Tag Archives: Wealth

Investing Implications of Trends in Household Wealth

Shifting Wealth

A new study released by the Russell Sage Foundation analyzes trends in household wealth over the last twenty years, with a focus on the years surrounding the ‘great recession’ of 2008.  The study examines changes in household net worth for the median household, as well as for the 95th percentile of households by wealth (the richest 5%), the poorest 25% of households (the 25th percentile) and tiers in between.

7-30-2014

Source: Russell Sage Foundation

The results, adjusted for inflation (values are shown in 2013 dollars), show that the median U.S. household remains substantially poorer in terms of total net worth than it was before the recession and is actually now poorer than it was in the mid 1980’s.  What’s more, median household net worth has not recovered at all since the great recession.  The same trends are evident even for the wealthiest quarter of households (the 75th percentile), although the gains in wealth by this tier of households in the 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s were sufficiently great that the top quarter of households by wealth is more than 25% wealthier today than in the mid 80’s.

The most striking feature of this chart is the spread in wealth levels.  While the median and 25th percentiles of households by wealth are substantially poorer today than they were twenty years ago, the wealthiest 10% (the 90th percentile) and the wealthiest 5%, in particular, are substantially richer today.  The increasing spread between the percentiles through time is evidence of growing inequality.  The study concludes that much of the divergence between wealthier and poorer households reflects the proportion of their wealth held in homes vs. stocks and bonds.  Housing prices remain well below their previous peaks in 2007, while the equity markets have regained their previous levels.  For poorer households, homes represents the vast majority of their net worth.  This is not the case for wealthier households.  The results of this study are consistent with other analysis—this is confirmation rather than being surprising.  Nonetheless, each new set of results that are consistent adds weight.

Implications for Investors

The implications of the trends in the table above are substantial.  If the median household is seeing declining or stagnant wealth levels—with more extreme declines for poorer households—this will ultimately reduce their capacity to buy and consume goods and services.  Indeed, the Russell Sage study concludes that declining household wealth shows that poorer households, unable to support their current consumption with income, are gradually depleting their assets.  At the other end of the spectrum, the wealthiest 10% of households has seen a substantial decline in net worth as well, even though this tier enjoyed huge gains in the past twenty years.

Aside from the fact that declining household wealth reduces the ability to spend, there is also the problem of the wealth effect.  Households that have disposable income are less likely to spend it if they feel less wealthy and even the 95th percentile of households by wealth is less wealthy than it was just five years ago.

The simplest interpretation of these data are that mid-market retail products and retailers are going to suffer, while the budget products and retailers and the luxury markets will perform relatively better.  So, for example, Family Dollar stores (FDO), WalMart (WMT), Costco (COST) and other discount retailers should do well.  More broadly, however, the declining disposable incomes for the middle tier of investors suggests that the companies that provide the basic products and services that people depend upon are good bets.  Utilities (IDU), oil companies (IGE), and pharmaceutical companies (JNJ, BMY, GSK, PFE) are fairly well insulated from changes in wealth distribution.

The more challenging questions involve discretionary goods and services that are higher-priced and easier to do without or that can be displaced by lower-cost competitors.  Companies like Bed, Bath, and Beyond (BBBY), Whole Foods (WFM), Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF), and Express (EXPR) sell products for which there are cheaper and largely indistinguishable alternatives.  The winners in this mid-market business are those companies that provide fairly low-cost products while retaining brand appeal to wealthier customers (SBUX, CMG, NKE).

Another theme that looks promising is consumer products that are expensive relative to peers but that represent a low-cost substitution as compared to other types of conspicuous consumption.  Apple (AAPL) has successfully capitalized on this trend.  The new iPhone may be expensive compared to other phones, but it is fairly cheap as a prestige object.   Smart phones also provide low-cost entertainment via product offerings such as Facebook (FB).  People who spend their time surfing Facebook or watching Netflix (NFLX) are likely to see cable TV as expensive.  This realization is already expressed in the high prices of these firms relative to their earnings, however.

The Take-Away

The latest data on growing wealth inequality add support to the conclusion that the middle tier of American families is getting squeezed.  The long-term implications for how people spend their money are worth considering.  The ultimate losers will be companies that sell fairly high-cost goods or services to the middle class for which there are low-cost alternatives and for which there are up-market competitors that appeal to wealthier families.  One class of winners will be low-cost ‘prestige’ brands such as smart phones and Starbucks coffee.  It is hard to imagine the average urban millennial substituting his iPhone for generic pay-as-you-go hardware or rushing to the office with a cup of gas station coffee rather than the iconic Starbucks cup.  As discretionary wealth gets tighter for the middle tier, low-cost mobile entertainment looks like a winner at the expense of cable and satellite TV.

The discount retailers and providers of basic goods such as fuels and pharmaceuticals are likely to hold up well simply because changing wealth distributions will have little impact on their businesses.

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Economic Inequality

Income inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a key economic issue for the world.  The topic is a major theme at Davos this year.  Economic inequality is also an increasingly common topic in U.S. politics.

A new study has found that economic mobility does not appear to have changed appreciably over the past thirty years, even as the wealth gap has grown enormously.   The authors analyzed the probability that a child born into the poorest 20% of households would move into the top 20% of households as an adult.  The numbers have not changed in three decades.

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial accumulation of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  The richest 1% of Americans now own 25% of all of the wealth in the U.S.  The share of national income accruing to the richest 1% has doubled since 1980.  In contrast, median household income has shown no gains, adjusted for inflation, since the late 1980’s and has dropped substantially from its previous peak in the late 1990’s.

Why is this happening?

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A ‘New Era’ for Bonds?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled How You Can Survive a New Era in the Bond Market.  The article suggests that investors adjust their bond allocations to tilt more towards high-yield (aka junk) bonds (both corporate and municipal) and global bonds, which tend to yield more than U.S. bonds.  This advice resonates with an Op Ed by Burton Malkiel, famed author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, at the end of 2013.

The case against bonds is straightforward.  The best estimate for the expected future return from bonds is their current yield.  If you hold a bond until maturity, your total return will be very close to the current yield.  There are nuances to this rule.  With high-yield bonds, you should expect a total return that is a bit less than the current yield due to the fact that some of these bonds will probably end in default.  With bond funds, you don’t necessarily end up holding individual bonds until maturity, so the correspondence between current yield and expected return is a bit weaker.  Nonetheless, with current yields as low as they are, bond investors should not expect attractive returns from most bond classes.

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Housing Prices and the Economy: Is There Any Good News?

New data shows that housing prices are not improving.

Nationally, prices have now dropped 34.4% from their peak in 2006.  Prices are now the lowest they have been since the end of 2002, according to the Case/Shiller index.  Robert Shiller, co-creator of the index and long-term researcher on housing prices, warns that risks remain and that we may be seeing a broad shift in consumers’ beliefs with regard to the desirability and risks of owning a house.  In fact, Shiller speculates that it may take decades for suburban single-family housing prices to recover.

A chart of the 20-city composite of U.S. house prices tells the story (below):

(Case/Shiller 20-City U.S. Home Price Index, Seasonally Adjusted. Source: Standard and Poors.)

Nationally, home prices more than doubled from 2000-2006.  From mid-2006 to mid-2009, prices dropped as dramatically as they rose during the boom.  We experienced a slight bounce from mid-2009 to mid-2010, but prices started to decline again in 2010 and are now at their lowest point in a decade.

Implications of Weak Housing Values

Beyond the obvious impacts on homeowners’ net worth, what are the implications of weak housing values for the economy?

First, for many Americans, their houses represent most of their net worth.  What’s more, less wealthy households tend to have a higher percentage of their net worth in home equity.  A continued decline in house prices tends to increase wealth inequality, as well as reducing household net worth as a whole.  Given that fewer and fewer Americans have traditional employer-sponsored pension plans, reductions in household net worth translate directly into fewer financial resources available to fund retirement and other long-term liabilities.

Second, we have the wealth effect.  People tend to feel wealthier when the paper value of their assets is higher, and they tend to spend more.  This may be an especially powerful driver of consumption when homeowners can easily use home equity loans to fund purchases of consumer goods.  A number of studies have found that wealth in the form of home equity is a larger driver of consumer spending than other forms of wealth.

Third, we have the manifestation of de-leveraging among individual investors.  People who lose their homes to foreclosure are not likely to purchase new homes.  In addition, baby boomers who are saddled with mortgages they cannot really afford are likely to sell their homes to get out from under the risks that such leverage (e.g. mortgaged) creates.  Gary Shilling recently outlined this scenario.  With a smaller pool of ready buyers, this de-leveraging across the residential real estate market is a deflationary force.

Is There Any Good News?

Yes, some. Buying a house is looking more and more attractive relative to renting.  With low interest rates and lower prices, the cost of purchasing a house is lower than it has been over most of the last ten years.  Ken Johnson, a professor who studies real estate, and the buy-vs.-rent problem in particular, concludes that buying looks like a better bet than renting.  On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that potential home buyers, and especially first-time buyers, will be very wary of borrowing large sums of money to purchase an asset that may be hard to sell (liquidity risk) and that has the potential to drop as much as we have seen housing prices fall in recent years.

On the other hand, the implications of the most recent Case/Shiller numbers are not very positive.  The best that can be said is that housing prices have shifted from a dramatic free fall to a slower downward drift.  It is hard to tell whether this persistent declined in housing prices is a symptom or a cause of an ongoing economic malaise.  For wealthier Americans, the massive upswing in the stock market has offset declines in housing values.  For less-well-off Americans, the continued erosion of net worth suggests it will be a very slow recovery in terms of personal wealth and in terms of a sustained recovery in consumer spending, which has historically depended on the “wealth effect.”

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How Much Does Your 401(k) Plan Really Cost You?

Ron Lieber at the New York Times recently came out with an article that explores one of the most important problems with 401(k) plans: they can be expensive and plan participants have no idea how much their plans are costing them.

There are costs associated with with running a 401(k) plan–administrative costs for the plan, for example, are distinct and in addition to the expenses associated with the individual funds within the plan.  These costs are sometimes added to the fund’s expense ratio in the creation of a share class specifically designed for retirement plans.  These are usually “R”  class shares.

The New York Timesarticle cites research by BrightScope, a firm that compiles data on 401(k) plan costs, that shows … Continue reading

Obama and the Wealth of Presidents

Before he graced the lowly dollar bill, George Washington was a well-off landowner and farmer. In fact a recent article in the Atlantic, puts him at the top of the presidential financial heap. The piece estimates his net worth at its peak at a cool $545 million. No wonder he looks so unflappable.  Looking at Presidential wealth over the decades and centuries highlights an interesting point for today’s investors, especially those focused on retirement savings. Continue reading