By the Numbers: A Closer Look at the Real Wealth of US Households

Americans are poorer than they think…

Dow up again yesterday. Gold still bouncing around…

The press is still focused on Europe. A “deal over eurozone fiscal rules,” was announced earlier in the week. Every day brings more speculation about what form the final deal will take…and whether the European Central Bank will lend a hand.

Nobody really wants to sell stocks. Because a real deal might send stock prices shooting up in a giant Christmas rally.

They don’t want to buy either. Because a failed deal might send them collapsing. So investors watch…and wait.

In America and Europe investors are playing it cool. Congress has to extend the payroll tax cut by December 16th or the economy is probably going to bite the dust. But no one seems particularly concerned about it.

The automatic cuts probably aren’t going to happen — at least, not the way they were supposed to happen. The pols are negotiating now. Their challenge is how to scam the voters and investors by pretending to cut spending, without really cutting much of anything.

They’re pretty good at it; we’re pretty sure they’ll get the job done.

But despite all this backdrop of chicanery and tomfoolery, the real USA is in deep trouble. The number of people living with the help of US government food handouts has risen to 46 million — a new record.

And figures from Credit Suisse’s World Wealth Report show that the typical American is a lot poorer than generally believed. The report compares average wealth to the median wealth. For the benefit of Dear Readers who have forgotten the distinction, average is what you get when you add all the wealth together and divide by the number of people. Put in a few super-billionaires and everyone looks rich. The median, on the other hand, is what you get when you separate the people into two groups…those above and those below. At the center is the “median”…or what we usually refer to as the “typical” American.

In Britain, for example, the average wealth is $258,000. Not bad. But it’s not what most people have. It’s just what you get when you average all those rich people — with their very expensive houses in London — along with everyone else. Few people in Britain actually have $258,000 net worth.

The median net worth is not even half that amount — $121,000. That’s what the typical fellow has. And even that amount depends heavily on real estate prices that have still not come down in Britain.

But get this. In the US, the average wealth figure is a little less than in Britain — $248,000. But the median figure — what most people actually have — is much less, only $53,000.

What this means, says our Bonner Family Office chief economist, Rob Marstrand, is that “wealth in America is heavily skewed to the rich, with a lot of adults with very little net worth.”

Compared to the typical Japanese or European, the typical American is only half as rich. Half the people in the US have less than $53,000 net worth. You can imagine what the bottom 20% have.

This is a devastating and grim insight. It explains why so much of America seems, well, so poor. Because it is poor. People don’t have any money. They dress poorly. Eat poorly. Live poorly.

Compared to Britain and Europe, much of the difference can be explained by the housing bubble, and subsequent housing crash in America. If we remember correctly, the US housing stock was valued at about $20 trillion in ’07. It lost 33% of its value, putting a quarter of mortgaged houses underwater and wiping out about $7 trillion of “wealth.”

This explains why there are so many reports of people living in motels…and, according to a recent CNBC report…in automobiles. Yes, families have taken to living in trucks and cars.

We recently rented an RV for Thanksgiving. The idea was to give our son and his family somewhere to stay when they came for the holidays. It was as nice as a small apartment, with three TVs and sophisticated electronic gizmos we couldn’t quite figure out. But the poor aren’t living in Class A motor-homes. They’re living in panel trucks and old vans.

In this regard, it is probably worth pointing out that the recent news of a decline in unemployment was a fraud. The news reports told us that 120,000 jobs were added last month. Unfortunately, 150,000 are needed just to keep up with population growth…and 500,000 to convincingly claim to have a ‘recovery.’

And the only reason the jobless figure improved was because the statisticians knocked 300,000 job seekers off the list. Never in history have so many people been unemployed for so long. So, the quants figured that if they hadn’t found a job by now, they might as well give up. Which flatters the figures, but it doesn’t do much for people looking for work…or for people who are trying to understand what is really going on.

What we take from these figures is that America has a huge and growing class of very poor people…who are bound to be getting more desperate…and more angry…as time goes by. Unless there is genuine growth, they have no way to expand their spending, no way to get good jobs, and no hope of ever getting ahead.

When you put the unemployed together with the under-employed…those with pick up work but no fulltime, stable jobs…the total rises to one of five people in the labor pool.

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning