The Wealth Inequality Problem in One Chart
It’s clear that America’s financial and political systems are broken
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
It seems that people don’t agree on much these days, but there is one growing exception to that rule.
Across the board, Americans are finding that the “system” isn’t working for most people in its current state. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have locked into this sentiment to garner unprecedented support as outsider candidates, and there is an undeniable feeling in the air that something has got to give.
Why is there so much conviction that things must change?
The Wealth Inequality Problem
In today’s chart, we showcase the wealth inequality problem in the best way we could. The challenge with it was that literally the data goes “off” the chart with no easy way to show it.
On the chart, we plotted the “Median Net Worth” of different wealth groups between 1998 and 2013. This is based on a study that the Federal Reserve does about every three years on consumer finances.
When this data is compared in 2013 dollars:
- The Lower Class: Wealth has decreased by 26.5% for the bottom 20% of incomes
- The Working Class: Wealth has decreased by 52.7% for the second lowest 20% of incomes
- The Middle Class: Wealth has decreased by 19.1% for the middle 20% of incomes
However, one segment has shot up “off” the charts:
- The Top 10%: Wealth has increased 74.9%, soaring to a median net worth of over $1.1 million.
Then and Now
What’s changed between then and now?
We looked at this from a macroeconomic perspective to get a sense of what has changed between 1998 and today, using latest data from last month (May 2016).
- Unemployment is relatively flat between 1998 and today, but the amount of people actively looking for work has dropped by 4.5%. With more workers discouraged since the 2008 crisis, Workforce participation has dropped steadily. Economists also say this is likely due to a rapidly aging population.
- Inflation has averaged between 0% and 1% over the last three years. It is currently sitting at 1%. In 1998, inflation was closer to the Fed’s 2% target.
- The Federal Funds Rate, which is the rate that generally acts as a backbone for interest rates across the country, has dropped like a rock. Right now it was effectively 0.37% in May 2016, way down from 5% to 6% that existed for most of the 90s.
- National Debt has almost quadrupled in nominal terms from $5.5 trillion (1998) to $19.3 trillion today. In real terms, taking into account inflation, it has more than doubled.
- Money Supply (M2) has increased from $4.2 trillion (1998) to $12.7 trillion today. About $5 trillion of this increase came after the 2008 crisis.
And while there are many factors that go into wealth inequality, we believe that some of the above factors are worth exploring and understanding in detail.
For example, who benefits from 0% interest rates the most?
Who owns assets like real estate or stocks that have their prices propped up by these policies?
Who can borrow capital at low rates to invest or speculate on rises in these prices – is it the people that already have money, or the people without any?
Where does all the extra money that is added to the system go?
What is each $1 trillion of new U.S. debt spent on, and do the benefits of this added debt outweigh the costs?
Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in One Chart
China’s economy reached a GDP of 114 trillion yuan ($18 trillion) in 2021, well above government targets. What sectors drove that growth?
Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in 2021
China is the world’s second largest economy after the U.S., and it is expected to eventually climb into the number one position in the coming decades.
While China’s economy has had a much rockier start this year due to zero-tolerance COVID-19 lockdowns and supply chain issues, our visualization covers a full year of data for 2021—a year in which most economies recovered after the initial chaos of the pandemic.
In 2021, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached ¥114 trillion ($18 trillion in USD), according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The country’s economy outperformed government targets of 6% growth, with the overall economy growing by 8.1%.
Let’s take a look at what powers China’s modern economy.
Breaking Down China’s Economy By Sector
|Sector||2021 Total GDP |
|2021 Total GDP |
|Wholesale and Retail Trades||¥10.5T||$1.7T||9.2%|
|Farming, Forestry, Animal Husbandry, and Fishery||¥8.7T||$1.4T||7.6%|
|Transport, Storage, and Post||¥4.7T||$0.7T||4.1%|
|Information Transmission, Software and IT Services||¥4.4T||$0.7T||3.9%|
|Renting & Leasing Activities and Business Services||¥3.5T||$0.6T||3.1%|
|Accommodation and Restaurants||¥1.8T||$0.3T||1.6%|
Industrial production—activity in the manufacturing, mining, and utilities sectors—is by far the leading driver of China’s economy. In 2021, the sector generated ¥37.3 trillion, or one-third of the country’s total economic activity.
Despite a slowdown in December, wholesale and retail trades also performed strongly in 2021. As the main gauge of consumption, it was affected by lockdown measures and the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant towards the end of the year, but still rose by double digits, reaching a total of ¥10.5 trillion*.
“Other services”, which includes everything from scientific research and development to education and social services, generated 16% of China’s total economy in 2021, or ¥18.1 trillion.
*Editor’s note: At time of publishing, China’s government seems to have since adjusted this number to ¥11.0 trillion, which is not consistent with the original data set provided, but worth noting.
Where is China’s GDP Headed?
China’s economy recovered noticeably faster than most major economies last year, and as the overall trend below shows, the country has grown consistently in the years prior.
Before the pandemic hit, China’s quarterly GDP growth had been quite stable at just above 5%.
After the initial onset of COVID-19, the country’s economy faltered, mirroring economies around the globe. But after a strong recovery into 2021, resurging cases caused a new series of crackdowns on the private sector, slowing down GDP growth considerably.
With the slowdown continuing into early 2022, China’s economic horizon still looks uncertain. The lockdown in Shanghai is expected to continue all the way to June 1st, and over recent months there have been hundreds of ships stuck outside of Shanghai’s port as a part of ongoing supply chain challenges.
China’s Zero-COVID Policy: Good or Bad for the Economy?
While every country reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic differently, China adopted a zero-COVID policy of strict lockdowns to control cases and outbreaks.
For most of 2021, the policy didn’t deter GDP growth. Despite some major cities fully or partially locked down to control regional outbreaks, the country’s economy still paced well ahead of many other major economies.
But the policy faced a challenge with the emergence of the Omicron variant. Despite lockdowns and an 88% vaccination rate nationally, seven out of China’s 31 provinces and all of the biggest cities have reported Omicron cases.
And China’s zero-COVID policy has not affected all sectors equally. Industrial production rose by more than 10% in the first 11 months of 2021, despite city lockdowns around the country. That’s because many factories in China are in suburban industrial parks outside the cities, and employees often live nearby.
But many sectors like hotels and restaurants have been more severely affected by city lockdowns. Many global economies are starting to transition to living with COVID, with China remaining as one of the last countries to follow a zero-COVID policy. Does that ensure the country’s economy will continue to slow in 2022, or will China manage to recover and maintain one of the world’s fastest growing economies?
Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion
Robust growth in mortgages has pushed U.S. consumer debt to nearly $16 trillion. Click to gain further insight into the situation.
Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion
According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), U.S. consumer debt is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion. Critically, the rate of increase in consumer debt for the fourth quarter of 2021 was also the highest seen since 2007.
This graphic provides context into the consumer debt situation using data from the end of 2021.
Housing Vs. Non-Housing Debt
The following table includes the data used in the above graphic. Housing debt covers mortgages, while non-housing debt covers auto loans, student loans, and credit card balances.
|Total Consumer Debt
Source: Federal Reserve
Trends in Housing Debt
Home prices have experienced upward pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which has increased by 34% since the start of the pandemic.
Driving this growth are various pandemic-related impacts. For example, the cost of materials such as lumber have seen enormous spikes. We’ve covered this story in a previous graphic, which showed how many homes could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. In most cases, these higher costs are passed on to the consumer.
Another key factor here is mortgage rates, which fell to all-time lows in 2020. When rates are low, consumers are able to borrow in larger quantities. This increases the demand for homes, which in turn inflates prices.
Ultimately, higher home prices translate to more mortgage debt being incurred by families.
No Need to Worry, Though
Economists believe that today’s housing debt isn’t a cause for concern. This is because the quality of borrowers is much stronger than it was between 2003 and 2007, in the years leading up to the financial crisis and subsequent housing crash.
In the chart below, subprime borrowers (those with a credit score of 620 and below) are represented by the red-shaded bars:
We can see that subprime borrowers represent very little (2%) of today’s total originations compared to the period between 2003 to 2007 (12%). This suggests that American homeowners are, on average, less likely to default on their mortgage.
Economists have also noted a decline in the household debt service ratio, which measures the percentage of disposable income that goes towards a mortgage. This is shown in the table below, along with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate.
|Year||Mortgage Payments as a % of Disposable Income||Average 30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate|
Source: Federal Reserve
While it’s true that Americans are less burdened by their mortgages, we must acknowledge the decrease in mortgage rates that took place over the same period.
With the Fed now increasing rates to calm inflation, Americans could see their mortgages begin to eat up a larger chunk of their paycheck. In fact, mortgage rates have already risen for seven consecutive weeks.
Trends in Non-Housing Consumer Debt
The key stories in non-housing consumer debt are student loans and auto loans.
The former category of debt has grown substantially over the past two decades, with growth tapering off during the pandemic. This can be attributed to COVID relief measures which have temporarily lowered the interest rate on direct federal student loans to 0%.
Additionally, these loans were placed into forbearance, meaning 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments. As of April 2022, the value of these waived payments has reached $195 billion.
Over the course of the pandemic, very few direct federal borrowers have made voluntary payments to reduce their loan principal. When payments eventually resume, and the 0% interest rate is reverted, economists believe that delinquencies could rise significantly.
Auto loans, on the other hand, are following a similar trajectory as mortgages. Both new and used car prices have risen due to the global chip shortage, which is hampering production across the entire industry.
To put this in numbers, the average price of a new car has climbed from $35,600 in 2019, to over $47,000 today. Over a similar timeframe, the average price of a used car has grown from $19,800, to over $28,000.
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