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QE: The greatest subsidy to the rich ever?

Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013 | 2:13 PM ET
QE boost to the wealthy
Many of the gains from QE have gone to financial assets, reports CNBC's Robert Frank. The intent of the program was to help the overall economy.

Every Ferrari dealership in the country should have a framed picture of Ben Bernanke in their lobby. It should read: "Our #1 Salesman."

The largesse of the Federal Reserve over the past five years has amounted to one of the largest ever subsidies to the American wealthy—fueling record fortunes, record numbers of new millionaires and billionaires, and an unprecedented shopping spree for everything from Ferraris to Francis Bacon paintings. The prices of the assets owned by the wealthy, and the things they buy, have gone parabolic, bearing little relationship to the weak, broader economy.

On Wednesday, the Fed decided to start the long-awaited taper, dialing down its purchases of mortgage bonds and Treasury securities by a combined $10 billion. But the core of its program will remain through to 2014. And even if the Fed ends quantitative easing altogether next year, it's become increasingly clear that much of the gains from the program have flowed to the top 1 percent.

More millionaires have been created over the past five years than during the entire eight years of the Bush administration. According to Spectrem Group, there were 2.3 million new millionaires created between 2008 and 2012. This year, the number will likely grow by at least 200,000, which would bring the millionaire population past its previous record in 2007.

(Read more: Will the Grim Taper be a body blow to the wealthy?)

During the Bush administration, between 2000 and 2008, 400,000 new millionaires were created (the total number of millionaires increased from 6.3 million to 9.2 million between 2000 and 2007 but the number fell to 3.7 million in 2008 due to the financial crisis).

Ben Bernanke
Kelvin Ma | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ben Bernanke

According to Wealth-X, the top 10 billionaires in America saw their fortunes grow by a combined $101.8 billion this year.

The reason is simple: Fed policy has fueled a surge in the value of financial assets. Since the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans own 60 percent of financial assets, and the top 10 percent own 80 percent of the stocks, those gains in financial assets have gone disproportionately to a small group at the top.

Or as James Grant, of Grant's Interest Rate Observer said Tuesday on CNBC's "Squawk Box," the money is all "going to Greenwich" Conn., the wealthy hedge-fund haven.

Stanley Druckenmiller, the billionaire founder of Duquesne Capital, called the Fed's policies "the biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever."

(Read more: Druckenmiller: Fed shifting money to rich from poor)

It's not just asset wealth that's become more unequal. The income gap has also grown since 2008. According to Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez, 95 percent of the income growth in the U.S. between 2009 and 2012 was captured by the top 1 percent. That's due largely to compensation that's tied to stocks—either through options or shares.

Some argue that the Fed has "punished savers" and helped the rich. That's only partly true. If you look at which segment holds most of the interest-bearing savings or CD deposits in the U.S., it's the wealthy that hold the most. The top 10 percent holds 70.5 percent of interest-earnings bank deposits, according to Edward Wolff, the economist and wealth expert at New York University.

All of that wealth and income piling up at the top has created huge cash hoards by companies and the rich. The savings rate of the wealthiest 1 percent soared to 37 percent this year—and more than three times their savings rate in 2007, according to a study from Harrison Group and American Express Publishing.

(Read more: The real facts about inequality)

Americans with at least $100,000 in disposable income have at least $6 trillion in savings, and that number could double by 2014, according to the study.

The burgeoning plutonomy is also fueling a global shopping spree by the rich. The top two most expensive collector cars ever sold were sold in 2013—a $29.7 million Mercedes and a $27.5 million Ferrari. This fall saw the most expensive art work ever sold at auction—a Francis Bacon triptych for $142 million at Christie's.

(Read more: Millionaires grow cautious about the market)

And Ferrari is already sold out of its latest supercar—the $1.4 million LaFerrari. While the Federal Reserve policy hasn't shown signs of stoking everyday inflation, it has inflated the assets and consumables of the wealthy.

"You say, 'There's no inflation?'," Grant said on CNBC Tuesday. "How about Wall Street? Stocks and bonds and art and Ferraris and farmland, assets are up."

—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.