FORTUNE -- The wealth of Americans reached a nominal record high during the summer, the Federal Reserve reported Monday. Driven largely by surging stock prices and rising home values, net worth in the U.S. rose 2.6% to $77.3 trillion from July through September. That represents the highest level since such records started to be kept in 1945.
This is positive news, but likely only for the richest Americans. The improvement masks the fact that wealth is unevenly distributed among the affluent, who tend to own stocks. For most less-affluent Americans, their biggest asset is their home. And while property prices have been recovering, many homeowners were disproportionately hurt by the 2007 crash of the housing market; it may be a while before they feel any wealthier.
Just take a look at the market for rentals: It used to be that those who couldn't afford to buy would rent. Now, however, more Americans are finding that renting isn't a more affordable alternative, according to a study released Monday by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
A shortage of apartments, especially cheap ones, has been an ongoing problem for years. The recession made it worse, as record foreclosures led to an increased demand for rentals of an already limited pool of properties, driving prices even higher. Demand also came from many who couldn't get approved for a mortgage, as banks tightened lending standards.
True, the housing crash created a glut of empty homes ripe for renting. Remarkably, however, "soaring demand was more than enough to absorb the 2.7 million single-family homes that flooded into the rental market after 2007," the study found.
Add to that more than a decade's worth of stagnant incomes, and it's easy to see why New York City political activist Jimmy McMillan proclaimed during the state's 2010 governor's race (over and over, mind you), "The rent is too damn high."
In 1960, about one in four renters nationwide spent more than 30% of their income on housing, the traditional measure of affordability. Today, one in two are cost-burdened.
The squeeze has been felt most by renters who make less than $15,000 a year. But middle-income Americans make up the biggest increase among renters feeling the pinch. The share of cost-burdened renters with incomes between $30,000 and $44,999 was 44 % in 2011, up 11 percentage points from 2001. And the share with incomes of $45,000 to 74,999 was 19%, up 9 percentage points during the same period.
"Incomes just aren't keeping up," says Eric Belsky, director of Harvard's joint center for housing studies. He adds the trend will get worse in the coming years before it gets better.
Throughout the economic recovery, housing experts thought higher prices for rentals was a positive sign. The hope was that renting would eventually become too expensive and it would make more financial sense to buy. While that might be true, and new home sales have been rising, it's hard to see how many more renters can sock up enough savings for a down payment to buy when more are spending a bigger share of their income on rent.
Renters are missing out on one of the cheapest times to buy. And as more are finding it harder to pay rent, they're missing out on years of building equity for themselves and their families.
A new study refutes the idea that a "global savings glut" caused the financial crisis.
FORTUNE -- You would think that having an extra $70 trillion dollars lying around would be a good thing. But then NPR had to go and ruin that.
Back in mid-2008, when the financial crisis was still gaining its legs, the popular radio show This American Life, which is broadcast on National Public Radio, aired an episode MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Dec 2, 2013 1:06 PM ET
Where are the bankers involved with JPMorgan's dubious mortgage deals? At JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, and other Wall Street firms.Stephen Gandel, senior editor - Nov 27, 2013 5:00 AM ET
CEO of Goldman Sachs says 2008 and its aftermath made him think about quitting, but ended up making him a better person.
FORTUNE -- Lloyd Blankfein says the financial crisis was, for him, a period of personal growth.
Millions of Americas were facing foreclosure. Many, many more lost their jobs. Blankfein had to face stinging public criticism of his firm.
The Goldman Sachs CEO, speaking at an industry conference on Tuesday, said there MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Nov 13, 2013 1:42 PM ET
In a new filing, the bank reiterated that it's not worried about future legal expenses.
FORTUNE -- Morgan Stanley is either the cleanest bank on Wall Street, or it's living in denial.
Talk of JPMorgan Chase's $13 billion settlement has dramatically upped the expectations of what banks may pay to put the financial crisis behind them. On Thursday, in a regulatory filing, Goldman Sachs (GS) estimated it may spend $4 billion more MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Nov 8, 2013 5:00 AM ET
In the Fed's worst case scenario test, the nation's unemployment rate leaps to 11.3%, house prices fall by 25%, and the Dow Jones industrial average plunges nearly 50%.Stephen Gandel, senior editor - Nov 1, 2013 2:18 PM ET
The Wells Fargo wagon is pulling into profit town. It won't stay for long, though.Stephen Gandel, senior editor - Nov 1, 2013 12:43 PM ET
Two new studies find preferential treatment for banks with political ties to the Treasury Department.
FORTUNE -- Move over "too big." There's a new knock on the mega banks: "Too connected to fail."
Two studies published in the past few weeks tackle the issue of whether big banks get special privileges because of their connections to top regulators and Washington officials.
Both studies focus on the early days of the financial crisis. The MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Oct 28, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Some are saying it was extortion. Others are saying it was unfair. But Jamie Dimon, the head of the U.S.'s largest bank, knows what he is doing.
FORTUNE -- A lot of people are questioning whether JPMorgan Chase's reported fine of $13 billion to settle claims that it misled investors in mortgage bonds is excessive. It would, after all, be the largest settlement any single bank has ever paid to regulators.
But MOREStephen Gandel, senior editor - Oct 21, 2013 3:40 PM ET
With a reported $13 billion settlement, JPMorgan has put the rest of the banking industry at risk of further government attacks, and it has raised the bar for potential fines from the big banks.
By Cyrus Sanati
FORTUNE -- JPMorgan's reported $13 billion settlement with U.S. authorities over shady investment practices sets a precedent that could have ghastly consequences for the bank, as well as for its main rivals. In rolling MOREOct 21, 2013 10:22 AM ET
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