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Net worth surged for the typical family during the pandemic era, largely on the back on higher home and stock prices and government stimulus measures, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday in its triennial Survey of Consumer Finances.
Net worth is a measure of household assets after accounting for liabilities. After accounting for inflation, median net worth jumped to $192,900, a 37% increase from 2019-22, the Fed found.
That percentage growth was the largest since the Fed started its modern survey in 1989. It was also more than double the next-largest increase on record: Between 2004 and 2007, right before the Great Recession, real median net worth rose 18%.
Increases in net worth were “near universal across different types of families,” the Fed said.
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“Americans got a lot wealthier during the pandemic,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.
In large part, that was due to the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates to rock bottom at the onset of the pandemic, easing borrowing costs for consumers, Zandi said. An expanded social safety net made it less likely people had to take on debt. And when became clear the U.S. economy would recover quickly from the early pandemic shocks, due to government support and vaccines, asset prices like stocks and homes “took off,” Zandi said.
Of course, not everyone benefited equally: Assets like homes and stocks are generally not held by families in the bottom 20% by income, for example, the Fed said.
And wealth gaps are still big: Families in the bottom 25% by wealth had a median net worth of $3,500 in 2022. The top 10% had $3.8 million.
“Those that have big a net worth in America keep getting bigger and those have no net worth are not making much progress,” said certified financial planner Ted Jenkin, CEO and founder of oXYGen Financial in Atlanta and a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.
Home and stock values increased significantly
The pandemic saw an unprecedented scale of federal relief funds — like stimulus checks, and enhanced unemployment benefits and child tax credits — issued to prop up households. The government also took measures that alleviated debt burdens, like a pause on student loan payments and interest.
The typical family’s “transaction account” balances — like checking, savings and money market accounts — jumped 30% to $8,000 from 2019 to 2022, according to Fed data.
At the same time, the values of financial assets like homes and stocks increased significantly.
For example, the median net value of a house rose to $201,000 in 2022, from $139,100 in 2019 — a 45% increase, the Fed said. The S&P 500 stock index grew by roughly 20% from the end of 2019 through 2022. Balances of the typical retirement account like 401(k) or individual retirement account grew by 15% to $86,900, according to Fed data.
Not only did stock values grow, but more people also began investing. Direct ownership of stocks also increased “markedly” between 2019 and 2022, from 15% to 21% of families, the largest change on record, the Fed said.
The racial wealth gap also narrowed over that three-year time frame, as home, stock and business ownership all increased relatively more for non-white than for white families, the Fed said.
However, these gaps are still large: The typical white family had about six times as much wealth as the typical Black family, and five times as much as the typical Hispanic family, the Fed said.
And, when it comes to income, Black and Hispanic families’ wages after inflation stagnated over 2019-22, the Fed added.
There are also signs many families are struggling despite pandemic-era wealth gains. The poverty rate jumped to 12.4% in 2022 — up 4.6 percentage points from 2021 and up 0.6 points from the pre-pandemic rate in 2019, according to the Census Bureau. (This poverty rate reflects the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors government benefits like food stamps and housing subsidies into income measures.)
The expanded pandemic-era social safety net had largely withered away by 2022, right around the same time that inflation was hitting 40-year highs.
In fact, household wealth likely peaked in mid-2022, Zandi said.
“If the Fed did another survey today, I suspect they’d find net worth is lower, particularly for folks in the lowest income groups, in part because their debt loads are now higher,” Zandi said. “They have been borrowing quite aggressively since the government support wore off.”