(Bloomberg) -- Household wealth in the U.S. increased from October through December by the most in a year as stock prices advanced to an all-time high at the end of 2014.
Net worth for households and non-profit groups rose by $1.5 trillion in the fourth quarter, or 1.9 percent from the previous three months, to $82.9 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Thursday from Washington in its financial accounts report, previously known as the flow of funds survey.
Record stock prices and steadily increasing home values have made U.S. households wealthier as the economic expansion lumbered on. While faster job growth and low fuel prices also have helped lower-income households, bigger wage gains will strengthen balance sheets further.
“The recovery is broadening its reach -- it’s not just hitting the upper-level of income distribution but starting to help a broader segment of the population, and that’s some good news,” said Dana Saporta, a U.S. economist at Credit Suisse Securities USA in New York. At the same time, “credit is flowing much better now.”
The value of financial assets, including stocks and pension fund holdings, held by American households increased by $1.2 trillion in the fourth quarter, according to the Fed report. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index climbed 4.4 percent from Sept. 30 to Dec. 31. The index is down 0.9 percent in the first quarter through yesterday.
Though the housing market has made fitful progress over the past year, the improving jobs picture may boost prospects for growth in the industry, which would in turn bolster household wealth. Household real-estate assets climbed by $265.2 billion, Thursday’s data show. Owners’ equity as a share of total household real-estate holdings rose to 54.5 percent last quarter from 54 percent in the previous three months.
The pace at which improving economic activity translates into greater household wealth is something Fed policy makers are keeping an eye on as they consider raising interest rates for the first time since 2006.
Chair Janet Yellen has already started preparing investors for an increase this year, signaling in congressional testimony on Feb. 24 that the central bank may drop its pledge to be “patient,” which would mean that rates could be raised at any meeting. She struck an upbeat note in her assessment of the economy at that testimony, saying the labor market and household finances are stronger.
Employers added 295,000 workers to payrolls in February as the unemployment rate fell to an almost seven-year low of 5.5 percent, a Labor Department report showed last week. The jobless rate is now at the range that Fed policy makers view as full employment.
Meanwhile, wages have been slower to accelerate, with average hourly earnings climbing just 0.1 percent in February from the month before. They rose 2 percent in the past year, matching the average for the recovery.
Household debt increased at a 2.7 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, Thursday’s Fed report showed. Mortgage borrowing rose at a 0.7 percent pace for a second straight quarter. Other forms of consumer credit, including auto and student loans, slowed to a 6 percent pace, the weakest in a year.
Total non-financial debt increased at a 4.7 percent annual pace last quarter, the most in two years. Federal government obligations rose by 5.4 percent, while business borrowing climbed 7.2 percent. State and local government debt advanced at a 1.1 percent pace.
--With assistance from Kristy Scheuble in Washington.
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