In this segment from the Motley Fool Answers podcast, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp discuss Dow 25,000 in the broader context of how this long Wall Street rally has played out for average families. And what they've found is not good.
Inequality has gotten far worse, the middle class has seen virtually no benefits from corporate America's gains, and three in 10 households have a net worth of less than zero. But neither you nor the nation is stuck with conditions as they stand -- and Alison and Robert offer some insights on things we can do about our financial issues.
A full transcript follows the video.
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This video was recorded on Jan. 16, 2018.
ALison Southwick: Bro, what have you been reading this week?
Robert Brokamp: Well, as we all know, on Jan. 4, the Dow passed 25,000 for the first time ever, so there are a lot of articles celebrating that fact. But then came a slew of articles that pointed out that a lot of people missed the boat, because it turns out that stock ownership in this country is awfully concentrated. And the sources of this side of the articles were all over the place, but really they relied on a couple of things -- a relatively new paper from an NYU economics professor named Edward Wolff, as well as this 80-slide PowerPoint presentation from Deutsche Bank. Just google either of those and you'll find some of these articles.
So four themes came out of it, and you can pick a lot of stuff out of this, but I chose four. One is, again, stock ownership is really concentrated. So the top 10% of American households, as defined by total wealth, own 84% of the stocks, and that's as of 2016, so it doesn't include last year's good run-up. That figure was just, not the low number, but 77% in 2001, so it is getting more concentrated. If you look at just the top 1%, they own 40% of all the stocks. Twenty-five percent of households own more than $25,000 in stocks, which means 75% own less than $25,000. In fact, 30% of households have a net worth of zero or a negative number, and that is a record high, at least as far as the stats go back.
Southwick: I saw a survey today that said something like 68% of Americans think that they will never get out of debt.
Brokamp: Yes. Yeah. It's very dispiriting.
Brokamp: And when you look at just the top 0.1%, they have the same net worth as the bottom 90%. And if you look at that on a chart that goes back to really the beginning of the 20th century, for most of that time, the top 0.1% and the bottom 90% either had about the same net worth or the bottom 90% was doing much better. It's only in the last 10 years or so that the top 0.1% has really had so much more wealth relative to the rest of the country.
So No. 2, the key theme is, why is that? What's happened over the last decade and a little further back? And that was the dot-com crash of 2000-2002, the stock market crash of 2007, and then the housing bust. All of that significantly affected the majority of the population much more than the wealthiest Americans.
Why is that? Well, No. 1, it gets to the third theme, and that is for the average American, most of their net worth is tied into their house. So when the housing crash came, that really affected the average person compared to wealthier households who have less than 10% of their net worth tied into their primary home.
And the other reason is that the average American has not been saving a lot, so they didn't have enough of an economic cushion to cover emergency expenses if something happened during the recession -- if they lost their job. If they didn't have that economic cushion, what did they have to do? They had to raid their 401(k) or they had to sell their house. And then the other part of that, too, was that middle-income folks were more likely to sell when the stock market went down, and took a longer time to get back into the market as it was rebounding.
Southwick: Which makes so much sense. I mean, if your savings gets decimated, you're going to have to resort to selling, and you're also likely to be burned very badly and twice as shy to get back into the market.
Brokamp: Right, and what does every financial planner tell you to do? To build up your emergency fund before you invest in stocks. If you've already drained your emergency fund, that's what you're focusing on. Just getting back on your feet, and not trying to get back into the market as it hopefully recovers. Everyone looks back at a recovery and thinks, "Well, of course the market's going to recover." But when you look back to how you felt during that time, you didn't know when it was going to happen.
And then the fourth theme that I pulled from all this is that the inequality isn't equal among the races or the ages. So when you look at ethnicity, the average white household is doing much better than the average black household or Latino household. So for example, one article that I read from CityLab.com that looked at Boston, which has the highest inequality of most major U.S. cities, found that the average net worth of a white household is $247,500. Average net worth of a black household, $8.
Again, it gets back to this. If you don't have those resources, it's very tough to weather a downturn, and it takes you a lot more time to get back on top. And the same when you look at Hispanic households as well, even if you equal out many of the factors that are correlated with wealth, like college education. A college-educated white household is still going to have a higher net worth, on average, than a college-educated black or Hispanic household.
So those are some of the things I pointed out. What are the takeaways I think people should consider? Well, first of all, one thing is you've got to convert your human capital into investment capital, meaning you've got to do your best to save money while you're making it, put it in your portfolio, and build up that emergency fund. Human capital, which is basically your salary, historically grows at about inflation, or if you're in a profession maybe 1 or 2 percentage points above inflation, so you're talking 3%-5% a year. The stock market grows, on average, 10% a year. The more you can get your human capital into investment capital, you're going to be better off.
No. 2, create your own financial fortress. We talked about you've got to have some liquid assets. Cash. Maybe bonds, especially if you're getting close to retirement. But the other issue where many households got in trouble over the last 10 years was they took on too much debt. Took on too much credit card debt, school debt, but also housing debt, so when the housing market crashed, they went underwater, and if they had to sell their house they were in a lot of trouble. So you've got to create your own financial fortress.
No. 3, don't get scared out of stocks, and buy more when they're down. So if you have some sort of an economic cushion, when the stock market goes down, you have that extra money that you can put in to buy more stocks. That's one of the things that has benefited wealthier households. They had money to buy stocks when they were down. Other households didn't, so you've got to create what we often call around here "dry powder." Something on the side ready to buy when the stock market goes down.
And then the fourth one is help those behind the starting line. The fact of the matter is there's no question that kids with wealthier parents start further ahead. They're more likely to get help with buying a car. Buying a house. More likely to inherit money. More likely to graduate college with no student loans.
There are lots of proposals. How can you help kids that are not starting out so ahead? One controversial one that I read about was called "baby bonds," where every kid who is born gets a certain amount of money, a bond, that matures when they turn age 18, and it's adjusted for your wealth. The kids from the wealthiest families will get a bond worth $500. With the poorest households, the kids will get a bond worth $50,000. The typical middle-income kid will get about $20,000. They don't get it until they're 18, and they have to use it on what they're calling wealth-enhancing endeavors. Like buying a house. Buying a business. Something like that. It's very controversial, but it has showed up a couple of times in different articles. And I just think the bottom line is it's going to be an issue. The whole reason Deutsche Bank had this presentation was because it's a risk to people's portfolios, as well as to societal stability, when a situation is so unequal.
And I'll just close here with a quote from Ray Dalio, who is one of the wealthiest Americans. He runs one of the most successful hedge funds. We've talked about him in a previous episode. He's one of the greatest investors of all time. And he said, "I think the greatest issue of our time is the disparity of wealth and the problems that exist for the lower 40% of the population. If you carve those folks out, not only has there been no income growth, but death rates are rising because of opiate use, suicide, and because they're losing jobs. This is the biggest issue of our time -- the biggest economic issue, the biggest political issue, and the biggest social issue." So I don't know if baby bonds are the solution, but the fact is we're all in this together, and something will have to change.