Is inequality a part of the American Dream, or its end?

A quote that has been rattling around my head recently is ‘aside from the moral case against it, inequality above a moderate level creates a kind of society that even crusty conservatives hate to live in, unsafe and unpleasant’. It comes from a 2004 paper entitled ‘Is globalization reducing poverty and inequality?’ by LSE Professor Robert Hunter Wade.

It has come to mind for obvious reasons – namely the behavior of crusty conservatives in America in the face of stark inequalities across race and class, and the risks that extreme inequality poses to the US.

While on one hand 43 million Americans having now claimed unemployment benefit and on the other, the ratio of the size of the US stock market to GDP (one of Warren Buffet’s favourite indicators of ‘value’) is the most stretched ever, the topic of inequality should rise to the top of the US political agenda, with the death of George Floyd a very grim expression of this.

In the US, and in some emerging countries, inequality, in different forms is rife. Much has been written on income inequality (Branko Milanovic’s work is to be recommended) and there is also increasingly good data to show that wealth inequality is the most stretched in close to a century in the US, and the likes of Russia. What is less widely debated publicly are the other ways in which inequality expresses itself.

Health is one area. Angus Deaton and Anne Case’s work is now well known (he won the Nobel Prize) and shows the deterioration in health conditions, especially those relating to mental health, for middle-aged white men and women in the United States. The mortality rate for this cohort has increased sharply owing to drug, opioids and alcohol poisoning, suicides and diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver. Groups with lower levels of education saw a sharper rise in mortality. The coronavirus crisis reinforced this trend.

Another more detailed example of health-care inequality is in dental care. Mary Otto’s book Teeth shows the startling differences in dental health across social classes and reports that they spring from differences in education, diet, and upbringing. In her book Otto tells of a boy who died when a tooth infection, undetected because his parents had no dental-care insurance, spread to his brain.

Technology is another factor that may help cement existing inequalities. For example, in her book Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks describes how automation of welfare services through the growing use of algorithms to sift welfare recipients, and in areas like medical insurance assessments, can lead to institutionalized inequalities (the algo- rithm throws out the more needy welfare applicants) and injustice. She describes a regime of data analytics that, through design or error, denies assistance to those in poverty, with low education levels or poor computer literacy, or with a history of mental health issues.

Another example of technology-driven inequality comes from Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, whose research initially discovered that facial recognition software was much more accurate at recognizing white faces than black faces. Inaccuracies in algorithmic-based identification can translate into denial of access to social welfare, or misclassification of an innocent person in criminal records.

There is likely much more to describe inequalities that disadvantage according to race, class and sex for instance. The important issue is what is done about them. In the context of the US, the first task is to recognize that inequalities do not stem from globalization but rather how individual countries manage it. The coronavirus crisis illustrated this. A  common problem was dealt with in very different ways with disparate results.

Small, advanced economies like Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands are amongst the most globalized in the world and have relatively well contained levels of (post-tax) income inequality for example. In addition, they are sources of policy ideas on how to combat various forms of inequality.

To understate the matter, I do not expect the current administration to tackle inequality. Indeed the persistence of deep inequalities following the eight years of the Obama presidency shows how entrenched it can be, and I am not sure that the Biden team will make an immediate impact on inequality – to do so would require a radical change in corporate taxes (higher), federal spending (higher) and regulation (especially of tech).

To that end, the persistence of an overly accommodative central bank, a two tiered health system, a technology sector that hoovers up the gains from innovation and a ‘star’ takes all approach in the banking, sports, media and tech industries point unfortunately towards ongoing inequalities in race and class.

In turn, as the election of Donald Trump has shown, the persistence of inequality, will produce radical political choices. My guess is that America has not seen the end of political volatility, and that increasingly new blood, and new parties will enter the political scene.

Until then, America will remain divided. To return to Robert Wade’s quote, crusty conservatives don’t get it. On Friday Fox News displayed a disgraceful graphic of the performance of the stock market in periods immediately after the king of a black man (From Martin Luther King to the recent death of George Floyd).

Have a great week ahead,

Mike  

The Dude, Don and the dollar

Diplomacy, Trump style

In an increasingly fractured world there are still some things that unit the most disparate countries. In recent years a trader, named ‘the Dude’, has popped up in Turkey’s financial markets. ‘The Dude’ has been known to trade in huge volumes, on occasions boosting the average volume of the Istanbul Exchange by up to 10%.

He came to mind last week after I read William Cohan’s fascinating article in Vanity Fair where he detailed a range of enormous trades in the S&P futures market that appear to have taken place just before market moving tweets from the US President. Regular market participants have been left flummoxed by the size and prescience of these trades, and it is to be hoped that the market regulator will get to the bottom of the matter. However, one cannot help pondering the identity of these ‘Dude’ like traders.

Beyond trading, there is oddly, much ore that unites Turkey and the USA. Turkey has become the graveyard of US diplomacy as the sanctioning of the Turkish army’s incursion into northern Syria by President Trump arks the end of the moral, democratic and military backstop that American has extended to the rest of the world for the past seventy years.

That Mikes Pence and Pompeo have only managed to agree a stay of execution for the Kurds illustrates the atrophying in American power, and the schoolboy-ish letter that President Trump sent to his Turkish counterpart makes matters even worse.  

Economically, Turkey has two interrelated lessons for the USA and the rest of the world. First, Turkey is a salient tale in the rise and fall of nations. Since the early 2000’s when Kemal Dervis had righted the banking system and the prospect of membership of the EU was dangled in front of it, Turkey made great progress. Lately this has come to a halt as policy making, the quality of institutions and the rule of law have been degraded.

It leads me to think of Edward Gibbon’s ‘A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ Gibbon, who sought to explain why the Roman Empire disintegrated believed that Rome became complacent, institutions weakened and the leaders in Roman public life lost their sense of civic virtue (or what Machiavelli later simply called ‘virtu’ – the good of the republic or common good).

The importance of institutional quality and the need for a sense of civic ethic is evident in other books that track the rise and fall of nations such as Acemoglu and Robinson’s ‘Why Nation’s Fail?’.

Acemoglu, like Dani Rodrik, is one of the leading economists in the world, and Turkish. Both of them I am sure, lament the direction that their country has taken, and both would have clear policy answers to set it back on course. Both are based in Boston, and it is hard not to think that their work (Acemoglu and Robinson have a new book out, ‘The Narrow Corridor’), as well of course as that of Gibbon, deserves reading in Washington.

It might also be more widely read on Wall Street, because as Turkey again shows, political risk is becoming a greater force in markets. Typically, and doubly so in the age of quantitative easing (QE), political and geopolitical risk have not played a significant role in developed economy markets.  The behavior of the Turkish lira, its debt and equity markets in the past three years suggests that for emerging markets at least, political risk is now a dominant market factor.

The case of Brexit and sterling suggest that developed markets are not immune. The perplexing issue however, is how investors (at least those who, to go back to William Cohan’s article, do not have premonitions of market turning tweets) can react to heightened policy uncertainty.

The puzzle is deepened by the fact that number of measures of policy uncertainty are at all time highs, while volatility is close to its historic lows. Indeed, for most investors the political risk they are most concerned about is the prospect of an Elizabeth Warren Presidency, which whilst arguably good for American institutions could be tough on corporate profits and taxes.

Back to the current incumbent of the White House, who is attacking his country’s central bank and institutions with nearly the same vigour that Mr Erdogan is employing in Turkey.

The reason that the dollar is not as volatile as the lira is that it is the reserve currency in a reasonably healthy economy in a world where most other large economies are weak. For dollar based investors however, dollar strength is a good opportunity to diversify, especially for those who think that the ‘American empire’ has peaked. In the shorter term, hedges such as gold and equity volatility, are beginning to look more attractive. If the ‘Dude’ sized trader in the S&P futures market is found out, they may be doubly interesting.  

Have a great week ahead,

Mike