- by New Deal democrat
Last Thursday the Federal Reserve came out with its Report on Consumer Finances for 2013. This is the most in-depth cross-sectional look at the state of America's household balance sheets, so it is going to get a lot of play. Some of that discussion is going to be on point, and some of it will be misleading at best. So I thought in addition to giving you some value-added, that you probably won't read about elsewhere, I'd discuss a few ways the report is likely to be misinterpreted.
An important limitation: the survey badly lags
Before I begin in earnest, let me point out one important limitation of the study. You are probably going to read a lot of analysis couched in the present progressive tense, as in, "income is declining." That's not a true statement. Because this survey is only conducted once every 3 years, the only comparison is between 1 year ago and 4 years ago. The survey is unlikely to pick up a turning point that took place in 2012 (e.g., real median or average wages as measured in other reports). For that, we'll have to wait for the 2016 report which will be published in 2017! So you can see that this survey, while thorough, is badly lagging.
The economic rift in American society has been growing
So far what I have read hits the two biggest points:
- 1. Median income and wealth both declined compared with 2010 across cross sections
- 2. the divide between haves and have-nots is increasing. Somewhere between the 50th and 75th percentile of income, a rift is developing. Balance sheets are improving roughly for the top 1/3 of Americans, and the higher the income percentile from there, the greater is the improvement. For roughly the bottom 2/3 of Americans, their incomes and wealth are declining.
For example, Digby highlighted the graph showing that the share of overall wealth owned by the top 3% grew. That for the next 7% is flat, and that for the bottom 90% shrank.
That wouldn't necessarily be so bad. For example I'd rather own 9% of a $120 pie than 10% of a $100 pie. The bigger problem is that, as shown in the graph below (2010 is left column, 2013 on right):
the bottom 90% has seen an outright decline in absolute wealth.
The millionaire next door is likely to also be known as "mom and dad"
As the above graph shows, the household at the 82.5th percentile is worth about $500,000. the 95th percentile is worth just shy of $2 million. A reasonable guess is that 10% of all American households are worth $1 million.
Now let's see how wealth skews over age groups:
As I've said before, a 25 year old worth $250,000 is for all intents and purposes, rich. A 65 year old worth $250,000 years old is no better than working class.
While the survey doesn't tell us what percent of millionaires are Boomers, the likelihood is that they are the lion's share.
While declining median wealth is widespread, demographics probably plays the biggest part
Next up, here is the graph of median incomes by age group:
Note that median income starts to drop off at age 55, and especially after the normal retirement age of approximately 65.
Since the number of people in the 25 to 54 age group has stagnated over the last 20 years, while the population over age 55 has surged in the same time period, as shown in this graph:
real median household income has declined as a simple matter of demographics.
It is interesting, and distressing, that median incomes have declined for declined drastically for those ages over 45-54 in particular. I'd like to blame this all on the unemployment rate, but with the comparison period of 2010 (the peak in the unemployment rate was in 2009), it looks like there has been real hardship in this group in particular. So demographics is not the only thing at work. Still having a huge demographic retired into a lower income distribution has to be skewing the overall median figure more than anything else.
For wealth, asset classes made a huge difference
Although not a surprise, the report confirmed that, the more you relied on savings and on bonds, the more you suffered in the last few years. Contrarily, if your main source of wealth was stocks, Happy Days are Here Again:
This is a graph of wealth, so it isn't just that CD's and bonds basically are paying nothing, it appears that people en masse pulled off of those asset groups. It is likely that hose who could, rotated into stock mutual funds and ETF's. Needless to say, the working class normally has its wealth ties up in housing (which lost value) and savings, whereas the wealthy have always had a far bigger share of wealth in investments like stocks. This only exacerbated the divergence in wealth.
The Federal Reserve report is further confirmation, as Business Insider put it on Friday, that Piketty was right, as was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Until Washington is forced to respond more to the people than the plutocrats, we can expect the long-term trend to continue.