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U.S. median wealth up from 27th to 25th

Yesterday Credit Suisse released its Global Wealth Databook 2014 to go along with the Global Wealth Report issued Monday. Global wealth hit another new record of $263 trillion as of mid-2014, up 8.3% from mid-2013 (Report, p. 3). Rich people are doing well, but how about the middle class? One measure of this is median wealth per adult, the exact midpoint of the wealth distribution.

In the United States, mean wealth per adult reached $347,845, and median wealth per adult hit $53,352 (Databook, Table 2-4). This represents an increase in median wealth of 18.8% over 2013, enough to move the U.S. up two places to 25th in the world.

Before we congratulate ourselves too much, we need to remember that $53,352 is not all that much money, especially for retirement (don’t forget that figure includes home equity). With 49% of Americans in the private sector having no retirement plan at all, and only 20% having a defined-benefit pension, a retirement crisis is looming for younger baby boomers and all later middle-class retirees. Meanwhile, if Republicans take control of the Senate in this year’s elections, we are likely to hear increasing demands for cuts to Social Security, when what we actually need is to raise Social Security benefits.

The relatively low median wealth also points to persistent inequality in the United States. While only 25th in median wealth per adult, the U.S. ranks 5th in mean wealth per adult. With a ratio between mean and median wealth per adult of 6.5:1, this is higher than any of the other top 25 countries. Number one Australia has a ratio of less than 2:1. Without further ado, here is the list of all countries with median wealth per adult above $50,000.


Median wealth per adult, mid-2014


1. Australia                  225,337

2. Belgium                   172,947

3. Iceland                    164,193

4. Luxembourg            156,267

5. Italy                         142,296

6. France                     140,638

7. United Kingdom     130,590

8. Japan                       112,998

9. Singapore                109.250

10. Switzerland           106,887

11. Canada                    98,756

12. Netherlands             93,116

13. Finland                    88,130

14. Norway                   86,953

15. New Zealand          82,610

16. Ireland                     79,346

17. Spain                       66,752

18. Taiwan                    65,375

19. Austria                    63,741

20. Sweden                   63,376

21. Malta                       63,271

22. Qatar                       56,969

23. Germany                 54,090

24. Greece                     53,375

25. United States          53,352

26. Israel                       51,346

27. Slovenia                  50,329

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2014, Table 2-4


Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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U.S. Trails at Least 15 OECD Countries in Median Wealth

by Kenneth Thomas

U.S. Trails at Least 15 OECD Countries in Median Wealth

Via @exiledonline, I learned today (July 18) that Canadians are richer than Americans. This is rather surprising, since GDP per capita is higher in the U.S than in Canada.: $48,100 vs. $40,300 (at purchasing power parity or PPP), according to the CIA World Factbook. But in fact things are much worse than that, as 15 OECD countries (plus Singapore and Taiwan) have higher median wealth than the U.S. does. There may even be more, as the Credit Suisse report I discuss below does not give median wealth data for several countries with higher mean wealth than the U.S.

Most reporting has been based on a story that was run in the June 30th Globe and Mail claiming that average (mean) Canadian household wealth had reached $363,202 vs. just under $320,000 in the U.S. This is not a particularly informative statistic, however, since wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income, and income in the U.S. is already highly unequally distributed. What we really need is median net worth, i.e. the level at the exact middle of the net worth distribution in a country. G&M commenter “TJMone” picks up that point, receiving an answer from “porkbarrel pundit”: a Credit Suisse report from October 2011 (via LSM Insurance), shows that the median net worth per adult in Canada was $89,014, compared to just $52,752 in the U.S. (all figures in U.S. dollars).

American reporting based on the study in the G&M did not start until 18 days later, when an article in U.S. News & World Report picked it up (Canadians are right: no one in the U.S. is paying attention to them). Moreover, no one picked up on the much better data in the Credit Suisse report until later in the day, when Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog wrote a great story on it (there are many high-quality comments, too). It turns out that lots of OECD countries, including economic basket cases Italy, Spain, and Ireland, have higher median wealth than we do. See the chart below:
Source: Dylan Matthews, based on data from Credit Suisse

It is mind boggling that median Australian net wealth per adult is four times that of the U.S., and Italy is three times as high. Ireland and Spain, meanwhile, are also higher despite having housing busts similar to that in the United States. What is going on here?

Part of the answer is more equal income distribution. According to the Credit Suisse report, mean wealth per adult is just shy of 5 times median wealth in the U.S., whereas in Canada it’s a little less than a 3:1 ratio (see Table 7-1). Other countries with higher median but lower mean net worth per adult are Taiwan, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Australia has a higher mean net worth than the U.S., but its ratio of mean to median net worth per adult is less than 2:1.

Another part of the answer may be that in many other wealthy countries, households have less debt. If you remember Michael Moore’s movie Sicko, in one scene he interviews an upper-middle class French family and asks them what debt they have. Their only significant debt is their mortgage, because they didn’t have to take out loans to go to college. The Credit Suisse report finds this pattern (unfortunately, only mean debt, not median debt). Mean debt per adult (see Table 2-4) is $59,362 in 2011 for the United States, whereas for France it is $40,873, Germany $33,424, and Italy only $24,291. Of course, this isn’t true of all countries: Ireland and Switzerland both have much higher mean debt per adult, but they also have about twice the median wealth per adult of the U.S.

This analysis is hardly exhaustive; I bet a good book could be written on the subject.

One final point: Matthews skewers the claim by Globe and Mail author Michael Adams (whose firm conducted the study discussed in his article) and later commenters on both sides of the border who accepted Adams’ claim that this was a historical first. As he shows with U.S. and Canadian government data, Canada’s median household net worth was significantly higher in 2004-5, before the crisis, than here in the U.S. Given the huge disparities between the United States and some of the other countries, it is likely that net worth per adult has been higher in a number of these countries for quite some time. These data reflect trends that have been developing for a long time, and are not purely driven by the economic crisis or by any single set of policies. But they make for sobering reading, and deserve more than the superficial analysis most of the U.S. press has given them so far. Bravo to Matthews for a great piece of analysis.

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