Higher stock prices help Americans regain their lost wealth

WASHINGTON — A jump in the stock market and rising home prices are bringing many Americans closer to regaining the wealth they lost in the recession.

U.S. household net worth dipped in the April-June quarter, according to a Federal Reserve report released Thursday. But gains in stock and home equity since the last quarter ended have likely raised household wealth to within 5 percent of its peak before the Great Recession.

The gains have gone to Americans who managed to keep their homes and invested in stocks.

The increased wealth could give many people and businesses the confidence to step up spending and boost U.S. economic growth and job creation. That's a key goal of the bond-buying plan the Federal Reserve unveiled last week. The Fed hopes to drive interest rates down and stock prices up.

Household net worth reflects the value of assets such as homes, bank accounts and stocks minus debts such as mortgages and credit cards. It peaked before the recession at $67.4 trillion.

Tumbling home and stock prices during the recession cost Americans nearly a quarter of their wealth. From a pre-recession peak of $67.4 trillion in the fall of 2007, household wealth plummeted to $51.2 trillion in early 2009. But as of the April-June quarter, it's climbed back to $62.7 trillion. The Fed report also found that:

  • Americans borrowed more in the April-June quarter, marking the largest increase since the first quarter of 2008. Mortgage debt declined again, as it has each quarter for more than three years. But Americans are taking on more student and auto loans.
  • After-tax incomes have inched up, making debts slightly easier to manage. U.S. household debt equaled about 103 percent of after-tax income in the April-June quarter. That was down from 104 percent in the first quarter. The ratio had soared to 125 percent at the height of the housing bubble, up from about 90 percent during the 1990s.
  • Corporations have begun to spend some of the cash they built up during the recession. Corporations held $1.73 trillion cash at the end of last quarter, down from its near-peak of $1.75 trillion in the first quarter. If the trend continues, it could signal that companies are investing and expanding more, which could lead to more hiring.
  • State and local governments borrowed more for the first time in six quarters. That suggests that steep spending cuts by those governments, which have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, may slow.

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