Fed Says U.S. Wealth Fell 38.8% in 2007-2010 on Housing

The financial crisis wiped out 18 years of gains for the median U.S. household net worth, with a 38.8 percent plunge from 2007 to 2010 that was led by the collapse in home prices, a Federal Reserve study showed.

Median net worth declined to $77,300 in 2010, the lowest since 1992, from $126,400 in 2007, the Fed said in its Survey of Consumer Finances. Mean net worth fell 14.7 percent to a nine-year low of $498,800 from $584,600, the central bank said yesterday in Washington. Almost every demographic group experienced losses, which may hurt retirement prospects for middle-income families, Fed economists said in the report.

“The impact has been a massive destruction of wealth all across the board,” said Lance Roberts, who oversees $500 million as chief executive officer of Streettalk Advisors LLC in Houston. “What you see is an economy that’s really very, very stressed for the bottom 60 to 70 percent of the population that’s struggling just to make ends meet.”

The declines in household wealth in the course of the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression have held back the consumer spending that makes up about 70 percent of the economy. Fed policy makers led by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke meet next week to consider whether the central bank needs to add to its record stimulus after employment grew at the slowest pace in a year in May.

Zero Rates

The Fed has already taken unprecedented steps to boost the economy as it battled the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, cutting its key interest rate almost to zero and purchasing $2.3 trillion in debt to lower long-term borrowing costs. Even so, the jobless rate has stayed above 8 percent since February 2009, compared with the central bank’s long-range goal of 4.9 percent to 6 percent.

“Although declines in the values of financial assets or business were important factors for some families, the decreases in median net worth appear to have been driven most strongly by a broad collapse in house prices,” the Fed economists wrote.

The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. Home Price Index fell 23 percent in the three years through December 2010. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index lost 14 percent in the same period.

The proportion of families with retirement accounts decreased 2.6 points to 50.4 percent during the period, wiping out much of the 3.1 percentage-point increase over the prior three years, the report said.

Retirement Setback

“The most noticeable drops in ownership were among families in the middle-income, middle-wealth, and middle-age groups,” the economists said. “Retirement accounts had been growing in importance as a supplement to Social Security and other types of retirement income, and the decrease in ownership in the past three years may represent a setback.”

Fed economists conduct the surveys every three years to produce a snapshot of household balance sheets, pensions, income, and demographics that’s more detailed than broader reports about the economy. The surveys allow comparisons over time, with a consistent methodology since 1989.

The U.S. added 69,000 jobs last month even as the Fed maintained record stimulus. The economy grew more slowly in the first quarter than previously estimated, expanding at a 1.9 percent annual rate, down from a 2.2 percent prior estimate.

Minutes of the last FOMC meeting April 24-25 showed policy makers said a loss of momentum in growth or increased risks to their economic outlook could warrant additional action to preserve the recovery. Fed policy makers are scheduled to meet June 19-20 in Washington.

Wealthiest Families

Declines in average income were greatest in the wealthiest 10 percent families and for higher education or wealth groups, the survey showed. The housing slump and financial crisis also boosted the dependence on wages as a percentile of net worth for the wealthiest 10 percent.

The top 10 percent by wealth got 55.8 percent of their pre-tax family income from wages in 2010, up from 46.2 percent in 2007, the survey found. The portion earned from capital gains plunged to 2.3 percent from 14.4 percent.

Debt as a share of family assets rose to 16.4 percent from 14.8 percent as asset values declined, the Fed said. For those households with debt in 2010, the median value of debt was unchanged from 2007, while the share of families having debt fell to about 75 percent from 77 percent. Debt payments more than 60 days overdue were reported by 10.8 percent of families in 2010, up from 7.1 percent in the prior survey.

Debt Burdens

“Measures of debt payments relative to income might have been expected to increase,” Fed economists wrote. “In fact, total payments relative to total income increased only slightly, and the median of payments relative to income among families with debt fell after having risen between 2004 and 2007. The share of families with high payments relative to their incomes also fell after rising substantially between 2001 and 2007.”

The survey was compiled by Fed economists Jesse Bricker, Arthur Kennickell, Kevin Moore and John Sabelhaus in Washington. All dollar figures are expressed in 2010 dollars.

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