US Regains Wealth from Recession, but not Equally

by Bernard Condon
Monday Jun 10, 2013
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America as a whole has regained all the household wealth it lost to the Great Recession and then some, thanks to higher stock and home prices.

The average household still has a long way to go.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday that U.S. household wealth jumped $3 trillion to $70.3 trillion in the January-March quarter this year. That topped the previous peak of $68 trillion in the third quarter of 2007, just before the recession began.

The recession cost Americans $15.6 trillion in wealth.

Because of the effects of inflation and a rising population, the average household has recovered only about 45 percent of the wealth it lost, according to a report last week from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Affluent households have benefited most from the nation’s recovered wealth because most of the gain has come from higher stock prices.

"Most families have recovered much less than the average amount," the St. Louis Fed report said.

Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of assets like homes, stocks and bank accounts minus debts like mortgages and credit cards.

Over the past five years, inflation has eroded about 10 percent of America’s regained wealth. And the number of households has increased 3.8 million to 115 million from the third quarter of 2007 through the end of last year. So the regained wealth is now divided more broadly.

Rising stock prices accounted for nearly two-thirds of the rebound in wealth through the end of 2012, the St. Louis Fed report estimates.

The increase in stock prices has extended well into 2013, despite sharp declines the past two weeks. In the January-March quarter, gains in stocks and mutual funds accounted for about half the nation’s $3 trillion increase in wealth. Rising home prices made up about one-fourth. The rest came from higher pension fund reserves, greater ownership of cars and other goods and lower debts.

Homes accounted for two-thirds of middle-class assets before the recession, estimates economist Edward Wolff of New York University. Stocks made up just 7 percent. Roughly half of Americans own stocks, directly or through mutual funds. But most of their holdings are small. The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own about 80 percent of stocks.

Rising household wealth, whether from stocks or home equity, can help boost economic growth by encouraging people to spend more.

As wealth has risen this year, many people have chosen to save less of what they earn and spend it instead. Americans saved just 2.5 percent of their income in the first quarter. That compared with about 4 percent last year.

"People feel wealthier, so they’re happier to spend more," John Calverley, says head of macroeconomic research at Standard Chartered Bank.

"There is also a broad confidence effect. It’s not just in terms of consumers. Businesses see a higher stock market and feel more confident about investing."

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