Friday, November 30, 2018

30/11/18: The Myth of Social Mobility and Wealth Inequality

Three charts, related topics.

Global wealth inequality has been a much-discussed problem these days, with both longer-term economic and social, not to mention political, impacts being assigned to it across both the Advanced Economies and the Emerging Markets. Setting aside the causes and drivers for this development, here is the latest evidence on the wealth distribution around the world from Credit Suisse:

The 3.211 billion people, accounting for 63.9% of the total estimated world population are holding USD6.2 trillion worth of wealth (1.9% of the world total value of assets). Another 26.6% of population or 1.335 billion people, hold 13.9% of total global wealth. Thus, 90.5% of population hold combined 15.8% of the total global wealth. In the top 10 percent category, those with wealth of USD100K to 1 million account for 8.7% of global population and hold 39.3 percent of total global wealth. The 0.8% of population (42 million people) have combined holdings of wealth around USD142 trillion or 44.8% of total global wealth.

This is striking and it is problematic. Even if most of our own wealth inequality referencing is done across the adjoining class of comparatives, the gap between the top of the pyramid and the bottom is so insurmountably vast, that any idea that there is some sort of meritocratic division of wealth in our global society flies out of the window. The problem is not so much income inequality, but the inequality arising from inherited wealth, which generates income returns from invested assets that cannot be offset or diluted by merit of effort, talent and work, no matter how hard one works. Even stripping out luck effects of self-made millionaires and billionaires, the pyramid above is the evidence to the endurance of inter-generational wealth transfers.

The dynamics of evolution in wealth inequality that got us here are presented in the following charts via Goldman Sachs Research:

These figures are for the U.S. economy and they are frightening, just as much as the wealth pyramid above is frightening. Share of wealth held by the top 1% wealth-holders grew from just above 21% in the late 1970s-early 1980s to closer to 37% in 2014. Since then, it has increased more. Share of wealth held by the remaining top 10 percenters declined from ca 44% in the early 1970s to around 35% from the late 1990s on. But the share of wealth held by middle America collapsed to below 27% since the high of around 36% in mid-1980s. Things were never brilliant for the bottom 50 percent of Americans to begin with, but since the Global Financial Crisis, lower middle of America has had negative net wealth through 2014. even though it might have risen since then somewhat, at no time in modern history have the middle and lower-middle class Americans enjoyed holding more than 2 percent of the total wealth.

This is a double-ugly conclusion, because it simultaneously runs against two key propositions on which the American society rests: the proposition of social cross-class mobility upwards from lower wealth classes to middle class, and the proposition that social progress in the American society is distinct from the ‘basket cases’ dynamics in the larger emerging economies (the likes of India and China). In a way, America replicates the world in terms of both, wealth inequality and its dynamics. And that is not a good thing for a society based on exceptionalism values.

The added dimension to this is that, given the above dynamics and the degree of elites entrenchment / capture within the political establishment, we are facing an impossible task of rebalancing the above wealth inequalities without triggering some serious political discontent. Worse, we have no tools for doing so, other than traditional socialist tools (expropriation via taxation of income), which are not effective in dealing with this problem. One of the reasons why these tools are ineffective is that broad-based income tax measures impact more adversely those who work for living (higher income earners) and do not touch those who experience wealth appreciation through capital gains on inherited wealth (as long as they re-invest their wealth-generated income). Another reason, is that higher income earners, on average, can claim merit as a source of their income more than those who hold inherited wealth. A third reason is that redistribution through taxation is highly inefficient: the funds flow to the politically-empowered, not to merit-deserving, and the losses on tax funds are high due to the cost of Government bureaucracy.

Which leaves us with the unpleasant dilemma: tax inherited wealth (during inheritance transfer in the future, and retro-actively, via tax on existent wealth, in the past). Which in itself is highly problematic for the following reasons: (1) wealth is mobile across borders, and financialized wealth is especially so; (2) a significant tax on wealth is likely to trigger repricing of all assets to the downside (liquidation of wealth to cover tax liabilities), adversely impacting wealth acquired by the first generation of entrepreneurs and investors; and (3) inducing a sizeable decline in the life-cycle expected wealth of the current younger generations, resulting is a large scale re-leveraging of these generations.

Neither of these effects is easy to address.

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