As you know from my recent posts, I spend a lot more time thinking about balance sheets and a lot less thinking about GDP, than most economists. In this post I want to look at the balance sheet of the household sector. The most recent data from the Fed’s Flow of Funds report show that at the end of Q4/2008 (12/31/08) households (including nonprofit organizations) owned the following mix of assets.
Households hold 62% of their assets ($40.8 trillion) as financial assets like deposits, T-bills, bonds, stocks and mutual funds. They keep 31% ($20.5 trillion) in real estate assets, and they hold 7% ($4.4 trillion) in the form of consumer durable goods like used cars, old washing machines and computers (in all 38%, or $24.9 trillion in tangible assets). As I have written for years, these percentages represent portfolio choice decisions for people based on their perceptions of return and risk for each asset class. These portfolio decisions are exquisitely sensitive to changes in tax rates and monetary policy.
The table above shows the history of household balance sheet composition. The first thing to notice is the household balance sheet numbers are huge when compared with GDP (roughly $14 trillion per year) or its components like consumption, investment, net exports and government spending. At the end of 2008, people owned $65.7 trillion worth of total assets, made up of $24.9 trillion of tangible assets and $40.8 trillion in financial assets.
The tangible assets, in turn, can be divided into $20.5 trillion in real estate assets and $4.4 trillion in consumer durable goods. It makes sense that the assets on our balance sheet are so big. They represent all the economic activity that has ever happened–all the buildings we have built, all the cars and washing machines we have ever made–less the ones that are no longer in service. In the case of autos, for example, there are more than 15 used cars and trucks on the road and in the driveways for every one that will be produced (i.e., that will appear in the GDP accounts) in the U.S. this year.
In spite of what you read in the headlines, total household liabilities, including mortgages, installment credit and credit cards, add up to just $14.2 trillion. Net worth is a whopping $51.5 trillion–more than 3.6 times total debt and almost five times disposable personal income of $10.6 trillion.
So where is the financial crisis we read about? It is in the behavior of asset values over time. Our net worth of $51.5 trillion is $12.9 trillion (20%) lower than it was just 6 quarters earlier in Q2/2007. That puts our net worth roughly where it was at the end of 2004 ($51.9 trillion) but still much higher than it was a decade ago in 1997 when it was $33.3 trillion.
You can also see from the figures when the trouble started. Tangible asset values peaked in Q1/2007 at $28.4 trillion; since then they have declined by $3.5 trillion or 12.3%. Financial assets peaked 2 quarters later in Q3/2007 (when the leveraged loan and asset-backed securities markets froze up) at $50.5 trillion but have declined by $9.7 trillion or 19.2% since then. Essentially all the adjustment in both types of assets was due to price decline; the physical stocks of tangible and financial assets did not materially change during this period.
When asset values change abruptly, as they did over the past two years, it is always a demand story. That’s because over a short period asset supplies can’t change by much because new asset creation and retirement are small compared with the stock of outstanding assets. In this case it was the sudden drop in demand when investors pushed away from the asset-backed securities market a year and a half ago.
I recently wrote about the fact that the forces impacting the U.S. economy’s balance sheet, at about $200 trillion, dominate those affecting GDP (just over $14 trillion) when thinking about interest rates and stock prices. A blog reader wrote to ask me where the $200 trillion figure comes from.
First, I want to point out that it is revealing that we have to ask the question. Why is it that people know so much about something so small (GDP) but so little about something so big (total assets)? I think it is because since the 1930′s macroeconomics has developed into a discipline concerned almost exclusively with who is spending how much money. Very little attention is paid to the capital base, or balance sheet, that makes it possible to produce the goods and services measured as GDP. A glance at a newspaper or any list of data produced by the government will convince you this is the case.
The best source of asset market, or balance sheet, information we have today is the document Z1: Flow of Funds of the United States produced after the end of each quarter by the army of economists working at the Federal Reserve Board.
The most recent (116 page!) flow of funds document, publish March 12, contains information about the balance sheet of the U.S. Economy on 12/31/08. I will warn you that you will have to dig for it–most of the 116 pages are devoted to measuring “flows of funds”, roughly the amount added and subtracted from balance sheets during the quarter. But you can find most of what you need if you hunt for it.
So what about the $200 trillion? I have constructed the table, above, by pulling figures from the report. The report reports balance sheets for some sectors of the economy but not others (which I find a little strange). They report balance sheets for 1) Households and Nonprofit Organizations, 2) Nonfarm Corporate Business (big companies), and 3) Nonfarm Noncorporate Business (small companies). These balance sheets show that at the end of 2008 housseholds and nonprofits owned $40,814 billion in financial assets like stocks and bonds and $24,905 billion in tangible assets like houses and cars, which adds up to $65,719 billion in total assets. Against that total, households and nonprofits owed debts, or liabilities, of $14,242 billion, which means they had net worth of $51,477. (These last numbers are in the document on p. 102 but not in the chart.)
Adding the three sectors together (Subtotal in row 4) produces a balance sheet with $104,049 in total assets divided between $58,639 in financial assets, and $46,301 in tangible assets.
Now it gets trickier. The Fed does not report complete balance sheets for the other sectors (farms, financial sectors, federal government, state & local governments, or rest of world (foreign owners). Instead, they report statements of financial assets, financial assets and financial liabilities. In other words, they leave out the fact that all these other sectors own tangible stuff like land, buildings, cars and computers, in addition to securities. I think that is a big mistake, reflecting the analytical bias in the macroeconomics community that somehow people consciously manage their portfolios of stocks and bonds but are passive owners of more than $46 trillion of real stuff.
We can use the Fed’s measures of financial assets held by all the sectors to get a pretty good figure for total financial assets in the balance sheet. Adding in farms, financials, governments and foreign owners brings the total financial asset figure up to $141,512 billion, which is reported on p. 115. (I say a pretty good figure because the document reports a $4,922 billion statistical discrepancy in getting to that figure themselves.) They do not report figures for tangible assets held by those “other” sectors, which is unfortunate because the “other” sectors are actually bigger than the ones they report.
That leaves us in an awkward position in trying to derive a total asset figure than makes sense for the overall U.S. economy’s balance sheet. One way to do it is to add up the numbers that we do know. I have done so in line 13. We know there are $141,512 billion in financial assets. We know that just three of those sectors own $46,301 billion in tangible assets. Adding those two numbers together produces a (reported) total asset number of $187,813 billion, pretty close to the $200 trillion number I wrote about at the top of the story. (The number would have been much closer 2 years ago before the recent drop in asset values.) Unfortunately, I have no idea what to call this number because it leaves out so many huge question marks.
If I weren’t so lazy I could dig up numbers to at least approximate the values of some of the question marks in the table. Farms own land and tractors, banks own buildings and ATM machines, governments own all sorts of crap including nearly a billion acres of land and all those cars you see on the highway that don’t have to buy license plates like you and me. And foreigners own a ton of stuff too. For today’s purposes all we have to know is that these things would add up to a very big number. And plugging these figures into the missing cells in the table would produce a total assets number far in excess of $200 trillion.
OK, that’s enough arithmetic. Why does this matter? It is to show you that the balance sheets are so big that almost any analysis of the economy that focuses on spending or saving or budget deficits alone, to the exclusion of the balance sheet, is almost certain to be wrong because balance sheet changes are so big. For example, household financial asset holdings fell from $50.5 trillion in Q3/07 to $40.8 trillion on 12/31/08 due to the collapse of stock and bond prices. And the value of their tangible assets fell by another $3.5 trillion due to falling home prices. Does anyone really think that the impact of this roughly $13 trillion drop in household net worth can be fixed by sending people checks for $700?
The most relevant application of this thinking today is how to understand the impact of the massive bailout programs on the economy and to say something meaningful about the impact of government borrowing on interest rates and stock prices. I will write more on these questions later.
You can read an analysis of budget deficits and interest rates using this approach in Chapter 4 of my new book, Lessons from a Road Warrior. You can get it from Amazon or get a signed copy directly from the John’s Book section of our website.