The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

March 7, 2014

Stock and housing gains put U.S. net worth at record

WASHINGTON — A surging stock market and rebounding home prices boosted Americans’ wealth to a record in the final three months of last year, though both trends have slowed so far in 2014.

Household net worth jumped nearly $3 trillion during last year’s fourth quarter to $80.7 trillion. Stock and mutual fund portfolios gained nearly $1.7 trillion, or 9 percent, according to a Thursday report by the Federal Reserve.

The value of Americans’ homes rose just over $400 billion, a 2 percent gain. And checking account balances, pensions plan assets and retirement savings, such as 401(k)s, also increased.

Strong wealth gains tend to trigger more consumer spending, a critical fuel for economic growth. Higher household net worth is one reason economists have forecast that the U.S. economy will accelerate later this year.

Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of homes, stocks, bank accounts and other assets minus mortgages, credit cards and other debts.

Last year, home prices nationwide rose by the most in eight years. And the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of large stocks jumped 32 percent. So far this year, home-price gains have slowed, and the S&P 500 has risen just 1.4 percent.

Rising home prices are helping people rebuild ownership stakes in their homes. The equity that Americans as a whole have in their homes has reached 51.7 percent, the highest point since before the recession began. That’s up from a record low of 36.5 percent in the first three months of 2009.

The Great Recession hammered Americans’ net worth, cutting their overall wealth to $55.6 trillion in the first quarter of 2009. That was 19 percent below the pre-recession peak of $68.8 trillion.

U.S. wealth has since recovered. But households haven’t benefited equally. Much of the rebound stems from stock market gains. Yet roughly 10 percent of households own about 80 percent of stocks. Most middle-class wealth stems from home ownership, and house prices nationwide remain below the peak reached in the spring of 2006.

The Fed’s figures aren’t inflation-adjusted and don’t account for population growth.

Last month, economists at Ohio State University adjusted for both factors and concluded that, as of mid-2013, the net worth of the average U.S. household is still 14 percent below the pre-recession peak.

Still, rising wealth and an improving economy are encouraging more Americans to take on debt, which can be a sign of confidence. Total household debt ticked up 0.4 percent in the quarter, mostly because Americans took out more auto and student loans.

But that doesn’t mean consumers are returning to pre-recession habits of building up excessive debt. Mortgage debt fell last quarter, as it has in almost every quarter for the past five years.

And after-tax income is ticking up, making it easier for Americans to finance their debts. Total household debt as a percentage of income was largely flat in the fourth quarter compared with the previous three months, at 109 percent. But that’s down from a peak of 135 percent at the end of 2007, just before the recession. 

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