WASHINGTON – It took 5 1/2 years.
Surging stock prices and steady home-price increases have finally allowed Americans to regain the $16 trillion in wealth they lost to the Great Recession. The gains are helping support the economy and could lead to further spending and growth.
The recovered wealth – most of it from higher stock prices – has been flowing mainly to richer Americans. By contrast, middle class wealth is mostly in the form of home equity, which has risen much less.
Household wealth amounted to $66.1 trillion at the end of 2012, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. That was $1.2 trillion more than three months earlier and 98 percent of the pre-recession peak.
Further increases in stock and home prices this year mean that Americans’ net worth has since topped the pre-recession peak of $67.4 trillion, private economists say. Wealth had bottomed out at $51.4 trillion in early 2009.
“It’s all but certain that we surpassed that peak in the first quarter,” said Aaron Smith, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics.
Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of assets like homes, stocks and bank accounts minus debts like mortgages and credit cards. National home prices have extended their gains this year. And the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, a broad gauge of the stock market, has surged 8 percent so far this year.
Some economists caution that the recovered wealth might spur less consumer spending than it did before the recession. Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse, notes that Americans are now less likely to use the equity in their homes to fuel spending. The value of home equity Americans are cashing out has fallen 90 percent in six years, she said.
And since the housing bust, when home values fell broadly for the first time in decades, many homeowners are skeptical that higher prices will last, Saporta said. They won’t necessarily spend more as a result.
Finally, the upper-income Americans who have benefited most from the nation’s recovered wealth don’t tend to spend as much of their money as Americans overall do.
But they’ve gotten a lot richer. The Dow Jones industrial average has just set a record high. Since bottoming out in March 2009, the Dow has jumped 119 percent. Roughly 80 percent of stocks are held by the richest 10 percent of households.
Smith noted that the two key trends in the Fed report – higher wealth and more consumer borrowing – are likely enabling people to spend more at a critical time: Most workers have had to absorb higher Social Security taxes this year. Someone earning $50,000 has about $1,000 less to spend in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers has up to $4,500 less.
Household finances are still improving, even with the increase in borrowing. Total household debt amounted to about 100 percent of after-tax income in the October-December quarter, down from 126 percent in 2007.