Growth in National Net Worth Slows Markedly


Last year, if all the wealth in the country had been distributed equally, each American could have claimed ownership of $60,000 out of the country’s $15-trillion total worth.

Ten years earlier, the figure for U.S. domestic net worth was $7.4 trillion, less than half as much, and the amount per person was a little more than $33,000.

But of course the nation’s wealth is not distributed equally, and if the figures are adjusted for inflation, a far different picture emerges. Instead of being more than 200% as wealthy a country as a decade earlier, “real” (inflation-adjusted) domestic net worth has gone up only 18.4%. On a per person basis, real wealth rose 6.7%, just over half a percent a year.


In addition, compared to earlier 10-year periods, the numbers in a new report by the Federal Reserve paint a stark picture. It is not that the United States is getting poorer, but the rate of its growth in cumulative wealth has become markedly lower.

The basic figures on the nation’s wealth are part of the Fed’s annual report, “Balance Sheets for the U.S. Economy, 1949-88.”

The report includes figures for the country’s domestic net worth--the value of all the privately owned land, homes, business assets and consumer durables such as cars and appliances in the country, less any amount owed on them. It also provides details about ownership of assets by households and different types of businesses. Taken as a whole, it gives a gauge of how the country’s wealth has changed over time.

The report does not include the value of government-owned equipment, structures or land--everything from the White House to the latest Army tank to Yosemite National Park. On the assumption, however, that income from the private sector must be used to pay the debts owed by local, state and federal governments, the Fed in calculating domestic net worth reduced the value of privately owned assets by the $2.1 trillion in public-sector debt to arrive at the $15 trillion figure.

Last year alone, the report said, the increase in domestic net worth rose $807 billion. After adjustment for inflation, the increase was 1.4%.

In contrast, between 1968 and 1978, real domestic wealth rose 84%. Last year’s increase in real wealth was not only below the 1.9% annual average for the past 10 years, it was far below the 7.1% annual gain between 1968 and 1978.


On a per-person basis, wealth has risen in the 1980s only about one-tenth as fast as it did in the 1970s.

Most of the slowdown in the rate at which America has been getting wealthier has been due to a large decline in U.S. saving. During the 1980s, private saving has fallen off while the federal government has chalked up big deficits.

The Commerce Department, in a separate report published last month, put the value of all equipment and structures owned by governments at $2.6 trillion. There are no estimates available for the value of government-owned land in the United States--about 39% of the nation’s 3.6 million square miles.

To come up with the domestic net worth estimates, the Fed used similar Commerce numbers for the net value of residences, factories, business inventories and consumer durables, along with its own figures for land. In every case, assets were valued according to current market value rather than original purchase prices. For assets other than land, the values were adjusted for depreciation--essentially wear and tear.

Basic information on which the estimates are based came from a wide variety of sources. For residential structures, for example, the figures for current value come from year-by-year numbers for new home construction, modified for depreciation and changes in prices over time.

The domestic net worth figures do not include the value of assets in the United States owned by foreigners, or the value of foreign assets owned by U.S. residents. As has been reported before, the value of foreign assets in this country has been rising much more rapidly than the value of U.S. assets abroad since 1984.


At the end of last year, foreigners owned nearly $1.3 trillion worth of assets here, compared to $738 billion worth of U.S. assets abroad. As recently as 1983, U.S. assets abroad were $575 billion, compared to $503 billion in foreign assets here.

Looking at national wealth in slightly different terms, the Fed adds the value of U.S. assets abroad to domestic net worth and then subtracts the value of U.S. assets owned by foreigners. The result, in which the $21 billion worth of U.S. monetary gold and special drawing rights from the International Monetary Fund are also included, is a version of U.S. wealth called national net assets.

National net assets last year were $14.4 trillion, up from $13.8 billion the year before. By this measure, U.S. wealth is growing even more slowly, after adjustment for inflation, than by the domestic net worth measure. In real terms, national net assets increased 0.5% last year and 13% since 1978. That’s a decade average of 1.3% a year, once again a number far lower than the previous decade.

Between 1968 and 1978, real national net assets rose 82%, or about 6.9% a year on average.

Among other details shown in this year’s report were figures showing that the net worth of U.S. corporations other than banks and other financial businesses continues to decline in real terms. In terms of current prices, the net worth of such firms reached $3.7 trillion. After adjustment for inflation, however, their net worth dropped 1.6%.