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Measuring inequality isn’t easy or straightforward - Here’s why

Christoph Lakner's picture

This is the third of three blog posts on recent trends in national inequality.

In earlier blogposts on recent trends in inequality, we had referred to measurement issues that make this exercise challenging. In this blogpost we discuss two such issues: the underlying welfare measure (income or consumption) used to quantify the extent of inequality within a country, and the fact that estimates of inequality based on data from household surveys are likely to underreport incomes of the richest households. There are a number of other measurement challenges, such as those related to survey comparability, which are discussed in Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016 – for a focus on Africa, also see Poverty in a Rising Africa, published earlier in 2016.

Persistent gender gaps and short-term solutions

Anna Steinhage's picture

In 2014, Australian startup founder Evan Thornley gave a talk at a technology startup conference about why he likes to hire women. So far, so good. However, things quickly deteriorated when he explained that part of the reason was that women were “still often relatively cheap compared to what we would’ve had to pay someone less good of a different gender”, illustrated by a slide that read “Women. Like men, only cheaper”.
 
While the ensuing media outcry quickly forced Thornley to backtrack on his comments, the reality his slide so eloquently put into words is not so easily revised. Even in Silicon Valley, considered one of the most forward-thinking industries in the world, women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts.

Does governing law affect bond spreads?

Dilip Ratha's picture

Conventionally the governing law should not affect the cost of borrowing in international markets. If it did, borrowers would use the cheaper jurisdiction. Also, if somehow the spread differed at the time of the launch of the bond, trading in the secondary market should eliminate the difference. A recent paper shows otherwise: Sovereign bonds issued under the UK law had a persistent higher spread than those under the US law, but only since the global financial crisis in 2008.

Historically, U.S. law issuances formed the dominant part of the volume of dollar-denominated central government bond issuances, barring 2012 when U.K. law issuances briefly overtook U.S. law issuances (Figure 1). There were also divergences in characteristics of dollar-denominated central government bonds issued across the two jurisdictions. Average spread at launch for bonds issued under U.K. law became distinctly higher after the global financial crisis in 2008 (Figure 2). On average, bonds issued under U.K. law also had weaker ratings and shorter tenors post-crisis.

Recent trends in national inequality – some encouraging signs though no room for complacency

Christoph Lakner's picture
This is the second of three blog posts on recent trends in national inequality.
 

The previous blog post in this series described the trend in the global and regional averages of national inequality for the period 1988-2013. Now we dig deeper into the trends in inequality at the country level. We describe changes in national inequality during two periods – around 1993 to 2008 and around 2008 to 2013. The long-run spells include all countries for which we have data on inequality around 1993 and 2008, and that data is computed using the same welfare measure (income or consumption). The short-run spells include countries for which we have inequality data around 2008 to 2013; this list is based on the World Bank’s Global Database of Shared Prosperity.

OPEC’S grip on oil prices may be slipping: A historical perspective

John Baffes's picture

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) unsettled oil markets in September when it announced it would resume placing limits on oil production among its members, effectively reversing two years of unrestrained production.

But how much control can OPEC really exert over prices? History suggests that formal agreements to influence the price of a particular commodity eventually fall apart. OPEC’s own history also shows that the short term benefits of managing supplies become long term liabilities. In addition, the oil producing landscape has changed dramatically in recent years with the advent of nonconventional producers, notably the U.S. shale oil industry. These factors will test the oil exporting organization’s power to influence markets.

Prices seen rising for oil and other commodities in 2017

John Baffes's picture

Prices for most commodities, including oil, are forecast to rise in 2017 as a long period of declining prices appears to be bottoming out, according to the October Commodities Markets Outlook.

Oil prices are forecast to rise to $55 per barrel next year from $43 per barrel in 2016 as markets readjust after an era of abundant supply that outpaced demand. Energy prices, which also include coal and natural gas, are forecast to jump 24 percent in the coming year. The decision in September of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to resume limiting oil production is another important factor behind the higher price forecast.

Inequality in the typical country in the last 25 years – a strong increase followed by a recent decline

Christoph Lakner's picture

Also available in: Español | Français
This is the first of three blog posts on recent trends in national inequality.

Inequality has featured prominently in the public debate in recent times. Media outlets highlight the apparent surge in the incomes of the richest, many books have been written on this issue, and numerous academic studies have attempted to assess the nature and magnitude of inequality over time. Most studies of inequality focus on the extent of inequality within a country; this makes sense since most policies operate at this level, too. Despite the attention this issue has received, it has been constrained by the quality of data on inequality. Household surveys collected by national authorities around the world are the most readily available source of data on inequality. However, compiling and harmonizing household surveys from different countries is extremely difficult as they are not always collected consistently or frequently enough. It is also well-known that household surveys often fail to capture the top tail of the distribution, as we will discuss in more detail in a future blog.  

Clear writing produces clearer thoughts

Paul Romer's picture
The oral tradition at the University of Chicago attributed the observation that “sloppy writing reflects sloppy thinking” to Milton Friedman. Of course, it echoes George Orwell’s claim that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
 

Neither Friedman’s word “reflects” nor Orwell’s phrase “makes it easier” go far enough. The right verb is “produces.” Clear writing produces clearer thoughts. Sloppy writing produces sloppier thoughts. This is a natural consequence of the fact that anything stored in connections between neurons is part of a biochemical and electrical dynamic feedback loop. When we access one of these loops, we change it and connect it to other loops. To use an analogy from computer science, accessing neurons is never just a read. It is always a read and a rewrite.

A rebuttal to the “elephant graph” discussion - or “elephants are tough animals...”

Christoph Lakner's picture

Recently, a discussion erupted over our paper and the so-called “elephant graph”. This graph (reproduced below) is the anonymous growth incidence curve, which shows how each percentile of the global income distribution has grown between 1988 and 2008. The discussion was sparked by a report by the Resolution Foundation’s Adam Corlett. Whether or not this was Corlett’s intention, some commentators have used his results to (erroneously) claim that our empirical results are not robust and/or that the policy implications  drawn from our research are unwarranted  – for example, see this Financial Times article.

Let’s take on inequality seriously, seriously

Mario Negre's picture

Also available in: Español | Français

As we worked on a new World Bank flagship report that provides the latest and most accurate estimates on trends in global poverty and shared prosperity, it became apparent as to what we wanted for the title - Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality.

Because in our minds it became clear that inequality is becoming increasingly critical to meeting the World Bank’s goals of ending poverty and sharing prosperity. In fact, we find that tackling inequality will make or break the goal of ending poverty by 2030.

An End to Extreme Poverty

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