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The impact of recessions on net worth

Uneven experiences by wealth quantile

Recessions take their toll in many ways, including on households’ net worth, a stock variable that measures the difference between the value of the assets and the value of the liabilities, or obligations, a person has accumulated over a lifetime. And, as you might expect, FRED has data on this topic.

We made some adjustments to the FRED graph shown here that could use a little explanation: We started with a graph of households separated into four different classes according to wealth. We changed the units of the asset data from millions of dollars to an index and then set the base period at the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Now we can compare how these four different classes of households (top 1% in wealth, next 9%, next 40%, and bottom 50%) fared after the largest and most protracted contraction in economic activity since 1981. (Not for nothing is that economic downturn called the Great Recession.) In the graph, the zero date represents the fourth quarter of 2007, when the Great Recession started. The dates numbered 1 to 40 represent the number of quarters after that initial date.

This downturn itself lasted six quarters, or two and a half years, from December 2007 to June 2009. And its impact on nominal household net worth was most marked for the bottom 50% wealth quantile: At the trough of the recession, the net worth of the lower half of households decreased anywhere from 23% up to 40%. Because the least wealthy mostly hold assets in the form of housing and consumer durables, the real estate market collapse associated with the Great Recession affected this group of households the most. Moreover, it took twice as long than for any other household group for their net worth to grow back to pre-recession levels.

Further Reading

  • For more on this topic, read the Economic Synopses essays from William Gavin and Diego Mendez-Carbajo.
  • For more on how the starts and ends of recessions are dated, check this FRED Blog post.
  • Previous FRED Blog posts have also examined how U.S. GDP has recovered after five recessions (1937, 1981, 1990, 2001, and 2007). By the way, GDP is a flow variable (compared with a stock variable such as household net worth) because it measures the value of all new goods and services produced in a country during a single year.

How this graph was created: From FRED’s main page, browse data by “Release.” Search for “Distributional Financial Accounts” and click on “Levels of Wealth by Wealth Percentile Groups.” From the table, select the “Total Net Worth” series held by an individual wealth quantile and click on “Add to Graph.” To change the units of the series to a custom index with integer periods, see here.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: WFRBLB50107, WFRBLN09053, WFRBLN40080, WFRBLT01026

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