World Economy

Rich Getting Richer

Near-zero interest rates have distorted markets globally
Central banks have pumped nearly $20 trillion into the economy, most of that coming after the great financial crisis of 2008, but disparity still persists. Central banks have pumped nearly $20 trillion into the economy, most of that coming after the great financial crisis of 2008, but disparity still persists.

The US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the ECB’s low-interest rate policies have increased economic inequality across the West, made the rich richer, and hurt pensions, according to Citi Research analyst Hans Lorenzen.

“The damage caused to the system isn’t worth the benefit,” he wrote in a recent note to investors, Business Insider reported.

It’s obvious that central banks’ near-zero interest rates have distorted markets globally. With bonds paying little or no interest, investment money has flowed into equities. But it is less obvious that this is making society more economically unequal.

The argument works like this:

1. Central banks pumped a huge amount of cheap cash into the global economy.

2. That cash has inflated valuations of stocks.

3. The rich were the primary beneficiaries, but they saved rather than spent so it had little effect on wages.

4. Low interest rates have hurt pensions, making them more expensive for corporations to fund.

5. That, in turn, has reduced corporate cap-ex investment.

6. Investment is also unattractive because the deflationary environment features low returns and low productivity.

7. So instead of borrowing to invest, European companies have focused on cutting costs.

8. And US companies have used the money to buy back their own shares, mostly helping the rich.

9. None of the above has created jobs or boosted wages.

  Flow of Cheap Money

Lorenzen has several charts that make the case. Central banks have pumped nearly $20 trillion into the economy, most of that coming after the great financial crisis of 2008.  The size of their balance sheets have ballooned to 37% of global GDP in the process.

That excess flow of cheap money has “distorted asset allocation” and “distorted incentives,” Lorenzen says. So much of it has gone into stocks that central bank policy is now the major driver of equities, not corporate fundamentals, he says.

Changes in central bank policy now directly drive changes in the S&P 500. “Every twist and turn now hangs on a central banker’s words,” he says.

But most of the growth in equities has ended up—predictably—in the hands of the rich. But it did nothing for wages. “QE gains end up in hands with lowest propensity to spend,” he says.

In fact, Lorenzen argues, low interest rates hurt pensions, forcing companies to reduce their capital expenditure investment and divert more money into plans. Pension deficits are surging again, Lorenzen argues.

But if debt is so cheap why aren’t companies borrowing, spending and investing? The answer is deflation. When prices are falling and productivity is low there is no point in investing if you can’t make a decent return.

So companies in Europe are focusing on cutting costs (which doesn’t create jobs or drive wages).

It is “unlikely quantitative easing by itself will ever rekindle investment appetite,” Lorenzen concludes. “The damage caused to the system isn’t worth the benefit of incremental QE.”

  Pension Deals

If the government proposed a law that cuts the amount your employer had to pay into your pension each year from an average of £7,400 ($9,675) to just £1,071, people would be angry.

Now imagine how angry people would be if this law only applied to 76% of people. The other 24% get to keep accruing their big pension deals, while the rest of the people suffer.

This hypothetical law would save corporations £36 billion in annual pension contributions, keeping that money as profit or distributing it to stockholders as dividends.

Any prime minister who proposed such a law would get laughed out of Parliament. Aside from its rank, unfairness and the severity of the reductions, it would leave future generations of employees unable to retire, creating a time-bomb of senior-citizen poverty for the future.

A social security bill unintentionally paved the way for employers to get away with paying employees far less in real-terms than they had in the past. It means entire generations are on course to retire without enough money to survive until they die.