Inequality Rising

By Karen Petrou

As the COVID crisis continues, some have speculated that wealth inequality will drop because it did in the 1400s during the Black Death.  However, this cure is not only of course considerably worse than the disease, but it’s also no cure.  Economic inequality is a cumulative process – the worse off you are, the worse off you get unless something positive reverses this compound effect.  Conversely, the better off, the still more comfortable unless something comes along to redistribute your gains, however well or ill gotten.  Given how unequal the U.S. was before COVID, it will surely get only more so now, especially if the Fed stays the course with trillions for financial markets and pennies for everyone else. Continue reading “Inequality Rising”

Wheelies on the Yield Curve:  Inequality, Disintermediation and the Hazards of New QE

By Karen Petrou

Starting with our very first EconomicEquality blog post, we demonstrated the direct link between quantitative easing (QE) and the sharp rise in U.S. wealth inequality that differentiates this recovery from all that came before.  QE exacerbates inequality because, combined with post-crisis rules and ultra-low rates, it creates a market dynamic in which banks hold huge excess-reserve balances instead of making equality-essential loans and markets relentlessly chase yield, increasing equity valuations and driving credit to borrowers such as highly-leveraged companies.  In 2019, the Fed bulked up its portfolio in what is now known as QE-lite in hopes of rescuing the repo market, reinvigorating sputtering equity markets no matter the Fed’s ongoing insistence that this round of portfolio increases isn’t QE. Continue reading “Wheelies on the Yield Curve:  Inequality, Disintermediation and the Hazards of New QE”

America’s Stalwart Savers Get the Sucker Punch

By Karen Petrou

Recently, I had an op-ed in the Financial Times arguing that negative rates make it even harder for moderate-income households to accumulate wealth.  The reason, I said, is simple:  when savings-deposit or similar rates are ultra-low or even negative in real terms, households that save get poorer and poorer both on their own and in comparison to wealthier households with more sophisticated financial-asset investments.  This might seem irrefutable, but the article generated hundreds of comments.  Many were positive but more than a few countered that lower-income households don’t have savings so savings rates don’t exacerbate economic inequality.  To my mind, this is like saying that poor people are already thin so the fact that they don’t have enough food doesn’t matter. Continue reading “America’s Stalwart Savers Get the Sucker Punch”

Ultra-Low Rates and Extra-High Inequality

By Karen Petrou

On March 12, the Financial Times ran one of Martin Wolf’s insightful columns, this one focusing on a critical facet of post-crisis monetary policy – ultra-low interest rates – to see why so much monetary-policy firepower had had such minimal macroeconomic impact.  Mr. Wolf suspects that the secular stagnation first framed by Lawrence Summers means that ultra-low real rates are here to stay due in part to economic inequality.  However, what if ultra-low rates on their own exacerbate inequality and thus create a negative feedback loop with dangerous implications not only for long-term growth and financial stability, but also for inequality?  Considerable evidence shows that ultra-low rates are inextricably intertwined with extra-high inequality.  Fed thinking on the new neutral rate thus must prick the traditional neo-Keynesian bubble to ensure that Chairman Powell’s new normalization isn’t a path to still worse inequality. Continue reading “Ultra-Low Rates and Extra-High Inequality”

Inequality Hits Fiscal Reality

By Karen Petrou

Readers of this blog know well that we think U.S. economic inequality is not only a profound social-welfare and political-consensus problem, but also a scourge to financial-market stability.  We have not generally wandered into fiscal-policy questions, preferring to focus on a far less well-known, but potent inequality force:  U.S. monetary and regulatory policy.  However, financial and fiscal policy are inextricably intertwined.  If inequality increases the risk of financial crises – which it does – and financial crises pose macroeconomic risk – which of course they do – then fiscal policy must ride to the rescue to prevent prolonged recession or even depression.  Could it, given how acute U.S. economic inequality has become?  A new report from Moody’s says that the rating agency may well have to downgrade U.S. debt – the AAA sine qua non of global finance – due to inequality.  Continue reading “Inequality Hits Fiscal Reality”