts somewhere within the 96-99th percentile and most certainly extends to the top 1%.

The same is confirmed by looking at each cohort income relative to that of the top quintile, shown in the chart below


Source: Kolmos (2016:27)

In summary, thus, the problem with the 'hollowing out' of the middle class is not within theta 20% earners, nor within the top 10% earners. It starts much higher than that.

1/4/19: Hollowing out of the American Middle Class: the High Earners, and the 1-percenters


An interesting and insightful 2016 paper from John Komlos of CESIfo, titled "Growth of Income and Welfare in the U.S. 1979-2011" (CESifo Working Paper No. 5880), paints the pretty dire picture of the post-1980s dynamics in the U.S. labor markets, that laid the foundations of the current acceleration and deepening of political populism and opportunism not only in the U.S., but also in Western Europe.

Kolmos estimated growth rates in real incomes in the U.S. from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) post-tax, post-transfer data. Kolmos also adjusts the real income data to improve the accuracy of the measures. The result is striking: "... the major consistent findings include what in the colloquial is referred to as the “hollowing out” of the middle class. According to these estimates, the income of the middle class 2nd and 3rd quintiles increased at a rate of between 0.1% and 0.7% per annum, i.e., barely distinguishable from zero. Even that meager rate was achieved only through substantial transfer payments." Of course, given that we have experienced positive growth in the aggregate economy in excess of these figures and well above the demographic change, this "hollowing out" of the middle class had to be accompanied by the "fattening up" of some other income classes, either the rich or the poor or both. Per Kolmos, it was the former one: "the income of the top 1% grew at an astronomical rate of between 3.4% and 3.9% per annum during the 32-year period, reaching an average annual value of $918,000, up from $281,000 in 1979 (in 2011 dollars)." Predictably, "...the post-tax, post-transfer income of the 1% relative to the 1st quintile increased from a factor of 21 in 1979 to a factor of 51 in 2011."

But what about the poor? Again, per Kolmos, "...income of no other group increased substantially relative to that of the lowest quintile. Oddly, the income of even those in the 96-99 percentiles increased only from a multiple of 8.1 to a multiple of 11.3."

Kolmos id this exercise for 'high' and 'low' ranges of income (depending on specific assumptions that were less and more conservative ratline to the CBO's raw data.

The results of the two calculations are shown in the chart below


Source: Kolmos (2016: 14)

In simple terms, this chart shows two interesting things:
1) The dramatic growth differential between income estimates for all quintiles compared to the top quintile is fully accounted for by the massive growth in income of the top 5% of the populations and especially by the growth in income of the top 1%.
2) The gap between high and low estimates for income growth are massive for the second and third quintiles (the middle class), and are relatively comparable for the first (low income earners) and 4th quintile (upper middle class). The gap becomes much smaller for the 5th quintile (high earners) and turns negligible for top 1%.

Kolmos attempts to convert income into more meaningful 9albeit harder to pin down) measure of well-being. To do this, he estimates the logarithmic utility function for the quintiles (logarithmic utility function preserves the property of the diminishing marginal utility - the idea that as our incomes continue to increase, each percent increase in our income results in progressively smaller gains in satisfaction/utility). Here is what he finds: "A logarithmic utility function yields a growth in welfare for the middle class of roughly 0.01% to 0.07% per annum, which is indistinguishable from zero. With interdependent utility functions only the welfare of the 5th quintile experienced meaningful growth while those of the first four quintiles tend to be either negligible or even negative." Chart below shows these estimates.


Source: Kolmos (2016: 15)

Focusing on the Percentiles section, markers 6-9 disaggregate the last 5th quintile into the ranges of top 81-90%, 91-95%, 96-99% and top 1%. It is quite evident that only top 5% (segments 8 and 9) experienced welfare gains of more than the 4th quantile cohorts.

This strongly implies that, contrary to some left-leaning policymakers' proposals and preferences, the problem of 'hollowing out' of the American middle class is not driven by the incomes of the top 81-90th percentiles, nor even by those in 91st-95th percentiles. The real source of the problem starts somewhere within the 96-99th percentile and most certainly extends to the top 1%.

The same is confirmed by looking at each cohort income relative to that of the top quintile, shown in the chart below


Source: Kolmos (2016:27)

In summary, thus, the problem with the 'hollowing out' of the middle class is not within theta 20% earners, nor within the top 10% earners. It starts much higher than that.

11/1/19: Capital Gains Tax: Human Capital vs Other Forms of Capital


This is exactly the source of policy-induced wealth inequality in the modern advanced economies: the disparity between labor income tax and capital gains tax that (1) incentivises accumulation of capital gains generating assets; (2) increases wealth inequality arising from non-meritocratic transfers (spousal and inheritance); and (3) reduces gains from meritocratic investment in human capital.


Now, factor this into tax-adjusted returns on various forms of capital: Intangible Capital returns are taxed at a corporate tax level at below the Physical Capital returns tax rates, which fall lower than the Capital Gains tax rate. Meanwhile, returns to the [intangible] Human Capital are taxed at the rates of higher margin Income tax rates. Go figure why wealth inequality is rising (as entrepreneurship is shrinking).