Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fed's Raskin: Low- and middle-income households hit hardest by Great Recession

by Bill McBride on 4/18/2013 03:30:00 PM

From Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin: Aspects of Inequality in the Recent Business Cycle. A few excerpts:

To isolate my proper subject here, I want to be clear that I am not engaging this afternoon with the concern that many Americans have that excessive inequality undermines American ideals and values. Nor will I be investigating the social costs associated with wide distributions of income and wealth. Rather, I want to zero in on the question of whether inequality itself is undermining our country's economic strength according to available macroeconomic indicators.
I will argue that at the start of this recession, an unusually large number of low- and middle-income households were vulnerable to exactly the types of shocks that sparked the financial crisis. These households, which had endured 30 years of very sluggish real-wage growth, held an unusually large share of their wealth in housing, much of it financed with debt. As a result, over time, their exposure to house prices had increased dramatically. Thus, as in past recessions, suffering in the Great Recession--though widespread--was most painful and most perilous for low- and middle-income households, which were also more likely to be affected by job loss and had little wealth to fall back on.

Moreover, I am persuaded that because of how hard these lower- and middle-income households were hit, the recession was worse and the recovery has been weaker. The recovery has also been hampered by a continuation of longer-term trends that have reduced employment prospects for those at the lower end of the income distribution and produced weak wage growth.
[I]t is also relevant to consider whether the unusual circumstances--the outsized role of housing wealth in the portfolios of low- and middle-income households, the increased use of debt during the boom, and the subsequent unprecedented shocks to the housing market--may have attenuated the effectiveness of monetary policy during the depths of the recession. Households that have been through foreclosure or have underwater mortgages or are otherwise credit constrained are less able than other households to take advantage of the lower interest rates, either for homebuying or other purposes. In my view, these effects likely clogged some of the channels through which monetary policy traditionally works. As the housing market recovers, though, I think it is possible that accommodative monetary policy could be increasingly potent. As house prices rise, more and more households have enough home equity to gain renewed access to mortgage credit and the ability to refinance their homes at lower rates. The staff at the Federal Reserve Board has estimated that house price increases of 10 percent or less from current levels would be sufficient for about 40 percent of underwater homeowners to regain positive equity.

It is my view that understanding the long-run trends in income and wealth across different households is important in understanding the dynamics of the macroeconomy and thus also may be relevant for setting monetary policy to best reach our goals of maximum employment and price stability. I believe that the accommodative policies of the FOMC and the concerted effort we have made to ease conditions in the mortgage markets will help the economy continue to gain traction. And the resulting expansion in employment will likely improve income levels at the bottom of the distribution. However, given the long-standing trends toward greater income and wealth inequalities, it is unlikely that cyclical improvements in the labor markets will do much to reverse these trends.
This is an important topic - and Raskin argues that low and middle income households suffered the most during the Great Recession (continuing a long term trend).