The Fed As A Reverse Robin Hood
In today's edition of Bloomberg Brief, the firm's economist Richard Yamarone looks at one of the more unpleasant consequences of Federal monetary policy: the increasing schism in wealth distribution between the wealthiest percentile and everyone else. While the Fed's third mandate is by now all too clear: push the Russell 2000 to the highest possible level, one can now suggest that the 4th mandate is one that would make Robin Hood spin in his grave: "To the extent that Federal Reserve policy is driving equity prices higher, it is also likely widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots....The disparity between the net worth of those on the top rung of the income ladder and those on lower rungs has been growing. According to the latest data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the total wealth of the top 10 percent income bracket is larger in 2009 than it was in 1995. Those further down have on average barely made any gains. It is likely that data for 2010 and 2011 will reveal an even higher percentage going to the top earners, given recent increases in stocks." Alas, this is nothing new, and merely confirms speculation that the Fed is arguably the most efficient wealth redistibution, or rather focusing, mechanism available to the status quo. This is best summarized in the chart below comparing net worth by income distribution for various percentiles among the population, based on the Fed's own data. In short: the richest 20% have gotten richer in the past 14 years, entirely at the expense of everyone else.
Another indication of the increasing polarity of US society is the disparity among consumer confidence cohorts by income as shown below, and summarized as follows: "The increase in equity prices has raised consumer spirits, particularly among higher-income consumers. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index for all income levels bottomed in February/March of 2009. The recovery since then has been notable across the board, but nowhere as much as for those making $50,000 or more."
Lastly, nowhere is the schism more evident, at least in market terms, than in the performance of retail stocks:
Saks chairman Steve Sadove recently remarked, “I’ve been saying for several years now the single biggest determinant of our business overall, is how’s the stock market doing.” Privately-owned Neiman- Marcus reported “In New York City, business at Bergdorf Goodman continues to be extremely strong.”
In contrast, retail giant Wal-Mart talks of its “busiest hours” coming at midnight when food stamps are activated and consumers proceed through the check-outs lines with baby formula, diapers, and other groceries. Wal-Mart has posted a decline in same-store sales for eight consecutive quarters.
The conclusion: the end of QE, for now, may help bring US society a little closer, however temporarily.
The withdrawal of Fed accomodation may eventually stop supporting a wider income gap. In the event that further support is needed for the economy, though, this result of monetary policy acting without fiscal support — food stamps, extended uninsurance benefits and so on — should be considered.
Well, further support will be needed, but since the bottom 80% of US society is largely irrelevant in all matters that matter, one can surely hope that this major strata of the population will get some more focus in the future. Although we certainly do not have big expectations.