Before the Great Recession, I would sometimes give public lectures in which I would talk about rising inequality, making the point that the concentration of income at the top had reached levels not seen since 1929. Often, someone in the audience would ask whether this meant that another depression was imminent.
Well, whaddya know?
Did the rise of the 1 percent (or, better yet, the 0.01 percent) cause the Lesser Depression we’re now living through? It probably contributed.
Using data from a panel of 14 countries for over 120 years, we find strong evidence linking credit booms to banking crises, but no evidence that rising income concentration was a significant determinant of credit booms.
Narrative evidence on the US experience in the 1920s, and that of other countries in more recent decades, casts further doubt on the role of rising inequality. We do find significant evidence that rising real income and falling interest rates are important determinants of credit booms. … Credit booms heighten the probability of a banking crisis, but we find no evidence that a rise in top income shares leads to credit booms. Instead, low interest rates and economic expansions are the only two robust determinants of credit booms in our data set. Anecdotal evidence from US experience in the 1920s and in the years up to 2007 and from other countries does not support the inequality, credit, crisis nexus. Rather, it points back to a familiar boom-bust pattern of declines in interest rates, strong growth, rising credit, asset price booms and crises.
The negative and significant relationship of short-term interest rates and credit growth may also be consistent with the story of for example Taylor (2009) or Meltzer (2010) who attribute the U.S. housing boom to expansionary policy by the Federal Reserve in the early 2000s in an attempt to prevent perceived deflation.