Marketplace Scratch Pad

The rich getting poorer

Scott Jagow Aug 21, 2009

For three decades, the rich have literally been getting richer. But there’s statistical and anecdotal evidence that the trend is over. The question is — what does that mean for everyone else?

From today’s New York Times:

For every investment banker whose pay has recovered to its prerecession levels, there are several who have lost their jobs — as well as many wealthy investors who have lost millions. As a result, economists and other analysts say, a 30-year period in which the super-rich became both wealthier and more numerous may now be ending.

The relative struggles of the rich may elicit little sympathy from less well-off families who are dealing with the effects of the worst recession in a generation. But the change does raise several broader economic questions. Among them is whether harder times for the rich will ultimately benefit the middle class and the poor, given that the huge recent increase in top incomes coincided with slow income growth for almost every other group. In blunter terms, the question is whether the better metaphor for the economy is a rising tide that can lift all boats — or a zero-sum game.

On that question, economists are split:

If anything, these economists say, any problems the wealthy have will trickle down, in the form of less charitable giving and less consumer spending. Over the last century, the worst years for the rich were the early 1930s, the heart of the Great Depression.

Other economists say the recent explosion of incomes at the top did hurt everyone else, by concentrating economic and political power among a relatively small group.

Another thing in the article that stood out to me:

One of the starkest patterns in the data on inequality is the extent to which the incomes of the very rich are tied to the stock market. They have risen most rapidly during the biggest bull markets: in the 1920s and the 20 years starting in 1987.

“We are coming from an abnormal period where a tremendous amount of wealth was created largely by selling assets back and forth,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief executive of Pimco, one of the country’s largest bond traders, and the former manager of Harvard’s endowment.

Some of this wealth was based on real economic gains, like those from the computer revolution. But much of it was not, Mr. El-Erian said. “You had wealth creation that could not be tied to the underlying economy,” he added, “and the benefits were very skewed: they went to the assets of the rich. It was financial engineering.”

Creating wealth without creating anything else seems to exact a price during a bust. A recent study suggests the people with the most money lose the most income, percentage-wise, when the economy tanks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If the rich are getting poorer, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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