Friday 19 January 2007

Wealth Today

Some recent figures on wealth and income in Australia and Worldwide:

In 2003-4 14% of taxpayers earned $62,501 or more
Average Household wealth is $468,000 (median net worth is $295,000)
Wealthiest 20% of households had 59% of total household net worth (average NW of $1.4m)

In 2000 the wealthiest 10% of the world's population held 85% of global household wealth.
The top 1% owned 40% of global assets, while the bottom 50% owned around 1% of global assets.
US had average wealth holding of US$210,319 per adult in 2000, Japan US$227,600 per adult, Australia US$94,712 per adult. Or, in percentage terms, US had 5.5% of the world's adult population owning around 33% of the world's wealth, Japan 2.7% of the world's adults owning 18.3%, and Australia 0.4% of the world's Adult's owning 1% of the world's wealth.

In the US the richest 10% of the population owns 70% of the wealth, for Japan the figure is the top 10% owing 40% of the wealth, and for Australia the top 10% own 45% of the wealth.

The latest figures show that Australia's wealth is now a record $354,000 per capita, up 93.4% in the past five years in real terms (inflation adjusted). By comparison my personal NW is up 107.4% in real terms over the past five years - so I'm doing slightly better than average. Like they say, a rising tide raises all boats, so it's important to realise that when property and stock markets have been booming improvements in your net worth are almost unavoidable. Don't get carried away and think that you're a great real estate tycoon or stock picker just becuase you've made a profit!

I find that these "wealth comparisons" generally seem to view wealth inequality as an obviously "bad thing", which I don't totally agree with. While it's good to assist the "deserving poor" - be they individuals or countries, I don't think universal wealth equality is a goal to strive for.

Consider ten people who start out with the same background, ability and opportunities. Assume they have similar jobs and earn the same amounts, so that by age 40 each of them has earned a total of $500,000. 1 of these ten people is by nature frugal and enjoys the "simple things" so manages to save 10% of their income each year, invested at 5% ROI. Another 4 out of the ten spend a bit more, so they only manage to save 2% of their income each year. The last five people in the group spend every cent that they earn, thus accumulating no wealth. Where would these ten people be at age 40?

Person Net Worth
1 $52,665
2 $16,533
3 $16,533
4 $16,533
5 $16,533
6 $0
7 $0
8 $0
9 $0
10 $0

So, how does this translate to "wealth distribution"?

Total wealth of this group is $148,797. Average NW is $14,879 (but median NW is $8,266)/
The wealthiest 10% of this group owns 56% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% only 0% of the wealth. Shock, horror - not! All this means is that if you defer consumption and accumulate capital, you'll end up with MUCH more wealth than if you spend everything you earn. This applies to individuals, families and countries. The only inequality that we should try to mitigate is that of opportunity, NOT of outcome.

What I find interesting is that this simplistic model of spending/saving behaviour is a pretty good match of most wealth distributions observed around the world. That is, in any group of people, around 1 in 10 will be very frugal and "save for a rainy day" (ie.PAWs), another 4 out of 10 will try to save and invest, with limited success, and around half the population spends as much as they can.

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