What to Make of the Fed's Big Family-Finances Survey

Families are poorer, confidence is down--any surprises here?

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On Thursday, the Federal Reserve released a report called "Surveying the Aftermath of the Storm: Changes in Family Finances from 2007 to 2009." The report dug up a number of interesting post-recession facts: the average consumer is 45 percent poorer, for example, and more than 60 percent of families saw their wealth decline in the two-year period measured.

Some other data points:

  • Median family net worth fell from $125,000 in 2007 to $96,000 in 2009--a decline of 26 percent.
  • The S&P 500 fell 57 percent.
  • Families that owned stock saw their portfolios fall by more than a third, on average--from $18,500 to $12,000.

As Douglas McIntyre dryly notes at 24/7 Wall St., some of the report's conclusions don't come as much of a shock. "Families were more cautious in 2009 than two years before," notes The Wall Street Journal, and worried about savings and jobs. And for Jim Tankersley at National Journal, the survey is mostly notable for its lack of dramatic data. The numbers show, he writes, that "the rich got somewhat poorer--at least on paper; many of the extremely poor got a little bit wealthier; and almost everyone else lost wealth but generally treaded water compared to their fellow Americans." That said, there wasn't a "fundamental shift in America’s wealth distribution in the wake of the financial crisis."

So are there any lessons to be learned from the report? Sifting through the analyses, here's what we found:

Spend Money

One recommended course of action might be to "get out there and spend more," although as a society, rather than as individuals. Luca Di Leo at the Journal doesn't exactly say that, but he does point out that "Americans' desire to save more could slow the U.S. economic recovery." This echoes the words of the report itself, which cautions that if Americans put an emphasis on "greater precautionary savings," it could "act in some ways as a brake on reviving the economy in the short run."


Meanwhile, Peter Cohan at Daily Finance offers a pretty unambiguous course of action for individuals: "My best advice is to buy stocks. That's because of stunning corporate health. In 2010, profits hit a record $1.66 trillion." Cohan acknowledges that "those who have been burned by stocks over and over will, no doubt, be reluctant to place that bet. Unfortunately, however, there is not much else to turn to if you hope to make up for lost ground."

Good Dinner Party Chatter: Class Implications

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, for one, isn't interested in takeaways; he just sees an opportunity for a little class warfare. Nolan cites that stat that "in the top wealth bracket, about 77% of families suffered wealth declines; the figure was below 50% for those with the smallest wealth." Then he riffs, "Stop complaining, 'those with the smallest wealth.' You paupers barely lost anything! Rich people lost quite a bit more, in absolute dollar terms. Which is psychologically devastating, ask anyone!"

Ultimately, it's worth asking--is this report really a valuable addition to the economic-indicator canon? Douglas McIntyre doesn't seem to think so. "The most critical data  is nearly two years old," McIntyre points out. "It would have been much more useful if the agency had added data from 2010." He goes on to say that while the report is "a good history of what the recession did to the financial status of many American families," it's also "not very relevant now."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.