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SSep 7, 2003

Score Yourself for Wealth, The Sequel

Want to be among those who "have money"?

Well, you'll need more of it.

That's the bottom line on the wealth scoreboard--- net worth is up, way up, from 1998 to 2001. And it probably wasn't as badly damaged by 2002, as all our media whining would suggest.

In the three years since the first wealth scoreboard, readers have sent a mound of e-mail asking for an update. Since the original scoreboard was based on a 1998 survey, the request is entirely reasonable--- a wearisome amount has happened since then. Unfortunately, the mother lode for wealth and income data is a survey--- the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances--- that's done every three years. So first you have to wait until the survey is done again, 2001, and then you have to wait until the first data is published, which I reported on in February.

Last week I called Bill Whitt to get an update on the finer slicing of wealth distribution. Three years ago Mr. Whitt was a consultant at VIP Forum, a Washington group that studies high net worth individuals for financial service firms. Today he is their Practice Manager, which means he directs their research effort. As he suggested then, the 1998 figures could be low for 2000 because the higher you go on the wealth scale, the greater the amount of income saved.

He was right on.

In 1998 the median net worth for families in their forties in the top 10 percent was $531,600. Today, we would have to say "only $531,600" because the 2001 figure is $677,900, an increase of 27.5 percent. That, believe it or not, is a relatively modest increase. The median net worth of families in their fifties in the top 1 percent of wealth increased from $5,791,700 to $9,053,991, a 56.3 percent surge.

The rich do get richer.

The table below shows the median net worth for the median, top 25 percent, top 10 percent, top 5 percent, and top 1 percent by decade of age. To figure out where you rank, calculate your net worth, go to your age group, and find the net worth figure closest to yours.

  
The Distribution of Net Worth, By Age Group (dollar figures in thousands)
These figures show the median net worth (assets less debts) of households in each group. Because the figure is the median--- half have more, half have less--- for each group it is not a "threshold" figure--- actual net worth can be less to be in each group.
Age Group Top 1% Top 5% Top 10% Top 25% Median
80 and over $2,322.4 $1,165.7 $     762.6 $346.0 $143.0
70-79 $7,038.0 $1,866.2 $1,077.3 $486.5 $173.5
60-69 $9,722.7 $2,861.0 $1,408.6 $463.1 $168.2
50-59 $9,054.0 $2,435.3 $1,154.7 $456.0 $178.7
40-49 $4,161.5 $1,206.5 $     677.9 $324.6 $107.0
30-39 $1,833.2 $     533.3 $     352.3 $148.0 $   38.6
20-29 $     885.5 $     163.0 $         94.5 $   37.8 $       7.8
Source: The VIP Forum, Corporate Executive Board, 2001 data
  

"I was struck by the increase in wealth between 98 and 01," Mr. Whitt said. "When the survey was done the stock market had already fallen quite a bit. A lot of that (net worth increase) comes from high-income people saving a lot of money. For top income earners it (the market decline) almost doesn't matter--- they save so much.

"The top one percent growth rate is high but it's still high at the median level. I think this is under appreciated in the press. People make a lot of noise about wealth inequality but the non-rich aren't getting poor."

I asked if anything in particular struck him.

"Oh, yes. Look at those numbers. They tell you one family in ten will be worth a million dollars! That's a lot of millionaires.

"Another thing is the wealth at the top. To be in the top 1 percent takes nearly $10 million," he said.

For me, there is still another message. Collectively, we're in the ring. We never got out. We never fell. We may get hit--- even stunned by a blow like 9/11--- but we're more than standing. It tells me we're one tough country, with an economy to match.

Is this the whole story?   No. And for most people that's a good thing. What the Survey of Consumer Finances doesn't measure is our invisible wealth in Pension and Social Security benefits. We'll explore that on Tuesday.

Related Columns:

February 9, 2002, "Actually, We're Doing O.K."

June 4, 2000, "Score Yourself for Wealth"

Filed Under: Wealth Scoreboard & Life of Riley Index