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Americans Have Never Been So Wealthy: Really!?!

Aaron Task
·Editor in Chief
Americans Have Never Been So Wealthy: Really!?!

The wealth of American households hit a nominal record of $77.3 trillion in the third quarter, according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve. The third-quarter household wealth number wasn’t a record on an inflation-adjusted basis but given the stock market’s rally since Sept. 30, it’s almost certainly at a record now. (Even with the record decline, the S&P 500 is still up about 5.6% in the fourth quarter.)

Given recent events such as the fast food workers strike, Occupy Google and ho-hum start to holiday shopping season (based on what retailers are saying vs. the government data) we were pleasantly surprised to hear Americans are doing so well. But digging into the numbers a little bit we couldn’t help be reminded of the “Really!?!” segments Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler made famous on SNL’s Weekend Update.

As in…Really? Household wealth is at a record high? You know what else is at a record — at least until very recently — The Dow Jones Industrial Average? That's one big reason why the data says Americans are richer. Oh, and by the way, the wealthiest 10% of U.S. households own about 80% of stocks.

You know what else is at a record? The number of people on Food Stamps! 47 million! Really!

No wonder most Americans aren't feeling very good about their finances these days. Nearly a-third of Americans believe we're still in a recession and 39% say the national economy is getting worse, according to a recent poll by American Research Group.

Really!?! As Lauren Lyster and I discuss in the accompanying video, it isn’t hard to imagine why...

Let's start with wages. Household net worth is now back to 2007 levels, meaning before the Great Recession. But in the same timeframe, wages have stagnated and real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) household income was down 6.1% in October 2013 from the median average of $55,686 in December 2007, according to Sentier Research.

The housing market's rebound is a big factor in household net worth. But more Americans are renting now — 35% last year vs. 31% in 2004 — and half of U.S. renters pay more than 30% or more of their income on rent, up a whopping 12 percentage points from a decade ago, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Consumers are also holding more debt besides mortgages, notably credit cards, auto loans and student loans, which are also at record levels - over $1 trillion.

So really Ben Bernanke, the next time your statisticians want to tell Americans their wealth is at a record high, make them include an asterisk that these records are really driven by the richest Americans. After all, they have most of the money!

And for the nearly 11 million Americans without a job and the 7.7 million more working part-time — but not by choice — please remember to thank the wealthiest among us for helping America achieve this new milestone.


Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com