An Astonishing Recent Shift in Money & Wealth in America.
Do The Rich Keep Getting Richer?
There are different ways to measure wealth. In this case, we’re talking about money and assets.
You can look at income.
You can look at overall wealth, or holdings, or assets.
You can also zero in on cash deposits.
After all, cash is king when you need it. When the prices of goods and services go up. When you have to feed your kids and get them school supplies. When opportunities arise and you hope to level up your own state of financial security.
A massive move happened from 2019 to 2022, according to official data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, via their FRED data system.
When we look at all of the cash deposits held by individuals in the US., we see something extraordinary. Knowing that it happened is one thing. Explaining it is another.
I’m also going to zoom way out and give some #’s over the years. I isolated these for 10 year periods, starting in 1989, then 1999, then 2009, then 2019, then the end of 2022 since that’s the last batch of data. And of course it gives us a pre-and-post forced shutdown/lockdown view.
Looking into this was inspired by the work of James Eagle, who creates excellent visuals of econ and market topics, usually in graphics and video form. I encourage you to follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram.
So first, the numbers. Screen shots of graphs from James Eagle’s work are below this article.
Top 1% held 7.6%
Next 9% held 44.5%
Middle 40% held 34.5%
Bottom 50% held 13.3%
Top 1% held 20%
Next 9% held 28.5%
Middle 40% held 38.8%
Bottom 50% held 12.2%
1999 was when the major world protests around the WTO, or World Trade Organization, like the Occupy movement, about the 99% and 1% began. These protests were mainly situated around Seattle. It was also the beginning of more pronounced divisive, identity politics that would carry through to today. Said differently, there are many economic issues, commonalities, shared by a large # of people in this country. It is the divergence of social views, and the focus on them, the exacerbation of these differences that keeps stoking division.
Top 1% held 18.5%
Next 9% held 30%
Middle 40% held 40%
Bottom 50% held 11%
Top 1% held close to 19%
Next 9% held 36%
The middle 40% held 35%
Bottom 50% held 10%
Top 1% hold 30.5%
Next 9% hold 35.5%
Middle 40% holds 27.5%
Bottom 50% holds 6.5%
The only thing I can find in the history of economics in this country that resulted in the best form of a healthy, growing middle class was the post-war era of 1950’s through the 1980’s, when a combination of innovation, population growth, and far far less disparity in incomes was the norm.
Particularly before C-suite executives made 300x the median income of everyone in the company. And particularly before the dollar was taken off the gold standard in 1971.
And of course, before printing money became the norm.
Before losses caused by speculation, exuberance, and moral hazard resulted simply in backfilling and bailouts after a little lobbying and some phone calls.
And before 3 decades of cancelling American jobs and moving production overseas, eviscerating our heartland and replacing the pain with a steady flow of opiates to help usher in the untimely deaths of a million Americans, including children. We’re now at over 100,000 per year.
Meanwhile, we print and give. Print and give.
And when have taxes shifted the wealth? They haven’t. It’s not about taxes and programs. That money gets siphoned off by grift & payola. Politics took the mob system and perfected out, institutionalized it.
What could explain this pre-and-post shift? Many things. And we’re not going to solve for it here. But it does bring up the question. And we should be thinking about this. A massive amount of money was printed. The largest in history. Where did it go? Well, I remember being frustrated in early 2020 as the very first order of business brought to Congress wasn’t funding for quick medical research. It was the state of markets and private equity. Not publicly traded stuff. PRIVATE EQUITY. They were the first lobbyists in line to beg for a bailout. And they got it. Hundreds of billions put toward some of the worst excrement known in business. Zombie companies. Lining pockets so that people wouldn’t have to take their kids out of $40,000/year private schools. There’s an extreme moral hazard from not allowing capitalism to work. Bankruptcy is a part of that process. And often companies are restructured. When you throw money at the issue because of favoritism and support of the protected class, you exacerbate a lack of opportunity for more wealth creation by others than can come into the market and make improvements. That is what a (relatively) free-market system is based upon. Creative destruction. How is it that once a group "makes it", they can pull the ladders up to success, inside of a money creation machine that bails them out for mistakes?
But that bailout was just the beginning. Well, you could argue that the bailouts of 2008-2009 were, but we’re dealing with the last few years here.
We all know that Americans at large received stimulus checks. We’ve heard about it over and over. But that was a pittance. A drop in the bucket. At least compared to how much was created and handed out under the PPP and ERC programs. I wouldn’t pick on this were it not for the shocking amount of fraud and misuse being uncovered. Hundreds of billions lined the pockets of businesspeople and never made it to the employees. Or in many cases it didn’t matter because the employees were nonexistent.
With the massive amount of money handed to business owners under the Employee Retention Credit, international vacations and luxury goods spending have been big business.
But wait, isn’t that taxpayer money that was supposed to go toward supporting employees of companies whose business was potentially harmed by COVID policies? Why yes! It is! And it was extended in 2022.
How much are we talking? On the order of $400 billion + that has been given by the government to this effort. However, IRS audits are finding quite a bit of grift and fraud. Many of the dollars handed out through PPP loans (that’s Paycheck Protection Program) and the ERC mentioned above have been misused and misspent. Go figure! For more on this, check out what former Fed advisor and founder of Quill Intelligence, Danielle DiMartino Booth, is offering on this topic. Let’s just say there is a large amount of excess money being spent on luxe vacations and goods. While the rest of Americans struggle under inflation. But hey, no biggie.
At first, before thinking about these programs, I thought about market selloffs in 2020 and 2022. Was it possible that ultra-high-net-worth individuals and families timed their sells and gamed the market? Maybe. But that still doesn’t add up.
Then there’s the big run-up through 2021 of pandemic stocks, meme stocks (or “stonks”), SPAC’s, crypto. How much cash was funneled into these, fueling the big rally.
We were told over and over that it must have been a huge swath of retail investors using Robinhood, flush with new cash from the stimmie checks. Maybe. But I think that given this data, and some of anecdotal stories I know from business and friend circles, there was a decent amount of taking from PPP & EDC under the view of “why not? the gov’t is handing out free money”, then investing the money, keeping the return.
But, this is still speculation. We know that there was already a trend of wealth disparity underway for a long time. And the forces behind that can be discussed separately. We don’t fully know all of the factors that went into this massive upward shift in wealth from 2019-2022, the largest and fastest shift in known history.
By no means am I suggesting that hard work and merit should not be rewarded. Quite the opposite. What I'm suggesting is that by all means, measures, data, optics, and correspondence we have a runaway situation in the country whereby an elitist group prints money for themselves, and closely held allegiances and associations, throwing a proverbial stick into the bike wheel for many. The forced shutdowns/lockdowns of small businesses while mega companies were allowed to remain open was more than enough evidence.
Other than encouraging, sponsoring, speaking on, and voting for policy there are only a few things that we can do. As I've heard many times over a 20-year corporate career, we can only control for our attitude and our actions. To that, I add aptitude. And on a personal level, I add a strong sense and continual efforts in the practice of grace, compassion, forgiveness, growth of character, the welcoming of challenge, and building resilience and strength.
On the difficult days, I remind myself that the only way "out" is "through". We all must face this and persevere. In the coming years, a certain percentage of our population is going to face increasing difficulties. And some, maybe many, will not rise to the challenge. They may feel overwhelmed, defeated. We're already seeing this in the unfortunate #'s of suicides.
I encourage all of you, as I remind myself every day... we must grow together again. The bonds of family, friendships, fellowship, community all must be re-strengthened. Don't shy away from the hard work. It's going to take fortitude. For some, it's going to take a pioneer spirit. Imagine how hard they worked to build and grow, knowing that by staking out and sowing a homestead the rewards may be reaped for generations to come. They were sacrificial in their efforts. Perhaps we will have to do the same.
If ever there was a time to learn more about adapting to this new era, it is now. To understand your core values, your vision for the next 3-5-7-10 years. To develop a sense of personal mission. To make sure that what you are doing serves that mission. And to get rid of the encumbrances, overcome the obstacles toward it.
There is hope. But first, we must revisit what we value most and realign ourselves to it.
This was meant purely as a thought piece. Curious to know what others think. Feel free to reach out and share your ideas, concerns, and suggestions.