An Investment Manager's 2014 Update on the Top 1%
The following analysis of the increasingly rapid way in which wealth and income are flowing to the top 0.5% in America since 2011 is an update of a document that a well-placed member of the sprawling financial services industry, whom I refer to simply as "the investment manager," wrote for WhoRulesAmerica.net in mid-2011; it was followed by an addendum addressed to critics in January 2012. You may want to view the original document before reading this update.
This investment manger writes from the perspective of someone who is concerned with ensuring high long-term incomes for her/his clients when they retire. These clients include the successful physicians and other highly-paid professionals in the bottom half of the top 1%, as well as the financiers, start-up magnates, and high-level corporate executives in the top 0.5%. Make no assumptions about the investment manager with respect to race, ethnicity, political perspective, or views on government economic policy; he may or may not fit readers' preconceptions concerning some of these categories.
— G. William Domhoff
Since I wrote my analysis of the wealth and income of the top 1% for WhoRulesAmerica.net in mid-2011, economic and financial events have supported my original thesis. Wealth and income are streaming to the very top of the system and, particularly, to those who are direct or indirect beneficiaries of the financial industry. Professionals and workers have slipped further behind. The Federal Reserve's near-zero interest-rate policy and QE programs have pushed over 3 trillion dollars into the economy since 2009, stimulating speculation and Wall Street profits — while punishing conservative investors and savers with record low interest rates. The US government's bail-out programs, student and car loan subsidies, state support, and countless other expenditures have cost future taxpayers around $7 trillion. Much of this money has already been spent; at best, it created anemic economic growth on Main Street, while greatly helping Wall Street and masking a weak underlying recovery in the US economy.
The years 2009-2012 saw an enormous transfer of wealth upwards to the top 1% and, particularly, the top 0.1%. According to economists working with Census data at the Pew Foundation, from 2009 through 2011 (the latest available data), the net worth of the top 7% gained 28% while the bottom 93% dropped 4%. These wide variances were driven by gains in stock, bond, and real estate prices. Since the end of 2011, these markets have continued to climb, further enhancing wealth and income at the top.
According to the Census Bureau, the official U.S. Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — was 46.9 in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. It rises to 57.4 if capital gains are included, and capital gains primarily boost the incomes of the rich and very rich. Depending upon how income is defined, the US Gini varies from 37.0 (OECD) to 57.4 (Fed data). The CIA Factbook ranks the US as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini of 45, and the OECD ranks it the 26th most unequal out of 33 developed countries. Most developed countries have Gini's in the high 20's to mid 30's, and even countries like Egypt (34.4) and Yemen (37.7) are more equal. The Gini can also be applied to net worth distributions, in which the U.S. scores in the very high mid-80s.
Under the surface, the division between the top 7% and the rest looks even worse. Job creation has been substantially part-time, low-paying and concentrated in those over 40, while the labor force participation rate, at multi-decade lows and declining, makes current employment look much stronger than it is. Long-term unemployment is at record highs, as the number of Americans "not in the labor force" and yet "not retiring" have consistently increased. Cumulative inflation-adjusted GDP growth since 2009 is about 8%, well below average. Food stamp use has exploded from 27 million to 47 million over the last four years. Home ownership has declined almost every month since early 2009, and housing prices have been driven up by Wall Street speculation, foreign money, and US investors hoping to rent out or flip homes for a profit. Inflation-adjusted median US income has declined about 6% since 2009. I could go on. The numbers I mention here come from the best available Federal Reserve data and US government statistical agencies, both of which slant methodologies to recast the economy in the best possible light.
So, overall, things are not looking better economically for 9 out of 10 Americans. Research from Thomas Piketty at the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez at UC Berkeley indicates that, adjusting for inflation, the bottom 90% of workers have seen a decline in their income of 10.7% from 2002 through 2012; meanwhile, the top 1.0% to 0.5% have seen a gain of 11.3%, and the top 0.1% to 0.01% have seen a gain of 29.5%. (One enters the top 1% today with an income around $400k and the top 0.1% with an income around $2.5M.) The top 1% had an average investment net worth somewhere around $3 million at the end of 2013 based on IRS numbers, and $6 million based on Federal Reserve numbers.
One might think that physicians, America's highest-paid professional group, would be largely exempt from the economic currents affecting most other Americans. This isn't so. Medscape, a key physician website, reports that as of 2013, mean income for male physicians in all specialties was $259k; for female physicians, it was $199k. Family practice doctors and internists earned the least, averaging around $175k. Orthopedic surgeons earned the most, averaging around $405k; they are the only physician specialty falling within the top 1% by income. If we assume an income of $259k before taxes, our male physician filing jointly would bring home about $200k after taxes annually (or about $16,600 per month). In most of the U.S., it is likely that living well, raising a family, and other expenses would make it difficult to save more than $4,000 to $5,000 per month, or around $50k to $60k per year.
If our hypothetical physician saves and invests for 35 years, he will have contributed less than $2 million dollars to retirement plans; with growth over time, the absolute number will be larger but the purchasing power of each dollar will be less. Future returns in investment markets are somewhat unpredictable, as is inflation. Thus, an average physician — while doing very well by most people's standards — is unlikely to earn or accumulate enough to place him or her in the top 1% by income or net worth at the end of their career. Opportunity for most Americans, even physicians, is decreasing, even while net worth and income accelerate for those at the very top of the system. If an average physician today is unlikely to make it into the top 1% (Piketty and Saez's end-of-2012 data show that the 1% income line is crossed with an income of $396k per year), then it seems pretty clear that crossling that line via income, savings, and investments will be impossible for nearly every American in the future.