Wealth Plunged in the Aughts

The Federal Reserve’s study of consumer finances from 2007-2010 was released today, finding that the typical family ended 2010 no wealthier than the typical family had been in the early 1990s. That’s because what we already knew had been a decade of declining wages and incomes also turned out to be a lost decade for stocks and of course a disaster for housing wealth.

You can see some of the key data in the chart I’ve reproduced.

The 2004-2007 period was an unusual one for the American economy. The unemployment rate had recovered from the dot-com recession, but the employment:population ratio never re-obtained its late-1990s peak and unlike in the 1990s, wages didn’t rise much. What did rise, as you can see, is wealth. And now just for the 1 percent. Housing is a very broadly owned asset class, so the steady appreciation in land prices actually led the median wealth level to increase faster than the mean. In a variety of ways, many people were able to take advantage of that wealth accumulation to bolster their consumption—either through home equity loans or simply because the prevailing lending dynamics let a lot of people get a decent house with a small monthly payment.

This, of course, proved to be the problem with using expensive housing as a strategy for prosperity. Since people generally want to actually live in a house rather than simply pondering its financial appreciation, the main way to take advantage of housing wealth is to use it as collateral for debt. When prices fell, a whole bunch of nasty debt-dynamics were unleashed.

My guess is that the situation as of 2012 probably looks somewhat better than the situation as of 2010, though probably not wildly so. It’s been a rough period for the American economy.