Wednesday, October 3, 2018

In-depth look at income and wealth data (pt. 2 of 3): Wealth

First, to preface with why wealth as distinct from income is relevant to economists and to policymakers at large. Kopczuk (2014) discusses the importance of understanding the wealth distribution: "the extent to which the well-off are going to rely on work vs. return to their wealth in the future is clearly important for assessing the extent to which a society will view itself in some way a meritocracy." Wealth is an important determinant of labor force participation and therefore impacts productivity and economic growth. It also has important implications for inequality, intergenerational mobility, and, consequently, implications for democratic institutions whose stability is reliant on a meritocratic society or at least the verisimilitude of a meritocratic society.

It should be noted that estimates of wealth inequality and the top wealth shares are not as widely agreed upon as estimates of income inequality and labor income shares. There are a few main data sources for estimating wealth inequality that are aptly summarized in Alvaredo, Atkinson, and Morelli (2018):
  1. Household surveys including the U.K. Wealth and Assets Survey and the U.S. Survey of Consumer Finances;
  2. Administrative data on individual estates at death; 
  3. Administrative data on wealth of living from annual wealth taxes; 
  4. Administrative data on investment income that are capitalized; and 
  5. Lists of large wealth-holders (e.g. Forbes).
These data sources are discussed in great detail in Kopczuk (2014)'s "What Do We Know About the Evolution of Top Wealth Shares in the United States?" which specifically discusses the U.S. Survey of Consumer Finances (1), the mortality multiplier method with individual estate data (2), and investment income data (4). Each of these data sources is subject to different concerns. Household surveys and list of the wealthiest individuals are recent phenomena and cannot be used for estimates prior to the 1950s when the household surveys on wealth were first implemented. Administrative data on wealth of the living based on wealth taxes cannot be recouped in most developed countries because only a few developed countries, most notably France and Norway, have a wealth tax to begin with. Therefore, most researchers rely on estate tax records on individual estates at death or on reported taxable capital income.

The primary concern with estate taxes is that the distribution of estates of the deceased must be projected to the population at large: i.e. a multiplier method must be used in order to answer the question, how does the distribution of wealth among the deceased reflect the distribution of wealth among the living? Mortality multipliers are inverses of mortality rates based on various criteria, for example, wealthy individuals tend to have lower mortality rates and increased longevity compared to less wealthy individuals and therefore a higher mortality multiplier would be applied to the upper estate ranges meaning there are relatively more individuals living within those ranges than lower ones. For more on recent discussions of the relative longevity of the wealthy see Saez and Zucman (2016) and Chetty et al. (2016).

Kopczuk presents a few interesting stylized facts about wealth that provide a good introduction to the wealth distribution and methods of estimating it:
  • Wealth is highly concentrated (top 10 percent holds between 65 and 85 percent of the total wealth, top 1 percent holds between 20 and 45 percent of total wealth based on time period); 
  • While the methods of estimating the wealth distribution disagree on the timing it is clear that wealth concentration hit its apex prior to the Great Depression and declined after that; 
  • Different methods lead to varying estimates for the top 1% for several reasons: one is that the estate tax multiplier method uses the individual as the unit of observation, surveys use the household, and the capitalization method uses tax units; another is that tax evasion impacts the administrative tax-based methods (estate tax and capitalization) but not the survey-based methods. Some capture debt (estate tax returns) whereas others do not (capitalization). 
In a recent issue of the Journal of Public Economics commemorating Tony Atkinson's work, Alvaredo, Atkinson, and Morelli (2018) provides new evidence on the evolution of top wealth shares in the U.K. To choose one of the most interesting facets of the discussion of wealth that they present in the article, it is enlightening to view the top wealth shares compared to the wealth shares excluding housing.

The top 1%'s total wealth share and wealth share excluding housing tracked each other for much of the late 20th century but the authors note the divergence between the two trends in the 21st century, wherein the share of the top 1% of wealth holders of total wealth increased much more rapidly than its share of wealth excluding housing. In other words, the growth of wealth excluding housing is likely to be a more significant contributor to rising inequality than is the growth of housing wealth. In fact, they even mention that increases in housing prices serve an equalizing effect for the top 1%:

"It appears that housing wealth has moderated a definite tendency for there to be a rise in recent years in top shares in total wealth apart from housing. When people talk about rising wealth concentration in the U.K., then it is probably the latter that they have in mind... The results show how the impact of a general rise in house prices has changed over the period but it is always equalizing for the top 1%. At the beginning of the period a rise of 25% led to a reduction of some 1 percentage point in the share of the top 1% but the effect became smaller over time."

It should be noted, however, that trends in the housing market - particularly the resurgence in the private landlord and "buy to let" over the past three decades - likely have impacts on other areas of the wealth distribution apart from the top 1% of wealth owners (though these impacts are not addressed in this paper). This New York Times article from last year, for example, is a news feature that discusses the role that homeownership plays in propagating existing wealth and income inequalities. These topics and the lower rungs of the wealth distribution more broadly are areas for further investigation, but for the time being Alvaredo, Atkinson, and Morelli (2018) highlight how granularity in wealth data can be used to better identify the causes of growing wealth inequality over the past few decades and, while they utilize estate data and the mortality multiplier method in their analysis, can also be triangulated with other methods and data sources to form a more comprehensive understanding of the wealth distribution.

  1. Alvaredo, F., Atkinson, A., Morelli, S. (2018). Top wealth shares in the UK over more than a century. Journal of Public Economics.
  2. Kopczuk, W. (2014). What do we know about the evolution of top wealth shares in the United States? NBER Working Paper 20734.
  3. Chetty, R., Stepner, M., Abraham, S., Lin, S., Scuderi, B., Turner, N., Bergeron, A., Cutler, D. (2016) The association between income and life expectancy in the United States 2001-2014. Journal of American Medical Association.
  4. Saez, E., Zucman, G. (2016) The distribution of US wealth, capital income, and returns since 1913. Quarterly Journal of Economics


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