Consumption and compensation: explicit and implicit wealth effects in finance

Readers of this blog know that I am in finance, specifically global fixed income. This blog post covers wealth effects in the financial industry, which is a relatively dominant share of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009 and likely higher now (data are truncated at 2009). My view is that economists underestimate the wealth effects on consumption in the financial industry, given that financial wealth affects not only portfolio net worth but also the present value of labor income. Therefore, the sell-off in global risk assets may hit consumption more than expected in coming quarters, given that finance is the fifth largest industry, as measured by total compensation, on average spanning the years 1989-2009.

Why US consumption matters. The outlook for the US economy is of utmost importance to that for the world, given that the US will hold an average 22.1% of World GDP through 2016 (measured in $US), according to the IMF April 2011 World Economic Outlook. And the outlook for the US consumer is of utmost importance to that of the US economy, given that personal consumption expenditures hold a large 71% share of 2010 US GDP. Therefore, holding the US consumer share constant, US consumption is expected to be 15% of the global economy on average through 2016.

How wealth usually matters for US consumption. In economics, one of the drivers of consumption patterns ‘now’ is the wealth effect, usually defined as the shift in consumption due to changes in tangible (home values) and intangible (paper assets, like stocks and bonds) net assets.

(click to enlarge)

(Read more after the jump!)
The chart above illustrates the ‘wealth effect’ on consumption as the ratio of net worth to disposable income (blue dotted line) as it’s correlated to the consumption share (outlays really, see table 1 for the breakdown) of disposable income (green line). The consumption (outlay) share is is 100 less the saving rate.

A large part of the Fed’s quantitative easing program (QE) was targeted at stimulating the positive wealth effects on consumption via higher risk asset prices. I would argue that this has been largely successful to date. The two year moving average of the consumption share (green solid line) fell precipitously following the financial crisis, only to generally stabilize since Q1 2009; this is largely coincident with the outset of QE1.

Back to why I brought up finance. There’s another effect in play here, more specifically related to the compensation structure in the financial industry. See, along with the tangible and intangible net asset values, total wealth includes the present value of labor income, i.e., the present value of lifetime compensation.

For all industries except finance, lifetime income is generally not associated with financial markets and risk assets, except via interest payments on fixed income. However, in finance total compensation is directly impacted by asset values via the bonus structure, often a large part of total compensation. Therefore, when asset markets are challenged, this likely affects the present-value of labor income adversely.

There’s an outsized wealth effect of net asset values in the financial industry: the direct wealth channel (net asset worth) plus the indirect channel (present value of labor income) on consumption.

Why is the financial industry important? It’s pretty simple: financial compensation is a large part of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009, which has grown an average of 6% annually since 1988 in nominal terms. (Note: you can get this data from the BEA’s industry tables).

As financial markets take a turn for the worse – the S&P grew 5.4% December 31, 2010 through March 31, 2011 and is now down 4.1% since March 31, 2011 – the adverse wealth effect is likely to be stronger in the financial industry than in any other industry. For north of 7% of total US compensation, labor income is challenged in expectation, which is likely to drag consumption.

Purely anecdotal evidence. This strong wealth effect exists in my household. Both my husband (equities) and I (fixed income) are in finance; and when markets are challenged, we tend to save more. And it’s not because our stock portfolio is showing holes – actually, we don’t have much of a stock portfolio – it’s because our household income falls in expectation via the ‘bonus’ component of financial salaries.

I haven’t seen any work done on this wealth effect channel – but it does beg the question of whether there will be further downgrades to the US economic forecast if risk assets continue to sell off.

Rebecca Wilder

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