Inequality

On the Distribution of Wealth

In an effort to understand the dynamics of the distribution of consumption, income and wealth, over the past decade, there has been an explosion of research. While important debates about measurement and data interpretation continue, a range of evidence points to two important conclusions. First, over the past two centuries, the global income distribution has become far more equal. But, while the gap between countries is now much smaller, in recent decades, inequality within some advanced countries, especially in the United States, has risen.

Rather than income or consumption, in this post we focus on the distribution of wealth. Wealth affects welfare in at least two key ways. First, in the presence of borrowing constraints, it provides a buffer against fluctuations of income, allowing households to smooth consumption in the face of temporary bouts of illness or unemployment. Second, it provides the basis for household spending in retirement. .

As we will see, the distribution of wealth is far less equal than that of income. Moreover, recent research shows that, following the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, the U.S. wealth distribution has become decidedly more unequal. As a result, a large portion of U.S. households appears to have little scope for meeting retirement needs out of their current net worth, making federal insurance programs key to their future well-being.

Read More

Banking the Unbanked: The Indian Revolution

Financial inclusion—providing universal access to financial services and encouraging their use—is an important means for promoting economic development. As of 2014, the World Bank estimated that there were still 2 billion adults without a bank account, and many others with only a tenuous connection to the financial system (see Global Findex). Better access will boost the efficiency of the payments system, promote household savings and access to credit, and improve people’s ability to manage risk. And, as it does all of these things, financial inclusion has the potential to reduce inequality and increase economic growth. In other words, reducing the multitudes of those that are unbanked will improve the fate of the poorest of the poor. (For more detail, see our earlier post.)

India’s unprecedented effort to “bank the unbanked” through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), or “Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme,” is by far the largest such undertaking. Launched merely three years ago, on August 28, 2014, the mission to provide no-frills, no-minimum-balance (hereafter, JDY) bank accounts to every adult (including the one-fifth of the population living below the poverty line and the large rural population with limited access to physical bank branches) has been remarkably successful. As of this writing, more than 300 million people have opened JDY accounts. And, while initial readings suggested limited use, over time, JDY account holders look to be learning about the benefits, so that use is rising toward levels observed for bank accounts of comparable individuals. Put differently, by lowering bank transactions costs, hundreds of millions of people who lacked access to financial services are revealing a latent demand....

Read More

Monetary policy and financial inclusion

Central bankers usually steer clear of discussions about inequality. They view monetary policy as a tool for stabilizing the economy. For many central banks, like the ECB or the Bank of England, this means price stability. For others, like the Federal Reserve, it means a combination of high employment and low inflation. Regardless of the goals, issues involving the distribution of income are generally left to the fiscal authorities.

For the most part, this division of labor is sensible. However, their mandates require central banks to make policy tradeoffs that are influenced by the prevailing income distribution. Specifically, the way in which monetary policy is conducted should depend on the access individuals have to the financial system, including both savings and credit. And we believe that it does.

Read More

Why the mortgage interest tax deduction should disappear, but won't

In the run-up to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, Planet Money asked five economists from across the political spectrum for proposals that they would like to see in the platform of the candidates. The diverse group agreed, first and foremost, on the wisdom of eliminating the tax deductibility of mortgage interest. 

The vast majority of economists probably agree. We certainly do. But it won’t happen, because politicians with aspirations for reelection find it toxic...

Read More