Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stock Prices, the Fed and America's Win-Lose Economy

What is the role of the Fed in generating income inequality because low interest rates boost the stock market while the monetary expansion that causes low rates creates inflation and so reduces real wages? In a web page on stock market returns Jeremy J. Siegel in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics notes:

"The average compound rate of return on stocks from 1802 through 1991 was 7.7 percent per year: 5.8 percent from 1802 to 1870, 7.2 percent from 1871 to 1925, and 10.0 percent from 1926 to 1991. The increase in the rate of return of stocks over time has fully compensated the equity holder for the increased inflation that has occurred since World War II. "

However, these numbers do not follow the contours of changing American policy concerning the Fed. Before 1913 there was no Fed. From 1913 to 1932 there was a Fed whose inflationary power was limited by a gold standard. From 1932 to 1971 Roosevelt had abolished the gold standard but the Bretton Woods monetary regime required that the US convert foreign dollar holders' dollars into gold. In 1971 Richard M. Nixon abolished the international gold standard.

To track the effects of Fed policy on real wages, inflation and stock market returns, I computed Dow Jones Industrial Average returns for four periods: the pre-Fed period from 1896 to 1913; the Fed/gold standard period from 1913 to 1932; the Fed/international gold standard only period from 1932 to 1971; and the gold standard-free period from 1971-2008. I also computed as best as I could with rough and ready Internet data (a) the inflation rate, (b) the Dow returns less inflation, (c) the compounded return on the Dow, (d) the change in real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wage, (e) the compounded real wage change and (f) the compounded inflation change for the four periods.

I was searching for income inequality data (the usual method of measuring income inequality is the "Ginni coefficient") but could not find a measure on the Web that goes back to 1896. I did find a partial measure in an article by Jared Bernstein and Laurence Mishel. To estimate the compound rates I relied on the 1040tools future value calculator here. Data on real hourly wage changes from 1896 to 1913 are available here. The Dow Jones website makes available its Dow Jones Industrial Average index from 1896. There are estimates available of stock returns from 1802, but what is gained in longitude is lost in comparability. Corporations prior to 1890 did not have the same legal attributes as they did after. Moreover, prior to 1880 stocks were limited as to their breadth of circulation, the nature of the firms for which they were traded and the risk involved because of changes in the corporate form of organization. Therefore, the 1896-1913 period will have to do as a pre-Fed measure to compare with subsequent periods.

The chart below (column A--see here for better view) shows that inflation was lower in the pre-Fed period than in any period since the establishment of the Fed in 1913. From 1896-1913 inflation averaged one percent (column H), while from 1913-1932, the Fed/gold standard period it averaged 1.7%. From 1932-1971, the international gold standard period it averaged 2.82% and during the gold standard- free period, thanks to Republican President Richard M. Nixon, it averaged 3.92%, the highest sustained inflation in American history. The media story that the Greenspan Fed achieved low inflation is but puffery by historical standards. The post-1980 era has a poor record with respect to inflation. At the same time, stock market returns have been boosted since the abolition of the gold standard in 1932 but not before. Column C shows that the Dow increased 108.1% from 1896 to 1913; it fell 23.32% from 1913 to 1932 because of the Great Depression and then it rose 1,143.7% from 1932 to 1971 and 1,266% from 1971 to 2008. Adjusting for inflation and compounding, stock market returns were 3.83% during the 1896-1913 period, -2.9% from 1913 to 1932, 5.93% from 1932 to 1971 and then 5.9% from 1971 to 2008. The key change seems to have been in 1932.

The establishment of the Fed and the abolition of the gold standard seem to have coincided with at first a dramatic increase in real wages and then a reduction from 1971 onward (see Columns F and G). From 1896 to 1913 real hourly wages increased 30.2% over 17 years or 1.6% compounded. From 1913 to 1932, the gold standard period of the Fed, real wages increased 45.5% or 2.12% compounded. This is in part due to reduced inflation during the Depression. However, and this contradicts my theory, from 1932 to 1971 real wages increased 171.8%, a compounded real wage change of 2.6%. Then, from 1971 to 2008, the gold standard-free period compounded real wages fell 27% or a compounded rate of -1.1%. This is a unique 37-year period, but it follows a period of very high wage growth from 1932 to 1971.

Despite the extensive discussion of income inequality, I could not find readily historical data available on Ginni coefficients or other income inequality measures going back to 1896. It is clear from the Bernstein and Mishel article that since 1972 income inequality as measured by the 90-10 cutoff has been increasing.

The data support the idea that changing the monetary regime boosted the stock market. The 5.9% real stock market returns post 1932 are 35% greater than the real, pre-Fed stock market returns from 1896-1913. If you factor in the Fed/gold standard period of 1913-1932 the boost is greater still. There seems to have been a correction in wages but not stock market returns from 1971 to 2008.

But there is conflicting evidence for the Fed/real wage connection. From 1932 to 1971 real wages increased by 2.6% per year, faster than in the 1896-1913 period, but then from 1971 to 2008 they fell by 1.1% per year. Arguably, the New Deal institutions such as labor unions sustained real wage growth for roughly forty years. Thereafter, there was a shift in employers' bargaining power. This may be because of the dramatic boost to monetary and credit expansion that the elimination of the gold standard permitted. Price inflation from 1971 to 2008 was 432% compared to 196.5% for the 1932 to 1971 period. The increasing price inflation may have enhanced firms' ability to substitute technology and equipment for labor and to finance overseas expansion sufficiently to counteract the wage gains made during the 1932-1971 period. As well, the effects of monetary expansion on real wages may be cumulative over many decades, and it is possible that 40 years of inflation resulted in a 40-year stimulus of demand for labor followed by adjustments due to even longer term inflationary effects. It may be that 40 years is the time required for inflation to influence real wages. However, it is also possible that labor unions were weakened during this period and so lacked the bargaining power to counteract employers' strategies. It is also possible that globalization has increased wage competition and has forced firms to be more competitive.

Rather than view stock returns as resulting from investor demand, as Professor Siegel does, it might be more logical to view them as ensuing directly from the Federal Reserve Bank's subsidization of the stock market. The Fed subsidizes the stock market by depressing real interest rates, which increases stock valuations and enables firms to borrow cheaply. Lower interest rates enable firms to substitute machinery and technology for workers to a greater degree than they otherwise would and to finance moves overseas. As well, workers may not be completely aware of inflation's effects on pay, and accept wages under illusory price stability. Thus, the Fed may have served as a wealth transferal device from workers to stockholders. The one fly in this story's ointment is the sharp increase in real wages during the 1932 to 1971 period.

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