(MoneyWatch) Increasing housing prices and the stock market''s posting all-time highs haven't helped the plight most Americans. The average U.S. household has recovered only 45 percent of the wealth they lost during the recession, according to a report released yesterday from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
This finding is a very different picture than one painted in a report earlier this year by the Fed that calculated Americans as a whole had regained 91 percent of their losses. The writers of the report released yesterday point out that the earlier number is based on aggregate household-net-worth data. However, this isn't adjusted for inflation, population growth or the nature of the wealth. Further, they say much of recovery in net worth is because of the stock market, which means most of the improvement has been a boon only to wealthy families.
"Clearly, the 91 percent recovery of wealth losses portrayed by the aggregate nominal measure paints a different picture than the 45 percent recovery of wealth losses indicated by the average inflation-adjusted household measure," the report said. "Considering the uneven recovery of wealth across households, a conclusion that the financial damage of the crisis and recession largely has been repaired is not justified," the researchers said.
Household wealth plunged $16 trillion from the top of the real estate bubble in the third quarter of 2007 to the bottom of the bust in the first quarter of 2009. By the last three months of 2012, American households as a group had regained $14.7 trillion.
The report says almost two-thirds of the increase in aggregate household wealth is due to rising stock prices. This has disproportionately benefited the richest households: About 80 percent of stocks are held by the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.
Much of the total wealth of middle- and lower-income households is based on home values, not stocks. Even though home prices have increased nearly 11 percent in the past year, they remain about 30 percent below their peak.
While Americans continue to pay down their debt, the report says debt levels and problems with rebuilding net worth are the main reasons the recovery has been so slow. Also, the people who bore the brunt of the recession through job losses and reduced income were the ones who had borrowed the most.
The report found that members of the households that suffered the most financially were less educated, relatively young or black or Hispanic, or some combination of these factors. Those families tended to have low savings and high debt, with much of their wealth based on housing.
The poorest households have felt the sharpest losses as a consequence of the recession: "While many Americans lost wealth during the Great Recession, younger, less-educated and nonwhite families lost the greatest percentage of their wealth," James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed, said in a statement. "Household deleveraging, or paying down debt, has played a key role in the recent recession and the slow recovery."