WASHINGTON - A surging stock market and a steady recovery in home prices drove Americans' wealth to a record last summer.
The nation's wealth rose 2.6 percent from July through September to $77.3 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. Household wealth has been rising gradually since bottoming at $57.2 trillion in 2008. Early this year, America finally regained all the wealth it had lost to the Great Recession.
Rising personal wealth has been a pillar of the slow but steady U.S. economic recovery and could continue to boost the economy next year. When Americans feel richer, they typically spend more and fuel economic growth.
Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of homes, stocks, bank accounts and other assets minus mortgages, credit cards and other debts.
From July through September, rising stock prices boosted Americans' net worth by $917 billion. Higher home values added $428 billion more.
The Fed's figures don't go beyond September. But stock prices have continued to rise since last quarter ended, which means household wealth has, too. Since Oct. 1, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has risen nearly 8 percent. Home prices in many areas have continued to rise, though more slowly than they did earlier in the year.
The Fed's report also showed that Americans are willing to borrow more. This suggests that many are growing more confident in their jobs and in the broader economy.
When adjusted for inflation, net worth remains about 1 percent below its pre-recession peak. But the gains in stock and home prices during the current October-December quarter will likely lift inflation-adjusted household wealth to a record.
Still, the gains haven't been equally distributed. The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households own about 80 percent of stocks. And home ownership has declined since the recession, particularly among lower-income Americans.
Monday's report also showed that total mortgage debt rose 0.9 percent from the previous quarter. It was the first such increase since early 2009. The rise reflects rising home sales and fewer mortgage defaults, an encouraging sign.
Americans are also holding more consumer debt outside of mortgages, in the form of student loans, auto loans and credit cards. Consumer debt rose 6 percent from the previous quarter.
But with job creation steady and wages rising gradually, Americans appear able to handle the additional borrowing.
Total after-tax income is rising faster than borrowing. That trend has boosted Americans' debts, as a percentage of income, to 99 percent. Before the recession, that ratio had peaked at about 125 percent, an unsustainable level in the view of many economists.
Paul Edelstein, an economist at IHS Global Insight, says that improving household finances could make Americans more willing to spend. But that could hinge on their willingness to borrow. If consumers remain hesitant to take on more debt, their improved finances won't necessary lead to big gains in spending.
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