Friday, October 12, 2012

New Global Wealth Report: US median wealth close to Greece's

Credit Suisse provides comprehensive annual reports on global wealth, which are quite well regarded by inequality and wealth experts we have spoken to. The 2012 Global Wealth Report (main report here, with data here) provides some quite surprising information.

Perhaps the most dramatic numbers in here do not concern absolute levels of wealth (Credit Suisse reckons total world wealth adds up to over $220bn) or even average levels of wealth per capita, but median levels of wealth, which give a better (if still imperfect) measure of the wealth of the ordinary  person.

Australia tops the median income scale by a country mile, with $193,653, while Italy, Japan and the UK come in at a still very creditable $123,710,  $141,410 and $115,245 respectively.

Now here is a fact that may surprise some people. The United States of America comes in at only $38,786 - just ahead of Greece, at $35,714.

The average wealth per capita tables are completely different, of course: Switzerland, which only has $87,137 in median wealth, tops the table for average wealth per capita, at a whopping $468,186 per person, with the United States not so very far behind, at $262,351, just behind France, at $265,463.

Now remember: these kinds of statistics need to be treated with care. The Sydney Morning Herald greets the latest reports with a gloomy report, noting that
"Our top position in the Credit Suisse report is exceptional but it is largely the result of an overvalued currency."
Indeed. India fared poorly, compared to last year, for similar reasons. Currency factors have a massive impact. 

Also, wealth distributions are very different from income distributions, which tend to be more important for ordinary people's wellbeing, and the distributions are skewed by many things, not least the prices of residential real estate, which have fallen quite far in the United States in recent years, but have remained pretty stratospheric in significant parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in London and the Southeast. House price ownership is also much wider in the UK than in, say, Switzerland where property ownership is concentrated in far fewer hands (a tendency that reduces Switzerland's median wealth but not average wealth, relative to the UK). 

There is tons more in this report: these are just the first facts that popped out at us.

For methodology nuts, it might also be interesting to note this, which is useful to note in the context of our July 2012 publication Inequality - You Don't Know the Half of It, accompanying our estimates of global offshore wealth, which garnered headlines around the globe.
Although sample surveys do not formally exclude high net worth (HNW) individuals with net assets above USD 1 million, they are not always captured, and the value of their wealth holdings is likely to be underestimated. The same is true to a much greater extent for ultra high net worth (UHNW) individuals with net assets above USD 50 million. In fact, the US Survey of Consumer Finances, which otherwise does an excellent job in the upper tail of the wealth distribution, explicitly omits the 400 wealthiest families from its sampling frame. This is not enough to completely invalidate our general approach: for example, the world’s billionaires reported by Forbes magazine for the year 2012 were collectively worth about USD 4.6 trillion, which equates to 2% of our estimate of USD 223 trillion for total world household wealth. However, further analysis and appropriate adjustments are required in order to paint an accurate picture of the number of the wealthiest individuals and the size of their holdings."
(And they do make adjustments.)


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