...against fictions and other tall tales

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Federal Reserve staff on the evolution of US household net worth and related financial flows during the last decade

The Federal Reserve released an informative discussion paper this week that presents background on the Integrated Macroeconomics Accounts (IMAs) of the US.  The IMAs is a long-term interagency project between the Fed and the Bureau of Economic Analysis aimed at linking saving, capital accumulation, investment in financial assets and balance sheet data within an integrated framework using consistent definitions, classifications, and accounting conventions.

In the IMAs, each of the sectors of the economy is depicted according to a consistent set of statistical accounts: the current account (production and distribution of income accounts), and the accumulation accounts (capital, financial, other volume changes, and revaluation accounts).  These accounts allow one to trace the factors leading to changes in the net worth position on the balance sheet of each sector.

The paper contains lots of useful information for those interested in the analysis of national income and flow of funds accounts.

As a way to help demonstrate the usefulness of the IMAs, the authors of the paper have included a section describing the evolution of household net worth and its components during the last decade, thus enabling the reader to understand some of the underlying causes and subsequent effects of the recent financial crisis. 

As you read the excerpt below, keep in mind the following basic rule of thumb: a key indicator of the demand generated by any sector of the economy is its net borrowing (i.e., the difference between its total spending and income).
Uses of the IMAs
The recent financial crisis has vividly shown that analyzing the change in net worth and its composition is critical to understanding the health, risks, and prospects of an economic sector.  Net worth is a broad measure of the wealth of a sector, often used in conjunction with other variables, such as income and interest rates, to study variables such as consumption and saving.
The IMAs enable one to analyze net worth and its composition, clarifying how the current balance sheet position came about by distinguishing between saving, borrowing, holding gains or losses, and other changes in volume.  As an example, we can look at the IMAs for the household and [Non-Profit Institutions Serving Households] sector.  In the first half of the last decade, the household sector shifted from being a major lending sector to a major borrowing sector, rivaled only as a borrower by the federal government sector. It was at this same time that the rest of the world sector became the predominant lending sector.

At the same time, household net worth surged rapidly and the ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income reached record levels (chart 1 -- click on chart to expand).  This surge was caused not by elevated savings, but by sizable capital gains both on housing wealth and on stock-market wealth (chart 2).
Chart 1

Chart 2
Indeed, the ratio of both housing wealth and stock market wealth to disposable personal income surged to historically unprecedented levels (chart 3).  Not surprisingly, household debt also ballooned.  The ratio of household debt to disposable personal income surged from around 90 percent at the beginning of the decade to an all-time high of around 130 percent in the middle of 2007 (chart 4).
Chart 3

Chart 4
This ratio dropped to 111 percent by the end of 2011 as consumers borrowed less and as a significant amount of mortgage debt was written off. [...] [T]he household sector shifted back to being a major net lender in 2008.
Net borrowing by the federal government, on the other hand, ballooned to over $1.3 trillion in both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the rest of the world sector was a significant lender, along with the financial business sector. The nonfinancial corporate business sector, traditionally a net borrower, became a net lender in 2009, as capital expenditures remained relatively low and retained earnings elevated (Cagetti et al, 2012:6-8).


Cagetti, M., Elizabeth Ball Holmquist, Lisa Lynn, Susan Hume, McIntosh and David Wasshausen, The Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts of the United States, 2012-81, Finance and Economics Discussion Series Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs Federal Reserve Board, Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks for posting/linking!

    The data in the appendix of the paper is in a highly readable form because of nice formatting - unlike the IMA data at the BEA site.

  2. !!! Someone in this country is reading the Fed properly. You're probably one of the few nodding the format and content of the Federal Reserve. These adjustments are significant. It's welcome to note that someone is watching the syntax of the figures, besides the semantics. This post and today's post are intelligent analytical inserts in the narrative of the variant.