At this time in the political cycle, there is a lot of discussion about the relative financial well-being of U.S. households, U.S. businesses, U.S. workers and the U.S. economy overall. Both sides of the aisle would have you believe they have it all figured out and have a surefire plan to remedy all economic ills. But are you really better off than four years ago?
As with many statistical comparisons, the answer to this important question is somewhat subjective and depends on a number of factors. Determining the answer to this question of being better off really depends on what is measured and when the factors are measured.
One of the more high-level measures of U.S. household wealth is produced each quarter, with a one-quarter lag. The Federal Reserve's flow of funds report publishes a number of figures designed to illustrate the health of the U.S. economy. One of the statistics published in this report is the measure of U.S. household net worth.
As of the last measurement period ending March 31, 2012, which was reported at the end of June 2012, U.S. household net worth totaled $62.9 trillion. According to the Federal Reserve, U.S. household net worth increased by $2.8 trillion during the first quarter of 2012.
Among the various factors observed to determine the change in U.S. household net worth are stock holdings of individuals, the value of pension plans due to individuals, and the value of equity in residential houses. For those fortunate to own stocks, participate in pension plans and have equity in their homes, household wealth is likely to be higher as of the last measurement point as compared to four years ago.
According to the Fed's flow of funds data, U.S. household net worth increased by 17.4 percent from December 2008, just prior to the inauguration of the current administration, to the end of the first quarter of 2012. Over the same measurement period, a broad measure of U.S. equity markets increased by more than 50 percent.
A difficult, yet important, question is whether or not the policies and legislation promulgated by the current administration spurred the increase in U.S. household net worth or stifled the economic potential resulting in anemic growth.
With a national unemployment rate stuck stubbornly over 8 percent, those out of work or underemployed would likely not feel themselves better off than four years ago. For those who have lost their homes over the past four years or who remain underwater on their residential mortgages, a sense of being better off may be elusive.
Kirby Brown is the CEO of Beneficial Financial Group in Salt Lake City.