WASHINGTON — The median net worth for American families plummeted by 38.8% between 2007 and 2010, falling to a level not seen since 1992, according to a Federal Reserve study of consumer finances released Monday.
The decline, which was primarily the result of falling home equity, was far and away the largest drop in net worth since the Survey of Consumer Finances began in 1989, Fed economists said on a conference call with reporters. The survey found median net worth declined to $77,300 in 2010 from $126,400 in 2007, while mean or average net worth fell 14.7%, to $498,800 from $584,600.
Unlike the Fed's broader reports on macroeconomic activity, the survey - conducted every three years — is intended to provide a detailed snapshot of economic conditions of U.S. families and households. The latest survey, conducted in 2010, also provided economists with a closer look at the impact on American families during the height of the economic downturn.
In addition to significant decreases in wealth, consumers also saw significant decreases in income and home equity over the three year period. Although debt levels were largely flat, fewer families were carrying debt in 2010 than 2007, and even fewer were carrying credit card balances.
On a conference call with reporters on Monday, Fed economists said about three-quarters of the decline in median net worth was due to falling home equity values.
"Although declines in the values of financial assets or business were important factors for some families, the decreases in median net worth appear to have been driven most strongly by a broad collapse in house prices," the survey said.
Median home equity fell 42.3% over the three-year period, to $55,000 in 2010 from $95,300 in 2007.
"The decline in median net worth was especially large for families in groups where housing was a larger share of assets, such as families headed by someone 35 to 44 years old (median net worth fell 54.4 percent) and families in the West region (median net worth fell 55.3 percent)," the survey said.
The decrease also had a significant impact on mean net worth, the average wealth of all of the families in the survey, which declined 14.7% to $498,800 — a level last observed in 2001.
The declines in the latest survey marked a sharp, if not unexpected, reversal from the preceding two surveys, which found significant increases in American families' net worth. Median net worth increased 17.9% from 2004 to 2007, while mean net worth increased 13.1%. The period from 2001 to 2004 saw smaller increases of 1% and 6.2% respectively.
The survey also found decreases in income, though not as sharp as net worth. According to the survey, median income fell 7.7%, to $45,800 in 2010 from $49,600 in 2007, while mean income fell 11.1%, to $78,500 from $88,300.
The decline in median income was most pronounced among more highly educated families, families headed by a person older than 55 and families living in the South and West, according to the survey.
"The decline in mean income was even more widespread than the decline in median income, with virtually all demographic groups experiencing a decline between 2007 and 2010; the decline in the mean was most pronounced in the top 10 percent of the income distribution and for higher education or wealth groups," the survey said.
Among families with debt in 2010, the median value of that debt was unchanged. But the share of families with debt fell to 74.9% from 77% in 2007, while debt as a percentage of assets increased, to 16.4% from 14.8%, largely due to a steep fall in asset values
The proportion of families carrying credit card balances also fell, to 39.4% from 46.1%. For those consumers, the median balance fell 16.1%, to $2,600 in 2010, while the mean balance fell 7.8% to $7,100.
The implications of the changes in household debt were mixed somewhat, Fed economists said.
The fraction of families with debt payments greater than 40% of family income remained constant from 2007. And the fraction of families with debt who also had a debt payment that was late by 60 days or more increased to 10.8% in 2010, from 7.1% in 2007.