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Market Extra: U.S. wealth grew by $19 trillion during the pandemic — but mostly for the very rich

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Rising stocks and financial assets helped U.S. household wealth grow by $19 trillion during the pandemic to $137 trillion, but wealth inequality has gotten worse, according to a new report.

That means American household net worth increased 16% from the end of the fourth quarter of 2019 through the first quarter of 2021, marking the largest 15-month stretch of gains since 2004, according to Oxford Economics.

But more than 90% of the gains in households’ holdings of real estate, equities and mutual funds in that stretch “reflect price appreciation, with the small remaining balance coming from new investments,” economists Nancy Vanden Houten and Gregory Daco at Oxford Economics wrote, in a Tuesday note.

In other words, those who owned assets going into the crisis benefited the most.

“Those in the top 1% of the income distribution saw their wealth increase 23%, while those in the bottom income quintile experienced only a 2.5% gain in net worth,” the team wrote.

A similar pattern in U.S. savings has occurred, with more than 80% of the $2.6 trillion in excess savings residing with those in the nation’s top two income brackets.

Those who already had, have a lot more.

Oxford Economics, Haver Analytics

All eyes on the Fed

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has pointed repeatedly to the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on lower-income households in terms of both health and wealth consequences. The fate of the central bank’s easy monetary policies also has been tethered to achieving substantial progress in the recovery and by regaining millions of jobs lost during the crisis.

Investors will be tuned in Wednesday for a Fed update on the economic recovery and on inflation, which in recent months has been running hot, but also for insights on the central bank’s thinking about the COVID-19 delta variant and plans for its $120 billion in monthly asset purchases.

See: Fed is walking ‘bit of a tightrope’ between downside risks and inflation

U.S. stock indexes pulled back from record territory ahead of the Fed briefing, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
-0.42%

off 0.2% Tuesday, the S&P 500 index
SPX,
-0.54%

0.5% lower and the Nasdaq Composite Index
COMP,
-0.71%

down by 1.2%.

Many investors expect consumer spending to help drive the economic recovery, particularly as fiscal stimulus wanes and as the central bank considers when to dial back its support for financial markets, likely first by trimming its large-scale asset purchases of Treasurys
TMUBMUSD10Y,
1.228%

and agency mortgage-backed securities.

Who is driving?

But big questions remain. Concerns have ramped up around the delta variant and what that could mean this fall when young children, not yet eligible for the shot, return to classrooms. There’s also the increase in the cost of living and how that might eat into worker paychecks, potentially putting a damper on consumer spending.

Oxford Economics’ Houten and Daco expect households to draw down $360 billion, or 14%, in savings to finance consumption
XLY,
-2.06%

FXD,
-0.70%

XRT,
-0.84%

in the next six quarters, supporting 9% growth in real consumer spending in 2021 and 5% in 2022.

“The accumulation of excess saving by upper-income households will support a solid pace of consumer spending that is just getting underway, and that is expected to continue through 2022,” they wrote.

As another sign of spending, issuance of U.S. asset-backed bonds tied to things like autos, credit cards and student loans has reached $163 billion already this year, a 61% jump from the same stretch of 2020, and 11% higher than the same period in 2019, according to BofA Global Research.

Credit applications for auto loans, new mortgages and credit cards in May also mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Tuesday.

The exception was borrowers with subprime and deep subprime credit scores, generally pegged as 600 and below, where applications for credit were down for all but the mortgage-credit category.

“We will continue to keep a close watch on the marketplace as the economic recovery continues, to help ensure all consumers have access to financial products and services that are fair, transparent, and competitive,” said Acting CFPB Director Dave Uejio, in a statement.

Check out: How the 10-year Treasury rate and S&P 500 performed when the Fed tapered in 2013

Brett Arends’s ROI: Shock: Rents rising three times as fast as ‘official’ inflation figures

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