What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.
Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.
But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.
By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.
The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.
But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:
Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.
Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:
That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)
Economic growth more likely when wealth distributed to poor instead of rich The Guardian, Stephen Koukoulas (4/6/15)
So much for trickle down: only bold reforms will tackle inequality The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/6/15)
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)
Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS
- Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
- The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
- Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
- Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
- How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
- Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
- Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
- By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
Some eyebrows were raised when the English Premier League (EPL) recently published the final payments to each of the clubs from the revenue generated by the latest TV deal. The headlines were that Liverpool received the highest individual pay-out of £97,544,336! Cardiff City received the lowest pay-out of £62,082,302. What caught the eye of the headline writers was that the revenue from the lowest pay-out this season (the payment to Cardiff) was greater than the highest pay-out from the previous season (a payment of £60,813,999 to Manchester United).
The 2013-14 season was the first year of the latest 3 year deal for the rights to broadcast EPL games on the television, internet and radio. As part of this deal BSkyB are paying £760 million each year for the rights to broadcast 116 EPL games per season in the UK. BTSport are paying £246 million per year for the rights to broadcast 38 EPL games per season. In addition to selling the rights to broadcast games in the UK, the EPL also separately sells the rights to broadcast games in other countries. For example Cable Thai Holdings paid £205 million for a 3 year deal to show EPL matches in Thailand while NowTV paid £128 million for a similar deal in Hong Kong. In total the EPL earns approximately £1.8 billion per season from the sale of their domestic and international media rights.
The approach taken by the EPL to manage the sale of the broadcasting rights has raised considerable debate amongst economists and policy makers. There are two very different methods that can be used by teams in a league to sell the rights. They are the Individual Sales Model (ISM) and the Collective Sales Model (CSM). In the ISM each club is responsible for marketing and selling the rights to broadcast its home games. The ISM is currently employed by both La Liga in Spain and Primeira Liga in Portugal. In the CSM the rights are sold jointly by the league, federation or national association on behalf of the teams involved. This CSM is currently used by the majority of the football leagues in Europe. The EPL sold the rights for 2013-16 on behalf of the 20 clubs using a sealed bid auction.
Some economists and policy makers have criticised the CSM, claiming that it is an example of a cartel that simply restricts output and leads to higher prices. Each club is considered to be the equivalent of a firm in a traditional industry. The argument is based on a number of observations about the teams. They:
• are each separately owned and submit their own individual set of accounts
• compete with each other to buy inputs (i.e. the players) to produce an output (i.e. a match)
• individually market and set the price for the outputs they produce i.e. the ticket for the games and the prices of the merchandise such as football shirts
If this view of the industry is taken, the league or federation looks rather like a restrictive agreement between independent competitors that creates monopoly market power. As evidence to support this interpretation of the CSM, reference is often made to the details of the contract between the EPL and BSkyB and BTSport. As part of this agreement the number of live matches that can be broadcast is restricted to 154.This represents just over 40% of the maximum total of 380 that could be shown. Teams are effectively prohibited from individually selling the rights to matches that are not selected for broadcast in the collective deal as they must seek permission from the EPL. Over ten years ago the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading commented that:
Within the market the Premier League has a major if not unique position. By selling rights collectively…it is acting as a cartel. The net effect of cartels is to inflate costs and prices. Any other business acting in this way would be subject to competition law and I see no reason why the selling of sport should be treated differently.
The EPL has always defended it actions by claiming that any increase in the number of televised games would have a negative impact on the attendance at matches.
An alternative view focuses on the peculiar or unique characteristics of sports leagues. In particular it is argued that sport is unusual because the level of co-operation required between the teams and a league to produce matches is far greater than that required by firms in other industries to produce output. Agreements have to be made about issues such as the timing and venue of the games as well as the rules under which they will be played. However unlike a traditional cartel arrangement these agreements do not simply control and restrict output. They also improve the entertainment value of the game and hence the quality of the product. Some authors have argued that because of these unique characteristics, the league rather than the individual team should be considered as the equivalent to a firm in a more traditional industry. In this ‘single entity theory’ teams are viewed as divisions of a single organization i.e. the league. The league is treated as a natural monopoly that legally owns the broadcast rights of the clubs rather than a cartel of separate firms. Others have argued that it is more sensible to think of the league as a joint venture between the teams.
Not only are the levels of co-operation required much greater than in traditional industries but it is also argued that competitive balance is important for a successful league. If the same teams always win most of the games then there are concerns that fans will find this boring and it will reduce their willingness to pay to watch matches in either the stadium or on television. It is argued that the CSM makes it easier to distribute the TV money more equally and so helps to maintain competitive balance in a league. The White Paper on Sport published by the European Union in 2007 stated that:
Collective selling can be important for the redistribution of income and can thus be a tool for achieving greater solidarity within sports.
The debate continues about whether the CSM used by the EPL is an example of a restrictive cartel which acts against the public interest or a business practice that helps to improve the quality of the product for the customer.
Premier League clubs earn record-breaking sums thanks to TV bonanza The Telegraph (14/5/14)
Liverpool top earners over season with £99m – and bottom side Cardiff got £64m (so see what your team received in 2013-14 Mail Online (11/5/14)
Cardiff earn more TV cash than champions Man Utd did in 2013 BBC Sport (14/5/14)
Relegated Cardiff Earn More TV Revenue than Man Utd Tribal Football (14/5/14)
TV Bonanza for Premier League Clubs Pars Herald (18/5/14)
Season of woe hits home in money league Express & Star (15/5/14) .
- What is a natural monopoly? Draw a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- What is a cartel? Find three real-world examples of cartel agreements.
- It was explained in the article how the EPL sells the rights to broadcast just over 40% of the total number of matches played per season. Draw a diagram to illustrate and explain how this might be an example of a cartel agreement that restricts output and results in higher prices.
- The EPL defends its decision to restrict the number of games that can be televised in its domestic deal by claiming that any increase would have a negative impact on attendance at the matches. To what extent do you think that watching a live game on the television is a substitute for watching it in the stadium? Draw a demand and supply diagram to illustrate a situation where they are strong substitutes. Explain how the concept of cross price elasticity could be applied to this example.
- Outline how a sealed bid auction works. What are the advantages of using a sealed bid auction as opposed to other types of auction.
- Can you think of any other economics arguments that could be used to defend the use of the CSM for the sale of the broadcast rights?
Over the past 13 years of the Labour government, the incomes of the richest 1 per cent in the UK have grown substantially faster than that of other income groups, as they also did under the previous Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997. But, thanks to complex redistributive policies, including tax credits, the rise in relative poverty that occurred in the 1980s and 90s has been arrested. With the exception of the top 1 per cent, disposable income growth has been similar across the income groups.
As Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics editor argues:
During the Thatcher-Major years, real incomes for the richest fifth of the population rose fastest, averaging growth of about 2.5% a year. The next richest quintile did a little less well, the middle 20% a bit less well still, and so on all the way down to the poorest 20% of the population, which saw the smallest real income gains of less than 1% a year.
Under Labour, the very high rewards secured by the top 1% of earners has obscured an even distribution of real income growth across the five quintiles.
The new coalition government maintains that anti-poverty policies have failed:
… Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, made a statement trashing Labour’s record: “Vast sums of money have been poured into the benefits system over the last decade in an attempt to address poverty, but today’s statistics clearly show that this approach has failed. Little progress has been made in tackling child poverty, society is more unequal than 50 years ago and there are more working age people living in poverty than ever before.
A new approach is needed which addresses the drivers behind poverty and actually improves the outcomes of the millions of adults and children trapped in poverty.”
The following articles explore what has been happening to inequality and poverty and look at the policies proposed by the coalition government. The data on inequality are also given, along with commentary on them by the Institute for Fiscal Studies
Labour’s poverty record may be flawed, but the damage was done by the Tories Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/5/10)
The distribution of income: For richer, for poorer Guardian editorial (24/5/10)
What the poverty figures show Guardian Joe Public blog, Julia Unwin (chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) (21/5/10)
Data and reports
Households Below Average Income (HBAI) 1994/95-2008/09 Department for Work and Pensions(19/5/10)
Households Below Average Income (pdf file) National Statistics, First Release (20/5/10)
Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Office for National Statistics (see also, especially Tables 26 and 27)
Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2010 Institute for Fiscal Studies
A range of poverty data The Poverty Site
- What has happened to the distribution of original, gross, disposable and post-tax income distribution (a) by percentage shares of quintile groups of income; (b) in terms of gini coefficients? (See the “Effects of taxes and benefits on household income” reference above.)
- Why is income inequality likely to increase unless strong redistributive policies are pursued by the government?
- What are ‘the drivers behind poverty’?
- To what extent is there a trade-off between economic growth and redistributing incomes from rich to poor?
- Why is it argued that in an increasingly interdependent world, senior executives have to be paid extremely high salaries and be given very large bonuses in order for a company to recruit sufficiently talented people and yet wages have to be kept low to allow goods to remain competitive?
- Why was income much more equally distributed in the 1960s and 70s than it is today?
- What redistributive policies is the new coalition government in the UK pursuing? What factors will determine their success?