Monthly Archives: May 2017

Is the Glass Half Full?: Positivist Views on American Consumption

Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages

By Bruce Sacerdote (Darmouth)

Abstract: Despite the large increase in U.S. income inequality, consumption for families at the 25th and 50th percentiles of income has grown steadily over the time period 1960-2015. The number of cars per household with below median income has doubled since 1980 and the number of bedrooms per household has grown 10 percent despite decreases in household size. The finding of zero growth in American real wages since the 1970s is driven in part by the choice of the CPI-U as the price deflator; small biases in any price deflator compound over long periods of time. Using a different deflator such as the Personal Consumption Expenditures index (PCE) yields modest growth in real wages and in median household incomes throughout the time period. Accounting for the Hamilton (1998) and Costa (2001) estimates of CPI bias yields estimated wage growth of 1 percent per year during 1975-2015. Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.

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Distributed by NEP-HIS on:2017-04-23

Revised by: Stefano Tijerina (Maine)

Contrary to the popular outcry that the gap between rich and poor in the United States has steadily increased since the 1960s and that the quality of life has steadily deteriorated, Bruce Sacerdote argues that the picture is not as grim and that the steady rise of household consumption for households “with below median income” is evidence that the national economy has continued to thrive for all U.S. citizens and not just those on the top.[1] In “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” Sacerdote reveals that the focus on wage growth favored by economists and policy makers impedes us from focusing on other aspects of growth, such as consumption and the quality of consumed goods.[2] From his perspective focusing on real wage growth and the inflated rates of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) only tells half of the story and that it is therefore necessary to center on consumption data in order to construct a more holistic picture of the economic realities of the below median income household.[3] From his perspective, “low income families have seen important gains in at least some areas of consumption” thanks in part to a steady growth in consumption of 1.7 percent per year since 1960.[4]

Bruce Sacerdote adjusted the CPI to the bias corrections developed by Dora Costa and Bruce Hamilton who previously worked on similar questions, looking at “the true costs of living” and new ways of estimating “real incomes” in the United States.[5] His findings for the period between 1960 to 2015 concluded that there was an increase of 164 percent in consumption for those below the median household income.[6] A previous consumption measure for the same period of time, excluding the bias measures from Costa and Hamilton, showed a 62 percent increase in consumption.[7] A third measurement that calculated real wages using the Federal Reserve’s Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) for the same period of time reversed the claims of wage stagnation furthered by some economists, policy makers, citizens, and labor union advocacy groups. This last measurement showed that when using the PCE to deflate nominal wages, the growth of real wages was 0.54 percent per year.[8] This contradicts the arguments of data sets such as the “2016 Distressed Community Index” that focus specifically on the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States.[9]

Beside the bias corrections and other measurements, Sacerdote argues that the quality, technology, and durability of current consumption goods is superior to that of previous decades, therefore expanding the relative capacity of consumption of those below the median income. For example he claims that “the number of cars per household has risen from 1 to 1.6 during 1970-2015,” while the median home square footage for this income segment has risen about 8 percent during this same period of time.[10]

His objective of focusing “on growth rates in consumption instead of changes in poverty rates” is achieved by using data and methodologies for analyzing data that shows that “the glass half full” but as it is evident from the working paper, quantitative data can be tailored to fit the researcher’s agenda. Numerous questions surface regarding consumption trends in the United States that lead to further conclusions that indicate that the 164 percent increase of the past fifty-plus years is the result of greater household debt and cheaper consumer goods prices that are tied to the impacts of globalization. Consumer households that fall below the median income continue to steadily consume more, there is not doubt about that, but their wages continue to depreciate while their debt continues to rise. Moreover, globalization has allowed companies to transfer their production overseas, leading to a loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector that potentially offered higher than minimum wage salaries to those households that ranked below the median income. The transfer of production has at the same time guaranteed cheaper products to these consumers that then are able to consume more with their lower wages and their greater access to loans that artificially maintain their consumption capacity while increasing their debt to income ratio.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for the year 2014 was $53,719.[11] This means that half of Americans earned less than that amount. This population, that represents the central focus of Sacerdote’s research, currently has an average household debt of $130,000 (assuming that those earning below the median income are forced to go into debt to maintain their standard of living).[12] The breakdown of this debt shows that mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and student loans make up most of the American debt.[13] This could indicate that the steady consumption increase demonstrated by Sacerdote could actually be artificially maintained by the financial system that keeps the American consumer afloat.

Sacerdote’s work could also benefit from qualitative research that would provide more in-depth analysis and at the same time counter-balance his claims on consumer choice and the reliability of products being consumed. Qualitative research could provide a different explanation as to why low-income consumers have opted to hold on to their vehicles for longer periods of time, how they are able to purchase expensive technology such as cell phones and access services such as internet and cable television, if indoor plumbing is a sign of a higher quality of life or simply a response to policy and the standardization of construction norms, and if the increase in housing square footage per household really represents a higher quality of life.  

Selectivity of data and research approach in this case clearly benefits the researcher’s argument but this could quickly be turned around with other sets of data and a different research approach. A focus on credit rates and debt rates over the same period of time shifts the argument around and leads to completely different conclusions, and so would a qualitative analysis of the quality of life of Americans. Although controversial, Sacerdote’s work forces the reader to think more critically about the changes that have taken place in American society in the past fifty-plus years and brings up the question of whether or not this consumption approach is more reflective of the nation’s economic dependence on consumer consumption as a percentage of the GDP.


[1] See for example Thomas Piketty’s argument on the increasing gap between rich and poor and the possible threat to capitalism and democratic stability in “Capital in the 21st Century.” Cambridge: Harvard University (2014).

[2] Bruce Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages.” National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper series, working paper 23292, March 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017., 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1-7.

[5] See Dora L. Costa. “Estimating Real Income in the United States from 1888 to 1994: Correcting CPI Bias Using Engel Curves.” Journal of Political Economy 109, no. 6 (2001): 1288-1310, and Bruce W. Hamilton. “The True Cost of Living: 1974-1991.” Working paper in Economics, The John Hopkins University Department of Economics, January 1998.

[6] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] “2016 Distressed Community Index: A Analysis of Community Well-Being Across the United State.” Accessed April 25, 2017. See also for example Gillian B. White. “Inequality Between America’s Rich and Poor is at a 30-Year High.” Washington Post, December 18, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2017.

[10] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[11] Matthew Frankel. “Here’s the Average American Household Income: How do you Compare?” USA Today November 24, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2017.

[12] Matthew Frankel. “The Average American Household Owes 90,336 – How do you Compare?” The Motley Fool May 8, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.

[13] Ibid.

No man can serve two masters

Rogue Trading at Lloyds Bank International, 1974: Operational Risk in Volatile Markets

By Catherine Schenk (Glasgow)

Abstract Rogue trading has been a persistent feature of international financial markets over the past thirty years, but there is remarkably little historical treatment of this phenomenon. To begin to fill this gap, evidence from company and official archives is used to expose the anatomy of a rogue trading scandal at Lloyds Bank International in 1974. The rush to internationalize, the conflict between rules and norms, and the failure of internal and external checks all contributed to the largest single loss of any British bank to that time. The analysis highlights the dangers of inconsistent norms and rules even when personal financial gain is not the main motive for fraud, and shows the important links between operational and market risk. This scandal had an important role in alerting the Bank of England and U.K. Treasury to gaps in prudential supervision at the end of the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system.

Business History Review, Volume 91 (1 – April 2017): 105-128.


Review by Adrian E. Tschoegl (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania)

Since the 1974 rogue trading scandal at Lloyds’s Lugano branch we have seen more spectacular sums lost in rogue trading scandals. What Dr Catherine Schenk brings to our understanding of these recurrent events is the insight that only drawing on archives, both at Lloyds and at the Bank of England, can bring. In particular, the archives illuminate the decision processes at both institutions as the crisis unfolded. I have little to add to her thorough exposition of the detail so below I will limit myself to imprecise generalities.

Marc Colombo, the rogue trader at Lloyds Lugano, was a peripheral individual in a peripheral product line, in a peripheral location. As Schenk finds, this peripherality has two consequences, the rogue trader’s quest for respect, and the problem of supervision. Lloyds Lugano is not an anomaly. An examination of several other cases (e.g. Allied Irish, Barings, Daiwa, and Sumitomo Trading), finds the same thing (Tschoegl 2004).

In firms, respect and power come from being a revenue center. Being a cost center is the worst position, but being a profit center with a mandate to do very little is not much better. The rogue traders that have garnered the most attention, in large part because of the scale of their losses were not malevolent. They wanted to be valued. They were able to get away with their trading for long enough to do serious damage because of a lack of supervision, a lack that existed because of the traders’ peripherality.

In several cases, Colombo’s amongst them, the trader was head of essentially a one-person operation that was independent of the rest of the local organization. That meant that the trader’s immediate local supervisor had little or no experience with trading. Heads of branches in a commercial bank come from commercial banking, especially commercial lending. Commercial lending is a slow feedback environment (it may take a long time for a bad decision to manifest itself), and so uses a system of multiple approvals. Trading is a fast feedback environment. The two environments draw different personality types and have quite different procedures, with the trading environment giving traders a great deal of autonomy within set parameters, an issue Schenk addresses and that we will discuss shortly.

Commonly, traders will report to a remote head of trading and to the local branch manager, with the primary line being to the head of trading, and the secondary line being to the local branch manager. This matrix management developed to address the problem of the need to manage and coordinate centrally but also respond locally, but matrix management has its limitations too. As Mathew points out in the New Testament, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew (6:24). Even short of this, the issue that can arise, as it did at Lloyds Luggano, is that the trader is remote from both managers, one because of distance (and often time zone), and the other because of unfamiliarity with the product line. A number of software developments have improved the situation since 1974, but as some recent scandals have shown, they are fallible. Furthermore, the issue still remains that at some point the heads of many product lines will report to someone who rose in a different product line, which brings up the spectre of “too complex to manage”.

The issue of precautionary or governance rules, and their non-enforcement, is a clear theme in Schenk’s paper. Like the problem of supervision, this too is an issue where one can only do better or worse, but not solve. All rules have their cost. The largest may be an opportunity cost. Governance rules exist to reduce variance, but that means the price of reducing bad outcomes is the lower occurrence of good outcomes. While it is true, as one of Schenk’s interviewees points out, that one does not hear of successful rogue traders being fired, that does not mean that firms do not respond negatively to success. I happened to be working for SBCI, an investment banking arm of Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC), at the time of SBC’s acquisition in 1992 of O’Connor Partners, a Chicago-based derivatives trading house. I had the opportunity to speak with O’Conner’s head of training when O’Connor stationed a team of traders at SBCI in Tokyo. He said that the firm examined too large wins as intently as they examined too large losses: in either case an unexpectedly large outcome meant that either the firm had mis-modelled the trade, or the trader had gone outside their limits. Furthermore, what they looked for in traders was the ability to walk away from a losing bet.

But even small costs can be a problem for a small operation. When I started to work for Security Pacific National Bank in 1976, my supervisor explained my employment benefits to me. I was authorized two weeks of paid leave per annum. When I asked if I could split up the time he replied that Federal Reserve regulations required that the two weeks be continuous so that someone would have to fill in for the absent employee. Even though most of the major rogue trading scandals arose and collapsed within a calendar year, the shadow of the future might well have discouraged the traders, or led them to reveal the problem earlier. Still, for a one-person operation, management might (and in some rogue trading scandals did), take the position that finding someone to fill in and bring them in on temporary duty was unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. After all, the trader to be replaced was a dedicated, conscientious employee, witness his willingness to forego any vacation.

Lastly, there is the issue of Chesterton’s Paradox (Chesterton 1929). When a rule has been in place for some time, there may be no one who remembers why it is there. Reformers will point out that the rule or practice is inconvenient or costly, and that it has never in living memory had any visible effect. But as Chesterton puts it, “This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”

Finally, an issue one needs to keep in mind in deciding how much to expend on prevention is that speculative trading is a zero-sum activity. A well-diversified shareholder who owns both the employer of the rogue trader and the employers of their counterparties suffers little loss. The losses to Lloyds Lugano were gains to, inter alia, Crédit Lyonnais.

There is leakage. Some of the gainers are privately held hedge funds and the like. Traders at the counterparties receive bonuses not for skill but merely for taking the opposite side of the incompetent rogue trader’s orders. Lastly, shareholders of the rogue traders firm suffer deadweight losses of bankruptcy when the firm, such as Barings, goes bankrupt. Still, as Krawiec (2000) points out, for regulators the social benefit of preventing losses to rogue traders may not exceed the cost. To the degree that costs matter to managers, but not shareholders, managers should bear the costs via reduced salaries.


Chesterton, G. K. (1929) ‘’The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic’’, Ch. IV: “The Drift From Domesticity”.

Krawiec, K.D. (2000): “Accounting for Greed: Unraveling the Rogue Trader Mystery”, Oregon Law Review 79 (2):301-339.

Tschoegl, A.E. (2004) “The Key to Risk Management: Management”. In Michael Frenkel, Ulrich Hommel and Markus Rudolf, eds. Risk Management: Challenge and Opportunity (Springer-Verlag), 2nd Edition;