Quantcast

Americans' equity in their homes near a record low

Derek Kravitz and Christopher S. Rugaber | 6/14/2011, 4:21 p.m.

Foreclosures have economic ripples: Homes in foreclosure sell at a 20 percent discount on average, and those discounts erode prices throughout a neighborhood.

Many foreclosure sales have been delayed while federal regulators, state attorneys general and banks review how those foreclosures were carried out over the past two years. When those foreclosures go through, prices may fall even further.

Home prices are expected to keep falling until the number of foreclosures for sale is reduced, companies start hiring in greater force, banks ease lending rules and more people think it makes financial sense again to buy a house. In some areas of the country, that could take years.

The Federal Reserve report found that Americans’ overall net worth grew 1.65 percent in the January-to-March period, to $58.06 trillion, mostly because of stock market gains. Most of those gains have been erased since March, though.

Net worth is the value of assets such as homes and stocks, minus debts like mortgages and credit cards.

The report found household debt declined at an annual rate of 2 percent from the previous quarter, mostly because of a decline in mortgage debt, which has fallen for 12 straight quarters.

But the decline is deceiving. Mortgage debt is coming down because so many Americans are defaulting on payments and losing their homes to foreclosure, not just because people are paying off loans.

“A lot of this debt reduction is not voluntary,” said Dana Saporta, director of U.S. economics at Credit Suisse.

The Fed report suggests the average household owes about $119,000 on mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other debt.

Debt now equals 119 percent of the money Americans have left over after taxes. In late 2007, when the country was binging on debt, it was 135 percent. In the healthier 1990s, it was roughly 90 percent.

Auto loans, student loans and other consumer credit rose 2.4 percent during the quarter, a second straight gain. Analysts say more people, many of them unemployed, are borrowing money to attend school.

The Fed’s quarterly report documents wealth, debt and savings for corporations, governments and households. It covers most of the financial transactions that take place in the United States.

It found that corporations are still hoarding cash. Excluding banks and other financial firms, companies held $1.9 trillion in cash at the end of the quarter. That was slightly more than in the previous quarter and set another record.

The reluctance of companies to spend more of their cash helps explain why job growth has been slow since the recession ended. The unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, slightly higher than when the year began.

Household net worth in America is up nearly 19 percent from early 2009 but still about 11 percent below its peak in 2007. Normally, greater wealth would spark consumer spending. But the lost home equity is counteracting it.

Per household, it comes to about $518,000. But the gap between the super-rich and everyone else in the United States has grown over the past three decades. So while average wealth is increasing, most Americans don’t feel the difference.

AP Business Writer Matthew Craft in New York contributed to this report.