Piqued by Piketty?

“Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

– Benjamin Franklin


Over the past 18 months there’s been a gushing and gnashing over the book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. I have to admit I’m a bit late to the party and am just getting around to reading (perusing?) it. (I have a good excuse – an 18 mo. old baby.)

Seems most of the feedback has been delineated by political ideology – the left embraces Piketty’s work and the right dismisses it. Perhaps we can pursue a non-ideological tack to dissect Piketty’s take on capitalism.

Piketty has been rightly praised for the work he has led on the collection of historical wealth and income data, and he generously offers this data to the world for future study. Most of the controversy involves his particular interpretation of these historical statistics, claiming that inequalities have reached the same levels as the roaring ’20s a century earlier. Depending on one’s measures and comparisons, that might be argued as true. The devil is in the details.

Piketty makes broad claims that inequality is inherent to the internal dynamics of capitalist markets and that the interim period – 1930s-1970s – was a reversal due to the wealth destruction of the Great Depression and WWII. Then he explicates his “law” of capital that the rate of return on capital (r) will always exceed the rate of economic growth (g), leading to ever narrower concentrations of wealth among the owners of capital. But this is too broad a brush.

We need to unbundle the capitalist wealth creating process and the dynamics of distribution in order to understand why the data looks the way it does. How, when and why does r exceed g and what are the distributional consequences? Piketty so far has not provided satisfying answers.

First, he defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being productive or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as collectibles such as art and jewelry. Thus, there is no distinction made between financial or physical capital or non-productive real assets and thus no explanation for why different asset classes might experience varying growth rates and what that means for wealth and incomes. The return on capital does not always exceed the growth rate and will often drop precipitously over the business or trade cycle, as well as due to the falling marginal rate of return on existing investment. (Certainly r was negative for a considerable period of time during the Great Depression, the 70s stagnation and our recent Great Recession.) With his broad brush, Piketty ignores these insightful details.

Financial assets, as claims on real assets (a form of derivative really), often fluctuate more widely than real assets. Real asset classes that are illiquid, such as art and real estate, often don’t trade, thus making true value difficult to ascertain. Let us explain why this matters (see Figure I.1 below from Piketty’s dataset): The two periods that Piketty claims represent his conclusion on inequality (red circles) were both marked by financial asset bubbles fomented by easy credit bubbles (green squares). In both cases, when the credit crunch inevitably came, these asset prices adjusted quite drastically and quickly, erasing much of the wealth accumulated during the bubble (look at the wealth shares of the 1% over time – it’s quite a roller coaster ride). The difference today is that we have harnessed public credit to maintain these inflated asset prices. Let me make the difference plain: in the panic of 1929 and the early ’30s stock brokers jumped out of windows to their untimely deaths; after the panic of Lehman’s collapse, they jumped out with Federal Reserve-issued parachutes and landed safely on their yachts and vineyards.

Income-USA-1910-2010Piketty’s graph does highlight a concern here. The massive crash in asset prices and capital incomes after 1940 was surely due to the destruction of WWII when high property values in Europe became worthless. The central banks of the world have done their utmost to prevent such a crash after 2008, but one can still manage a price correction to reassert pre-bubble values. Admittedly, this is difficult to do with debt and requires a lot of bankruptcy that needs to be managed. But instead we’ve reflated the bubble asset prices at the high end, and with them the high incomes derived from capital. Life is good when you’re the king (or the Fed chairperson).

Second, we should understand that housing is playing an outsized role in our recent widening of wealth inequality. Housing policy rewarded real estate investments over other investments during the long credit bubble that accompanied the maturation of the baby boom generation (green square on right). This gave the housing sector a double stimulus: rising demand plus a generous tax preference. When housing wealth is stripped from the current distribution of capital, wealth inequality appears much flatter (see Rognlie).

So, rather than some immutable law of capitalism, perhaps Piketty has identified an artifact of short-sighted policy, especially by central banks and government housing policy. In our recent financial market “correction,” these asset prices have not really corrected, as de-leveraging of private credit (mostly in the FIRE sector) has merely been assumed by public credits. The Fed has expanded its balance sheet by about $4.5 trillion and the Treasury has increased the total debt by almost $8 trillion. With all that liquidity sloshing around, the rich have gotten richer because of their ownership of capital assets, both real and financial, while economic growth and employment have stagnated because of de-leveraging and the uncertainty of price distortions keyed off a deliberately depressed interest rate. These monetary and fiscal policies have greatly aggravated inequality and created the more serious problem of allowing those with inflated financial assets to trade them for more permanent real assets, thus narrowing the control over these real asset classes. In the distant past this was called feudalism and we risk recreating such class distinctions.

Nevertheless, Piketty hits on some key truths about the workings of capitalism, none of which are really new but are worth reiterating. First, we call it CAPITAL-ism for a reason – it depends on the accumulation and productive deployment of capital in order to create wealth. To quote Ben Franklin: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

For the same reason we don’t call it LABOR-ism, because capitalism is about successful risk-taking and our property rights legal system assigns risks and returns to a priori ownership claims. For too long we’ve understood the distributional mechanism of capitalism to be wage incomes, when an increasing share of that distribution is remitted through capital ownership claims on profits. Technology and globalization has only amplified this trend. In addition, a mature capitalist society with an aging demographic depends on an increasing share of rents earned by accumulated capital.

The growing disparity of wage incomes can be largely traced to incomes associated with financial capital, such as in the FIRE sector, and by winner-take-all, or superstar, markets in many professions such as entertainment and sports, but also among corporate managerial elites. In a free and just society this inequality needs to be addressed, but turning back to a laborist model of economic development would mean turning back the tides of trade and freedom.

Rather, we need to promote capital accumulation across the broadest stretch of the population. This simple graph of the relationship between physical capital per worker and income shows the symbiosis between these two factors of production – we merely need to cease dividing them into their antagonistic corners through misguided tax policy.

capital-income – from David Weil, Economic Growth.

In addition, we need policies that promote long-term risk-taking and risk management and de-emphasize short-term asset trading. A return to saving and prudent investment will require disciplinary constraints on credit policy, something we’ve lost with too much central bank discretion over monetary policy. The question is how will we attain that discipline with a fiat monetary regime that allows credit creation according to the policy whims of the central bank and the Treasury?

The answers to inequality are not simple and certainly more complex than Piketty’s retrograde and admittedly unworkable proposal of taxing capital for redistribution by the state. The leftist appeal of this argument readily embraces the idea that wealth in private hands is somehow more easily abused than wealth in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Tell that to the victims of statism across former Soviet societies. Instead, wealth should be enjoyed by the widest possible swath of the citizenry to be earned by the sweat of their brows and the liberated ingenuity of their imaginations. As I presented in an earlier post, Billie Holiday makes the most insightful observation when it comes to our capitalist society: “God Bless the Child that’s got his own.”

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