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The Wealth of the Wealthiest 1% and Poorest 50% Since Biden Became President

Photograph Source: Mitchell Haindfield – CC BY 2.0

Using figures produced by the government’s Federal Reserve Board, the beginning of the Biden presidency has gone well for the wealthiest 1% (who include the country’s major capitalists) and might also be seen in the same way for the poorest 50% (most of whom are members of the working class). The nominal wealth of the 1% reached an all-time high of $45.62 trillion at the end of 2021, up almost 16% in 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, as the stock market went down, it declined slightly to $44.92 trillion. The gain in the wealth of the poorest 50% from the end of the first quarter in 2021 to the first quarter in 2022 rose a dramatic 58%.

First the 1%

Here are the figures from the Federal Reserve Board showing the wealth of the 1% since Biden became president, and the first quarter and last quarter of Trump’s regime.

So far, the 1%’s share of the nation’s wealth has been higher every quarter during the Biden presidency than any other time going back since the survey began in late 1989. This includes every quarter of the Trump regime in which the wealth of the 1% reached its highest point during the last quarter of 2020.

Decline in Value of Tech Sector–Growth in Wealth Elsewhere

Development under capitalism is uneven. In 2022, defense companies and the petroleum industry have generally seen their stock prices rise while the indexes and price of most other stocks have declined.

The general decline in the value of stocks is shown by what has been happening to three broad measurements, the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq. All three have declined in 2022, especially in the second quarter of 2022. Of the three, the Nasdaq, that includes the stocks of top tech companies such as Apple (down 25% in 2022 as of June 30), Microsoft (down 23%), Tesla (down 44%), Meta (Facebook down 52%), and Google (down 25%), has fallen the most.

The three indexes as a group are down 20.3% for the year after rising over 18% in 2021 while the stock prices of some large oil companies and defense contractors have moved up. The latter have been helped by the bipartisan agreement to supply Ukraine with military hardware worth billions and provide the Pentagon with massive revenue enhancements.

Below are examples from both sectors—they are all down from their year to date high, but many are currently well above their price as of the beginning of the year. The exception in this list is Boeing, probably largely due to problems around its 737 jetliner.[2]

According to the Federal Reserve Board, as of the first quarter in 2022, the 1% owned 53.7% of corporate equities and mutual funds. With the further decline in the stock market since after the first quarter of 2022, the size of the wealth of the 1% has presumably declined further.

The Super Billionaires

How are the ten wealthiest U.S. citizens doing? Most have their fortunes tied to the tech sector that has recently been declining in value. Through the first half of 2022, as a group, their fortunes for the year are down over $241 billion. Nevertheless, their wealth remains significantly above where it stood at the beginning of 2020. Excluding Musk, it is up 23.6%–48% if Musk is included.

Below are figures from the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

* As of December 31, 2021, Bloomberg reported Balmer’s wealth as $120 Billion. They now have it to have been $106 billion.

Falling off the list of the 10 wealthiest is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. In the first half of 2022, he is number one in terms of the reduction in his wealth which went from $125 billion in the beginning of 2022 to $60 billion as of June 30, a decline of 52%, even falling below where it was at the beginning of 2020 at $78.8 billion.

The Gains of the Poorest Half—Real or an Illusion?

According to the Federal Reserve Board, the wealth of the poorest 50% stood at $2.48 trillion at the end of the first quarter in 2021. At the end of the first quarter in 2022, their wealth reached $3.92 trillion for an increase of over 58% in just this one year of Biden’s presidency.[3] Expect a few Democrats to point this out.

However, unlike the super wealthy whose wealth is predominantly used to accumulate more wealth and to exercise political, social, and cultural power, the wealth of the poorest 50% is mostly used to fill basic needs for transportation and for putting a roof over one’s head.

Are the gains in the wealth of the poorest 50%, certainly preferable, more an illusion than real? Do they reflect an improvement in peoples’ standard of living?

Many, if not most, among the poorest 50% own no real estate. However, Federal Reserve figures on the value of their real estate holdings and total wealth show their wealth is mainly in the form of real estate.

The net value (equity) of their real estate holdings is determined by subtracting the size of their home mortgages from the fair market value (FMV) of the property to arrive at net value.[4]

What this set of figures show is that in one year, the size of the wealth of the poorest 50% increased by $1.44 trillion of which $1.08 trillion is a result of an increase in the net value of their real estate holdings.

The value of the poorest 50%’s consumer durables includes used cars. These assets went up in value during this same period while consumer debt declined.

Though the net value is negative, it can be seen as increasing their net wealth during this period by $.23 trillion. The increase in the net value of their holdings in real estate and consumer durables, together, account for 90.9% of the increase in the wealth of the poorest 50% during this period—probably having little impact on the quality of their lives.

One can appreciate knowing their homes are worth more as are their consumer durables that, presumably, are largely used to meet basic needs. The house being more valuable may have two advantages. Were it to be sold, a greater quantity of money would be received. However, that money would likely need to be used to pay for a new place in which to reside resulting in little change in the quality of their housing unless they moved to a location where housing costs are lower.

The other advantage of a house increasing in value is that one may be able to secure an equity loan against it. Paying off that loan is less likely to pose a major financial burden for one whose income is increasing more rapidly than the inflation rate, presumably a condition that the poorest 50% who own a house generally have not been experiencing.[5]

The Wealth Holdings of the 1% During Downturns

What can be “good news” about recessions and/or downturns in the stock market, as appears to be currently happening, is a possible movement towards greater economic equality since the share of the nation’s wealth held by the 1% declines. However, when there has been a “recovery” of the economy and/or the stock market, that trend has been reversed. According to the Fed figures, the share of the nation’s wealth held by the 1% rises to a greater level than it was before the downturn.

The holdings of the 1% were at 28.6% of the nation’s total wealth in the first quarter of 2000 falling to 25% by the fourth quarter of 2002. Another downturn in their share of wealth happened with the great recession. It fell from 29.4% in the third quarter of 2007 to 26.9% in the first quarter of 2009 before later surpassing 29.4% in the second quarter of 2012 and, generally, increasing thereafter. There was still another dip from 30.7% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 29.7% in the first quarter of 2020 when the pandemic broke out. From that quarter, it increased to its highest peak of 32.2% in the second quarter of 2021.

This pattern of recent years, that so far appears to be repeating during Biden’s presidency, is a tendency, not something that is natural. It could be reversed by people getting organized, especially workers, into a mass movement that fights against the existing dynamics of the capitalist system that so heavily favors the super wealthy.

Notes.

1) The share of wealth held by the 1% may be much greater than what this survey by the Federal Reserve Board shows. I rely on it because it shows trends and comes from the government. An earlier Fed study shows the level of inequality has been even greater. See page 12

https://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2011/201151/revision/201151pap.pdf

or page 4 http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ORDBOG/uord/wealth.pdf Congressional Research Service on the distribution of wealth across households using the above Fed figures.

2) A stock price is a measurement that can fluctuate much within even a single day.

As a result of the Ukraine war, one might think that the value of grain companies has also increased. Two of the biggest, Cargill and Ardent, are privately held so stock prices for them are not listed on one of the exchanges. Three examples listed below show that for the year, as of June 30, one is up, one is unchanged and a third is slightly down after surging over 37%.

3)The average wealth (about $24,000) of over 8.6 million in the poorest 50% would have to be combined to reach the current $208 billion wealth of Elon Musk.

4)All figures used come from the Federal Reserve Board figures at: https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/table/

To access them, use the drop-down menus.

5)“Inflation is hitting Americans hard. US consumer prices increased 8.6% from May 2021 to May 2022, the highest increase since 1981, outpacing overall annual wage growth at 5.2% in May 2022.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jul/03/fast-food-workers-inflation