US home price gains lift household wealth to $90.2 trillion

Article By Christopher S. Rugaber | Featured on CNBC

A healthy increase in home values and higher stock prices drove up U.S. household wealth in the July-September quarter, though the gains are largely concentrated among wealthier Americans.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday that real estate values increased $554 billion in the third quarter, while Americans’ stock and mutual fund portfolios rose $494 billion. Total household wealth, which includes checking and savings accounts and subtracts mortgages and other debt, increased 1.8 percent to $90.2 trillion.

The rise suggests that Americans’ finances are improving, with more families building equity in their homes. Greater wealth can encourage more spending and boost economic growth. Stock prices have soared to new record levels since the election, which means household net worth is likely higher now.

Still, national wealth isn’t widely shared, which limits the benefits of any increase. The wealthiest 1 percent held 42 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2012, the latest data available, according to research published earlier this year by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California-Berkeley.

The rise in the wealth gap mirrors the widening of income inequality in the past several decades. The top 0.1 percent of Americans, which consists of about 160,000 taxpayers worth more than $20 million, owned 22 percent of national wealth in 2012, up from just 7 percent in 1978, Saez’s research found.

According to a paper released earlier this week by Saez, Zucman and Thomas Piketty, the richest 1 percent of Americans derive more than half their income from capital assets such as homes, stocks and bonds, as well as their share of pension savings.

The bottom 90 percent of Americans earn less than 20 percent of their income from capital, most of that in the form of pension fund savings.

U.S. household wealth fell sharply in the Great Recession as home prices and financial markets plummeted, wiping out more than $11 trillion in asset values. Net worth fell to $56 trillion in 2008.

Since then, stock prices have reached record levels, a boon to richer households. The 10 percent wealthiest households own 80 percent of stocks.

But home prices began rising in 2012 and by some measures have fully recovered from their collapse in the housing bust. That’s helped more Americans’ finances. U.S. households’ ownership equity reached 57.2 percent of the value of their homes, the highest since 2006, the Fed said.

Rising home equity also encourages more Americans to sell their homes, which increases the number of available houses and could boost sales. Home sales have been restrained in recent years by unusually low levels of properties on the market.

The rise in home prices has helped repair the housing market, according to data from CoreLogic, a real estate data provider. Just 6.3 percent of homes with a mortgage were “under water” in the July-September quarter, meaning the homeowner owes more on the mortgage than the home is worth. That is down from 26 percent in 2009 and 8.4 percent a year ago.

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