US household wealth rises to record level of $81.5 trillion on stock and home price gains

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WASHINGTON — Strong stock market gains and higher home prices boosted Americans' net worth in the April-June quarter to a record high, a trend that could encourage more spending.

U.S. households also took on the most new debt in five years, driven mostly by student and auto loans. More borrowing can be a sign of confidence, although greater student debt can pose a burden for younger households.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday that household wealth rose 1.7 percent in the second quarter to $81.5 trillion. Americans' stock and mutual fund portfolios gained $1 trillion. The value of their homes increased $230 billion.

Greater wealth can make people feel more financially secure and encourage them to spend more. This "wealth effect" could boost the economy, although analysts note that it may not produce as much benefit as it did before the Great Recession.

That's because most of the wealth gains of the past five years have occurred in the stock market, rather than in home values. Financial wealth is more volatile and doesn't spark as much spending as housing wealth typically does, research shows.

The Fed's figures aren't adjusted for population growth or inflation. Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of homes, stocks, and other assets minus mortgages, credit cards and other debts.

U.S. net worth has rebounded dramatically since the depths of the recession. During the first quarter of 2009, as the stock market's losses deepened, net worth fell as low as $55.6 trillion — 19 percent below its pre-recession peak of $68.8 trillion.

But the wealth gains are flowing mainly to affluent Americans. Broad stock market averages have jumped more than 150 percent from their trough in the spring of 2009. But roughly 10 percent of households own about 80 percent of stocks.

Middle-income Americans rely mainly on home equity to build wealth, and housing prices nationwide are still below their 2006 peak.

A separate Fed report released last week illustrates the gap: Median household net worth at the end of last year was $81,200, a drop of 2 percent from 2010. The median is the halfway point between the highest and lowest figure.

But average net worth, which is inflated by extremely large fortunes at the top, was $534,600 in 2013, roughly the same as in 2010. Those figures are drawn from the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances, which is done every three years.

Average net worth for the top 10 percent of households by income was $3.3 million in 2013, the survey found. That's more than five times the average wealth of the next 10 percent of households: $631,400.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen highlighted the dearth of assets for lower- and middle-income families in a speech Thursday. She noted that the bottom fifth of American households had a median net worth of just $6,400 in 2013. Many had no or negative net worth. The next fifth had a median net worth of just $27,900.

"The financial crisis and the Great Recession demonstrated, in a dramatic and unmistakable manner, how extraordinarily vulnerable are the large share of American families with few assets to fall back on," Yellen said.

The Fed's report Thursday included some other signs that Americans are still slowly repairing their finances. The ratio of household debt to income dipped to 107 percent from 108 percent in the previous quarter. That figure is down from 135 percent in 2007, just before the Great Recession began. The ratio of household debt to income was below 100 percent in the 1990s, before the housing bubble began in the next decade.

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