Market increase creates the biggest quarterly gain in net worth since the end of the financial crisis.
Fortune -- Feeling richer in 2012? According to the Federal Reserve you are.
The net worth of households rose a collective $2.8 trillion in the first three months of 2012. That was the largest quarterly rise in household wealth since the beginning of the financial crisis, and roughly equates to an increase of $9,000 per American. Still, we have another four trillion to go before we regain what we lost in the financial crisis. Collectively, American households are worth just under $63 trillion, down from $67 trillion back in 2007, which was a peak. And while assets popped, debt was only down slightly.
What's more, the data on household wealth, which was released by the Federal Reserve on Thursday, hinted as it has in the past, to the growing wealth divide in the United States. The biggest contributor to the overall growth in net worth was stock market assets, which jumped $931 billion in the first three months of the year. But while stocks are more widely held than they used to be, the majority of stock holdings are still owned by the wealthiest Americans. Mutual fund accounts were up too by $539 billion. But the money in households' plain-vanilla savings accounts rose by a much less robust $96 billion. And while, it's likely that some of that small rise could be due to the fact that banks are paying little or no interests on those accounts, it's not clear where else that money went. Holdings of savings bonds, for instance, dropped slightly.
What's more, while household debt was down, the drop wasn't very big, suggesting most individuals are still struggling with the aftermath of the run up of debt that lead to the financial crisis. Americans now owe a collective $13.4 trillion dollars, down $50 billion in the first three months of the year. The majority of the drop was in home loans. Credit card loans dropped in the first three months of 2012, but what we owe on our plastic was up from a year ago, by a collective $110 billion.
Another worrying sign, the Fed data also showed that the cash on corporate balance sheets continued to grow, up $12.6 billion in the first three months of the year. The Fed reclassified what it considers corporate cash. That figure now stands at $1.7 trillion, up from $1.5 trillion in 2006. Economists have interpreted that rise in cash as a sign that companies are uncertain about the future of the economy and unwilling to spend their dough. But the increase could just reflect the fact that investors, looking for safety, have demanded that companies hold onto more cash. Either way, the money isn't making it into the general economy and translating into accelerating hires. And that's bad. It appears the U.S. economy has created a closed loop, where companies accumulate cash and rise in value, which boost the net worth of the richest Americas, but does little to lower the huge number of unemployed Americans. That's what Bernanke and lawmakers should really be focused on.