Low U.S. Rates Exacerbate Racial Wealth Gap, Paper Shows

Keeping interest rates low in an effort to boost a weak economy, which the Federal Reserve has signaled it will do through at least 2023, may actually exacerbate wealth inequality between White and Black households, according to a new economic paper.

The gains in stock prices that come with a low interest-rate environment and disproportionately benefit White Americans, far outweigh the job and income gains that Black citizens experience at the same time, according to the paper released Friday. Its authors include Alina Bartscher from the University of Bonn and New York Fed economist Moritz Schularick.

Low U.S. Rates Exacerbate Racial Wealth Gap, Paper Shows

“Our analysis therefore does not bode well for the suggestion made by politicians and central bankers that a more accommodative monetary policy helps alleviate racial inequalities,” they wrote. “With the instruments available -– all of which work through effects on asset prices and interest rates -– a central bank would not be able to design policies for an income-gap reduction objective without increasing wealth inequality.”

Because White Americans own a disproportionate share of wealth-building assets like stocks and homes, their gains in a low interest-rate environment may actually widen the wealth gap. The S&P 500 Index rose 16% last year even amid the pandemic. Unemployment, which surged for all Americans, remains at 9.9% for Black Americans, while White workers have seen their rate fall to 6%.

The authors found that Black households on average own 30 cents per dollar of housing held by White households, and 9 cents per dollar of White households’ stock holdings.

In a low interest-rate environment, Black households experience a gain in income -- owing to better job opportunities -- equivalent to 0.19% of annual income. The capital-gains benefits of an increase in things like equity prices result in a gain equal to 24% of annual income for White households versus 6.5% for Black households. That 17.5 percentage-point gap is two orders of magnitude larger than the 0.19%, the paper’s authors found.

“Over multi-year time horizons, the employment effects are substantially smaller than the countervailing portfolio effects,” the authors wrote.

Low U.S. Rates Exacerbate Racial Wealth Gap, Paper Shows

The median White household has almost eight times as much wealth as the median Black household. The average gap, which takes into account the concentration of White wealth at very high levels, is more than $800,000.

Fed officials have argued recently that while their tools to fight inequality are blunt, they will nonetheless deploy them in an effort to shore up the job market for all Americans as the economy recovers from the pandemic crisis. The central bank changed its policy framework last year to specifically say that maximum employment is a “broad-based and inclusive goal” that it will seek to achieve.

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