Even before US stocks tumbled into a full-blown bear market this week, the country’s richest 1% were staring down huge losses.
The group’s overall wealth plunged by $701 billion last quarter, the first decline since early 2020, driven by $1.5 trillion in stock losses that were offset by gains in real estate and other assets, according to new estimates from the Federal Reserve. It’s an abrupt end to the extraordinary two-year run that added more than $11 trillion to their collective net worth.
Those figures, while large on their face, put in stark relief the amount of wealth extinguished in recent weeks among the top 1%, which own more than half of the equities held by Americans. The S&P 500 Index is down another 19% since March 31, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 has plunged an additional 24%. The two benchmarks had more modest declines of 5% and 9% in the first quarter, respectively.
“People are afraid,” said Nicole Gopoian Wirick, a financial planner who is president of Prosperity Wealth Strategies. “No one wants to see their investment portfolio decrease 20% or more. With wealthier clients, sometimes that drop is even more profound because it’s a big number.”
The stock market losses ate into the share of wealth controlled by the top 1% of Americans, with that figure slipping to 31.8% at the end of the first quarter from a record 32.2% at the start of the year, according to the Fed’s data. Still, their collective net worth remained almost $45 trillion, more than the $43.5 trillion held by the bottom 90%. Aside from last year, the top 1% hold a greater proportion of US wealth than at any point in the central bank’s estimates dating back to 1989.
Those outside America’s wealthiest decile hold less than 12% of equities, which helped insulate them from the volatility in the first three months of the year. However, the real estate market, a key factor in pandemic-era wealth gains for the rich and middle class alike, has also cooled recently, with mortgage rates soaring to the highest level since 2008 as the Fed tightens monetary policy to address the highest inflation in 40 years.
The very richest individuals, who benefited most from the stock market’s run through 2021, offer a hint at the magnitude of the losses for the affluent who hold large positions in equities. Americans on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index have lost about $760 billion this year, including $690 billion since the end of the first quarter. The world’s wealthiest person, Elon Musk, has seen his personal fortune fall $64.5 billion from the end of 2021, bringing his net worth to about $206 billion.
On the flip side, the poorest half of Americans boosted their wealth again last quarter, continuing a trend that began when Covid-19 was first detected in the US in early 2020 and the federal government provided trillions of dollars in relief and fueled a hot labor market. The group’s net worth increased by $164 billion in the first three months of the year, to $3.9 trillion.
Other middle-class Americans, in the 50th to 90th percentile, also increased their net worth. The rest of the top 10% — also heavily exposed to the stock market — lost ground.
In the last five years, the wealthy have benefited from a breathtaking rise in the value of equities and other assets. Even before the S&P 500 delivered total returns of 18% in 2020 and 29% in 2021, the index had returned 22% in 2017, and, after a single-digit 2018 decline, 31.5% in 2019.
“We’ve had sustained bull markets for several years — we have a ton of pent-up gains,” said Tara Thompson Popernik, director of research for Bernstein Private Wealth Management’s wealth planning and analysis group. But past increases do little to cushion the psychological blow of losses now, she said.
Falling asset prices do offer some strategic opportunities to clients, like harvesting losses which can lower tax bills.
Rich clients generally don’t need to even think about cutting back on spending, Thompson Popernik said, because they already have enough stored away to meet any possible needs.
“We haven’t seen a ton of clients fundamentally change their plans,” she said.
–With assistance from Alexandre Tanzi.
This article was provided by Bloomberg News.