World changes in inequality: an overview of facts, causes, consequences and policies

BIS Working Papers No 654
August 2017

This paper reviews various issues linked to the rise of inequality observed particularly in developed countries over the last quarter century. Various data on the time profile of inequality are examined, which do not always fit the common view that inequality is everywhere trending upwards. Overall, changes in inequality appear to be very country-specific. The same conclusion obtains when examining the causes of these changes. There is little doubt that common forces affected the distribution of income in most countries, but idiosyncratic factors have amplified their effects in some cases and offset them in others. Country-specificity also holds with regard to policies aimed at correcting inequality, even though globalisation imposes constraints on some key redistribution tools such as taxation and the regulation of financial markets. International coordination and, in particular, more transparency in cross-border financial operations are needed if governments are to recover some autonomy in these matters.

JEL classification: D31, D33, H24, F60

Keywords: inequality, labour share, redistribution, globalisation, taxation