Personal Finance

Who benefits when the stock market goes up? Probably not you

Key Points
  • Despite the coronavirus recession, the stock market has been doing surprisingly well over the last few months.
  • That's not likely to help the people struggling most amid the pandemic. 
  • Here's who actually benefits when the market rises. 
The stock market is doing pretty well amid the coronavirus recession. You probably won't benefit.

The stock market has proved freakishly immune to the economic suffering inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, posting some of its largest gains in history even as members in 1 in 2 American households have lost income.   

Yet the fact that the market appears disconnected from the pain of average Americans makes more sense when you consider that it's literally disconnected from average Americans. 

More than 80% of all U.S. stocks are owned by the richest 10% of U.S. households, according to calculations by Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University and the author of A Century of Wealth in America.

"The vast majority of stocks is held by the wealthy, who are and will be weathering the pandemic just fine," Wolff said. "They will continue to save and invest their money in the market, which will buoy up the value of stocks." 

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Meanwhile, many Americans will be financially devastated by this recession.

Just look at what happened in the 2008 financial crisis: Between 2007 and 2010, the median U.S. household's net worth sank by more than 40%, according to calculations by Wolff. "And it still hasn't recovered," he said. 

Indeed, the median U.S. household had a net worth of $78,000 in 2016. That's down from $119,000 in 2007. 

The coronavirus recession will trigger another collapse in wealth for middle-class families, while the rich just get richer, Wolff said.

Goldman Sachs MD on racial inequality email to colleagues
Goldman Sachs MD on racial inequality email to colleagues

That's in large part because of who's invested in the stock market, one of the most powerful engines for wealth accumulation in the U.S. A $100,000 investment in the S&P 500 at the end of 2007 would be worth around $265,000 today, according to data provided by Morningstar Direct. 

Here's who benefits, and who misses out, when the market goes up. 

(The calculations are based on data from 2016, the most recent year for which it was available.) 

High earners  

Just around 40% of American households with incomes between $22,000 and $49,000 a year have money invested in the stock market, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Around 60% of households making between $50,000 and $90,000 a year own stocks. 

Among those bringing in more than $90,000 a year? Nearly 90% are invested in the market. 

Those with a high net worth 

More than 90% of American homes with a net worth over $580,000 own stocks, Boston College found. 

By comparison, among U.S. households with a net worth below $16,000, just 8% own stocks. 

White households

The racial imbalance in stock ownership is stark.

More than 57% of white households own stocks, compared with 30% of Black households, according to the researchers at Boston College. 

And the average white household in the U.S. owns around $230,000 in stocks, compared to $17,000 for Black households, Wolff found. 

Meanwhile, just a little more than 1 in 4 Hispanic households are invested in the stock market.