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Household net worth sees decrease

Sat., Sept. 17, 2011

Further decline possible at current quarter’s end

WASHINGTON – Americans’ wealth declined this spring for the first time in a year, as stocks and home values fell. At the same time, corporations increased the size of their cash stockpiles.

The combination could slow an already weak economy because it implies that families have less to spend and businesses are reluctant to expand.

Household net worth dropped 0.3 percent to $58.5 trillion in the April-June quarter, according to the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report released Friday. The decline followed three straight quarterly increases.

The value of Americans’ stock portfolios fell 0.5 percent in the second quarter. Home values dropped 0.4 percent.

Corporations held a record $2 trillion in cash at the end of June, an increase of 4.5 percent from the January-March quarter.

Consumers are already struggling with high unemployment and meager pay raises.

When people feel poorer, they spend less. That slows growth. Businesses then respond by cutting back on hiring and expansion plans. It can become a cycle.

Net worth is expected to fall even further in the July-September quarter because stocks plunged in late July and early August.

A key reason was the government said the economy barely grew in the first half of the year. Investors also reacted to lawmakers’ battle over raising the government’s borrowing limit and Standard & Poor’s downgrade of long-term U.S. debt.

“August put a big dent in whatever confidence consumers had left,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at That’s largely why retail sales were flat last month, he added.

Overall, household wealth, which mostly consists of home equity, stock portfolios, and other savings, has risen 15 percent since the recession officially ended in June 2009.

The increase is due almost entirely to one of the fastest bull markets in history. Stocks began to recover in the spring of 2009 and doubled in value by April of this year, according to the S&P 500 index.


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