Do rich people ignore declines in their wealth?
Here's a recent article at FiveThirtyEight that didn't make sense to me. It's called "Why the Housing Bubble Tanked the Economy and the Tech Bubble Didn't." It's by two guest writers, Amir Sufi and Atif Mian, both professors of economics.
Their argument goes like this (my words):
In 2007, the housing bubble wiped out $6 trillion in real estate values. Coincidentally, in 2000, the tech stock bubble dropped stock prices by roughly the same $6 trillion.
But, from 2007-2009, there was a bad recession, with consumer spending dropping 8 percent. In 2000, by contrast, consumer spending actually grew.
Why the difference?
Sufi and Mian argue that it's because the tech stock losses fell on mostly the rich, while the housing bubble hurt poor homeowners' nest eggs more severely. In a series of charts, they show how the richest quintile of home owners lost only about 25% of their total wealth in the housing crash, while the poorest 20 percent -- with their mortgage barely paid off, resulting in high leverage -- lost about 90% of their net worth. (This is dramatically illustrated in their second chart, where the bottom-quintile line dives to almost zero. Hey, embedding a tweet is fair use, right? In that case, here's the graph.)
This graphic on the housing bust, from economists Amir Sufi and Atif Mian, is striking. http://t.co/RdJJL57UFA pic.twitter.com/xQyZEss53l
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) May 12, 2014
The authors write,
"The poor cut spending much more for the same dollar decline in wealth ... If Bill Gates loses $30,000 in a bad investment, he's not going to cut back his spending. If a household with only $30,000 suffers a similar loss, they're going to massively slash spending."
So, that's their argument for why 2007 was so much worse than 2000: because it wasn't just the rich who took a huge hit.
The article's facts make sense to me, but I don't think the conclusion follows.
While the poorer homeowners did indeed suffer a larger percentage loss, that's not directly relevant. The *dollar* loss is the better measure of what affects the broader economy. When the local coffee shop goes out of business, it doesn't matter if it's because its 200 poorest customers stopped spending entirely, or its 800 richer customers cut spending by a quarter.
The authors implicitly acknowledge that, when they note that the less wealthy are more sensitive to changes on a dollar-for-dollar basis, their $30,000 to Bill Gates' $30,000. But the bottom quintile didn't lose more on a dollar for dollar basis -- only on a percentage basis.
If the poor had lost the same amount as the rich, or close to it, I might buy the argument. But it wasn't even close. From the chart, it looks like the poorest lost about $25,000 in net worth, dropping from $30,000 to $2,000. But the richest lost a million dollars in value, literally, from $4 million down to $3 million.
That is, the top quintile lost thirty times as much as the bottom quintile percent.
So, for the authors to defend their hypothesis, it's not enough that they show that the poor cut spending per dollar more than the rich do. They have to show that the poor cut spending per dollar *more than 30 times as much* as the rich do.
I doubt that's the case. A back-of-the-envelope guess shows that it's pretty much impossible. Let's guess at the average income of the bottom quintile -- $50,000, maybe? And, suppose they spent all of it before the crash.
After the crash, they get scared, and spend less. How much less? Let's say, $5,000 less? They still have to pay the mortgage, and taxes, and food, and clothing.
Now, the top quintile. Let's suppose they spent all their income before the crash, and, to be generous to the authors, assume they again spent all their income after the crash.
But, what about their wealth? Do we really think they won't spend *any* less of their stash now that it's $3 million instead of $4 million?
Most people accumulate wealth because they eventually want to spend it -- otherwise, what's the point? Let's suppose they plan on spending half of it before they die, and leaving the other half to charity or heirs. After the crisis, they have $500,000 less to spend over their lifetime. If they've got 30 years left, simple arithmetic says they have to spend an average of $16,000 less per year. (And that doesn't even consider that their income from that wealth will drop proportionately.)
Now, you could argue that they won't cut their spending by $16,000 a year *immediately*. But, why not? Maybe they're saving for retirement, so the cut in spending comes later. But, some of the richest quintile is *already* retired, so their spending cuts would be immediate, and larger than $16K.
And, look at it the other way. If you're worth $3 million, and the market booms, and suddenly you're worth $4 million ... are you really not going to spend MORE? I would. And if it works one way, it should work the other way.
(Sure, your personal spending might not change if you're so rich that you have everything you want either way -- like a Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. But the top quintile isn't even close. I can assure you, personally, that I'd be spending more with $4 million to my name than with $3 million.)
It's undeniable logic that when your net worth drops, your lifetime future spending (or donating) has to drop by exactly the same amount. The idea that richer peoples' spending drops by zero ... that seems to contradict both arithmetic and human nature.
Coincidentally, I found an answer to the "how much more do the rich spend?" question in a recent book review by Larry Summers, a prominent economist who was Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. Summers writes,
"The determinants of levels of consumer spending have been much studied by macroeconomists. The general conclusion of the research is that an increase of $1 in wealth leads to an additional $.05 in spending [per year]."
That would mean the top quintile, dropping $1 million in wealth, would spend $50,000 less next year. (More than I would have guessed.)
The above two sentences by themselves don't differentiate between richer and poorer. But the context is clearly about the rich, in a discussion about how the wealthy don't actually get that much wealthier because they tend to blow a lot of the money they've already got.
Near the end of the article, Sufi and Mian confirm themselves that academic economists disagree with them:
"Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke described why academics doubt the importance of distribution issues ... suggesting that differences in spending propensities because of wealth would have to be "implausibly large" to explain the decline in spending during the 1930s."
But there's nothing in their data that provides a basis for their disagreement.
It occurred to me that there's evidence out there that we could check on our own. Specifically, sales of "rich people" goods. If the wealthy didn't cut spending during the crash, sales wouldn't have dropped -- or at least, not as much as for "normal people" goods.
Looking at cars ... as a baseline, let's take Ford, the automaker least affected by the 2007 crisis. Here are total US Ford sales for 2006 to 2010, (and year-over-year percentage change):
2007 2,507,366 (-14%)
2008 1,988,376 (-21%)
2009 1,620,888 (-18%)
2010 1,935,462 (+20%)
Compare those percentage changes to some of the luxury brands. I've added Honda, too, as a second "middle-class brand" reference point.
Bentley: +3% -33% -49% +5%
BMW: +7% -15% -21% +12%
Mercedes: +2% -21% -17% +6%
Cadillac: -5% -25% -33% +35%
Jaguar: -24% +2% -25% +12%
Lexus: +2% -21% -17% +6%
Ford: -14% -21% -18% +20%
Honda: +5% -6% -19% + 5%
It does seem like luxury cars were hit almost exactly the same way as Ford and Honda, doesn't it?
Among the large, publicly-traded US home builders, one of them, Toll Brothers, specializes in luxury homes. According to their annual report (.pdf, see first page), their average home sold for $639,000 last year.
If rich people didn't cut spending during the crisis, you'd expect that Toll Brothers' sales wouldn't have declined, or, at least, declined less than those of the builders of "middle-class" houses.
Nope. Here's the 2006-2009 percentage drop in sales for all the homebuilders Value Line covers:
76% D.R. Horton
84% KB Home
70% Std. Pacific
71% Toll Brothers
Toll Brothers fits right in.
Here are some luxury-goods makers' revenue changes from 2006 to 2009:
+ 2% Tiffany
All are down more than the overall 8%, except Coach and Tiffany. The simple average is still more than -8%. The weighted average is probably a little smaller than that, because Winnebago, Sotheby's, and Movado have lower sales than the other companies.
Also, I'm not sure Coach should count ... it had been growing wildly throughout the decade, and continued to do so until recently. Also, its growth did slow significantly during the crisis. From 2002 to 2013, Coach's revenues grew by an average 13% annually -- but from 2008 to 2009, sales rose only 2%.
In any case, even if you include Coach, the results are in line with the 8%. If you don't include Coach, then, wow, those companies' sales did much, much worse than -8%.
Sufi and Mian also seem to think their hypothesis is somehow related to the issue of income inequality:
"[This] shows how important distributional issues should be in macroeconomics. As the recent craze over French economist Thomas Piketty's new book, 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century,' shows, both economists and lay people are beginning to understand that wealth inequality is crucial for understanding the broader economy."
But, inequality doesn't impact their argument at all. What their hypothesis says is that shocks to poorer people are more likely to cause recessions. In that case, what prevents recessions is not equality, but wealth.
In fact, by their argument, inequality is almost completely uninformative as a predictor. If we were all equal and poorer, the recession would be severe. If we were all equal and richer, there would be no recession at all. It's *wealth* that matters for their theory, not inequality.
So, in summary: the authors are writing to refute conventional thinking on recessions. But, they don't really tell us why they think the established science is wrong. Their key premise seems to be contradicted by arithmetic and actual sales figures. And, the data they choose to show us doesn't actually bear on the disagreement.
Do I have this wrong? Am I missing something? Any economists out there want to correct me?