The "Devastating" Truth Behind America's Record Household Net Worth

Every quarter, as part of its Flows of Funds statement, the Fed releases a detailed breakdown of America's assets and liabilities, of which the most interesting section is the one dealing with US household wealth and debt, and most importantly, their net worth. The last such release in June showed that as of March 31, total US household assets rose decidedly above $100 trillion, hitting an all time high $102.6 trillion, offset by $14.5 trillion in liabilities, resulting in $88.1 trillion in household net worth. It is worth noting that of this $100+ trillion in assets, 69% was in the form of financial assets (stocks, mutual funds, pensions, deposits, etc), and only $31.5 trillion was real, tangible assets including $26 trillion worth of real estate.

 

To be sure, the media loves reporting this number as proof of successful Obama policies: after all how can anyone complain when US households have never been richer, at least according to the Fed's estimate of their net worth?

Well, if the chart above was indeed an accurate depiction of the prevailing US net worth, then it would indeed be a thing to celebrate. Alas, it is anything but, and as Pedro da Costa points out, when one looks beneath the surface, a "devastating" picture emerges: US inequality like no-one has seen it before.

To help with this peek behind the scenes, we look at the latest, just released CBO report on Trends in Family Wealth, which shows that far from equitable, US wealth has never been so skewed.

The picture in question:

Here are the CBO report's summary findings:

In 2013, aggregate family wealth in the United States was $67 trillion (or about four times the nation’s gross domestic product) and the median family (the one at the midpoint of the wealth distribution) held approximately $81,000, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. For this analysis, CBO calculated that measure of wealth as a family’s assets minus its debt. CBO measured wealth as marketable wealth,  which consists of assets that are easily tradable and that have value even after the death of their owner. Those assets include home equity, other real estate (net of real estate loans), financial securities, bank deposits, defined contribution pension accounts, and business equity. Debt is nonmortgage debt, including credit card debt, auto loans, and student loans, for example.

But to get to the stunning punchline, one has to read The section on How Is the Nation’s Wealth Distributed? Here is the answer:

  • In 2013, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held 1 percent.
  • Average wealth was about $4 million for families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution, $316,000 for families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, and $36,000 for families in the 26th to 50th percentiles. On average, families at or below the 25th percentile were $13,000 in debt.

How Did the Distribution of Wealth Change From 1989 to 2013? Over the period from 1989 through 2013, family wealth grew at significantly different rates for different segments of the U.S. population. In 2013, for example:

  • The wealth of families at the 90th percentile of the distribution was 54 percent greater than the wealth at the 90th percentile in 1989, after adjusting for changes in prices.
  • The wealth of those at the median was 4 percent greater than the wealth of their counterparts in 1989.
  • The wealth of families at the 25th percentile was 6 percent less than that of their counterparts in 1989.

As the chart below shows, nobody has experienced the same cumulative growth in after-tax income as the "Top 1%"

Marxists of the world may want to avoid the following section, as they may suffer permanent injury:

  • The distribution of wealth among the nation’s families was more unequal in 2013 than it had been in 1989. For instance, the difference in wealth held by families at the 90th percentile and the wealth of those in the middle widened from $532,000 to $861,000 over the period (in 2013 dollars). The share of wealth held by families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution increased from 67 percent to 76 percent, whereas the share of wealth held by families in the bottom half of the distribution declined from 3 percent to 1 percent.

And there is your recovery: the wealthy have never been wealthier, while for half of America, some 50% of households, now own just 1% of the country's wealth, down from 3% in 1989.

* * *

Finally, when Obama touts the recovery, he may have forgotten about half of America, but one entity remembers well: loan collectors. As the chart below shows, America's poor families have never been more in debt.

The share of families in debt (those whose total debt exceeded their total assets) remained almost unchanged between 1989 and 2007 and then increased by 50 percent between 2007 and 2013. In 2013, those families were more in debt than their counterparts had been either in 1989 or in 2007. For instance, 8 percent of families were in debt in 2007 and, on average, their debt exceeded their assets by $20,000. By 2013, in the aftermath of the recession of 2007 to 2009, 12 percent of families were in debt and, on average, their debt exceeded their assets by $32,000.

 

The increase in average indebtedness between 2007 and 2013 for families in debt was mainly the result of falling home equity and rising student loan balances. In 2007, 3 percent of families in debt had negative home equity: They owed, on average, $16,000 more than their homes were worth. In 2013, that share was 19 percent of families in debt, and they owed, on average, $45,000 more than their homes were worth. The share of families in debt that had outstanding student debt rose from 56 percent in 2007 to 64 percent in 2013, and the average amount of their loan balances increased from $29,000 to $41,000.

Finally, it worth noting that the numbers shown above are as of 2013. Since then the trends shown above, and the record gap between America's rich and poor has grown to even more unprecedetned proportions.

Source: CBO

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