The good news reported by the Federal Reserve last week can't be stressed enough: U.S. households' total assets grew by more than $3 trillion in 2010. Total household net worth grew about 6% last year to the highest level since 2007.
Even debt is falling at a pretty good clip. Households shed about $400 billion of debt since peaking in 2007. Mortgages are being defaulted on, and big banks such as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) are writing off credit card and auto debt like there's no tomorrow (Don't worry about them. They get plenty of help from the Fed).
Maybe not surprisingly, the bulk of the increase in household wealth last year came from stock market gains. Real estate assets hit the lowest level since 2003 last year. Checking deposits rose just slightly. Bond assets rose mildly. The biggest gain by far came from stocks, which added about $1.7 trillion to household assets last year.
That's great news for many -- including almost everyone visiting this site. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the distribution of equity ownership among households is incredibly skewed:
Source: Levy Institute 2007, author's calculations.
Opinions vary wildly about the significance of this chart. My view is that asset inequality is a great thing if a country also has strong income mobility -- the possibility of working hard and becoming wealthy in a purely meritocratic way. That's mostly true in the U.S., although study after study shows it's not nearly as strong as many assume. Most measures of income mobility show regions often nailed with a stigma of being anti-capitalism actually have higher income mobility than the U.S.
Anyway, when household wealth is driven by stock gains, and stock ownership is heavily skewed toward a small percentage of households, it's easy to see how a broad-based economic recovery might remain elusive. Things are getting better. Jobs are coming back. Debt is going down. Spending is coming back. And wealth is surely coming back, too. But it's all very bifurcated. In this economy, you're either doing great or struggling to hang on.
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