Inside Wealth

We’re Rich Again! So Why Don’t We Feel It?

Sami Sarkis | Getty Images

By many measures, Americans should be feeling flush.

The Federal Reserve reports that total household wealth in America hit an all-time high in the first quarter, to $70.4 trillion. That's even higher than $66.8 trillion in the roaring days of 2007—and nearly 50 percent higher than the down-and-out recession trough of $54.1 trillion in 2009.

The stock market, despite some recent slippage, is still close to all-time highs, filling up pension plans and stock-based pay. And housing prices are up double digits in many part of the country, adding trillions of dollars to the wealth of home-owning Americans.

Hooray, we're rich again!

Or not.

Part of the reason Americans aren't feeling all that wealth has to do with inflation and population growth. According to Moody's Analytics, that $70 trillion is still more than 10 percent below the 2007 peak when adjusted for inflation.

And that peak wealth in 2013 is spread over more Americans than in 2000.Average household wealth was $539,500 at the end of last year—37 percent below where it was in 2007, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Another reason Americans aren't feeling the wealth is the fundamental difference between income and assets. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.6 percent and broader income growth remains weak. Wealth is one thing. But income—"what's in your wallet"—is another.

Wealth Effect Impacting the Averages?
Wealth Effect Impacting the Averages?

One other factor is the reduced power of the wealth effect. Wealth effect theory states that every dollar in stock market wealth adds 2 cents to spending. Every dollar of added housing wealth is supposed to add 10 cents to consumer spending.

Yet both wealth effects have been underwhelming. Americans can't cash in on their rising housing prices as much as they used to because credit is tighter, home equity loans are tougher to get and even with the price increases, many Americans are still underwater on their homes.

The wealth effect from stocks has been highly concentrated. And that leads to the biggest reason for the elusive wealth effect—the distribution of the wealth gains.

The bulk of the recent increase in American wealth has been from the stock market. Of the recent gains in total household wealth, $1.5 trillion of the gains came from the stock market and $784 billion came from from rising house prices, according to the Fed.

The top 5 percent of Americans hold 80 percent of stocks, according to research from Ed Wolff at NYU. So housing wealth matters more to most Americans than stock prices. And homes have yet to recover as much as stocks.

Which explains why American wealth may have hit an all-time high—but Americans as a whole don't feel quite so wealthy.

By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.