A soaring stock market means little

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is hoping to win reelection based on the soaring stock market.

Good luck with that. A soaring stock market doesn’t hurt, but these days a soaring stock market amounts to more evidence that more income is being redistributed toward the wealthy. Why is that? It’s because you have to be relatively wealthy to own stocks in the first place.

To the extent most of us own stocks, it’s probably through mutual funds we own as part of a 401-K and/or IRA. We do this because these investments are typically tax-advantaged. Unless you choose a Roth IRA, you defer taxes on the gains of these funds until retirement, plus these investments are typically pre-tax dollars, meaning you subtract the cost of buying these funds from your adjusted gross income, which means you pay less tax.

The bottom line, according to a 2016 study by NYU economist Edward N. Wolff is that the richest 10% of households control 84% of the total value of stocks. About half of U.S household own some stocks, generally through retirement funds. The other half doesn’t own any stocks.

When markets rise, wealth rises proportionately toward those who own them. Since about half of households don’t own any stocks, there is no stock appreciation to reap, so the rich simply get richer, increasing income inequality.

Our household is definitely not in the top 10% but we do hold onto a lot of retirement assets, principally in bonds and mutual funds. Markets are up about twenty percent this year, but the rise is not as big as it looks. As you may recall, in December 2018 markets gave up their gains for the year, effectively making 2018 a wash on the stock market. Over two years then stocks have gained about ten percent annually, which is definitely good but by no means amazing. Stock market gains during Trump’s tenure so far do not equal Obama’s. Of course, in Obama’s case there was no way for them to go but up, as stocks were severely underpriced after the Great Recession.

People who don’t own stocks mostly don’t own them because they can’t afford to own them. Their money is going toward more important priorities: keeping a roof over their head and food, most likely. Rental costs generally exceed inflation, and food usually does as well. So they are being stretched more. Lower income people aren’t stupid. If they could afford life’s basic necessities, they probably would be investing in the stock markets. It’s simply not an option for them.

As we learned, investing takes perseverance. If you want to fully reap the market’s gains, you have to keep at it persistently, relentlessly, in good times and bad. As a federal employee, I rarely missed a paycheck. When I did, it was because the government was shut down. I never lost money when the government was shut down. Plus, I earned enough money to allow us to invest.

And that’s pretty much how we built wealth: through steady paychecks and doggedness. As I noted, we profited from the Great Recession. In retrospect, this was the biggest factor between retiring okay and retiring comfortably. We bought a lot of mutual funds when they were priced artificially low and kept them while market values increased. I’ve done the math. Were it not for the Great Recession, I expect that our investment portfolio would now be worth about 25% less than it is.

While many of my friends have and continue to struggle with this economy, today’s economy feels to me like an unearned gift. While hardly in the top 1%, I sometimes feel like we should pay a wealth tax too. A lot of our gains seem unnatural and surreal.

This increase in wealth is having me rethink how I want to use it. It still doesn’t mean I will buy a bigger house, a fancier car or a second home somewhere. It’s not quite that large. But as someone nearly age 63 with hopefully twenty-five more good years ahead of him, it does expand the possibilities.

For example, a year ago we were visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos. It was not a cheap vacation. The two weeks cost us at least $15,000, probably closer to $20,000 when you add in all the airfare and extras. It was amazing and incredible but we probably wouldn’t have done it without all this unexpected extra wealth. And it didn’t impact our bottom line at all. It seemed surreal.

Consequently, we are setting our sites further. We could have afforded two Hawaiian vacations for what we spent in Ecuador and the Galapagos. Now we are thinking: why not sail the South Seas? I hesitate to be away from home for too long, as we have two cats. But when they are gone, why not take a round-the-world cruise? Why not a month long train tour around Australia?

But if I were one of those in the fifty percent of households without any stocks, I’d feel resentful. They might want to visit the Galapagos too, or at least Hawaii, but it’s probably not an option. I would feel, rightly, like my pocket had been picked. That’s because it has. Their productivity has been swept up and placed in my pocket instead, but much more disproportionately into the pockets of the very wealthy who can’t begin to spend all of this new wealth. The difference is that I think I can use it to make the rest of my life much more meaningful. Rest assured a fair amount of it is going to help others too, roughly $400 a month or so.

To change this, we need that political revolution that Bernie Sanders keeps talking about. This comfortable retiree will be voting to bring it about.

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