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Wealth inequality in the United States and Great Britain

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  • James Banks

    ()
    (Institute for Fiscal Studies and University of Manchester)

  • Richard Blundell

    ()
    (Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London)

  • James P. Smith

Abstract

In this paper we describe the household wealth distribution in the US and UK, and compare both wealth inequality and the form in which wealth is held. Unconditionally, there are large differences in financial wealth between the two countries at the top fifth of the wealth distribution. And even after controlling for age and income differences between the two countries, we show that the median US household accumulates more financial wealth than their UK counterpart. We explore a number of alternative reasons for these differences and reject some explanations as implausible. These include differential receipt of financial inheritances or desired bequests, and differential average rates of return to corporate equity or housing. While less certain, we also argue that the differences that are concentrated among the older well-to-do are not likely due to differences in income or employment risks, savings for college expenses, or changes in permanent income. Some of the observed differences are due to what we refer to as "initial conditions", in particular previously high rates of corporate equity ownership in the US and housing ownership among young British households. But since these differences existed even in the early 1980s, initial conditions only provide a partial explanation. One further possibility may be that due to forced and voluntary annuitization of retirement incomes, older British households face considerably less longevity risk. Looking more widely, however, we find wealth held in different forms across the two countries, in particular in housing, which to some extent offsets the differences we observe in financial wealth patterns. We therefore point out that it is important that comparative studies compare genuine economic phenomena (such as the ability to smooth consumption) rather than particular economic measurements (such as the level of wealth in any one particular form). We also argue that it is crucial that comparative exercises of this form acknowledge the importance of institutional differences across countries, and in this particular comparison the role of housing markets, annuity markets and stock markets appear crucial and all merit further more detailed research. On balance, we are encouraged by the degree to which a detailed investigation can point to potential explanations of observed wealth differences between the two countries, and such an investigation will also lead to a deeper understanding of the household wealth accumulation process more generally.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Institute for Fiscal Studies in its series IFS Working Papers with number W00/20.

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Length: 80 pp
Date of creation: Nov 2000
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ifs:ifsewp:00/20

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  1. Attanasio, Orazio P & Weber, Guglielmo, 1993. "Consumption Growth, the Interest Rate and Aggregation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 60(3), pages 631-49, July.
  2. Chiuri, Maria Concetta & Jappelli, Tullio, 2001. "Financial Market Imperfections and Home Ownership: A Comparative Study," CEPR Discussion Papers 2717, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  3. repec:ese:iserwp:2000-15 is not listed on IDEAS
  4. James P. Smith, 2004. "Why is Wealth Inequality Rising?," Macroeconomics 0402012, EconWPA.
  5. Martin Browning & Thomas F. Crossley, 2001. "The Life-Cycle Model of Consumption and Saving," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 15(3), pages 3-22, Summer.
  6. Simon Burgess & Karen Gardiner & Stephen P Jenkins & Carol Propper, 2000. "Measuring Income Risk," CASE Papers case40, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
  7. Karen E. Dynan & Jonathan Skinner & Stephen P. Zeldes, 2004. "Do the Rich Save More?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(2), pages 397-444, April.
  8. David Card & Thomas Lemieux, 2001. "Can Falling Supply Explain The Rising Return To College For Younger Men? A Cohort-Based Analysis," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 116(2), pages 705-746, May.
  9. Benjamin M. Friedman & Mark Warshawsky, 1985. "The Cost of Annuities: Implications for Saving Behavior and Bequests," NBER Working Papers 1682, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. F. Thomas Juster & Joseph Lupton & James P. Smith & Frank Stafford, 2004. "Savings and Wealth; Then and Now," Labor and Demography 0403027, EconWPA.
  11. Friedman, Benjamin M & Warshawsky, Mark J, 1990. "The Cost of Annuities: Implications for Saving Behavior and Bequests," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 105(1), pages 135-54, February.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Tullio Jappelli & Marco Pagano & Marco di Maggio, 2008. "Households’ Indebtedness and Financial Fragility," CSEF Working Papers 208, Centre for Studies in Economics and Finance (CSEF), University of Naples, Italy, revised 09 Sep 2010.
  2. James Banks & Richard Blundell & Zoë Oldfield & James P. Smith, 2007. "Housing Price Volatility and Downsizing in Later Life," NBER Working Papers 13496, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Orazio Attanasio & Carl Emmerson, 2001. "Differential mortality in the UK," IFS Working Papers W01/16, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  4. James Banks & Richard Blundell & James P. Smith, 2002. "Wealth Portfolios in the UK and the US," NBER Working Papers 9128, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Frank A Cowell & Eleni Karagiannaki & Abigail McKnight, 2012. "Mapping and measuring the distribution of household wealth: A cross-country analysis," CASE Papers /165, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
  6. Johanna Francis, 2008. "Wealth and the Capitalist Spirit," Fordham Economics Discussion Paper Series dp2008-10, Fordham University, Department of Economics.
  7. Marco Cagetti & Mariacristina De Nardi, 2005. "Wealth inequality: data and models," Working Paper Series WP-05-10, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  8. Jerry Green & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2006. "On the General Relativity of Fiscal Language," NBER Working Papers 12344, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Cho, Sang-Wook (Stanley) & Francis, Johanna L., 2011. "Tax treatment of owner occupied housing and wealth inequality," Journal of Macroeconomics, Elsevier, vol. 33(1), pages 42-60, March.

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