Some recession experiences are more equal than others

No wonder the Financial Times is making a fuss about the downturn: our readers are suffering more than most. That, at least, is my conclusion after reading the research of two economists from America’s Northwestern University, Jonathan Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen. Drawing on US data, they found that the biggest spenders are those whose spending fluctuates a lot. The consumption rates of the top 10 per cent of households fluctuate 10 times more than those of the majority – the bottom 80 per cent of households. So a fall in overall consumption is a blip for most people, but a slump for those near the top. (We’re not just talking about Russian oligarchs here: spending of just over twice the average is enough to place you in the top 10 per cent.)

Other economists – again, in the US – have made similar discoveries. Shane Jensen and Stephen Shore examined the oft-made claim that household income (an indicator of spending) is more volatile in modern times. They found that this is actually only true for the rich: the proportion of US national income earned by the rich surged ahead in the booms of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but stuttered or even fell in the recessions that separated them.

My aim is not to sympathise with the well-off: while no doubt it stings to take the kids out of private school or to sell the sports car at a loss, most people never enjoyed such privileges in the first place. But this research highlights a truth often forgotten in the hand-wringing about the downturn: everyone has their own experience of a recession. Some do badly and others do very well indeed. The gloomy averages we usually see reported fail to convey that range of experience.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.