Americans' net worth shrinks $1.33 trillion in 1Q

June 11, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
American households lost $1.33 trillion of their wealth in the first three months of the year as the recession took a bite out of stock portfolios and dragged down home prices. The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that household net worth fell to $50.38 trillion in the January-March quarter, the lowest level since the third quarter of 2004. The first-quarter figure marked a decline of 2.6 percent, or $1.33 trillion, from the final quarter of 2008.

Net worth represents total assets such as homes and checking accounts, minus liabilities like mortgages and credit card debt.

The damage to wealth in the first quarter came from the sinking stock market. The value of Americans' stock holdings dropped 5.8 percent from the final quarter of last year.

Another hit came from falling house prices. The value of household real-estate holdings fell 2.4 percent. Collectively, homeowners had 41.4 percent equity in their homes in the first quarter. That was down from 42.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

The latest snapshot of Americans' balance sheets was contained in the Fed's quarterly report called the flow of funds.

Despite the drop, the speed at which net worth shrunk slowed to start the year. During the recession's deepest point in the October-December period, Americans' net worth fell 8.6 percent, according to revised figures.

With wealth declining and unemployment rising, there are questions about how consumers -- the lifeblood of the economy -- will behave in the coming months.

If they continue to spend, even at a subdued pace, the recession likely will end this year as predicted by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and other economists. However, if consumers hunker down and cut spending again, that could delay any recovery. In the final quarter of last year, Americans slashed spending at an annualized rate of 4.3 percent, the most in 28 years.

Still, there was some encouraging news on consumer spending Thursday.

Retail sales rose 0.5 percent in May, following two straight monthly declines, the Commerce Department reported. Meanwhile, the number of newly laid-off workers filing for unemployment benefits fell last week by 24,000 to 601,000, the lowest level since late January.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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