Inequality, the crash and the crisis. Part 2: A model of capitalism that fails to share the fruits of growth
Today we publish the second of three articles on inequality and the crisis by Stewart Lansley, visiting fellow at The Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research, Bristol University and the author of The Cost of Inequality: Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery, Gibson Square, 2012. He was one of the speakers at the 2012 OECD Forum session: How Is Inequality Holding Us Back?
The driving force behind the widening income gap of the last thirty years has been a shift in the distribution of “factor shares” – the way the output of the economy is divided between wages and profits. In the first two decades after the Second World War, a transformed model of capitalism emerged – across the rich world – in which it was accepted that the fruits of growth should be more evenly shared than they had been in the pre-War era. In the US, the share of output allocated to wages rose and stayed high. In the UK the “wage-share” settled at between 58 and 60 per cent of output, a higher rate than achieved in the pre-war era and the Victorian age. It was this elevated wage share that helped drive the “great leveling” of the post-war decades.
From the late 1970s, the capitalist model underwent another transformation, one characterised by a backward shift in the way the proceeds of growth were divided. By 2007, the share of output going to wages had fallen to 53 per cent in the UK. In the US, the fruits of growth became even more unevenly divided, with the workforce ending up with an even smaller share of the economic cake. There were similar, if shallower trends in most rich nations.
This process of decoupling wages from output has led to a growing “wage-output gap”, with a very profound, and negative, impact on the way economies function. This is for three key reasons. First, by cutting the purchasing power needed to buy the extra output being produced, the long wage squeeze brought domestic and global deflation. Consumer societies started to lose the capacity to consume.
The solution to this problem – which would have brought a prolonged recession much earlier – was to allow an explosion in private debt to fill the demand gap. In the UK, levels of personal debt rose from 45 per cent of incomes in 1981 to 157 per cent in 2008. In the US, debt reached a third more than national income by 2008. This helped to fuel a domestic boom from the mid-1990s but was never going to be sustainable. Far from preventing recession, it just delayed it.
The same factors were at work in the 1920s. The 1929 Crash was preceded by a sharp rise in inequality with the resulting demand gap also filled by an explosion in private debt. In 1920s America, the ratio of household debt to national income rose by 70 per cent in less than a decade.
Second, the intensified concentration of income led to the growth of a tidal wave of global footloose capital – a mix of corporate surpluses and burgeoning personal wealth. According to the pro-inequality theorists, these growing surpluses should have led to a boom in productive investment. Instead, they ended up fuelling commodity speculation, financial engineering and hostile corporate raids, activity geared more to transferring existing rather than creating new wealth and reinforcing the shift towards greater inequality.
Little of this benefitted the real economy. Of the £1.3 trillion lent by British banks between 1997 and 2007, 84 per cent was in mortgages and financial services. The proportion of lending going to manufacturing halved over the same period. It was this combination of the erosion of ordinary living standards and the accumulation of massive global cash surpluses that created the bubbles – in housing, property and business – that eventually brought the global economy to its knees. Again there are striking parallels with the 1920s when swelling surpluses in the US were poured into real estate and the stock market creating the bubbles that triggered the 1929 Crash.
Third, the effect of these trends has been to intensify the concentration of power with wealth and economic decision-making heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. In the US, such is the concentration of income, 5 per cent of earners account for 35 per cent of all consumer spending. A new elite has been able to exercise their muscle to ensure that economic policies work in their interest. Hence the inaction on tax havens, the blind-eye approach to tax avoidance and the scaling back of regulations on the City and Wall Street, policies that have simultaneously accentuated the risk of economic failure.
Not only did the growing income divide help to drive the global economy over the cliff in 1929 and 2008 it is now helping to prolong the crisis. UK wage-earners today have around £100 billion less in their pockets (roughly equivalent to the size of the nation’s health budget) than if the cake was shared as it was in the late 1970s. In the bigger economy of the US the sum stands at £500 billion. In contrast, the winners from the process of upward redistribution – big business and the top one per cent – are sitting on growing corporate surpluses and soaring private fortunes that are mostly sitting idle. This is a perfect recipe for paralysis.
The economic thrust of the last thirty years – greater reliance on markets, the weakened bargaining power of labour and hiked fortunes at the top – was aimed at dealing with the crisis of the 1970s, a mix of “stagflation” (stagnation and rising inflation ) and falling productivity. It succeeded in squeezing out inflation but replaced these fault lines with an equally toxic mix – global deflation, rising indebtedness and booming asset prices – that eventually brought economic collapse.
Part 3 looks at the lessons to be drawn for these trends.