December 13, 2022

Hope for Household Wealth

We usually temper our good news with bad news around here, so we’ll do the opposite for a change.

Easy come, easy go. That might be the way to look at lost household wealth over the last year if it had actually come easy. Most of us work very hard for every paycheck, carefully setting aside a small portion for our later years. Watching our retirement savings shrink has been truly disheartening. Even so, there’s hope.

First the bad news. As stock markets lost 25% of their value in the first three quarters of 2022, American households saw $6.8 trillion in nominal wealth vanish into thin air. That’s overstating it, of course, because what you own in the stock market is not generally cash but assets, which can appreciate again, restoring that wealth, sometimes in short order.

The other side of the coin, however, is purchasing power, which has greatly diminished over the same period of time. Rampant inflation since Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan put America in dire need of rescue and has robbed households of another $6.7 trillion on top of those market losses.

In one sense, American households are $13.5 trillion poorer after Biden “rescued” them. The drop this year is the second fastest on record after the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Where’s that “I did that” sticker?

Debt and savings are also major factors at the kitchen table. While the personal savings rate is now just 3.7% after exceeding 10% for the last decade, debt grew at a 15-year record of 4.3% in the third quarter. Both are a reflection of inflation as people try to keep up their standard of living while prices are skyrocketing.

In spite of some pretty serious bad news, however, there are reasons to be optimistic. “Even after adjusting for inflation,” writes economic columnist Rex Nutting, “real household wealth was about 10% higher than it was in late 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.” Soaring home values account for much of that, so as long as the housing market doesn’t crash with rising interest rates, most of that value will be retained.

There’s also relatively good news about inflation. We never thought we’d call a 7.1% annual inflation rate “good,” but November’s number beat expectations, was down sharply from October’s 7.7%, and continues a tapering trend that began over the summer. The target rate of 2% isn’t exactly right around the corner, but inflation is now growing at the slowest annual rate since last December.

The Biden administration also has hope. “I believe by the end of next year you will see much lower inflation,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Okay, who are we kidding? “Transitory” Yellen and the rest of Team Biden’s economic illiterates are always wrong about this stuff, and they’ve never once offered the right policy prescription. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so maybe…

On the income front, for the first time in months, inflation-adjusted earnings increased from October to November. Stocks rallied this morning on the report and have been on a generally upward trajectory for the last couple of months, restoring some of that aforementioned household wealth.

One of the biggest drivers of inflation has been gas prices, which have moderated considerably in recent months. Gas is still $0.86 per gallon more than it was when Biden took office, but today’s $3.25 per gallon is a far cry from the all-time nominal record of $5.02 in June.

In short, we do face very real problems, but don’t forget that Americans are the kind of people who overcome challenges. We keep trying and fighting.

By and large, Americans are the freest and richest people the world has ever known. Stock portfolios and assets tell only so much of the story. As we approach Christmas and celebrate the ultimate gift of Jesus Christ, it’s worth remembering how truly blessed we really are.

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