Surging stock prices and steady home-price increases have finally allowed Americans to regain the $16 trillion in wealth they lost to the Great Recession. The gains are helping support the economy and could lead to further spending and growth.
Household wealth amounted to $66.1 trillion at the end of 2012, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. That was $1.2 trillion more than three months earlier and 98 percent of the pre-recession peak.
Further increases in stock and home prices this year mean that Americans' net worth has since topped the pre-recession peak of $67.4 trillion, private economists say. Wealth had bottomed at $51.2 trillion in early 2009.
"It's all but certain that we surpassed that peak in the first quarter," said Aaron Smith, senior economist at Moody's Analytics.
Household wealth, or net worth, reflects the value of assets like homes, stocks and bank accounts minus debts like mortgages and credit cards. National home prices have extended their gains this year. And the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broad gauge of the stock market, has surged 8 percent since Jan. 1.
Some economists caution that the regained wealth might spur less consumer spending than it did before the recession. Americans are cashing out less home equity, for example, than they did five years ago, notes Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse.
In addition, the rebound in wealth has benefited mostly wealthier Americans. The Dow Jones industrial average has just set a record high, and roughly 80 percent of stocks are held by the wealthiest 10 percent of households.
For most Americans, home equity is their largest source of wealth, and national home values remain about 30 percent below their peak.
Still, economists expect the regained wealth to contribute further to the economic recovery.
"It should boost consumption, because as people feel wealthier they tend to spend more," Saporta said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that households will go on a spending spree."