These four charts show why you should worry about rising house prices and inequality

LOL, no chance. Image: Getty.

When we want to measure the economic activity of a country, we tend to reach for the gross domestic product, or GDP. This may be an imperfect measure, but it does allow us to track where the money comes from for every item bought and sold. It tells us whether we worked to earn it through wages, or whether it came from capital income – including stock dividends, rents and capital gains on assets such as housing. The Conversation

When it comes to the US, economists became used to the idea that the share of GDP attributable to labour income fluctuated around 60 per cent while the remaining 40 per cent was capital income.

Then came Thomas Piketty. His 2014 book, Capital in the 21st century explained that the labour share has actually been more unstable over the past century than commonly assumed.

Piketty’s data also showed that the capital share has increased quite significantly at the expense of the labour share over the past three decades. Both in the US and in the UK, for example, the labour share declined from about 70 per cent in the 1970s to about 60 per cent in recent years. This was seized upon as it helps to explain the recent increase in wealth inequality. A large majority of the population gets most of their income almost exclusively in the form of wages. Only a few lucky ones own enough financial assets such as real estate and stocks to earn the equivalent of an annual wage.

More than 80 per cent of the stock market’s value in the US is held by the top 10 per cent. With an average interest rate of 5 per cent, $1m in stocks are needed to get a return of $50,000, which is close to the median household income. The person who can make a living from his capital income is certainly no average Joe.

Capital gains

A look at four charts helps to show why this matters, and the impact it can have on those without the means to live on income from capital assets.

Image: Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström/author provided.

The chart above shows the average capital share for 17 advanced economies from 1875 to 2012. This new dataset, based on work by Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström, includes more countries than Piketty’s original analysis. The figure confirms the same inverted U-shaped pattern, with high values for the capital share at the beginning and at end of the 20th century, that Piketty found for some major economies such as the US and the UK.

He argued that three major global shocks, the two world wars and the Great Depression, led to a large reduction in wealth around the world. This destruction of capital can also explain the very low capital share in the post World War II period. The recent increase might thus simply represent a reversion towards a value that is more in line with the historic long-run average.

So why is this important for workers? Well, the next chart shows the net capital share in the US from 1929 until 2012.

Image: Erik Bengtsson and Daniel Waldenström/author provided.

Some economists argue that the net share is more relevant than the gross share if one is concerned about inequality. The net share excludes depreciation, the gradual decline in the value of physical capital such as machinery, which is normally included in the GDP figures – even though it is not an income stream to anybody. The data clearly shows the recent increase in the net capital share from a low of 22 per cent in the early 1980s to a high of 30 per cent in 2010. This means that an additional 8 per cent of net national income now takes the form of capital income instead of wages.

So, why is it important if capital takes a larger slice of the pie? If the economy is still growing, surely everybody must win? Well, not quite. The answer is, of course, that capital ownership is highly concentrated. The increase in the capital share effectively means that capital incomes have grown at a faster pace than wages. This leads to a more unequal society since most of the stock market and even a significant portion of real estate is owned by a wealthy few. The more money invested in assets such as property and stocks, the less available to pay workers and boost productivity.

This can work out as a significant hit to the average worker. Net national income in the US was about $48,700 per person in 2015. Had the net capital share remained at the low value of 22 per cent, an additional $3,900 per person would flow in the form of wages instead of capital income. This translates to an additional $10,000 per employed person, certainly a sizeable amount of money.

The importance of real estate

Some researchers, including Piketty, point out that the recent increase in the capital share is related to the rising values of real estate. The next chart shows the average value of real house prices, adjusted for inflation, for the same 17 economies from 1870 until today.

Image: Jorda/Schularick and Taylor/author provided.

House prices stayed fairly constant for almost a century after 1870. However, over the past 50 years real house prices have more than tripled. In some countries such as Australia, they have even increased by a factor of ten over the same time period. Furthermore, these are just national averages. Big cities, including New York, London, and Stockholm, have experienced even larger increases in the value of real estate.

The following chart describes the impact of that and compares the median net worth of families in the US who are home owners with those who are renters. The gap widened significantly during the years of the housing boom. The net worth of home owners exceeded those of renters by a factor of about 46 in 2007. House prices have recovered from the bust in 2008 and are now as high as before the crisis.

Image: Federal Reserve/author provided.

This is a challenge chock full of concerns for policy makers – especially those politicians hoping to win the votes of home owners. But rising house prices, especially in big cities, and the rise of the capital share are both trends which decisively favour asset owners over workers and which slowly chisel out a crevice between the two. Inequality could well increase much further without adequate responses from national governments. These charts should be a simple way of explaining just why things such as subsidies for housing construction in high-demand areas, easing of zoning laws, and higher taxes on capital income should be put on the table by anyone serious about reducing inequality.

Julius Probst is a Phd candidate in economic history at Lund University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, and was co-published with the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.


The ATM is 50. Here’s how a hole in the wall changed the world

The olden days. Image Lloyds Banking Group Archives & Museum.

Next time you withdraw money from a hole in the wall, consider singing a rendition of happy birthday. For today, the Automated Teller Machine (or ATM) celebrates its half century.

Fifty years ago, the first cash machine was put to work at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in London. Two days later, a Swedish device known as the Bankomat was in operation in Uppsala. And a couple of weeks after that, another one built by Chubb and Smith Industries was inaugurated in London by Westminster Bank (today part of RBS Group).

These events fired the starting gun for today’s self-service banking culture – long before the widespread acceptance of debit and credit cards. The success of the cash machine enabled people to make impromptu purchases, spend more money on weekend and evening leisure, and demand banking services when and where they wanted them. The infrastructure, systems and knowledge they spawned also enabled bankers to offer their customers point of sale terminals, and telephone and internet banking.

There was substantial media attention when these “robot cashiers” were launched. Banks promised their customers that the cash machine would liberate them from the shackles of business hours and banking at a single branch. But customers had to learn how to use – and remember – a PIN, perform a self-service transaction and trust a machine with their money.

People take these things for granted today, but when cash machines first appeared many had never before been in contact with advanced electronics.

And the system was far from perfect. Despite widespread demand, only bank customers considered to have “better credit” were offered the service. The early machines were also clunky, heavy (and dangerous) to move, insecure, unreliable, and seldom conveniently located.

Indeed, unlike today’s machines, the first ATMs could do only one thing: dispense a fixed amount of cash when activated by a paper token or bespoke plastic card issued to customers at retail branches during business hours. Once used, tokens would be stored by the machine so that branch staff could retrieve them and debit the appropriate accounts. The plastic cards, meanwhile, would have to be sent back to the customer by post. Needless to say, it took banks and technology companies years to agree common standards and finally deliver on their promise of 24/7 access to cash.

The globalisation effect

Estimates by RBR London concur with my research, suggesting that by 1970, there were still fewer than 1,500 of the machines around the world, concentrated in Europe, North America and Japan. But there were 40,000 by 1980 and a million by 2000.

A number of factors made this ATM explosion possible. First, sharing locations created more transaction volume at individual ATMs. This gave incentives for small and medium-sized financial institutions to invest in this technology. At one point, for instance, there were some 200 shared ATM networks in the US and 80 shared networks in Japan.

They also became more popular once banks digitised their records, allowing the machines to perform a host of other tasks, such as bank transfers, balance requests and bill payments. Over the last five decades, a huge number of people have made the shift away from the cash economy and into the banking system. Consequently, ATMs became a key way of avoiding congestion at branches.

ATM design began to accommodate people with visual and mobility disabilities, too. And in recent decades, many countries have allowed non-bank companies, known as Independent ATM Deployers (IAD) to operate machines. The IAD were key to populating non-bank locations such as corner shops, petrol stations and casinos.

Indeed, while a large bank in the UK might own 4,000 devices and one in the US as many as 12,000, Cardtronics, the largest IAD, manages a fleet of 230,000 ATMs in 11 countries.

Bank to the future

The ATM has remained a relevant and convenient self-service channel for the last half century – and its history is one of invention and re-invention, evolution rather than revolution.

Self-service banking and ATMs continue to evolve. Instead of PIN authentication, some ATMS now use “tap and go” contactless payment technology using bank cards and mobile phones. Meanwhile, ATMs in Poland and Japan have used biometric recognition, which can identify a customer’s iris, fingerprint or voice, for some time, while banks in other countries are considering them.

So it’s a good time to consider what the history of cash dispensers can teach us. The ATM was not the result of a eureka moment of a single middle-aged man in a bath or garage, but from active collaboration between various groups of bankers and engineers to solve the significant challenges of a changing world. It took two decades for the ATM to mature and gain widespread, worldwide acceptance, but today there are 3.5m ATMs with another 500,000 expected by 2020.

Research I am currently undertaking suggests that ATMs may have reached saturation point in some Western countries. However, research by the ATM Industry Association suggests there is strong demand for them in China, India and the Middle East. In fact, while in the West people tend to use them for three self-service functions (cash withdrawal, balance enquiries, and purchasing mobile phone airtime), Chinese customers consumers regularly use them for as many as 100 different tasks.

Taken for granted?

Interestingly, people in most urban areas around the world tend to interact with the same five ATMs. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted. In many countries in Africa, Asia and South America, they offer services to millions of people otherwise excluded from the banking sector.

In most developed counties, meanwhile, the retail branch and the ATM are the only two channels over which financial institutions have 100 per cent control. This is important when you need to verify the authenticity of your customer. Banks do not control the make and model of their customers’ smart phones, tablets or personal computers, which are vulnerable to hacking and fraud. While ATMs are targeted by thieves, mass cybernetic attacks on them have yet to materialise.

The ConversationI am often asked whether the advent of a cashless, digital economy heralds the end of the ATM. My response is that while the world might do away with cash and call ATMs something else, the revolution of automated self-service banking that began 50 years ago is here to stay.

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.