Leveraging Inequality

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Long periods of unequal incomes spur borrowing from the rich, increasing the risk of major economic crises

The United States experienced two major economic crises over the past 100 years—the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2007. Income inequality may have played a role in the origins of both. We say this because there are two remarkable similarities between the eras preceding these crises: a sharp increase in income inequality and a sharp increase in household debt–to-income ratios.

Are these two facts connected? Empirical evidence and a consistent theoretical model (Kumhof and Rancière, 2010) suggest they are. When—as appears to have happened in the long run-up to both crises—the rich lend a large part of their added income to the poor and middle class, and when income inequal- ity grows for several decades, debt-to-income ratios increase sufficiently to raise the risk of a major crisis.