Essays in inequality and macroeconomics
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Rising inequality affects the dynamics of macroeconomic variables both at home and abroad. Abroad, rising inequality causes an over-accumulation of foreign assets, creating persistent current account deficits. Inequality leads to rises in government transfers, and if raising tax revenue through a progressive income tax system is increasingly costly, sovereign nations could accumulate on debt and increase their default risk. At home, rising inequality in income increases household debt accumulation, which increases the probability of a household default crisis. This thesis examines the mechanisms behind the relationship between rising inequality and the above macroeconomic variables, and offers some policy recommendations. In the first chapter, I examine the relationship between top income inequality and the current account. Using panel error correction methods I observe a long-run relationship between rising top income shares and falling current account conditional on highly progressive income tax systems. Since tax revenues rise with top income inequality if marginal income taxes are progressive, the negative conditional relationship appears either if fiscal revenues are transferred to households who become more avid consumers, or if government expenditure increases along the inequality trend. I incorporate these findings into a dynamic general equilibrium model to study the effects of the top and bottom income tax cuts on the current account and fiscal balance. As the income share at the top rises, a tax cut at the margin to them improves the current account, since top income households are generally savers, but hurts the fiscal balance through revenue reduction. On the other hand, a bottom tax cut lowers the current account balance but does not have much of an adverse impact on the fiscal balance. In the second chapter, I examine how inequality increases the probability of sovereign default by studying the Latin American default episodes of the early 1980s. The sovereign borrows for the purposes of redistribution and to cover government expenditure. Default on sovereign bonds occur when the one time increase in utility of poor households due to higher transfers outweighs the risk of remaining in autarky for an extended period of time, and the resource cost of raising revenue through a more progressive income tax system becomes too high. In the third chapter, I examine how accumulation of household debt contributes to the probability of household crisis, which leads to an initial decrease in inequality but a persistent rise afterwards. Idiosyncratic increases in the income of impatient households increase their borrowing due to the rise in consumption of durable goods, but act as a pecuniary externality on other impatient households by driving up the interest rate. As a result the risk of an economy wide crisis rises. Inequality in income and wealth has significant implications for the dynamic decision making of households and governments, and widening inequality often leads to the accumulation of debt for households and governments alike. Knowing the mechanisms behind these relationships is important for the design of policies both for institutions that oversee the redistribution of wealth, as well as for institutions that oversee the financial markets of a country.