...against fictions and other tall tales

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Inequality in the recent business cycle

This is a good speech by Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin of the Federal Reserve (also available in audio here). It was given during the Hyman Minsky Conference held at the Levy Institute earlier this week.

The speech focuses on the obstacles to recovery associated with household debt deleveraging and the decline in wealth for low-income households since the financial crisis. That low- and middle-income households held a disproportionate share of wealth in housing prior to the crisis meant they were highly exposed by the decline in house prices.

Raskin notes:
...[W]hile total household net worth fell 15 percent in real terms between 2007 and 2010, median net worth fell almost 40 percent. This difference reflects the amplified effect that housing had on wealth changes in the middle of the wealth distribution. The unexpected drop in house prices on its own reduced both households' wealth and their access to credit, likely leading them to pull back their spending. In particular, underwater borrowers and heavily indebted households were left with little collateral, which limited their access to additional credit and their ability to refinance at lower interest rates. Indeed, some studies have shown that spending has declined more for indebted households
Although later in the speech Governor Raskin discusses the Fed's strategy to address these issues (mainly by the use of unconventional monetary policies aimed at lowering long-term interest and mortgage rates), there is unfortunately no mention of the possible role of the Fed's current quantitative easing (QE) strategy in amplifying wealth inequality via the use of unconventional policies.

Since the start of the Fed's asset purchases programs (i.e., QE), we have seen stock indexes recover their losses while the decline in house prices has stayed flat (see charts below - Note: Increases in the monetary base is a good indicator of the magnitude of QE). In a context where the Fed is also hoping QE to sustain economic activity through the "wealth effect" channel (whereby a rise in asset prices causes investors to feel more secure about their wealth and, consequently, spend more), it's only normal to question whether current strategy is contributing (albeit unintentionally) to the wealth gap.

Source: Federal Reserve

Source: Federal Reserve

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