Lee Schafer: The biggest transfer of wealth in history is underway, for some

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“The greatest wealth transfer in modern history has begun,” said the Wall Street Journal at the start of the long July 4th weekend.

© Dreamstime/TNS Baby Boomers are about pass along massive generational wealth, and the transfer of an estimated $70 million happens against a backdrop of stark wealth inequality.

Maybe you can fault the Journal for being too dramatic for a simple finance story, but it had its facts lined up. Citing the work of a consultant, the paper reported that by 2042, the baby boomers and other older Americans might hand over about $70 trillion, by far most of it going to their heirs.

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Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Yet there’s a problem with this Wall Street Journal article, and all others like it. It might be accurate — the boomers are around 20% of Americans and have more than half of the nation’s wealth — yet there’s so much wealth inequality in this big generation that it doesn’t say much about lives of most baby boomers.

A far better way to have characterized this big transfer of wealth is that some well-off boomers are going to be turning over a big slug of wealth to some very lucky millennials.

In fairness to anyone who tries to write about these things, it’s not easy to look at averages or data for a big mass of people and come away with a clear picture about what’s happening in the lives of most people.

We know, for instance, that the average inheritance in 2019 was up to $213,000, according to information published by the Federal Reserve, a big increase from 1998.

Yet the wealthiest families in 2019 inherited more than $700,000 at the time of their inheritance. And for the American families on the bottom half of the household wealth ladder, their average inheritance didn’t amount to $10,000.

It’s certainly true that the baby boomer generation, made up of people born just after World War II up through 1964, got a lot richer as it aged.

Part of this can be explained by what are called lifecycle effects. People just starting out in adult life are likely in a financial hole, maybe paying off education loans and borrowing a lot more money for a house or car.

In a few years, though, they might have managed to put away some savings. Then compounding investment returns kick in.

Yet there’s been more going on with the economy than the than the boomers benefiting from the same life-cycle effects that show up in every generation.

Back in 1989, the median wealth for households headed by people aged 65 to 75 was about seven times the wealth of households headed by somebody 25 years old to 35 years old. By 2016, when the oldest boomers turned 70, households in that older age band had 12 times the wealth of households headed by somebody 25 to 35.

In this 2019 examination of wealth inequality, by staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the older families didn’t just see their wealth increase compared to Americans in the past at the same stage of life. The families headed by younger people saw their wealth decline compared to the boomers at the same stage of life back in the late 1980s.

That’s the kind of observation that once had policymakers a little worried about asset values tanking as the big generation of boomers moved to retirement, as described in the 2019 issue brief by the National Institute on Retirement Security.

The fear was that values of stocks and houses would decline across-the-board as the retirees generated wave after wave of selling pressure, selling off what they owned to pay for their living costs.

Turns out there was nothing to worry about. Most of the wealth is held by relatively few people who will have no trouble at all paying for their lifestyle.

The share of the financial assets owned by the wealthiest 5% of boomer households increased from about 52% in 2004 to 60% by 2016. Meanwhile, the share of financial assets owned by the bottom half of boomer households, as ranked by wealth, slipped from 3% to less than 2% in 2016.

The wealthiest boomers will likely just pass on the bulk of their financial assets to heirs without ever selling — one way to avoid paying a capital gains tax. A huge swath of the boomers, the other hand, can’t depress the stock markets by selling what they never had.

It’s worth thinking a little about who’s going to be getting all that money passed down by boomers, largely a generation known as the millennials.

Older millennials got buffeted by the Great Recession just as they were starting adulthood.That caused the consumer finances research team at the St. Louis Fed to worry that millennials would be a “lost generation” that would forever be way behind on accumulating household net worth.

Checking back a few years later, though, they reported that just before the pandemic the millennials had managed to make up a lot of ground.

Once again that’s a snapshot of a group. Inside the millennial generation, the concentration of financial assets has gotten about as unbalanced as with the boomers, and the millennials reached that point a couple of decades earlier in their lives.

The St. Louis Fed team focused on just a slice of the millennial generation, finding that college-educated older millennials were doing OK, just a bit behind where their parents’ generation had been at the same stage. Meanwhile, those with just a high school degree had fallen way behind in household wealth compared to previous generations of Americans without a degree.

The real chasm in relative wealth was between white millennials and Black millennials, who were so far behind previous generations of Black Americans in their accumulation of wealth that it’s hard to imagine how they could ever catch up.

The first explanation the researchers offered for this big disparity is that white millennials were far more likely to have had wealthy parents — and thus stand ready to collect some of that $70 trillion now getting handed down.

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