Lee Schafer
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The idea that Americans with different financial circumstances can be affected in vastly different ways by recessions is such a simple and obvious one that it’s embarrassing to admit to not having thought about it much before.

Looking carefully at how different people fare during these ups and downs is one thing top of mind at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, because its Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute built its recent spring conference around what it called “distributional consequences” of the business cycle.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t seem to be the best government institution to dig into the topic, given its limited policy options. On the other hand, it’s one of the few federal government institutions that seems functional enough right now to ask good questions and try to answer them with data.

The economists whom the Minneapolis Fed invited may argue about theory over beers, but from the front of the room earlier this month they talked about what they had found in their data.

One stunning chart that appeared on the screen showed how since 1969 the wage ratio between the top 10% of 25-year-old male workers and the bottom 10% has about tripled.

Back when older baby boomers were just entering the workforce, top earners earned about $3 for every buck earned by those in the bottom 10%. By 2012, the ratio had surged to $9 in wages to every $1 for those at the bottom.

You can’t say something happened in the labor market to cause that big surge in inequality, Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota explained. Remember, he said, this is a measure of pay when workers were just starting out. Something in the system is very different before any of them look for their first job.

This observation came near the end of a talk that was mostly about something else, how Guvenen and his research partners found that income volatility has actually been in a gentle decline. That’s not what people had been telling researchers through surveys, as people seem convinced that there are now sharper ups and downs and that their household finances seem more fragile.

The contrast between conventional survey data and what really might be happening was a theme of another presentation, by Susan Houseman of the W.E. Upjohn Institute. Last summer the first formal government report on what’s called the gig economy concluded it might not be nearly as prevalent as thought.

Houseman isn’t convinced, citing other evidence. It matters, too, because downturns in the economy can be particularly rough on people trying to make a living through temporary or informal work, the kind of jobs that characterize the gig economy.

Another economist, Marianne Bitler of the University of California, Davis, pointed out that poor people get hurt badly in downturns, and extreme poverty is even more cyclical. Making it even worse are changes we have made in government anti-poverty programs.

What most people used to simply call welfare, a cash benefit for poor people, has been largely replaced by a tax credit for earned income, although other programs still provide different benefits. The new system of tax credits doesn’t work nearly as well to buffer economic downturns, maybe particularly for single parents with kids.

In that same conference session, economist Hannes Schwandt from Northwestern University showed how differently a life would turn out based only on what year someone entered the workforce. There’s a price to be paid your whole life for starting work in a down year. The biggest penalty hits workers without a college degree.

Over a few years the wage gap gradually closes, but interestingly Schwandt explained that the negative wage effects of starting out a working life in a recession start showing up again in middle age. And they come with more bad news for these people across the board, including being less likely to be married or have children and more likely to simply die.

This was one of the talks at the conference that was mostly about income, but recessions can have a big effect on family net worth, too. American household finances in the past several decades could be thought of as a race between the housing market and the stock market, explained economist Moritz Kuhn from the University of Bonn.

Housing turned out to be the wrong horse to bet on.

From 1971 through 2007, according to a slide Kuhn flashed up, the top 10% of households saw surging incomes, with their share of income increasing from around 30% to 44%. They owned most of the wealth, too, yet their share of total wealth stayed pretty much the same during that period.

Meanwhile, middle-class families saw incomes go nowhere. Yet they managed to hang on to about the same share of wealth, at least up through about 2007. That’s when everything changed.

From 2007 to 2016, the share of wealth for the richest 10% of families climbed from 71.5% to more than 77%. The share for the middle class, meanwhile, slumped by a similar amount.

What made the difference? Well-off families largely owned stocks. After a brutal bear market a decade ago, it’s been almost nothing but up for stock prices.

Middle-class households were far more dependent on the value of their houses. In the housing-price collapse around the Great Recession, and with the financial leverage provided by home mortgages, middle-class household net worth got crushed.

What Federal Reserve policymakers should do with all of this analysis is a bit of a mystery. The Fed system has a famous dual mandate of fostering maximum employment and keeping prices stable. Its box of monetary policy tools is pretty limited to even do the very broad job it has.

Any layman listening in to this conference would have to conclude that the best advice going into the next recession is to be well-off. If that’s out of reach, then try not to be unlucky.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302