The Inequality that matters

This is the title of an article/paper by Tyler Cowen. He throws light on the matter in typical Cowen style. He says much of the inequality fears are bogus but some issues deserve more attention that they are getting (Wall Street risky behavior).

Does growing wealth and income inequality in the United States presage the downfall of the American republic? Will we evolve into a new Gilded Age plutocracy, irrevocably split between the competing interests of rich and poor? Or is growing inequality a mere bump in the road, a statistical blip along the path to greater wealth for virtually every American? Or is income inequality partially desirable, reflecting the greater productivity of society’s stars?

There is plenty of speculation on these possibilities, but a lot of it has been aimed at elevating one political agenda over another rather than elevating our understanding. As a result, there’s more confusion about this issue than just about any other in contemporary American political discourse. The reality is that most of the worries about income inequality are bogus, but some are probably better grounded and even more serious than even many of their heralds realize. If our economic churn is bound to throw off political sparks, whether alarums about plutocracy or something else, we owe it to ourselves to seek out an accurate picture of what is really going on. Let’s start with the subset of worries about inequality that are significantly overblown.

He says due to technical innovations, people are much better off than they were in 1911. Low income people have access to many resources that they did not have in 1911:

In terms of immediate political stability, there is less to the income inequality issue than meets the eye. Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark. I don’t have a private jet or take luxury vacations, and—I think it is fair to say—my house is much smaller than his. I can’t meet with the world’s elite on demand. Still, by broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.

Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort. Most people today may not articulate this truth to themselves in so many words, but they sense it keenly enough

 He then moves to the issues that matter and says the real problem is top 1% whose incomes keep rising. And bulk of this is because of wall street.

If we are looking for objectionable problems in the top 1 percent of income earners, much of it boils down to finance and activities related to financial markets. And to be sure, the high incomes in finance should give us all pause.

The first factor driving high returns is sometimes called by practitioners “going short on volatility.” Sometimes it is called “negative skewness.” In plain English, this means that some investors opt for a strategy of betting against big, unexpected moves in market prices. Most of the time investors will do well by this strategy, since big, unexpected moves are outliers by definition. Traders will earn above-average returns in good times. In bad times they won’t suffer fully when catastrophic returns come in, as sooner or later is bound to happen, because the downside of these bets is partly socialized onto the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and, of course, the taxpayers and the unemployed.

To understand how this strategy works, consider an example from sports betting. The NBA’s Washington Wizards are a perennially hapless team that rarely gets beyond the first round of the playoffs, if they make the playoffs at all. This year the odds of the Wizards winning the NBA title will likely clock in at longer than a hundred to one. I could, as a gambling strategy, bet against the Wizards and other low-quality teams each year. Most years I would earn a decent profit, and it would feel like I was earning money for virtually nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics or some other quality team would win the title again and I would collect some surplus from my bets. For many years I would earn excess returns relative to the market as a whole.

Yet such bets are not wise over the long run. Every now and then a surprise team does win the title and in those years I would lose a huge amount of money. Even the Washington Wizards (under their previous name, the Capital Bullets) won the title in 1977–78 despite compiling a so-so 44–38 record during the regular season, by marching through the playoffs in spectacular fashion. So if you bet against unlikely events, most of the time you will look smart and have the money to validate the appearance. Periodically, however, you will look very bad. Does that kind of pattern sound familiar? It happens in finance, too. Betting against a big decline in home prices is analogous to betting against the Wizards. Every now and then such a bet will blow up in your face, though in most years that trading activity will generate above-average profits and big bonuses for the traders and CEOs.

In finance, if things go bad you have bailouts so it makes the cocktail much better. Even if you get fored you have millions in your bank.

In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good. “Going short on volatility” is a dangerous strategy from a social point of view. For one thing, in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large. But more immediate and more important, it means that banks take far too many risks and go way out on a limb, often in correlated fashion. When their bets turn sour, as they did in 2007–09, everyone else pays the price.

And it’s not just the taxpayer cost of the bailout that stings. The financial disruption ends up throwing a lot of people out of work down the economic food chain, often for long periods.

What is the key lesson?

A key lesson to take from all of this is that simply railing against income inequality doesn’t get us very far. We have to find a way to prevent or limit major banks from repeatedly going short on volatility at social expense. No one has figured out how to do that yet.

It remains to be seen whether the new financial regulation bill signed into law this past summer will help. The bill does have positive features. First, it forces banks to put up more of their own capital, and thus shareholders will have more skin in the game, inducing them to curtail their risky investments. Second, it also limits the trading activities of banks, although to a currently undetermined extent (many key decisions were kicked into the hands of future regulators). Third, the new “resolution authority” allows financial regulators to impose selective losses, for instance, to punish bondholders if they wish.

We’ll see if these reforms constrain excess risk-taking in the long run. There are reasons for skepticism. Most of all, the required capital cushions simply aren’t that high, so a big enough bet against unexpected outcomes still will yield more financial upside than downside. Furthermore, high capital reserve requirements insulate bank managers from the pressures of both shareholders and bondholders. That could encourage risk-taking and make the underlying problem worse. Autonomous managers often push for risk-taking rather than constrain it.

Finally:

Is the overall picture a shame? Yes. Is it distorting resource distribution and productivity in the meantime? Yes. Will it again bring our economy to its knees? Probably. Maybe that’s simply the price of modern society. Income inequality will likely continue to rise and we will search in vain for the appropriate political remedies for our underlying problems.

Nice perspective..

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2 Responses to “The Inequality that matters”

  1. michael webster Says:

    Liked the article, but I think that he should have spent some more time on analyzing the various strategic responses to deflating a winner take all market – especially in finance. Cowen was a student of Schelling, so one expects more of strategic response.

  2. Inequality in US and India… « Mostly Economics Says:

    […] and absolute inequality. Relatively yes, things may have improved say compared to 1950s. Like Cowen says technology has made many things available to people which was not possible earlier. So people in […]

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