Americans recoup some recession losses

Record highs for the Dow have boosted stock

Record highs for the Dow have boosted stock portfolios and helped U.S. households recover much of their pre-recession losses. Above, a trader at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday. (March 5, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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Surging stock prices and steady home-price increases have finally allowed Americans to regain the $16 trillion in wealth they lost to the recession.

The gains are helping support the economy and could lead to further spending and growth.

The regained wealth -- most of it from stock-market gains -- has been flowing mainly to richer Americans. By contrast, middle-class wealth is mostly in the form of home equity, which has risen much less.

Household wealth amounted to $66.1 trillion at the end of 2012, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. That was $1.2 trillion more than three months earlier and 98 percent of the pre-recession peak.

Further increases in stock and home prices this year mean that Americans' net worth has since topped the pre-recession peak of $67.4 trillion, private economists say. Wealth had bottomed at $51.4 trillion in early 2009.

"It's all but certain that we surpassed that peak in the first quarter," said Aaron Smith, senior economist at Moody's Analytics.

Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of assets like homes, stocks and bank accounts minus debts like mortgages and credit cards. National home prices have extended their gains this year. And the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broad gauge of the stock market, has surged 8 percent since Jan. 1.

Some economists caution that the recovered wealth might spur less consumer spending than it did before the recession. And since the housing bust, when home values fell broadly for the first time in decades, many homeowners are skeptical that higher prices will last. They won't necessarily spend more as a result.

The Dow Jones industrial average has recently set record highs, and roughly 80 percent of stocks are held by the richest 10 percent of households.

And for the past five years, middle-class Americans have sold stocks and missed out on much of the rebound. In the October-December quarter, Americans dumped nearly $466 billion in stocks and bought $229 billion in bonds, the Fed's report showed.

Homes accounted for two-thirds of middle-class assets before the recession, estimates economist Edward Wolff of New York University.

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