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Fed: Slowly, wealth returns

Photo by Jim Prisching

Photo by Jim Prisching

WASHINGTON -- Americans are recovering their shrunken wealth -- gradually.

Household net worth rose last quarter, mainly because the healing economy boosted stock portfolios. But the gain was slight. And it was less than in the previous two quarters.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday that net worth rose 1.3 percent in the fourth quarter to $54.2 trillion. It marked the third straight quarter of gains. But economists say consumers would need a stronger and more prolonged increase in their wealth to persuade them to ratchet up spending.

Net worth had risen by a more robust 4.5 percent in the second quarter of 2009 and an even faster 5.5 percent in the third quarter. Net worth is the value of assets such as homes, checking accounts and investments minus debts like mortgages and credit cards.

Even with the gain, Americans' net worth would have to rise an additional 21 percent just to get back to its pre-recession peak of $65.9 trillion. That illustrates Americans' vast loss of wealth from the worst downturn since the 1930s.

Growth in stock portfolios delivered the biggest lift to net worth in the October-to-December period. The value of stocks rose by nearly 4 percent to $7.7 trillion. Higher home prices helped a bit. The value of real-estate holdings edged up 0.2 percent.

During the recession, which began in December 2007, household net worth had plunged as low as $48.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2009. Stock holdings and home values nose-dived. As their net worth evaporated, Americans felt less inclined to spend.

For all of last year, consumer spending dropped 0.6 percent. This year, as wealth, the economy and financial conditions slowly recover, consumer spending is projected to grow around a modest 2.2 percent, according to the National Association for Business Economics.

By contrast, in 1983, when the economy was recovering from the 1981-82 recession, consumer spending surged 5.7 percent. Unlike past rebounds led by ordinary shoppers, this one so far has been driven more by spending from businesses, foreigners and -- until it runs out -- government stimulus. Consumers have been spending more lately. But they remain cautious.

''It would take a string of increases of a size that they believe can continue and that they can have faith in for consumers to really boost their spending,'' said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com.

Each dollar increase in household wealth translates into roughly three to four cents of consumer spending over two years, Hoyt said.

That isn't much.

Just ask Marcia Karon, 55, of Atlanta. She's felt little benefit from the economic rebound or the stock market. Her family's finances are being crimped in other ways. Her husband has taken two pay cuts in the past year, their property taxes remain high and ''everything else is going up,'' she says.