In past posts I have discussed various disconcerting aspects regarding the financial condition faced by large numbers of Americans, as well as the worrisome levels (and economic ramifications) of income and wealth disparity.
On October 17, 2014 Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen gave a speech titled “Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances.” This speech references various statistics and charts, many of which I find disconcerting.
While I don’t necessarily agree with various aspects discussed in the speech, below are a few excerpts from the speech that I find notable, in the order they appear:
The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then.2 It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.
Since the survey began in its current form in 1989, the SCF has shown a rise in the concentration of income in the top few percent of households, as shown in figure 1.6 By definition, of course, the share of all income held by the rest, the vast majority of households, has fallen by the same amount.7 This concentration was the result of income and living standards rising much more quickly for those at the top. After adjusting for inflation, the average income of the top 5 percent of households grew by 38 percent from 1989 to 2013, as we can see in figure 2. By comparison, the average real income of the other 95 percent of households grew less than 10 percent. Income inequality narrowed slightly during the Great Recession, as income fell more for the top than for others, but resumed widening in the recovery, and by 2013 it had nearly returned to the pre-recession peak.8
The distribution of wealth is even more unequal than that of income, and the SCF shows that wealth inequality has increased more than income inequality since 1989. As shown in figure 3, the wealthiest 5 percent of American households held 54 percent of all wealth reported in the 1989 survey. Their share rose to 61 percent in 2010 and reached 63 percent in 2013. By contrast, the rest of those in the top half of the wealth distribution–families that in 2013 had a net worth between $81,000 and $1.9 million–held 43 percent of wealth in 1989 and only 36 percent in 2013.
The lower half of households by wealth held just 3 percent of wealth in 1989 and only 1 percent in 2013. To put that in perspective, figure 4 shows that the average net worth of the lower half of the distribution, representing 62 million households, was $11,000 in 2013.9 About one-fourth of these families reported zero wealth or negative net worth, and a significant fraction of those said they were “underwater” on their home mortgages, owing more than the value of the home.10 This $11,000 average is 50 percent lower than the average wealth of the lower half of families in 1989, adjusted for inflation. Average real wealth rose gradually for these families for most of those years, then dropped sharply after 2007. Figure 5 shows that average wealth also grew steadily for the “next 45” percent of households before the crisis but didn’t fall nearly as much afterward. Those next 45 households saw their wealth, measured in 2013 dollars, grow from an average of $323,000 in 1989 to $516,000 in 2007 and then fall to $424,000 in 2013, a net gain of about one-third over 24 years. Meanwhile, the average real wealth of families in the top 5 percent has nearly doubled, on net–from $3.6 million in 1989 to $6.8 million in 2013.
Housing wealth–the net equity held by households, consisting of the value of their homes minus their mortgage debt–is the most important source of wealth for all but those at the very top.11 It accounted for three-fifths of wealth in 2013 for the lower half of families and two-fifths of wealth for the next 45. But housing wealth was only one-fifth of total wealth for the top 5 percent of families. The share of housing in total net worth for all three groups has not changed much since 1989.
Another major source of wealth for many families is financial assets, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and private pensions.14 Figure 7 shows that the wealthiest 5 percent of households held nearly two-thirds of all such assets in 2013, the next 45 percent of families held about one-third, and the bottom half of households, just 2 percent. This figure may look familiar, since the distribution of financial wealth has concentrated at the top since 1989 at rates similar to those for overall wealth, which we saw in figure 3.15
The speech also contains a variety of charts.
The Special Note summarizes my overall thoughts about our economic situation
SPX at 1941.28 as this post is written