Triggered by Robert Kuttner’s column in the American Prospect, the explanation du jour of our current economic malaise blames the ‘rentier class’ i.e. owners of financial assets – the thesis being that wealthy Americans do not want any more inflationary policies to be enacted and may even prefer deflation instead. Paul Krugman argues that wealthy Americans do not want inflation because financial securities are overwhelmingly held by the richest 10% of the population. But what matters for the incentives of rich households is what proportion of their balance sheet is made up of nominal financial securities. And Edward Wolff’s paper shows us that a significant proportion of the balance sheet of wealthy Americans is made up of real assets – real estate, stock and business holdings.
Similarly, a return to deflation will result in a fall in demand for products and services sold by businesses and a deterioration in bank balance sheets with increased and disruptive bankruptcies. As Brad DeLong noted, no one benefits from a deflationary collapse in the economy. A much better explanation is offered by Matthew Yglesias when he observes that “the Fed has hardly been indifferent to the potential for monetary expansion. It’s just that the goal of monetary expansion has been to do just enough to stabilize financial asset prices without going far enough to produce catch-up growth in the labor market.” What wealthy Americans, businesses and banks share is a common interest in supporting asset prices (real and nominal), a lack of interest in seeking full employment unless it is a prerequisite for supporting asset prices, and an aversion to any policies that can trigger wage inflation.
This bias towards asset price inflation doesn’t just impact the amount of stimulus. It has an influence on the type of stimulus that is preferred in this class conflict. The goal of asset price inflation without wage inflation is best achieved by an exclusive reliance on monetary policy – as I discussed in a previous post, a combination of “liquidity” facilities to prevent a collapse in shadow money supply and open market operations/QE to reduce real rates across the risk-free curve. Given the anaemic state of household balance sheets and insensitivity of corporate investment to interest rates due to a cronyist corporate sector, lower rates will not trigger sufficient real economic activity to trigger wage inflation but they will support real asset prices. Even within the ambit of fiscal policy, supply-side incentives for businesses are preferred. Given a less than competitive corporate sector, these will feed through to business profits more than they will feed through to wage inflation and employment.
Some of you may have noticed the distinctly Marxist tone of this debate – an emphasis on class conflict that rarely permeates economic discussion in mainstream circles. This is not a coincidence – as I observed in an earlier post, the dynamics of a crony capitalist economy resemble a zero-sum Marxian class struggle. Rather than expanding the size of the economic pie, economic agents focus their energies on trying to capture a larger slice of a static, stagnant output.