Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Share Prices? Who Cares?

The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to hit a record high of 25,000 points this week, with the Nasdaq and S&P 500 indexes similarly reaching new heights. The indexes are widely used as a kind of shorthand for American economic wealth, appearing everywhere from nightly newscasts to President Trump's tweets.

But for many those indexes measure an economy far removed from their own daily bread-and-butter concerns. One figure from a recent working paper by New York University economist Edward Wolff illustrates that point: Fewer than 14 percent of American households directly own stock in any company. Even when you consider indirect ownership via 401(k) retirement accounts and similar vehicles, fewer than half of American households own any stock at all.

Like income and wealth, stock ownership is heavily concentrated in the uppermost echelons of the economy. The bottom 60 percent of households combined own just 1.8 percent of American stock. The top 1 percent, by contrast, owns over 40 percent of the country's stock, up from 34 percent in 2001. Looked at another way, the top 20 percent of wealthy households (those with an average net worth of $3 million) own well over 90 percent of the American stock market.

For the top 20 percent of households, the day-to-day movements of the Dow Jones reflect real changes in their net worth and financial health. Big shifts in the market might mean the difference between retiring today and retiring five years from now, or between buying that bungalow right on the beach and buying the one a few blocks away.

But for many of the other 80 percent of American families, who collectively own less than 7 percent of the stock market even when you factor in their retirement accounts, the Dow and the S&P 500 are little more than numeric abstractions.

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