September 30, 2016
Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty
by Stephanie Flanders
This is a VIB – very important book. Nearly everyone agrees about that. But the reasons for its importance have changed in the months since it was published. At first it was important because it was a big book on a big subject: a book of grand ambition about inequality, written not by the latest “thinker” but a respected academic economist with real numbers to go with his theory. We hadn’t had anything like that in ages. This was the “Piketty as rockstar” phase, when the book was an “improbable hit” and people wrote breathless articles about the modern successor to Marx who could crunch the numbers but also quote Balzac, The Simpsons and The West Wing.
Writing a bestselling economics book is usually a good way to make other economists hate you. But at first even they heaped praise on Thomas Piketty for casting fresh light on inequality – an area where the official statistics are notoriously weak. Say what you like about the theory, the argument went, you had to thank him for the numbers.
At this point you didn’t need to read it to have an opinion about it. Indeed for some, not having read it was a badge of pride. Ed Miliband unashamedly told people he hadn’t got beyond the first chapter – and kept on saying that for several weeks. Maybe he has now. Or maybe he’s just decided that the debate about the book is more important than the book itself. That’s certainly the conclusion I have come to, and not just because several of its central arguments have now been questioned.
There are many claims in the 700-odd pages, but let me highlight some of the important ones, before moving on to whether – and why – any of this matters.
Claim one is that income inequality has increased sharply since the late 1970s, with a particularly dramatic rise in the share of total income going to the very highest earners. The most quoted Piketty statistic here is one that no one, to my knowledge, has questioned: that 60% of the increase in US national income in the 30 years after 1977 went to just the top 1% of earners. The only section of the US population that has done better than the top 1% is the top 10th of that 1%. The top 100th of the 1% have done best of all.
These are remarkable numbers. Uncovering and bringing together this data for the US and a handful of other countries using tax returns is a major achievement, which some say merits a Nobel prize on its own. Piketty goes on to show that this dramatic rise in income inequality hasn’t happened in all rich economies, and, oddly, does not really have much to do with capital. Even in the US, it has been driven by soaring salaries at the top end of the pay scale, not rising incomes from capital.
That rather large complication to the story does not stop Piketty focusing the rest of the book on capital, which he says has also become more unequally distributed since the 1970s, not just in the US but in Europe too. He believes this trend toward greater wealth inequality is very likely to continue, because the returns from capital are likely to grow faster than the economy itself, and faster than the owners of that wealth are likely to be able to spend it.
This is the “central contradiction of capitalism”, which he summarises with a Marxian turn of phrase: “the entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.”
This is where things get tricky, not just for Piketty but for the general reader, who simply wants to know whether he’s right. Let me cut to the chase and say that the evidence for rising wealth inequality is not nearly as clear as the evidence for rising inequality of incomes. Further, even some of Piketty’s biggest fans in the academic world have their doubts whether the forces pushing the economy in that direction are as strong as he suggests. Most would agree that the developed economies are likely to grow more slowly as their populations get older. This might have the “terrifying” consequences for wealth inequality that he suggests, but it’s also possible that slower growth will be as costly to the owners of capital as it is for everyone else. Their share of the total pie might even decrease.
That is actually what has happened in the UK recently. In the boom years after the mid 90s, the owners of capital took a larger share of national income, and the labour share tended to decline. But the trend reversed itself when the economy hit the skids in 2007, and the labour share is back to where it was in the early 70s. Income inequality has also fallen slightly over this period, at least in the UK. So, whatever terrible things have happened to our economy in the past five years, they haven’t followed the long-term path sketched out by Piketty. Rather the opposite.
There is some evidence that the top 10% in the US is sitting on a higher share of total wealth now than in the 70s. But it’s difficult to draw similar conclusions about Britain or France because the data is so patchy. From what we can tell, the share of total wealth held by the top 1% – and 0.01% – hasn’t changed much at all.
Piketty has some interesting analysis demonstrating that wealth begets more wealth: the richer university endowments, for example, tend to earn the highest returns on their investments, not just in absolute but percentage terms. This rings true and also has some economic logic to it. The more money you have to invest, the more – in cash terms – you can afford to spend on finding the best opportunities, without materially cutting into your returns. As a force for rising wealth inequality this makes sense and probably merits a book of its own, given that individuals across the developed world are increasingly having to take greater responsibility for saving for their retirement. It matters if small investors are going to be systematically disadvantaged in making these long-term investments.
But the concentration of wealth at the top doesn’t seem as inexorable as all that. As the economist and former US treasury secretary Larry Summers has pointed out, most of the people on the list of 400 wealthiest Americans in 1982 would have had enough to money to qualify in 2012 if they had simply earned a return of 4% a year. But fewer than a 10th actually did so. The proportion of the top 400 who inherited their wealth has actually been falling – not rising, as Piketty’s theory would also suggest.
Given what has been happening to incomes at the top, you would expect to have seen more concentration of wealth than we can find in the data. That might be – as Piketty suggests – because rich people are good at hiding their money from the taxman. But it might also be because they are very good at spending their money, and their children even more so. I was at a conference recently for advisers and trustees to family estates, and was amused to hear speaker after speaker assert that the “biggest threat” to a family fortune was “not the taxman or the markets but the family itself”.
Say we agree with Piketty, and conclude that wealth has become more concentrated, his own numbers show this is a fairly recent phenomenon. As he admits, the single most important structural change in the distribution of wealth in the past 100 years has been in the other direction. That is the emergence of a new “patrimonial class”, somewhere between rich and poor, owning 25%-35% of the nation’s wealth.
He describes the emergence of this class in the middle years of the 20th century as a transformation that “deeply altered the social landscape and the political structure of society and helped redefine the terms of distributive conflict”. That may well be true. But for me, what’s more interesting about this shift is not what it might or might not have done for “the terms of distributive conflict”, but what it did for households – and the broader economy. Piketty really doesn’t go into that at all, which is a shame because if you don’t have a clear understanding of the benefits of broader capital ownership it’s difficult to explain why it’s so “terrifying” if things are now moving back in the other direction.
The latest official survey of UK household incomes and wealth shows that around a third of all UK households has either negative net worth – debts greater than their assets – or net financial assets worth less than £5,000. I am more worried about that lack of wealth at the bottom and in the middle of the income scale than about the squillions being amassed by a very few.
We know that families with that little to fall back on are much more likely to fall into long-term cycles of dependency and poverty. We also know – and if we didn’t know we could learn from reading the Daily Mail that Piketty’s “patrimonial middle class” feels more squeezed these days, whatever might have happened to the financial value of their home. He seems to assume that all these things are connected, that the greater income flowing to the 1% is making things worse for everyone else. But he never really makes the case. That is remarkable omission for a book of such magisterial sweep.
When I was first learning economics in the late 80s and 90s, the UK was just getting used to the free-market idea that higher incomes at the top did not have to mean lower incomes at the bottom. To ensure growth in the economy, the message went, you had to give the “wealth creators” the incentive to increase both the pie and their slice of it. Economists still believe that, up to a point. But in the wake of the financial crisis there has been broader acceptance of the view that very high levels of income inequality can increase the risk of such crises, and so hurt the economy. We also have evidence – from the IMF, of all places – that in unequal economies, more redistributive taxes might promote faster growth. As with most things, it’s a matter of degree.
This all helps to explain why Piketty’s book has been such a smash. Many people are worried about the slow rate of growth in the developed economies since the financial crisis in 2008. Many are also worried about rising inequality. At first glance, Capital seems to offer an elegant way to explain both. But, by his own admission, the world is a lot more complicated than talk of a “central contradiction to capitalism” might suggest. So is the relationship between capital accumulation and growth.
Like Miliband, Piketty sees a clear difference between the wealth creators and the asset strippers – between the fat cat “rentier” capital that devours the future and the more socially useful capital of the entrepreneur. But his own broad definition of capital doesn’t really help us draw that kind of distinction. It’s all thrown in together, along with all of our houses, and everything else with a financial value that can be bought or sold. That’s a pity because if there’s one thing that policymakers around the world are looking for it’s a way to channel a bit more money into productive investment – and a bit less into house prices and stocks and shares.
Piketty deserves huge credit for kickstarting a debate about inequality and illuminating the distribution of income and wealth. But when it comes to the forces driving growth and wealth accumulation in our modern economy what he has probably done most to bring out into the open is our collective ignorance and confusion.
• Stephanie Flanders is chief market strategist for Europe, JP Morgan Asset Management.