How Central Banking Increased Inequality

Although today high levels of inequality in the United States remain a pressing concern for a large swath of the population, monetary policy and credit expansion are rarely mentioned as a likely source of rising wealth and income inequality.

– Louis Rouanet

Focusing almost exclusively on consumer price inflation, many economists have overlooked the redistributive effects of money creation through other channels. One of these channels is asset price inflation and the growth of the financial sector.

The rise in income inequality over the past 30 years has to a significant extent been the product of monetary policies fueling a series of asset price bubbles. Whenever the market booms, the share of income going to those at the very top increases. When the boom goes bust, that share drops somewhat, but then it comes roaring back even higher with the next asset bubble.

The Cantillon Effect

The redistributive effects of money creation were called Cantillon effects by Mark Blaug after the Franco-Irish economist Richard Cantillon who experienced the effect of inflation under the paper money system of John Law at the beginning of the 18th century.1 Cantillon explained that the first ones to receive the newly created money see their incomes rise whereas the last ones to receive the newly created money see their purchasing power decline as consumer price inflation comes about.

Following Cantillon and contrary to Fisher and other monetary theorists of his time, Ludwig von Mises was the first to emphasized these Cantillon effects in terms of marginal utility analysis. With an increase in the stock of money, the cash balances of the early receivers of the newly created money increase. Correspondingly, the marginal utility they give to money decreases and the individuals in question buy either investment or consumption goods, thus bidding up the prices of those goods and increasing the cash balances of their sellers. With this step by step process, the price of goods will increase only progressively and affect both the distribution of income and wealth as well as the different price ratios.

Financialization, Asset Price Inflation and Inequality

In accordance with the Cantillon effect, inflation can increase inequality depending on the channel it takes, but increasing inequality is not a necessary consequence of inflation. If it happened that the poorest in society were the first receivers of the newly created money, then inflation could very well be the cause of decreasing inequality.

Under modern central banking however, money is created and injected into the economy through the credit channel and first affects financial markets. Under this system, commercial banks and other financial institutions are not only the first receivers of the newly created money but are also the main producers of credit money. This is so because banks can grant loans unbacked by base money. In a free-banking system, this credit creation power of banks is strictly limited by competition and the clearing process. Under central banking however, the need for reserves is relaxed as banks can either sell financial assets to the central bank in open market operations, or the central bank can grant loans to banks at relatively low interest rates. In both cases, central banks remove the limits of credit expansion by determining the total reserves in the banking system. In other words, commercial banks and other financial institutions are credited with so-called base money that has not existed before. Thus, the economics of Cantillon effects tells us that financial institutions benefit disproportionately from money creation, since they can purchase more goods, services, and assets for still relatively low prices. This conclusion is backed by numerous empirical illustrations. For instance, the financial sector contributed massively to the growth of billionaire’s wealth (see table below). …

https://mises.org/library/how-central-banking-increased-inequality

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