Monday, March 16, 2009

The Net Worth of American Households Dropped 18% in 2008

As one can imagine household net worth is under a great deal of pressure. It fell 18% in 2008 across the board, but is higher amongst higher income/net worth households. Text in bold is my emphasis. From the WSJ:

The wealth of American families plunged nearly 18% in 2008, erasing years of sharp gains on housing and stocks and marking the biggest loss since the Federal Reserve began keeping track after World War II.

The Fed said Thursday that U.S. households' net worth tumbled by $11 trillion -- a decline in a single year that equals the combined annual output of Germany, Japan and the U.K. The data signal the end of an epoch defined by first and second homes, rising retirement funds and ever-fatter portfolios.

Past downturns have been mere blips compared with the losses Americans faced last year, which set them back to below 2004 levels. "In the postwar period, we've never had anything other than very modest declines. That life experience led many people to think that houses were a one-way bet," says Douglas Cliggott, the chief investment officer of Dover Management LLC.

The decline in Americans' net worth, which was the first in six years, follows an extraordinary boom. Not accounting for inflation, household wealth more than doubled from 1990 to 2000, and then, after a pause, rose nearly 50% before the bust of 2008.

While the value of their assets was falling, Americans' total debt remained roughly flat. Total household debt increased by half a percentage point in 2008 as families faced tighter lending standards and many started trying harder to live within their means. After years of splurging with an eye on their rising assets, that phenomenon, known as the wealth effect, now cuts the other way, spurring frugality. . . .

. . . . Overall, the quarterly Fed report, known as the flow of funds report, underscores the new strain on the U.S. consumer: Mortgages and credit-card debt alone totaled $13 trillion, or 123% of after-tax income. In 1995, for instance, it was 83% of income.

Collectively, homeowners had 43% equity in their homes -- the lowest level since records have been kept. Amid foreclosures and tighter lending, the total amount of mortgage credit was down last year for the first time since the Fed started keeping track in 1945.

The recession that began in December 2007 has reversed a particularly long boom. "What's misleading about this being the biggest drop is that it was preceded by one of the biggest rises," says David Backus, an economics professor at the New York University Stern School of Business. "Even where it's come down to is not a low level compared to the last 50 years of history."

In all, the net worth of U.S. households stood at $51.48 trillion at the end of 2008, the Fed data showed. Besides being down 17.9% from a year earlier, it was down 9% just from the third quarter.

The net-worth figure encompasses all of families' assets -- housing, stocks, personal property -- minus their total debts.

Americans' assets have taken further hits in the first two months of 2009, a period not covered in the quarterly report.

Although stocks have risen for three straight days, they remain down roughly 16% since the fourth quarter, when Americans' portfolios of stocks and mutual funds were worth $8.76 trillion.

The national median home price, meanwhile, was $170,300 in January, down nearly 15% from a year earlier. . . .

. . . . Signs are emerging that Americans, in ways big and small, are pulling lessons from their collapsed empires. Of 46 economists responding to a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 43 predicted the new era of thrift will persist beyond the end of the recession.

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