Fiscal Policy’s Futile Equality Expectation on Its Own

By Karen Petrou

  • Distributional data show clearly that, fiscal stimulus notwithstanding, the U.S. was still more economically unequal in 2020.
  • Only fiscal policy once combined also with progressive financial policy will put the inequality engine into reverse.

As we have noted before, the Fed’s new Distributional Financial Accounts of the United States (DFA) is a definitive source of economic-equality data we hope the Fed will not just compile, but also use for policy-making purposes.  The latest edition of the DFA demonstrates yet again why distributional data are so compelling, showing now the profound challenge even unprecedented fiscal policy on its own faces slowing down the inexorable engine of inequality.  Still more fiscal stimulus in 2021 will boost absolute income and wealth numbers a bit at some benefit to low-, moderate-, and even middle-income households.  Still, the upward march of financial markets powered in large part by Fed policy inexorably widens the inequality gap.  No matter the “crust of bread and such” from fiscal programs, inequality still increases the slow pace of economic growth, the risk of financial crises, and the odds that the electorate will be even angrier in 2024 than 2020.  

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How Inequality Stymies Monetary Policy and What to Do About It

By Karen Petrou

  • In a dangerous double-whammy, monetary policy not only makes America even less economically equal, but economic inequality also frustrates monetary-policy transmission.
  • Thus, recessions are deeper and longer, reversing the good-times income gains central banks take as proof that their policies are not dis-equalizing even as the wealth divide grows ever wider.
  • Because monetary policy when rightly judged in terms of both income and wealth adversely affects economic equality and inequality stymies monetary policy, we won’t have macroeconomic-effective monetary policy until we have equality-focused monetary policy.
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Of Money and Madness

By Karen Petrou

  • In 1975, the rewards of national economic growth were evenly distributed regardless of income.  By 2018, most Americans lost their fair share based on per capita GDP.
  • The cost of lost income due to increased inequality to the bottom 90% over this period amounts to $2.5 trillion compared to what it would have been if GDP had remained as equitably distributed as it was before 1975.
  • Looked at another way, the majority of U.S. workers never shared in the economic growth from 1975 to 2018.
  • It may seem that racial disparities in U.S. income improved over this period, but this wasn’t the result of a society become more fair, if not also economically more equal.  In fact, racial disparity dropped not because Black male workers with below-median income held their own, but because white men did worse than before.  The same phenomenon erases what appears to be a drop in the gender gap for working women who did a bit better – largely due to more working hours – than men.
  • Fed policy premised on aggregates and averages as well as the benefits of GDP growth without regard to distributional realities is not only doomed to fail, but sure to continue to exacerbate inequality.
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Pick Your Poison: Abandoning Regulated Banking in Search of Financial Inclusion

By Karen Petrou

  • Transaction and savings accounts are critical to financial security and inter-generational economic equality.
  • Nonbank offerings might increase financial inclusion, but pose risks to safeguarding savings, personal privacy, and consumer protection unless or until consumer-finance standards symmetrically apply to banks and nonbanks offering like-kind products to vulnerable households.
  • Public-utility, postal, or CBDC alternatives to bank accounts are a long way off and may not effectively safeguard high-risk households. 
  • Expanding low-cost, no-risk bank accounts is a critical near-term policy option.
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The Dollars That Make a Difference: Results of the New Survey of Consumer Finances

By Matthew Shaw and Karen Petrou

Every three years, the Federal Reserve releases a unique, illuminating data set, the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).  The most recent report covering 2016 to 2019 comes at a time of acute political risk for the U.S. central bank due to growing demands for a third, “racial-equity” mandate and heightened recognition of the inequality impact of post-crisis monetary policy.  Perhaps for this reason, the Fed’s qualitative release and much subsequent media coverage highlighted what the Fed described as meaningful reductions in both wealth and income inequality.  Would it were so – percentages sometimes work in the Fed’s favor, but real dollars in people’s pockets, or the acute lack thereof, don’t.

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