Give working people more money because they will spend it

It's not about fairness, it's about the economy, stupid.

To date, the history of our current financial crisis has concentrated minds on the distribution of wealth in a way that we haven’t really seen for a generation. Filled with materialistic expectations, the withdrawal of credit and government subsidies from society has brought home some harsh realities. We can’t afford the lifestyle we have come to think we are entitled to. Wealthy people, once seen as social leaders, are increasingly treated as though they somehow stole what they earned.

Most of the time the redistribution of wealth is put in political terms – it ignores who had the original idea for a company or product or who put the money up in the first place to fund it. Instead, agitators argue that workers, because it is their toil that creates the goods and services, should get an equal participation in profits. Ironically, this is probably the right answer but the wrong reason – people should be given more money so that they can spend it.

The World Bank recently released numbers on the distribution of Corrado Gini’s index of income and wealth distribution. The Gini Index ranges from 1 to 100 and seeks to measure financial inequality in a society; a value of 100 means that a single person has all the money whilst as it declines money is more and more equally distributed.

Some interesting trends are showing up. For instance, in Latin America wealth inequality, although at a high level, is declining as a phenomenon. Crises like that seen in Argentina are working to redistribute wealth whilst in Brazil the new-found economic prosperity is becoming shared by a greater and greater proportion of society.  Africa, notably South Africa, displays disturbingly high levels of wealth concentration in the hands of a few.

Although we have a tendency to pillory ourselves here the UK, we actually come out quite well with a score of just under 26 – you would have to go to parts of Eastern Europe to find other countries with the kinds of equality that we possess. In fact, equality of wealth distribution has improved markedly between 1995 and 2010 when the latest data is available and embraces the financial crisis.

What is most disturbing though is the United States. The Gini index for the US has shown a marked and continuous increase of inequality, an effect that has been occurring since the 1970’s, and a phenomenon that has accelerated as the recovery from the financial crisis has gathered pace.

Economic commentators often talk about "the wealth effect", the confidence-boosting mental state that allows ordinary people to look at their total assets and give themselves the psychological comfort to stop hoarding money and start spending it. To this end the Federal Reserve in the US and western central banks have been complicit in propping up the stock and housing markets through ultra-accommodative monetary policies that placate the electorate through the illusion of financial affluence.  They will go about their day without necessarily calling for higher levels of taxation or the forced redistribution of wealth in the face of obvious inequalities. This has by and large worked to date but we are now entering a phase of prolonged sub-potential growth combined with rising wealth inequality in the US that will have long-range effects economically, socially and politically.

The problem arises from the fact that if you give wealthy people more money they don’t necessarily spend it – it becomes dormant and redundant. Give a poor person an extra £10 and they will spend it on food or new clothes, propelling consumption, but give an ultra-high net worth person another million pounds and more than likely it will lie in the bank largely unnoticed and more importantly unused. So in many respects the inequality of the distribution of wealth is not so much about "fairness" or venality, but more that the concentration of too much money into too few hands leads to economic stagnation adding to an already sub-par economic atmosphere.

Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.