Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Governor Christie and the Question of Income Inequality

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was recently out in front of the media tagging the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administratio with the problem of growing US income inequality. While it is undeniably true that income inequality has widened over the past six years, it's highly unlikely that President Obama supports this trend or that his administration has sought to contribute to it. The case of the Federal Reserve, however, presents an entirely different set of facts.

While the Fed's intentions may have been to drive interest rates lower than any period in US history in an effort to spur borrowing and capital formation, neither of these outcomes have actually occurred. Not by a long shot. But for the Fed to believe that these policies could be continued for seven or more years without creating distortions in the economy, is beyond naive. It borders on irrational. No disrespect to Princeton, but did Bernanke actually teach there?

The Reason Foundation in 2012 found that the Fed's policy of Quantitative Easing was "fundamentally a regressive redistribution program...It is a primary driver of income inequality". Their argument, as true today as when put forward four years ago, is that low interest rates primarily serve the wealthy, thereby driving a greater percentage of income earned in the economy in their direction. We'll explain how, but first some data on what's happened to inequality since the Great Recession.

Global Insight, in a report prepared for the US Conference of Mayors in 2012, found that the share of total income gains over the period 2005 - 2012 captured by the wealthiest 20% of Americans, was in excess of 60%. The lowest 40% received just 5.5% of these gains. The reason for this disparity lies in stock wealth and ownership, a principal beneficiary of Fed policy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, roughly 60% of stock wealth is held by the top 1% of US households. Roughly 80% of stock market gains go to the top 10% of American households.

But stock wealth aside, the savings provided by low mortgage rates, in an environment of tight bank lending standards, has also shifted the benefits of mortgage refinancing to the wealthy, who have the greatest chance of qualifying. Renters, of course, have not benefited at all from lower interest rates, as landlords have not only been unwilling to pass on the benefits of refinancing, but in most markets have raised rents aggressively, as home ownership rates have declined.

Meanwhile, banks, who have been able to borrow at interest rates near zero and have paid less than 1% of interest on consumer deposits for the past six years, have held credit card rates near their all-time high. Data of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in a 2012 report to Congress on trends in bank credit card pricing found that average bank rates had fallen from 14.68% in the period leading up to the recession to just 13.09% by 2011. Borrow at zero, relend at 13%. Nice work if you can get it.

But the Fed is not alone in promoting income inequality. The primary problem with the disappearing middle class is that in an era of outrageous and ever escalating political campaign financing, the middle class is becoming invisible to politicians of both parties. They are neither big pharma, nor organized labor. They are neither oil companies, nor Silicon Valley; not Wall Street, Hollywood or the Trial Lawyers Association. They are invisible, except for purposes of rhetoric. 

Want to solve income inequality in America? Put a couple of hundred million dollars in the hands of an organization lobbying for the benefit of the lower and middle classes in the 2016 elections. Make the middle class matter to Washington.