Is a concentration of wealth at the top to blame for financial crises? – Published on The Economist, March 17, 2012.
In the search for the villain behind the global financial crisis, some have pointed to inequality as a culprit. In his 2010 book “Fault Lines”, Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago argued that inequality was a cause of the crisis, and that the American government served as a willing accomplice. From the early 1980s the wages of working Americans with little or no university education fell ever farther behind those with university qualifications, he pointed out. Under pressure to respond to the problem of stagnating incomes, successive presidents and Congresses opened a flood of mortgage credit.
In 1992 the government reduced capital requirements at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two huge sources of housing finance. In the 1990s the Federal Housing Administration expanded its loan guarantees to cover bigger mortgages with smaller down-payments. And in the 2000s Fannie and Freddie were encouraged to buy more subprime mortgage-backed securities. Inequality, Mr Rajan argued, prepared the ground for disaster.
Mr Rajan’s story was intended as a narrative of the subprime crisis in America, not as a general theory of financial dislocation. But others have noted that inequality also soared in the years before the Depression of the 1930s. In 2007 23.5% of all American income flowed to the top 1% of earners—their highest share since 1929. In a 2010 paper Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière, two economists at the International Monetary Fund, built a model to show how inequality can systematically lead to crisis. An investor class may become better at capturing the returns to production, slowing wage growth and raising inequality. Workers then borrow to prop up their consumption. Leverage grows until crisis results. Their model absolves politicians of responsibility; inequality works its mischief without the help of government … //
… Reasonable doubt:
Other economists wonder whether income inequality is not wrongly accused. Michael Bordo of Rutgers University and Christopher Meissner of the University of California at Davis recently studied 14 advanced countries from 1920 to 2008 to test the inequality-causes-busts hypothesis. They turn up a strong relationship between credit booms and financial crises—a result confirmed by many other economic studies. There is no consistent link between income concentration and credit booms, however.
Inequality occasionally rises with credit creation, as in America in the late 1920s and during the years before the 2008 crisis. This need not mean that the one causes the other, they note. In other cases, such as in Australia and Sweden in the 1980s, credit booms seem to drive inequality rather than the other way around. Elsewhere, as in 1990s Japan, rapid growth in the share of income going to the highest earners coincided with a slump in credit. Rising real incomes and low interest rates reliably lead to credit booms, they reckon, but inequality does not. Mr Rajan’s story may work for America’s 2008 crisis. It is not an iron law. (full text and links to source articles).
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