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On-the-Job Search and Precautionary Savings: Theory and Empirics of Earnings and Wealth Inequality

  • Jeremy Lise

In this paper, I develop and estimate a model of the labor market that can account for both the inequality in earnings and the much larger inequality in wealth observed in the data. I show that an equilibrium model of on-the-job search, augmented to account for saving decisions of workers, provides a direct and intuitive link between the empirical earnings and wealth distributions. The mechanism that generates the high degree of wealth inequality in the model is the dynamic of the ``wage ladder'' resulting from the search process. There is an important asymmetry between the incremental wage increases generated by on-the-job search (climbing the ladder) and the drop in income associated with job loss (falling off the ladder). This feature of the model generates differential savings behavior at different points in the earnings distribution. The wage growth expected by low wage workers, combined with the fact that their earnings are not much higher than unemployment benefits, causes them to dis-save. As a worker's wage increases, the incentive to save increases: the potential for wage growth declines and it becomes increasingly important to insure against the large income reduction associated with job loss. The fact that high wage and low wage workers have such different savings behavior generates an equilibrium wealth distribution that is much more unequal than the equilibrium wage distribution. I estimate the structural parameters of the model by simulation-based methods using the 1979 youth cohort of the NLSY. The estimates indicate that the micro-level search and savings behavior---estimated from the dynamics of individuals' labor market histories and wealth accumulation decisions---aggregates to replicate the cross-sectional inequality in earnings and wealth for this cohort.

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Paper provided by Society for Economic Dynamics in its series 2006 Meeting Papers with number 137.

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Date of creation: 03 Dec 2006
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Handle: RePEc:red:sed006:137
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Society for Economic Dynamics Marina Azzimonti Department of Economics Stonybrook University 10 Nicolls Road Stonybrook NY 11790 USA

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  1. David Andolfatto, 2000. "A Theory of Inalienable Property Rights," Cahiers de recherche CREFE / CREFE Working Papers 110, CREFE, Université du Québec à Montréal.
  2. McFadden, Daniel, 1989. "A Method of Simulated Moments for Estimation of Discrete Response Models without Numerical Integration," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 57(5), pages 995-1026, September.
  3. Mark Bils & Yongsung Chang & Sun-Bin Kim, 2011. "Worker Heterogeneity and Endogenous Separations in a Matching Model of Unemployment Fluctuations," American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 3(1), pages 128-54, January.
  4. Sule Alan & Martin Browning, 2003. "Estimating Intertemporal Allocation Parameters using Simulated Residual Estimation," CAM Working Papers 2003-03, University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics. Centre for Applied Microeconometrics.
  5. Kenneth L. Judd, 1998. "Numerical Methods in Economics," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262100711.
  6. Santiago Budria Rodriguez & Javier Diaz-Gimenez & Vincenzo Quadrini & Jose-Victor Rios-Rull, 2002. "Updated facts on the U.S. distributions of earnings, income, and wealth," Quarterly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, issue Sum, pages 2-35.
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