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Wednesday, February 20, 2013 3:20 AM

Reader Asks Me to Prove "Inflation Benefits the Wealthy" (At the Expense of Everyone Else)

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In response to Top 1% Received 121% of Income Gains During the Recovery I received a couple of emails from readers that I would like to share.

Reader "Gordon" wondered how it was possible for a group to get 121% of income gains. Here is the example I sent Gordon.

Mary, Tom, and Joe work for the XYZ Corporation. They are the only three employees. Mary's salary rose from $100,000 to $200,000. Tom and Joe were informed of hardships in the corporation and their salaries fell from $100,000 to $80,000 each.

In the above example, net salaries rose by $60,000. Mary's salary rose by $100,000 (more than 100% of the total).

Quantifying Inequality

Reader "Z" writes ... "Inequality in the US has been rising since the 80s. How do you justify your theory that inflation benefits the wealthy? Not qualitatively, quantitatively."

First, let's take a look at inflation as measured by the CPI (any alternative measure of inflation would suffice for this example).

CPI Percent Change From Year Ago

click on any chart for sharper image

Except for a brief period in 2009, price inflation has been positive. The question is "Who Benefited?"

I claim it is those with "first access to money" namely banks and the already wealthy. A few charts courtesy of Doug Short at Advisor Perspectives will prove my point.

Nominal US Household Incomes

From the above chart it appears the average and median household income has been growing nicely since 1967. If that's what you believe, think again.

Real US Household Incomes

In "real" (CPI-adjusted) terms, 50% of households are no better off than they were in 1988. Let's dig a litter deeper.

Growth in Real Household Income by Quintile

The above chart shows percentage income growth by quintile since 1967. Since 1988, the bottom, 4th and middle quintiles (a combined 60% of households) have negative real income growth.  The next chart shows the same thing in a different way.

Real Household Income by Quintile

No matter what your timeframe, only the top quintile did well. And from 1980 until 2000 the top 5% got the lion's share of income gains.

Ponder on that for a bit, then consider the following charts on total net worth.

Nominal Total Net Worth

Real Total Net Worth

Total net worth includes stocks, bonds, real estate, pensions, etc. I cannot precisely quantify quintiles but we all know (at least we should) who has the assets and who doesn't. The top 5 or 10% have most of the assets, the next 15% or so are OK and nearly everyone else is asset poor and high in debt.

Millionaire Households

The Wall Street Journal has some interesting stats on the Millionaire Population.

According to the Chicago-based Spectrem group, there are now 8.6 million households in the U.S. with a total net worth (minus principal residence) of $1 million or more. There are now 1,078,000 households worth $5 million or more and about 107,000 people worth $25 million or more.

The report also broke down today’s millionaires by occupation and former occupation if retired. Managers make up the largest group, with 17%, followed by educators (12%), corporate executives (7%), entrepreneur/business owners (6%) and attorneys and accounts.

The $5 million-plus crowd, is dominated by senior corporate executives (17%) and entrepreneurs/owners (12%).
Household Net Worth

Chart from Spectrem Group

There are about 114 million households. Of that number 8.6 million (7.5%) have a net worth of $1 million or more.

37 million households have a total net worth of $100,000 or more. Thus, 77 million households (67.5%) have a net worth less than $100,000. Counting underwater houses, I suspect most of them live paycheck to paycheck and have minimal if not negative net worth.

So who did inflation benefit? The answer is those with assets and those with first access to money: the banks and the already wealthy.

The poor do not have assets, they have debt.

In spite of the often-heard mantra that "inflation wipes away debt", I suggest otherwise. Income typically does not keep up with expenses, and most have too few assets to inflate. The poor (last on the credit totem pole) overpay for their assets with cheap credit given to them at precisely the wrong times (as happened right before the housing bust).

Inflation Clobbers Those on Fixed Income

In case you missed it, please consider Hello Ben Bernanke, Meet "Stephanie", my response to a reader on fixed income attempting to live on Social Security plus interest on a $16,000 CD.

If routine price inflation did not benefit the banks and the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, we probably would not have it. The word that best describes the process is "theft".

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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