The Economist is probably not the kind of newspaper that you will read more than once per issue – certainly not two years after its publication date. That is because, by definition, financial news articles are ephemeral: they have greater value, the more recent they are – especially in the modern financial world, where change can be strikingly fast. To my surprise, however, I found myself reading again an article on inequality that I had first read two years ago – and it is (of course) still relevant today.
The title of the article was ‘You may be higher in the global wealth pyramid than you think’ and it discusses exactly that: how much wealth does it take for someone to be considered ‘rich’? The answer to this question is of course, ‘it depends’. And it does depend on which group you compare yourself against. Although this may feel obvious, some of the statistics that are presented in this article may surprise you.
According to the article
If you had $2200 to your name (adding together your bank deposits, financial investments and property holdings, and subtracting your debts) you might not think yourself terribly fortunate. But you would be wealthier than half the world’s population, according to this year’s Global Wealth Report by the Crédit Suisse Research Institute. If you had $71 560 or more, you would be in the top tenth. If you were lucky enough to own over $744 400 you could count yourself a member of the global 1% that voters everywhere are rebelling against.
For many (including yours truly) these numbers may come as a surprise when you first see them. $2200 in today’s exchange rate is about £1640. And this is wealth, not income – including all earthly possessions (net of debt). £1640 of wealth is enough to put you ahead of half of the planet’s population. Have a $774 400 (£556 174 – about the average price of a two-bedroom flat in London) and – congratulations! You are part of the global richest 1% everyone is complaining about…
Such comparisons are certainly thought provoking. They show how unevenly wealth is distributed across countries. They also show that countries which are more open to trade are more likely to have benefited the most from it. Take a closer look at the statistics and you will realise that you are more likely to be rich (compared to the global average) if you live in one of these countries.
Of course, wealth inequality does not happen only across countries – it happens also within countries. You can own a two-bedroom flat in London (and be, therefore, part of the 1% global elite), but having to live on a very modest budget because your income (which is a flow variable, as opposed to wealth, which is a stock variable) has not grown fast enough in relation to other parts of the national population.
Would you be better off if there were less trade? Certainly not – you would probably be even poorer, as trade theories (and most of the empirical evidence I am aware of) assert. Why do we then talk so much about trade wars and trade restrictions recently? Why do we elect politicians who advocate such restrictions? It is probably easier to answer these questions using political than economic theory (although game theory may have some interesting insights to offer – have you heard of the ‘Chicken game‘?). But as I am neither political scientists nor a game theorist, I will just continue to wonder about it.
Articles and information
- Were you surprised by the statistics mentioned in this report? Explain why.
- Do you think that income inequality is a natural consequence of economic growth? Are there pro-growth policies that can be used to tackle it?
- Identify three ways in which widening income inequality can hurt economies (and societies).
UK CPI inflation rose to 3.1% in November. This has forced Mark Carney to write a letter of explanation to the Chancellor – something he is required to do if inflation is more than 1 percentage point above (or below) the target of 2%.
The rise in inflation over the past few months has been caused largely by the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote. But there have been other factors at play too. The dollar price of oil has risen by 32% over the past 12 months and there have been large international rises in the price of metals and, more recently, in various foodstuffs. For example, butter prices have risen by over 20% in the past year (although they have declined somewhat recently). Other items that have seen large price rises include books, computer games, clothing and public transport.
The rate of CPI inflation is the percentage increase in the consumer prices index over the previous 12 months. When there is a one-off rise in prices, such as a rise in oil prices, its effect on inflation will only last 12 months. After that, assuming the price does not rise again, there will be no more effect on inflation. The CPI will be higher, but inflation will fall back. The effect may not be immediate, however, as input price changes take a time to work through supply chains.
Given that the main driver of inflation has been the depreciation in sterling, once the effect has worked through in terms of higher prices, inflation will fall back. Only if sterling continued depreciating would an inflation effect continue. So, many commentators are expecting that the rate on inflation will soon begin to fall.
But what will have been the effect on real incomes? In the past 12 months, nominal average earnings have risen by around 2.5% (the precise figures will not be available for a month). This means that real average earnings have fallen by around 0.6%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
For many low-income families the effect has been more severe. Many have seen little or no increase in their pay and they also consume a larger proportion of items whose prices have risen by more than the average. Those on working-age benefits will be particularly badly hit as benefits have not risen since 2015.
If inflation does fall and if real incomes no longer fall, people will still be worse off unless real incomes rise back to the levels they were before they started falling. That could be some time off.
UK inflation rate at near six-year high BBC News (12/12/17)
Inflation up as food costs jump – and gas crisis threatens worse to come The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
UK worst for pay growth as rich world soars ahead in 2018 The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (12/12/17)
Inflation rises to 3.1%, adding to UK cost of living squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/12/17)
UK inflation breaches target as it climbs to 3.1% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson (12/12/17)
Inflation surges to 3.1% in November, a near six-year high Belfast Telegraph (12/12/17)
CPI annual rate of increase (all items) ONS: series D7G7
Average weekly earnings, annual (3-month average) ONS: series KAC3
UK consumer price inflation: November 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (12/12/17)
Commodity prices Index Mundi
- Apart from CPI inflation, what other measures of inflation are there? Explain their meaning.
- Why is inflation of 2%, rather than 0%, seen as the optimal rate by most central banks?
- Apart from the depreciation of sterling, what other effects is Brexit likely to have on living standards in the UK?
- What are the arguments for and against the government raising benefits by the rate of CPI inflation?
- If Europe and the USA continue to grow faster than the UK, what effect is this likely to have on the euro/pound and dollar/pound exchange rates? What determines the magnitude of this effect?
- Unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. Why, then, are real wages falling?
- Why, in the light of inflation being above target, has the Bank of England not raised Bank Rate again in December (having raised it from 0.25% to 0.5% in November)?
In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?
In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.
The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.
The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.
Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)
Earnings and working hours ONS
International comparisons of productivity ONS
- Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
- Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
- What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
- How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
- What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?
In two recent speeches, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, and the Bank’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, have reflected on the growing inequality in the UK and other countries. They have also answered criticisms that monetary policy has exacerbated the problem. As, Andy Haldane puts it:
It is clear monetary policy has played a material role in lifting all boats since the financial crisis broke. …[But] even if monetary policy has lifted all boats, and could plausibly do so again if needed, that does not mean it has done so equally. In particular, concerns have been expressed about the potential distributional effects of monetary policy.
Jan Vlieghe [member of the Monetary Policy Committee] has recently looked at how monetary policy may have affected the fortunes of, among others, savers, pension funds and pensioners. The empirical evidence does not suggest these cohorts have been disadvantaged to any significant degree by the monetary policy stance. For most members in each cohort, the boost to their asset portfolios and the improved wages and profits due to a stronger economy more than offset the direct loss of income from lower rates [of interest on savings accounts].
Andy Haldane’s speech focused largely on regional inequality. He argued that productivity has grown much more rapidly in the more prosperous regions, such as London and the South East. This has resulted in rising inequality in wages between different parts of the UK. Policies that focus on raising productivity in the less prosperous regions could play a major role in reducing income inequality.
Mark Carney’s speech echoed a lot of what Andy Haldane was saying. He argued that expansionary monetary policy has, according to Bank of England modelling, “raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak”. And the benefits have been felt by virtually everyone. Even savers have generally gained:
That’s in part because, to a large extent, the thrifty saver and the rich asset holder are often one and the same. Just 2% of households have deposit holdings in excess of £5000, few other financial assets and don’t own a home.
But some people still gained more from monetary policy than others – enough to contribute to widening inequality.
Losers from the lost decade
Mark Carney looked beyond monetary policy and argued that the UK has experienced a ‘lost decade’, where real incomes today are little higher than 10 years ago – the first time this has happened for 150 years. This stalling of average real incomes has been accompanied by widening inequality between various groups, where a few have got a lot richer, especially the top 1%, and many have got poorer. Although the Gini coefficient has remained relatively constant in recent years, there has been a widening gap between the generations.
For both income and wealth, some of the most significant shifts have happened across generations. A typical millennial earned £8000 less during their twenties than their predecessors. Since 2007, those over 60 have seen their incomes rise at five times the rate of the population as a whole. Moreover, rising real house prices between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s have created a growing disparity between older home owners and younger renters.
This pattern has been repeated around the developed world and has led to disillusionment with globalisation and a rise in populism. Globalisation has been “associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities”. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And populism has been reflected in the crisis in Greece, the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, the rise of the National Front in France, the No vote in the Italian referendum on reforming the constitution and the rise in anti-establishment parties and sentiment generally. Mainstream parties are beginning to realise that concerns over globalisation, inequality and a sense of disempowerment must be addressed.
Solutions to inequality
As far as solutions are concerned, central must be a rise in general productivity that increases potential real income.
Boosting the determinants of long-run prosperity is the job of government’s structural, or supply-side policies. These government policies influence the economy’s investment in education and skills; its capacity for research and development; the quality of its core institutions, such as the rule of law; the effectiveness of its regulatory environment; the flexibility of its labour market; the intensity of competition; and its openness to trade and investment.
But will this supply-side approach be enough to bring both greater prosperity and greater equality? Will an openness to trade be accepted by populist politicians who blame globalisation and the unequal gains from international trade for the plight of the poor? Carney recognises the problem and argues that:
For the societies of free-trading, networked countries to prosper, they must first re-distribute some of the gains from trade and technology, and then re-skill and reconnect all of their citizens. By doing so, they can put individuals back in control.
For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level. Fostering dependency on the state is no way to increase human agency, even though a safety net is needed to cushion shocks and smooth adjustment.
Redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations.
… Because technology and trade are constantly evolving and can lead to rapid shifts in production, the commitment to reskilling all workers must be continual.
In a job market subject to frequent, radical changes, people’s prospects depend on direct and creative engagement with global markets. Lifelong learning, ever-greening skills and cooperative training will become more important than ever.
But whether these prescriptions will be accepted by people across the developed world who feel that the capitalist system has failed them and who look to more radical solutions, whether from the left or the right, remains to be seen. And whether they will be adopted by governments is another question!
Roscoe Lecture Bank of England on YouTube, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
One Car, Two Car, Red Car, Blue Car Bank of England, Andrew Haldane (2/12/16)
The Spectre of Monetarism: Roscoe Lecture, Liverpool John Moores University Bank of England, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
Articles: Andrew Haldane speech
Bank of England chief economist says monetary stimulus stopped ‘left behind’ from drowning Independent, Ben Chu (2/12/16)
BoE’s Andrew Haldane warns of regional growth inequality BBC News (2/12/16)
‘Regions would have faced contraction’ without rate cuts and money printing Belfast Telegraph (2/12/16)
Bank of England chief: UK can be transformed if it copies progress on Teesside Gazette Live, Mike Hughes (2/12/16)
Articles: Mark Carney speech
Governor’s ‘dynamite’ warning on wages and globalisation Sky News, Ed Conway (6/12/16)
Mark Carney warns Britain is suffering first lost decade since 1860 as people across Europe lose trust in globalisation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan and Peter Foster (5/12/16)
Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/12/16)
Bank of England’s Carney warns of strains from globalization Reuters, William Schomberg and David Milliken (6/12/16)
CARNEY: Britain is in ‘the first lost decade since the 1860s’ Business Insider UK, Oscar Williams-Grut (7/12/16)
Carney warns about popular disillusion with capitalism BBC News (5/12/16)
Some fresh ideas to tackle social insecurity Guardian letters (7/12/16)
Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2016 (MPSE) Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Adam Tinson, Carla Ayrton, Karen Barker, Theo Barry Born, Hannah Aldridge and Peter Kenway (7/12/16)
OECD Income Distribution Database (IDD): Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical bulletins ONS
- Has monetary policy aggravated the problem of inequality? Explain.
- Comment on Charts 11a and 11b on page 19 of the Haldane speech.
- Does the process of globalisation help to reduce inequality or does it make it worse?
- If countries specialise in the production of goods in which they have a comparative advantage, does this encourage them to use more or less of relatively cheap factors of production? How does this impact on factor prices? How does this affect income distribution?
- How might smaller-scale firms “by-pass big corporates and engage in a form of artisanal globalisation; a revolution that could bring cottage industry full circle”?
- Why has regional inequality increased in the UK?
- What types of supply-side policy would help to reduce inequality?
- Explain the following statement from Mark Carney’s speech: “For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level”.
- Mark Carney stated that “redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations”. How might this be done?
Twice a year, directly after the government’s Spring Budget and Autumn Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies gives its verdict on the performance of the economy and the government’s economic policies – past and planned. This year is no exception. After the Chancellor had delivered his Autumn Statement, the next day the IFS published its analysis. And what grim reading it makes.
• Real average (mean) incomes in 2011 will have fallen by 3%.
• Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, real median household incomes will have fallen by 7.4%
• Over the same period, real mean household income will have fallen by 4.7% – easily the biggest 3-year drop since records began in the mid 1950s.
• Real mean household incomes will be no higher in 2015/16 than in 2002/03.
• The poorest will be hardest hit by the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
• Infrastructure spending of £4bn to £5bn will only go some way offsetting the effects of £17bn capital spending cuts over the Parliament.
• The economy will be 3.5% smaller in 2016 than thought in March.
• The structural budget deficit is 1.6% higher than thought in March.
• That will extend to 6 years the period over which total spending will have been cut year on year.
Referring to this last point, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said in his Opening Remarks, “One begins to run out of superlatives for describing quite how unprecedented that is. Certainly there has been no period like it in the UK in the last 60 years.” Referring to the fall in real incomes, he said, “Again we are running out of superlatives to describe just how extraordinary are some of these changes.”
Commentators have referred to the “lost decade” where the average Briton will not have seen an increase in real income.
Autumn Statement 2011: Families face ‘lost decade’ as spending power suffers biggest fall since 1950s, says IFS The Telegraph, Matthew Holehouse (30/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011: IFS talks down George Osborne’s growth plan The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (30/11/11)
Autumn statement study by IFS predicts lost decade for UK living standards Guardian, Katie Allen and Larry Elliott (30/11/11)
Britons Enduring 13-Year Squeeze on Living Standards, IFS Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Gonzalo Vina (30/11/11)
The UK now faces a ‘lost decade’ Financial Times, Martin Wolf (29/11/11)
Warning of seven-year squeeze Independent, James Tapsfield, Andrew Woodcock (30/11/11)
Osborne’s impact laid bare: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer Independent, Ben Chu, Oliver Wright (1/12/11)
Incomes to fall 7.4% in three years, says IFS BBC News (30/11/11)
No growth in income for 14 years, warns IFS BBC News, IFS director Paul Johnson (30/11/11)
UK economy: Third worst year since the war BBC Today Programme, IFS director Paul Johnson (29/11/11)
Autumn Statement 2011 and the OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook IFS (30/11/11)
- Why is it likely that the median real income will have fallen by more than the mean real income?
- Why is the structural deficit now estimated to be some 1.6 percentage points higher than was estimated by the OBR back in March 2011?
- How could the structural deficit be affected by a prolonged recession? Is this a case of hysteresis?
- What are the government’s fiscal rules?
- Is the IFS predicting that the rules will be met? What might adversely affect this prediction?
- If technological progress is allowing a continuous increase in potential real GDP, why will median real incomes have fallen over the 13 years between 2002/03 and 2015/16? What might have affected long-term aggregate supply adversely?