The Millionaires' Club Increases Its Ranks

Last year, I wrote several times about how hard hit the rich were from the housing bubble's pop. Well, the Cristal will be flowing a little more freely this year: a new survey indicates that the number of millionaires in the U.S. grew by a whopping 16% in 2009, according to the Spectrem Group. That's after falling by at around 27% in 2008. This actually isn't that surprising, as the recovery thus far as been better for wealthier than poorer Americans.

The press release elaborates that U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more grew to 7.8 million, from 6.7 million in 2008. It should be noted that this is still well below (~18%) below the all-time high number of millionaires in 2007 of 9.2 million Americans. So the ultra-rich are still fewer than they were before the recession. Here's an informative chart on the survey breaking out some sub-categories by Spectrem Group:

millionaires 2009 spectrem.jpg

As you can see, there were some pretty big upticks in 2009, but not nearly as large as the drops from 2007. Indeed, most of these categories remain below 2005 or earlier levels.

Back in August I wrote about the decline millionaires in 2008. At the time I noted economist Simon Johnson's explanation of how new bubbles help the rich earn their wealth back quickly after a recession. Is that happening here?

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Maybe. Clearly, the huge rebound in the stock market helps boost net worths. After all, the S&P 500 was up 23% in 2009. Some key commodities also rallied. Gold was up by about 25%. Residential real estate was down only slightly -- about 3% according to the S&P Case-Shiller home price index.

So where might a bubble come in? Well, it depends if you think that this increase in asset prices was justifiable given the fundamentals. I'm unconvinced. I think that irrational exuberance paired with government intervention fueled the recovery. Loose monetary policy also could be helping to create an asset bubble. That could be responsible for much of this creation of wealth. If a bubble is the cause, then that probably means inequality also increased.

(h/t: Bloomberg)