Americans' Wealth Fell In Spring As Stocks Tanked

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money america cbs Americans' Wealth Fell In Spring As Stocks TankedAmericans’ long journey to regain the wealth they lost in the recession is stalled.

Households failed even to run in place during the April-June quarter as sinking stock prices eroded wealth. Stocks have since rebounded. But based on last quarter’s data, household net worth would have to rise 23 percent to revisit its pre-recession peak.

Net worth – the value of assets like homes and investments, minus debts like mortgages and credit cards – fell 2.7 percent last quarter, or $1.5 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Friday. That left net worth at $53.5 trillion.

That’s above the bottom hit during the recession, $48.8 trillion in the first quarter of 2009. But it’s far below the pre-recession peak in wealth of $65.8 trillion.

The drop from April to June was the first quarterly decline in America’s wealth since early 2009. Before then, net worth had risen slowly for four straight quarters.

Their stagnating wealth is likely to keep Americans reluctant to spend freely – and the struggling economy from picking up strength. Consumers tend to spend according to how wealthy they feel. And their spending accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.

During the recession, sinking home equity and stock prices made shoppers skittish. More than a year after the recession is thought to have ended, the housing and stock markets remain fragile. That’s why most Americans aren’t spending as freely as they typically do after recessions.

Consumer spending grew at an annual rate of just 2 percent last quarter, about the same pace as in the first three months of this year. Most economists think Americans will spend at about the same pace, or only slightly better, in the current quarter.

By contrast, after the 1981-82 recession, consumer spending averaged a robust 6.5 percent pace over the four quarters of 1983.

The decline in net worth underscores how dependent families’ wealth is on stock investments. About a fifth of total household financial assets are in stock-market holdings. The value of households’ stock portfolios dropped to $6.8 trillion last quarter – a 12 percent decline from the first three months of this year.

Americans’ home equity isn’t making up for the loss in their stock values. Last quarter, U.S. real estate values ticked up a scant 0.3 percent compared with the January-March quarter.

And many economists expect the home market to weaken further now that a federal home buyer tax credit has expired. Most economists expect home prices to decline around 5 percent to 10 percent by the middle of next year.

Some optimism has been sparked by the gains that stocks have made since June 30. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index a broad barometer of the market, has recovered about two-thirds of the its loss during the April-through-June period. Stocks are now up just under 1 percent for 2010.

That translates into modest advances in wealth since the period covered by the latest government report. As measured by the Dow Jones U.S. Total Stock Market Index, stock values have gained $260 million between June 30 and the close of trading Thursday. About $11.6 billion is now invested in U.S. stocks.

Though the S&P 500 remains 28 percent below its peak on Oct. 9, 2007, employees who have stayed invested in 401(k) plans and continued to contribute have fared better. About 78 percent of them now have more money in those accounts than before the market top three years ago, according to estimates Jack VanDerhei of the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Still, so many people have seen their overall wealth diminish since the recession that they lack confidence to spend much.

Scott Nieberg, a St. Louis veterinarian, for example, says his retirement account is worth no more than it was a decade ago. Nieberg, 53, says he’s all but given up hope his nest egg will grow significantly any time soon.

His business would have to improve significantly for him to feel comfortable enough to take a vacation, he said.

“In a down economy, you just work hard,” Nieberg said. “We used to take vacations. Now we take weekends.”

 (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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