Explaining Stagnant Living Standards in a Generalized Asset Growth Context
Robert S. Goldberg
Journal of Economic Issues, 2021, vol. 55, issue 1, 142-161
Aggregate U.S. assets have grown at an impressive rate over the past four decades, especially in recent years. Despite this, middle class living standards have remained relatively flat over the past four decades, and substantial debt has been required to maintain consumption at customary levels. We assemble the U.S. balance sheet for the past seventy years, showing how mounting debt has contributed to growth in financial assets, relative declines in net worth, and increases in assets in relation to GDP. We also calculate a financialization ratio based on our data, for which the trend line identifies a structural break circa 1980 after which the U.S. economy “financializes.” Our numbers, moreover, support the claim that the debt spiral intensified income inequality. Most remarkably, average national equity returns remained flat or even declined slightly post-1980 despite much greater volatility and debt leverage, contrary to what basic financial theory would dictate.
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