How Rich Do You Feel?
The stock market is at multiyear highs. Real estate prices in several cities look like they've bottomed. Employment is bouncing back. As you can imagine, this has been good news for households' balance sheets.
Household net worths fell by $13 trillion from 2007 to 2008, according to the Federal Reserve's Flow of Funds report (link opens PDF file). Since then, wealth has bounced back by $6 trillion -- and that doesn't include the recent stock rally that's sent the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC) up over 10% this year.
Yet the scars left by the recession are deep. Adjusted for inflation, aggregate household net worths are essentially flat since 2000:
Sources: Federal Reserve and author's calculations.
Keep in mind that this is aggregate net worth, not average, or even per household. In real terms, the average U.S. household is poorer today than at the turn of the century. Wealth distribution skews the picture as well. According to a paper (link opens PDF file) by Anthony B. Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, 58% of all income growth (including realized capital gains) from 1976 to 2007 went to the richest 1% of households. Membership in that group varies wildly by year, but the point remains: Aggregate net worth growth has been dismal, and what little growth there has been concentrates to a small subset of households. Most are poorer now than they were a decade ago.
The biggest culprit of that is housing. Households' equity in real estate (home prices minus mortgage debt) has dropped off a cliff, as the Fed's report shows:
Source: Federal Reserve.
In the 1950s, Americans owned twice as much of their homes as they do today (as opposed to financing with debt). As recently as 1987, housing equity was 80% higher than it is now. Home prices have declined by over $5 trillion since 2007, yet mortgages have only fallen by about $1 trillion.
Think of it this way: The housing bust cut household net worths by $4 trillion. In 1950, the inflation-adjusted net worth of all American households was about $9 trillion. So in the course of a few years, bad housing bets wiped out almost half a 1950s America.
Stock market wealth is another story. Household ownership of stocks has been volatile over the years, but is now close to pre-recession highs (particularly after the recent rally, not reflected in this chart):
Source: Federal Reserve.
There are two reasons stock ownership has rebounded. First, and most obvious, the market has come roaring back. Another less-appreciated reason is that most investors kept investing during the bear market.
When markets plunged last summer, 98% of investors at fund giant Vanguard didn't make a single change to their portfolio. Throughout the whole course of the financial crisis, just 3% of Vanguard investors cashed out. When we interviewed other major brokerages like E*TRADE Financial (NAS: ETFC) and TD AMERITRADE (NAS: AMTD) last year, the results were similar -- people kept investing during the downturn. Most Americans invest in stocks through automatic contributions to their 401(k) retirement accounts, which require no month-to-month action. Indeed, some surveys have shown that many don't even realize they're investing in these plans. Yet contributions to broad index funds made in late 2008 or early 2009 have now roughly doubled in value. That adds up, and it's been a boon for household net worths.
But in percentage terms, the biggest change in household net worths in recent years has been in ownership of Treasury bonds:
Source: Federal Reserve.
I included interest rates on 10-year Treasury bonds here for perspective. Americans had little interest in Treasuries when they yielded almost 6%, but had an insatiable appetite for them once yields fell to half that level. Household ownership of Treasuries nearly tripled from 2008 to 2010, rising by more than $800 billion.
While that's since tapered off and much of the increase is due to rising bond prices, households still own a ghastly amount of Treasuries that yield close to nothing -- negative yields after inflation, in fact. As Warren Buffett wrote in his recent letter to Berkshire Hathaway (NYS: BRK.B) shareholders, "Today, a wry comment that Wall Streeter Shelby Cullom Davis made long ago seems apt: 'Bonds promoted as offering risk-free returns are now priced to deliver return-free risk.'"
How has your household's balance sheet changed in the last few years? How rich do you feel? Sound off in the comments section below.
At the time this article was published Fool contributorMorgan Houselowns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel.The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway and TD AMERITRADE. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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