WASHINGTON – Surging stock prices and steady increases in home values powered American household wealth to $96.9 trillion this fall, though the gains aren’t widely shared.
The Federal Reserve said Thursday that U.S. net worth rose $1.7 trillion in the July-September quarter, extending a steady upward march in American wealth after the Great Recession eliminated about one-sixth of it in 2008.
The value of Americans’ stock portfolios rose $1.1 trillion, and real estate values climbed $400 billion. Total household wealth includes checking and savings accounts and subtracts mortgages and other debt.
U.S. wealth has made a remarkable comeback since the recession, when it plummeted more than $10 trillion to $56.2 trillion. The figures aren’t adjusted for inflation or population growth, nor is it broken out by income levels.
But Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, uses other Fed data to calculate figures for average and median households. The median is the point where half of households are richer, and half poorer, and gives a better sense of how typical families have fared.
In 2016, the latest figures available, median household wealth was still 34 percent below its pre-recession, 2007 level. Average household wealth, meanwhile, fully recovered from the downturn and was 7 percent higher last year. The average figure is pulled up by very wealthy families.
“The middle class is still way below where it was almost 10 years ago,” Wolff said. “What you’re seeing is wealth flowing to the very top even more so than in the Great Recession.”
What you need to know:
The Fed’s latest figures come as Congress is considering a tax cut plan that would reduce taxes on corporations and would mostly benefit wealthier taxpayers.
Yet the Fed’s Thursday report shows that U.S. corporations currently have a hefty $2.4 trillion in cash.
The Trump administration and GOP leaders in Congress argue that cutting corporate taxes will encourage companies to spend more on machinery, computers and other equipment. Those investments, in turn, should make workers more productive and lead to higher wages.
Many economists say that most of the benefit of a corporate tax cut flows to wealthier investors, through dividends and share buybacks.
And opponents of the corporate tax cut also argue that companies’ huge cash stockpiles – which have grown nearly 16 percent since 2015 – demonstrate that businesses already have the money they need to invest.
Supporters, however, respond that a tax cut will still encourage business spending by making future investment more profitable.
Just 10 percent of the wealthiest American households owned 84 percent of the value of American stocks in 2016, Wolff’s research shows.
While average household wealth reached $667,600 in 2016, net worth for the median household was just $78,100.
The richest 1 percent of Americans owned nearly 40 percent of all wealth in 2016, according to Wolff’s research, up from almost 37 percent in 2013.
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