Analysis: More pressure on global wages could backfire

Analysis: More pressure on global wages could backfire
Above photo is Joseph Stiglitz.

If rising income gaps are at least partly responsible for the global credit crisis, governments and companies should be wary of squeezing wages yet again to help rebuild their finances.

In the long buildup to the global financial crisis, households took on debt to offset the gradual fall in their incomes and consumption relative to the more wealthy.

But as they'll get little or no help from easy credit today, driving wages down even more risks a cratering of household consumption and a severe test of social cohesion.

A renewed public focus on decades of widening wealth and wage inequality in the United States, Britain and other developed and developing economies has been one of the most durable legacies of the five-year-old credit crisis.

Work by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz' on the 1 per cent of US super-rich, "Occupy" protest movements around the world and electoral swings to the left have all spotlighted what business, finance or government elites now realise they can't ignore.

While the share of US gross domestic product going to wages and salaries has fallen 10 percentage points to about 43 per cent since 1970, the slice going to companies in after-tax profits has surged, doubling to 12 per cent since 2005 in what HSBC described as "one of the most chilling charts in finance."

Whether you fear the impact on people's aspirations and sense of social justice or the sustainability of the corporate world's inflated share of the pie, the numbers are alarming everyone.

Marino Valensise, chief investment officer at Baring Asset Management, told the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit late last month that the fallout in terms of national psychology, public policy and consumption could be extensive.

"The US has never been as unequal as today. The American dream has become an American nightmare over the past 20 years."

Highlighting the sharp rise in inequality as measured by the so-called GINI coefficient of wealth distribution and the fact that US median incomes are no higher than they were 20 years ago, he said the social and political risks stemming from US income inequality was one of his big strategic economic themes of the next five to 10 years.

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