Growth in Families' Wealth Stalls

By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Americans may feel much richer because of soaring home prices, but they're not.

U.S. families' wealth stagnated during the economy's recession and recovery from 2001 through 2004, as lackluster wage growth, sagging stock prices and rising debt levels offset the gains from higher home values, the Federal Reserve reported yesterday in its latest Survey of Consumer Finances.

Home prices did jump nearly 27 percent during the survey period, and the share of households owning homes rose to 69.1 percent in 2004, the report said. That made Americans feel good. And it did help boost the total value of families' assets, such as homes, autos, stocks, bonds and other investments.

But wealth, or net worth, measures the value of a household's assets minus its debts, such as mortgages, car loans, student loans and credit card balances. And debt climbed steadily during the survey period, as the Fed slashed interest rates to stimulate borrowing and spending in rocky economic times.

After totaling up both sides of the ledger, the median net worth of American households rose just 1.5 percent over the three years measured, to $93,100, according to the Fed's report, which is compiled every three years to provide a portrait of family finances.

By comparison, median family wealth rose 10.3 percent in the previous survey period, from 1998 through 2001, and shot up 17.4 percent from 1995 to 1998, during an economic boom that pushed up stock prices and wages.

The only weaker gain in wealth recorded by the Fed was in its first such survey, for 1989 to 1992, when median household net worth dropped 5.2 percent during a period that included the recession of 1990-91.

And the wealth gap grew in the latest survey. Median household net worth rose 4 percent for the richest tenth of Americans and fell 11 percent for the poorest two-tenths of Americans, the survey showed.

"Home appreciation was offset by lousy wage growth and debt accumulation," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on labor issues. Median family incomes rose just 1.6 percent from 2001 through 2004, to $43,200, the report said. That marked the weakest results since a 6.9 percent drop in the 1989 to 1992 period.

Income growth was held back in from 2001 to 2004, largely because of a 6.2 percent fall in median wages, the largest source of family income, the report said. Investment income also declined, as interests rates, stock prices and dividends fell through much of the survey period.

The survey's findings reflect how households coped financially with the economic turmoil of that period, which coincided with President Bush's first term, a recession, terrorist attacks, accounting scandals, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Businesses slashed millions of jobs and cut back sharply on investment in plants, software and equipment from 2001 through early 2003 while Bush and Congress cut taxes and the Fed lowered interest rates to keep the economy going.

Consumers responded enthusiastically, borrowing cheaply to pay for houses, cars and other goods and services. They succeeded in pumping up economic growth to a strong 4.1 percent in 2003 and 3.8 percent in 2004.

One welcomed result was the hot housing market. The median value of a principal residence rose to $160,000 in 2004, up 22 percent from 2001. But consumers revived the economy at a cost -- by accepting a bigger debt burden and by devoting more of their income to pay interest on the debt.

The overall median value of household debt rose 33.9 percent from 2001 through 2004, to $55,300, the Fed reported. Families spent 14.4 percent of their incomes on debt service in 2004, up from 12.9 percent in 2001.

And the borrowing has only accelerated since 2004. Total household debt grew to a record $11.4 trillion in last year's third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, shooting up at the fastest rate since 1985, according to a separate Fed report.

The Fed's findings on wealth and income growth are particularly disappointing, Bernstein said, when compared with the economy's 11.6 percent growth in productivity, or output per hour of work, during the same period.

Productivity growth usually enables living standards to rise because employers can simultaneously reap higher profits and raise workers' wages without fanning inflation. Many economists, including some Fed policymakers, are puzzled by the relatively weak wage growth of recent years despite strong productivity growth.

"The last three years have been a period of impressive productivity growth and depressive changes in the living standards for most families," Bernstein said.

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