Business Finance » Finance

1st quarter wiped out $1.3 trillion for Americans

by Jeannine Aversa .
Friday Jun 12, 2009

The brute force of the recession earlier this year turned back the clock on Americans' personal wealth to 2004 and wiped out a staggering $1.3 trillion as home values shrank and investments withered.

Net worth, or the value of assets such as homes, checking accounts and investments minus debts like mortgages and credit cards, declined 2.6 percent in the first three months of the year, the Federal Reserve said Thursday.

Those months were some of the worst of the recession so far for job losses, and the stock market sank to its lowest point of the year in March. Since then, some signs suggest the economy is stabilizing.

Still, partly because of the carnage earlier in the recession, Americans are putting plans on hold until the economy improves.

B. Smith, a conductor for a Chicago commuter rail line, is waiting to buy cars for two of his children. He spent $260,000 to build his suburban Chicago home about 10 years ago and watched its value spike to $380,000 in January 2008. Today, it stands at about $310,000. "I'm still ahead, but I'm not as ahead as I was before," he said.

Even if things improve, such a dramatic evaporation of wealth will probably make Americans more thrifty down the road, said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's

"The bulk of consumers alive today have not experienced declines in wealth like this," Hoyt said. "They are already turning thrifty, and it will stay that way beyond the short term. This has been a significant learning experience."

Americans' personal savings rate zoomed to 5.7 percent in April, the highest since 1995. And the amount in savings - $620.2 billion - was the most on record dating to January 1959.

One way to save: Maurice Boler, a management consultant, said he does many repairs himself on his Indianapolis home rather than pay someone else. "I just take a little bit longer," said the 53-year-old father of four, three of whom live at home.

Even if the economy recovers and starts to thrive again, he said he probably won't break out the credit cards again. "It's really not about stuff," he said. "Stuff is nice, but life is not about how much more stuff can we get."

According to the Fed report, the biggest damage to wealth in the first quarter came from the sinking stock market. The value of Americans' stock holdings dropped almost 6 percent from the final quarter of last year - in a market that was already brutal.

The Wall Street slide that began in 2007 wiped out more than half the value of the U.S. stock market, but investments have bounced back. Since the end of the period covered by the Fed report, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is up 20 percent.

Rick Thompson, 77, a retired broker from Huntingdon Valley, Pa., isn't losing sleep over the economy or the stock market despite seeing his net worth edge lower in recent months.

He and his wife, Faith, own the four-bedroom house where they've lived for 40 years. It may have lost some of its value, but not much, he said. A conservative investor, he shifted most of their portfolio from stocks to bonds in late 2007, when the then-soaring market made him uneasy.

He admits the recession has weighed on his psyche, but the rise in stocks since early March has lifted his spirits. Thanks to the Wall Street rally, they are going ahead with plans for a trip to Europe next year.

Another hit to household net worth in the first quarter came from falling house prices. The value of real-estate holdings fell 2.4 percent, according to the Fed report.

Collectively, homeowners had only 41.4 percent equity in their homes in the first quarter, the lowest on record dating to 1945, as Americans fell behind on mortgages or entered foreclosure. That was down from 42.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

The Case-Shiller national home price index, a closely watched barometer, last month estimated that house prices dropped 7.5 percent during the first quarter and have fallen more than 32 percent from their 2006 peak.

While the first quarter was ugly, the hit to Americans' net worth was worse late last year. In the October-December period, it fell a record 8.6 percent, according to revised figures. That was the largest drop on record dating to 1951.

If Americans continue to spend - no guarantee - Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and other economists say they think the recession will end late this year. But if shoppers hunker down and cut spending again, that could delay any recovery. Late last year, Americans cut spending at the fastest rate in 28 years.

On Thursday, there was encouraging news: Retail sales rose slightly in May following two straight monthly declines, the Commerce Department reported. And the number of newly laid-off workers filing for unemployment fell by the lowest number since late January.

Kathy Bullard, a librarian in Providence, R.I., said she plans to be even more frugal in the coming months. At 58, with a 10 percent pay cut coming on July 1 and her pension plan frozen, she doesn't expect to buy more new clothes or books anytime soon.

"I have no idea what my net worth is," she said. "It would probably just depress me."

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