There has been lots of cheery news about the economic recovery lately. A new report out Thursday from the Federal Reserve puts that in check. American households have rebuilt less than half of the wealth they lost during the recession, according to the study. And most of the wealth that has been recovered went to rich white people.
"A conclusion that the financial damage of the crisis and recession largely has been repaired is not justified," says the report. "Most families have recovered much less than the average amount."
The financial crisis destroyed some $16 trillion in household wealth. Americans have only recovered 45 percent of that amount, according to the Fed report. But when you break down that wealth recovery by income level, it gets worse. The Fed estimates that 62 percent of that wealth people have regained since the depths of the recession has come in the form of higher stock prices. And 80 percent of stock wealth is held by people in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. "Recent gains in the stock market mean that the recovery of wealth is nearly complete for white and Asian households and older Americans," Ylan Mui reported at the Washington Post Thursday.
But many families have not experienced any recovery at all, and some are still losing wealth, William Emmons, chief economist at the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability, told the Post. "The families that lost homes are not the families making money off stocks," Mui notes. Though the number of foreclosures has dropped off a lot, it is still more than double what it was pre-crisis.
The report found that the most vulnerable households tended to be either relatively young and/or black or Hispanic, and not well-educated. Those families had low savings and high debt and had gained most of their wealth through their homes.
It gets worse. Because the housing market is improving overall, there is less of an incentive for the government to push any new measures to help underwater homeowners. Prominent economists say that allowing initiatives that would reduce borrowers' loan principle balances is the single most important thing the administration could do to help the Americans who lost all that home wealth. But for more than a year, the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees the government-backed home-loan giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, blocked initiatives that would have done just that. President Barack Obama has nominated a new FHFA director, but as a report released Friday by the Progressive Policy Institute notes, it might be too late: "US housing markets have come roaring back to life, and while that's great news, it has probably closed the window for principal reduction."