All 3 entries tagged Inequality
View all 4 entries tagged Inequality on Warwick Blogs | View entries tagged Inequality at Technorati | There are no images tagged Inequality on this blog
October 13, 2017
Writing about web page http://wid.world/
In August this year Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman circulated a new working paper, “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016” (NPZ 2017a, b). This paper makes several advances, including a novel estimate of the evolution of Russians’ offshore wealth.
To situate the subject briefly, Cold War scholarship has left us a substantial literature on income inequality under communism. Bergson (1944), Yanowitch (1963), Wiles and Markowski (1971), Pryor (1972), Wiles (1974, 1975), Wädekin (1975), Chapman (1977), McAuley (1977), and Matthews (1978), each made valiant attempts, sometimes extending to piecemeal comparisons over countries and over time. “Considering the obscure data with which they had to work,” a survey by Schroeder (1983) remarked, “Western investigators display a large degree of agreement.” Measured by the decile ratio, the distribution of official incomes in the Soviet Union was becoming more equal over time and was substantially more equal than in the developed market economies then available as comparators. Schroeder noted, however, that Western researchers could not access data on the Soviet distribution of illegal incomes, or on privileged distribution of goods and services including accommodation and health care.
More recently, Lindert and Nafziger (2014) made an advance in another direction, examining inequality in Russia before and after the Soviet era. They concluded that pre-tax income inequality in 1997, although likely understated by official reports, was greater than in 1904.
Finally, a new paper by Allen and Khaustova (2017) examines Russian real wages in the long run. This paper does not address income inequality directly but allows inferences to be drawn from comparing real wages and productivity in industry. They find that real wages stagnated from the 1860s to 1913 (in St Petersburg, the capital, and Kursk, a provincial centre) or showed modest gains (in Moscow) but lagged everywhere behind productivity, suggesting a movement from wages to profits and income from wealth. After the troubled wartime and revolutionary period, the 1920s brought large real wage gains. These were short-lived, evaporating in the famine-led inflation of the early 1930s.
Novokmet and co-authors (NPZ) are the first to have tried to measure wealth and income inequality in Russia over the whole twentieth century. And, as many readers will be aware, their paper is part of a much larger collaborative project, the World Inequality Lab and the associated World Wealth and Income Database, one that aims to measure inequality in many countries over hundreds of years.
Here I focus on income inequality:
Income shares in Russia, 1905-2016 (selected years): bottom 50 per cent and bottom 90 per cent
Source: Novokmet, Piketty, and Zucman (2017a,b).
According to NPZ, the share of the top 10 per cent in pre-tax income distributed to adults in Russia was 47 per cent in 1905. The share fell to 22 per cent in 1928, increased modestly to 26 per cent by 1956, and began to fall gently back again, reached a low of 21 per cent in 1980. (The Soviet-era years observed are 1928, 1956, and then roughly every second, third, or fourth year to 1988, when annual observations begin.) By 1996 the top 10-per-cent share had returned to the 1905 level and remained in that vicinity through 2016. NPZ comment: “our benchmark estimates suggest that inequality levels in Tsarist and post-Soviet Russia are roughly comparable. Very top income shares seem if anything somewhat larger in post-Soviet Russia.”
Measured by the top 10-percent income share, Russia today appears in the World Inequality Lab database in the same inequality band as the United States and China. Income inequality is reported as greater in a few countries: Turkey, India, South Africa, and Brazil. All north and west European countries that are represented in the database are more equal than Russia. But all are smaller than Russia in population, and a larger population will always tend to show greater inequality, because unequal economic outcomes are promoted by heterogeneity of all kinds, and heterogeneity is inevitably increasing in population size.
In its time the Soviet Union, in contrast, was apparently one of the most equal countries in the world. This is particularly striking, considering the large size of the Soviet population, 288 million by 1991. Other countries in the WID dataset with top 10-percent shares of 26 per cent or below at any time from 1917 to 1991 are few, and they are also much smaller in population: Australia, Denmark, Mauritius, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Taiwan. Of all these countries, only Italy’s population had reached 57 million by 1991, and Taiwan’s 20 million.
These results are broadly consistent with the earlier research described above. They confirm that income inequality in Russia after the Soviet era was comparable to before the Revolution, if not greater; that the distribution of Soviet official incomes was markedly more equal than in most market economies at the time and today, and in Russia beforehand and today; and that, within the Soviet era, inequality followed a modest Kuznets curve, rising, then falling.
Seen in this light, Soviet institutions and policies appear distinctly pro-poor. Before we take that as settled, however, there are three issues that point the other way.
First, in the Soviet era the poor might have gained relatively, but the chief factor in this was impoverishment of the rich. What the rich lost was not transferred to the poor, or was given only temporarily before the state grabbed it back, as clearly implied by Allen and Khaustova (2017). NPZ measure inequality by shares of income distributed to adults. In the Soviet era, the share of income not distributed to adults, but retained by the state, became unusually large. As a first approximation, household consumption fell from around 80 per cent of GDP in 1913 to around 50 per cent in 1940 and through the postwar period. By implication, what the rich lost was diverted into government administration and investment and defence projects; it was not passed on to the lower income strata. If there was an initial transfer to the poor, it was confined to the 1920s, and was then cancelled in the Great Breakthrough of Stalinist collectivization and industrialization.
Second, the Soviet state did not take only from the rich. It took also from the poor, including the poorest. This applied particularly in the years from 1928 to 1956, a period for which the NPZ dataset has only gaps. While I cannot find full explanation on this point, the NPZ dataset (like most Cold-War scholarship) seems to rely on reports of the distribution of official wage earnings to capture Soviet-era inequality. Wage earnings accounted for less than one third of Soviet household incomes in 1928, just over 60 per cent in 1937, and nearly 70 per cent in 1956 (Kashin and Mikov 2004: 17, 23, 34). The largest category of households excluded from reports of wage earnings were collective farmers – the great majority of Soviet farm workers – who received an uncertain dividend, not a wage. If that is the case here, then the rural poor are left out of account. (Forced labourers are also left out. There were millions of these from the 1930s to the 1950s. But they are a small omission compared with many tens of millions of collective farmers.)
Narrative accounts of rural food shortages and periodic famines indicate that rural poverty contributed substantially to Soviet-era inequality before the 1950s (e.g. Davies and Wheatcroft 2004). After that time, the compensation of collective farmers moved gradually, but never completely, towards public-sector standards.
Finally, as NPZ acknowledge, under Soviet arrangements, persistent shortages and privileged distribution decoupled consumption inequality from income inequality. In the Soviet Union everyone had an income, but not everyone could spend it on the same terms. A privileged class of insiders – the party elite and the employees of key production and service establishments – who had access to relatively high-quality goods and services at prices fixed below the market-clearing level without waiting. Others had limited access to staple goods and services, for which they either waited in line or paid a higher, sometimes illegal price. As long as the poor had money they could not spend, or faced higher prices to spend it, it is possible and even likely that consumption was distributed more unequally than income. This contrasts with the pattern that has been found to prevail in market economies, where consumption inequality is generally less than income inequality. But comprehensive data on Soviet consumption inequality would seem far more difficult to come by than income data, so this may well remain a conjecture.
Consumption inequality was important not only for ex post evaluation of economic welfare under Soviet arrangements. It was of central importance to the political economy of the time. During the 1930s, as Paul Gregory (2004: 76-109) has noted, Stalin received regular reports of discontent and falling effort among the workers in the provinces and intervened from time to time to improve their condition. When he did so, he did not order their wages to be raised because, in a supply-constrained economy, this would only have lengthened local queues. Rather, he ordered consumer goods in short supply to be redirected to the towns and factories where dissatisfaction was rising, so that the workers could more easily spend their wages.
The existence of unofficial incomes in the Soviet era only adds complexity to the problem. We guess that unofficial incomes were substantial but of time-varying size. Anecdotes on who received them are plentiful. The Soviet central bank compiled annual estimates of their aggregate size (Kashin and Mikov 2004), but we continue to lack (and may never find) data on their distribution. Thus, it is impossible to say whether their net effect was to increase or reduce the extent of inequality of different kinds.
To summarize, the extent to which Soviet institutions favoured the poorest in society is easily overstated. The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution was to flatten the distribution of wages. On that official measure income inequality fell sharply. But non-wage earnings were likely distributed more unequally than wages. Unofficial incomes also mattered; how they mattered is unclear. Consumption inequality mattered too, and arguably mattered more than income inequality. Most likely, consumption inequality did not fall to the same extent. Whereas consumption inequality in market economies is relatively stable, it is possible that Soviet consumption inequality was volatile, spiking in particular years of crisis.
Any judgement on new work must be preliminary, but my thoughts so far are as follows. NPZ (2017) is a substantial contribution. It is not the first word on the subject, and it will not be the last word either. It turns a new page and sets a new challenge.
- Allen, Robert C., and Ekaterina Khaustova. 2017. “Russian Real Wages Before and After 1917 in Global Perspective.” University of Oxford: Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History no. 158 at https://ideas.repec.org/p/oxf/wpaper/158.html.
- Bergson, Abram. 1944. The Structure of Soviet Wages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Chapman, Janet G. 1977. “Soviet Wages Under Socialism.” In The Socialist Price Mechanism. Edited by Alan Abouchar. Durham, North Carolina : Duke University Press.
- Davies, R. W., and S. G. Wheatcroft. 2004. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 5. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
- Gregory, Paul. R. 2004. The Political Economy of Stalinism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kashin, Yu. I, and V. V. Mikov, eds. 2006. Po stranitsam arkhivnykh fondov Tsentral’nogo Banka Rossiiskoi Federatsii, vol. 1. Denezhnye dokhody i raskhody naseleniya 1924-1990 gg. Moscow: Tsentral’nyi Bank Rossiiskoi Federatsii.
- Lindert, Peter H., and Steven Nafziger. 2014. “Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution.” Journal of Economic History 74(3): 767-798 at https://ideas.repec.org/a/cup/jechis/v74y2014i03p767-798_00.html.
- Matthews, Mervyn. 1978. Privilege in the Soviet Union. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- McAuley, Alastair. 1977. “The Distribution of Earnings and Incomes in the Soviet Union.” Soviet Studies 29(2): 214-237.
- Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman (NPZ). 2017a. “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016.” WID.world working paper no. 2017/09 at http://wid.world/.
- Novokmet, Filip, Thomas Piketty, and Gabriel Zucman (NPZ). 2017b. Appendix to “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016.” WID.world working paper no. 2017/10 at http://wid.world/.
- Pryor, Frederic. 1972. Economic System and the Size Distribution of Income and Wealth. Bloomington, IN: International Development Research Center.
- Schroeder, Gertrude. 1983. “Consumption.” In The Soviet Economy: Toward the Year 2000. Edited by Abram Bergson and Herbert S. Levine. Winchester, MA: Allen & Unwin.
- Wädekin, Karl-Eugen. 1975. “Income Distribution in Soviet Agriculture.” Soviet Studies 28(1): 3-26.
- Wiles, Peter, and Markowski, Stefan. 1971. “Income Distribution under Communism and Capitalism”, Soviet Studies 22(3): 343-369; 22(4): 487-511.
- Wiles, Peter. 1974. Distribution of Income: East and West. Amsterdam: North Holland.
- Wiles, Peter. 1975. “Recent Data on Soviet Income Distribution.” In Economic Aspects of Life in the USSR. Brussels: NATO, Economic Directorate.
- Yanowitch, Murray. 1963. “The Soviet Income Revolution.” Slavic Review 22(4): 683-697.
January 25, 2016
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35339475
I have many cousins of various degrees, all lovely people who care about the state of the world. Cousin #1 recently posted on facebook:
62 vs 3.5 billion. The single worst statistic I've ever heard. (18 January at 10:51)
His comment was prompted by Oxfam’s gloss on the annual Credit Suisse report on the global distribution of wealth, as featured by the BBC: “The world's richest 62 people now own as much wealth as the poorest half.”
Cousin #2 responded:
Open mouthed. (18 January at 19:12)
I butted in:
Some simple (not all easy) ways to improve global inequality as measured by Oxfam/Credit Suisse (a) Bring down property values by reforming western housing markets, because rising property values account for between two thirds and 100% of the rising inequality found by Thomas Piketty (b) Bring down Western bond and equity values by ending quantitative easing in the West (c) Bring down the value of dollar assets relative to assets denominated in other currencies by having more quantitative easing, but only in the US (d) Measure wealth in different countries by converting currencies at purchasing power, not market exchange rates, because currency values are determined by competitive in markets for internationally traded goods whereas many goods (and especially services) are not traded, and their prices are many times lower in poorer countries, e.g. compare getting a haircut in Accra and Manhattan (e) Don't use a stupid measure of wealth that places many middle-class Westerners with mortgage debt among the poorest people in the world (i.e. ignoring the fact that part of being rich is being able to borrow) (f) Measure other aspects of well being too, like morbidity and mortality at all ages, in which the world has been steadily improving for decades AND getting more equal (g) Remember that some poverty and wealth are temporary (during adult life most Americans will BOTH hit the top 10 percent by income AND spend time at the bottom 20 percent); we should worry most about chronic poverty, which also exists (h) Be patient because global income inequality has been steadily diminishing for decades and will continue to do so unless someone does something really stupid (j) Don't do stupid stuff, which ranges from violence to utopian dreaming, e.g. that if you take away all Donald Trump's money and give it to Ghana then Ghana's poor will benefit commensurately, because they won't (k) Remember that charities thrive on making the news look bad (m) Cheer up, because not all news is bad; the world is a better place than we think. (20 January at 10:37)
Cousin #3 came back:
I didn't fully understand your point about not using a "measure of wealth that places middle-class Westerners with mortgage debt among the poorest people in the world". What measure do we use? How does that happen? Does it measure only the value of the debt and not the market value of the property? (20 January at 16:22)
So I had to issue a correction:
You are right to ask and you deserve a correction. There is some guesswork here and I probably made a wrong guess. Not mortgage debt: I should have said "consumer debt and student loans." In more detail the relevant figure is tucked away in the Credit Suisse reportin Table 3.4 (page 110): the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, with approximately 4.5 percent of the world's population, apparently has just over 10 percent of the world's poorest people (in the lowest global decile by wealth as measured there). Compare those figures with other countries -- but which? The US has the third largest population in the world, and there are no others of similar size. Size matters because a larger population implies greater heterogeneity on many dimensions and therefore greater inequality. The next two countries by size are Indonesia and Brazil. Both have populations around the 200 million mark (Table 2-2), so around 2.5 percent of the world's population each. These two countries have Gini coefficients of wealth distribution similar to the US (Table 3-1) and they are also MUCH poorer on average, yet their shares of the world's poorest (Table 3-4), around 3 percent each, only slightly exceed their total population shares. What's going on? On the Credit Suisse measure the "world's poorest" include the people who rent accommodation, are too young to have accumulated pension rights, and borrowed to finance a flatscreen TV or a law degree. It's easier to do both of those things in the US than in Brazil or Indonesia, where many people have no access to credit. (The point I'm making is not original, by the way. It was mentioned in the original BBC report, and others have made the same point in the past in connection with previous Credit Suisse reports and their use by Oxfam.) (21 January at 11:00)
Cousin #3 came back:
So in effect, their method could compare someone who has a student loan and a car on finance, but lives comfortably in a society with good infrastructure and access to healthcare, with someone who has no debt but may live in a society where basic resources are scarce and living conditions poor, and see the former individual's debt as a major factor in the estimation of their wealth? (21 January at 12:29)
I was getting complacent now, and started waving my hands:
That's right. Non-marketable wealth (mainly learned skills and pension rights) is distributed less unequally than marketable wealth (that you can transfer by sale). Income is distributed less unequally than wealth, and consumption less unequally than income. Lifetime wealth, income, and consumption are distributed less unequally than any of these at a moment in time. They all matter, but differently, and it doesn't mean that inequality is not a problem. India has 20 percent of the poorest people in the world in the Credit Suisse table and very many of these truly have little or nothing and may never have more. (21 January at 14:15)
Not long after that I was thrown into a panic by cousin #4:
Radio 4, More or Less trailer have just said they will be discussing this stat 16.30 tomorrow, if you're interested. He seemed to hint at a similar (though less informed!) thing to Mark … (21 January at 17:33)
And by cousin #5:
I just heard the same thing on PM and came here to say what you said! (21 January at 17:38).
Cousin #4 again:
Haha - great minds! (21 January at 17:39)
Me (panicked, trying to be cool):
Great I'll try to listen. Thanks for the tip. Hopefully they've found some real experts! (21 January at 17:40)
The next day I listened, anxiously. Would Tim Harford show me up? Tim Harford, who presents More or Less, is one of my heroes, and More or Less is a great public service. My own small part in a recent episode was the acme of my career. On this occasion, the real experts did not contradict me. I lived to fight another day.
December 03, 2014
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/research/seminars_readinggroups/historyseminar/
Recently Warwick’s History Department held a roundtable on Thomas Piketty’s important and bestselling blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Piketty 2014). I was on the panel, which was ably organized and chaired by Maxine Berg, whom I thank for the invitation. Here I’ll summarize my remarks, which have benefited from listening to the other panelists and the discussion. For better or worse my words seem to have been modified by the passage of time; I sense that their tone has sharpened since that evening.
Piketty’s book has been reviewed thousands of times; we have already seen reviews of the reviews. I have little to say that can be original. I prefer not to comment on Piketty’s conclusions, because most readers seem to have made up their minds on those before reading the book. Instead, I’ll focus on the early chapters, where Piketty sets out his contention that “capital is back”; nearly everything else in the book follows from that foundational claim.
Here’s the short version of my assessment: The problem? Hugely topical. I won’t spend any time on that. The model?Unobjectionable in principle, flaky in use. I’ll explain briefly. The historical data? A wonderful contribution, yet they do not show what many suppose, and that would seem to include Piketty himself. My conclusion? Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.
Now for the detail, some of it unavoidably technical. Let’s start with the model. Piketty writes (2014, p. 32):
The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and highly ideological speculation …
(So of course we don’t expect to find anything like that in the pages that follow.) What we do find is this:
- A first fundamental law (p. 52): the profit share in income rises with the profit rate on capital and with the capital/income ratio.
α = rβ
- A second fundamental law (p. 166): the capital/income ratio rises with the saving rate out of income (which governs the rate at which income adds to capital), and it also rises as the income growth rate falls.
β → s/g
- A fundamental force (p. 35): profit rate on capital tends to exceed income growth rate.
r > g
The generality of the model is notable. In fact there is almost nothing in it, so far, that could be considered novel. It is also simple to an extreme. Of course, all models are just simplified representations of reality. Is it oversimplified? The question calls to mind the maxim of Box and Draper (1987, p. 74):
All models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.
Our question for Piketty, correctly formulated, is not whether his model is “wrong,” as it surely is, but whether his model is “not-wrong” enough to be useful. Considered in these terms, the maths is not the problem. The problem is in the application of the maths to a necessarily complex reality.
How does this simple model lend support to the claim that capital is back? Piketty puts his two laws and the fundamental force to work in the following way.
- Start with the fundamental force: r > g. Here is a gap, made up by the excess of the rate of return on capital over the growth rate of the economy. According to Piketty the gap has widened because g has fallen (pp. 99-102), but r is fairly stable and we do not expect it to fall (pp. 220-223).
- Now the second law comes into play: β → s/g. Piketty appears to argue that the saving rate is stable, or at least is not falling (pp. 173-178), but the growth rate has fallen, so β, the ratio of capital to income, must be rising towards a new, higher steady state.
- Finally the first law swings into action: α = rβ. Given that the capital/income ratio is rising and the rate of return on capital is not falling, the profit share in income must be rising too, with all that might imply for social inequality.
- (The maths is neat too: the three expressions collapse easily into α → s × r/g, meaning that the steady-state profit share equals the saving rate times the rate of return over the growth rate. So far, the logic is unassailable.)
The question that comes naturally to mind is whether Piketty might have neglected some countervailing force that would eventually nullify or attenuate the tendency that he has identified. (In thinking about this I’ve been influenced by the insights of many, but I ought to mention especially Krusell and Smith 2014).
Picketty concludes that capital is back because, he maintains, the growth rate of the economy has fallen, the rate of return on capital is relatively stable, and so is the saving rate out of income. How robust is this chain? Consider each link in turn.
- First, Piketty asserts that the long-term growth rate of the economy has fallen: Maybe, but also maybe not. Secular stagnation is possible but the concept is also speculative and contentious (for discussion see Teulings and Baldwin 2014). It is even a little unhistorical – the last time secular stagnation was predicted was at the end of the 1930s, since when global output has multiplied by at least 10 times (Maddison 2010). If the prediction of secular stagnation turns out wrong, then Piketty’s prediction is largely sunk by a countervailing factor: the return to faster growth will hold down the capital/income ratio and the profit share in income.
- Second, Piketty asserts that the rate of return on capital will not decline as capital is accumulated. This outcome is possible, of course, in the general sense that we really don’t know about the future of technology, but this one too is speculative and contentious. A long term conjunction of low growth, high capital accumulation, and high profits is (in my opinion) highly improbable. If we are doomed to secular stagnation, and capital accumulation continues unchecked, the return on new investments will surely fall relative to the past. If the return on capital declines significantly as capital is accumulated faster than income, then here is a factor that would automatically hold down the profit share in income. Thus, a fall in the rate of return cannot be ruled out and would be another countervailing factor.
- Third, Piketty appears to rely on maintenance of the saving rate out of income. Others have noted that Piketty should have distinguished between gross and net saving. Here net saving = gross saving – depreciation, and depreciation means the annual deterioration of the capital stock through wear and tear and obsolescence. Piketty gets the definition, of course (p. 178), but on my reading he misapplies it. The point is that depreciation is a function of the capital stock: the more capital we hold, the greater must be our provision for its depreciation. Depreciation is not a function of income. If the capital/income ratio rises, then the depreciation/income ratio must rise too. Piketty doesn’t appear to get this (p. 178 again), because he presents depreciation as a proportion of income, not of capital. If the capital/income ratio rises, the depreciation/income ratio must rise. If the depreciation/income ratio rises, and if gross saving is stable, then net saving out of income must fall. If the result of capital accumulation is a fall in the net saving rate, then this must slow net capital accumulation, making a third countervailing factor.
The three countervailing factors are reasons why I concluded that Piketty's basic insight is flaky, in the sense that it might be a good description of what is going on but equally it might not. Still, this does not settle the bigger question: do its predictions fit the known facts? If so, it must surely still merit serious consideration; perhaps the countervailing factors are simply unimportant?
The test here is: what’s been happening to the capital/income ratio? And Piketty’s data do show that the capital/income ratio is rising, don't they? Well, let’s check the data (and here I need to acknowledge a debt to Bonnet, Bono, Chapelle, and Wasmer 2014).
Piketty has five countries in his sample: Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the US. These data show, as is now well known, a U-shaped pattern in the ratio of capital to income over the twentieth century: high at the beginning, slumping in mid-century, and rising again: hence, “capital is back.”
Piketty’s explanation, by the way, is that in the era of the two world wars the asset markets of these five countries underwent a common pattern of regulation that depressed relative asset prices, and neoliberal deregulation has now released them.
But there are strange things in the data. They are not immediately apparent from Piketty’s stacked-area charts, mostly because of the vertical ordering of the series. (To a smaller extent they are affected because Piketty does not understand how Excel processes the data for stacked charts when one of the series has negative values, as is the case for net foreign capital order in several countries, although only Canada is seriously affected.)
- First strange thing: If we accept that capital is back, it is not all elements of capital that are back, and it is specifically not corporate capital. It is residential capital. Residential capital is certainly part of the capital stock, but it is probably not what most people think of when they think about the return of (or on) “capital.” More likely they think about Goldman Sachs or Amazon. But capital is not back because of Goldman Sachs or Amazon.
A simple calculation makes the point. For each country, take the increase in the capital/income ratio from 1950 to 2010. Then calculate how much of that increase is due to rising values of residential capital. The result is the proportion of the increase in capital/income from 1950 to 2010 that is explained by the increase in housing wealth:
- United Kingdom 72%
- France 103%
- Germany 102%
- Canada 63%
- United States 72%
The figures show that in every country housing wealth accounts for at least three fifths of the increase in the capital/income ratio since the middle of the twentieth century, and in two countries (France and Germany) it accounts for all of the increase in the ratio.
- Second strange thing. If housing wealth is so important to the claim that “capital is back,” what can we say about the return on housing wealth? Go back to the basic model to recall that the stability of the return on capital is crucial to Piketty’s prediction that the capital share of income is rising. Is the return on housing capital stable? No, it’s not. Bonnet et al. (2014) show clearly that in four out of five countries the return on housing wealth, measured by the ratio of housing rents to housing prices, has fallen over forty years from 1970 to 2010: in the US by nearly 20 percent, and in Britain, France, and Canada by around 40 percent. Only in Germany has it risen.
- Third strange thing: Asset prices are formed in markets. Sometimes, these markets are regulated, and this affects prices. There are variations across markets and across countries in how regulated these markets are, and I am not expert in measuring this variation. But I venture to claim that in every wealthy country the housing market is one of the most regulated asset markets. Indeed bad regulation of the US housing market was arguably a prime cause of the asset price crash and financial crisis of 2008 (Rajan 2010). And if housing wealth is increasingly a factor in inequality in the UK, policy interventions that have pumped up the demand and restricted the supply must shoulder much of the blame.
To conclude: Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.
if I had been Piketty’s editor I would have been excited and honoured to publish his book. But I might not have allowed him to call it Capital in the Twenty-first Century. More accurately, it would have been called Housing in the Twenty-first Century. But then there would be a marketing problem, because Marx never wrote three volumes on Die Behausung, and Piketty's publisher would have lost a lot of sales. Well, that’s business.
- Bonnet, Odran, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle, and Etienne Wasmer. 2014. Does Housing Capital Contribute to Inequality? A Comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Working Paper. Sciences-Po.
- Box, George E. P., and Draper, Norman R. 1987. Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces. New York: Wiley.
- Krusell, Per, and Tony Smith. 2014. Is Piketty's Second Law of Capitalism Fundamental? Working Paper. Stockholm and Yale.
- Maddison, Angus. 2010. Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008AD. Available at http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm.
- Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.
- Rajan, Raghuram. 2010. Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Teulings, Coen, and Richard Baldwin, eds. 2014. Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes, and Cures (VOXeu.org and CEPR)