IRS wealth statistics paint a fascinating picture of the wealthiest Americans—but oddly a picture that diverges from what the mainstream media depicts.
In this blog post, therefore, I’m going to describe the most recent IRS wealth statistics on the top quarter of one percent—they’ve been available for a couple of months—and point out some of most interesting features that pop out.
Note: At the end of this blog post, I provide a link you can use to grab the IRS Excel spreadsheet that holds the data.
Insight #1: IRS Wealth Statistics Diverge from Popular Thinking
A first insight? The IRS’s wealth statistics diverge—significantly—from the wealth statistics supplied by other popular sources including the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.
Sources like the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances suggest that to join the top one percent, a family needs roughly $6 million in net worth.
But take a look at the table below. The table breaks roughly the top quarter percent of individual Americans (so individuals, not families) into six wealth brackets and then gives each bracket’s mean net worth. Note that the IRS statistics say that the mean net worth of the first wealth bracket equals roughly $3 million. Way below the Federal Reserve’s value.
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Net Worth|
|Under $5 Million||102,954||$3,057,895|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||325,371||$6,894,697|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||103,903||$13,368,603|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||37,596||$29,345,010|
|$50 Million or more||14,369||$125,745,772|
Further, note that the mean measure of a person’s net worth should exceed the median by a large value. (The Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, for example, estimates that the median net worth of the top ten percent equals roughly $2.4 million while the mean net worth of the same group equals roughly $5.3 million.)
This seems interesting to me. And I wonder if the IRS’s statistics, which are based on nearly 18,000 estate tax returns filed by the wealthiest Americans, give rawer but more realistic numbers than the Federal Reserve’s survey, which samples around 6,000 families to generalize about a 126 million households, does.
Insight #2: Low Borrowing Levels
A little detour that’s probably sort of interesting…
The IRS wealth statistics suggest the top quarter a percent make little personal use of debt relative to their net worth.
As shown below, except for the first wealth bracket (where personal borrowing equals roughly 45% of net worth), personal debts run 10% or less of net worth. That’s interesting.
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Debts & Mortgages|
|Under $5 Million||88,466||$1,383,017|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||232,032||$498,009|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||80,269||$862,088|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||28,766||$2,081,520|
|$50 Million or more||12,756||$5,123,236|
Low leverage obviously dials down the financial risk someone bears…
Maybe getting or staying wealthy requires a strong personal balance sheet?
Insight #3: Relatively Modest Homes
An interesting observation, at least to anyone who spends time watching the HGTV network…
The wealthy—especially the super-wealthy—make relatively modest investments in their principal residence, as shown in the table below:
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Personal Residence|
|Under $5 Million||63,552||$869,918|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||246,977||$872,470|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||78,249||$1,208,629|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||30,661||$1,781,547|
|$50 Million or more||10,603||$3,598,604|
Now, obviously, the wealthy own very nice homes. The first two wealth brackets suggest mean home prices approaching $900,000. In comparison, the most recent Census Bureau data says that as of September 2017, the mean U.S. home price equaled roughly $385,000 (click here for link). Big difference there…
But the homes represent relatively modest percentages of their net worth.
Further, the richer someone becomes, the less (proportionally) he or she spends on a house.
Finally, one other observation… A noticeable chunk of each wealth bracket doesn’t even own a residence. (You compare the counts of people within a wealth bracket to the homeowners within a bracket to see this.)
Insight #4: Big Cash Balances Common
According to IRS wealth statistics, the wealthiest Americans hold large cash balances, as shown in the table below.
The amount shown, for many of the wealth brackets, approaches 10% of net worth.
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Cash Holdings|
|Under $5 Million||95,800||$283,079|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||306,094||$688,138|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||102,085||$1,477,553|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||37,463||$2,556,336|
|$50 Million or more||14,240||$8,651,264|
I found the high cash balances curious at first. But the more I think about them, the more they make sense.
Big cash balances allow someone to take advantage of unusual opportunities and to more comfortably deal with rough financial patches.
Note: I’m not going to provide a table—this blog post is going to end up way too long—but the wealthy also tend to hold large amounts of bonds: municipal bonds, Treasuries, corporation bonds and bond funds, and so forth. That’s maybe another way they dial down financial risk… and dial up liquidity.
Insight #5: Middle Class Retirement Accounts
Curiously, the wealthiest Americans hold relatively modest balances in their retirement accounts.
In fact, most of the wealthy hold no more in their retirement accounts than many middle class and upper-middle class folks hope to accumulate.
And then, equally curious, a significant percentage of the wealthy completely skip the retirement account option. The table below provides the details.
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Retirement Balances|
|Under $5 Million||78,980||$684,477|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||243,107||$1,235,904|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||77,289||$1,480,327|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||26,617||$1,819,814|
|$50 Million or more||10,229||$4,441,588|
Can I just say here what everybody should be thinking? Skipping the retirement accounts isn’t smart. These accounts are an even better deal for the wealthy.
Insight #6: Thomas Stanley Was Right
You may remember, perhaps even have read, Thomas Stanley’s popular book, The Millionaire Next Door. Stanley become famous for pointing out the rich typically live in middle class neighborhoods and drive American-made cars.
The IRS wealth statistics nicely mesh with Stanley’s research.
The table below reports on the dollar values of the other personal assets held by each wealth bracket. (Note that other real estate like a second home and art aren’t included.)
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Other Assets|
|Under $5 Million||92,700||$135,674|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||283,004||$259,788|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||96,990||$392,082|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||35,923||$689,642|
|$50 Million or more||14,019||$2,675,369|
The table above shows big numbers relative to the typical, middle-class household. That household earns on average about $60,000 annually according to government reports. But dig into the details and think in relative terms and things all sort of make sense and jive with Stanley’s work.
For the first wealth bracket, once you allocate a chunk of the funds to furniture and a couple of nice cars, you use up most of the money.
As you look at the higher brackets, yes, you see bigger amounts spent on these other assets.
But even in that top wealth bracket where these other assets total nearly $2.7 million, the IRS wealth statistics suggest the wealthy don’t spend the way television and films depict. The mean value simply isn’t big enough to include items like yachts or private jets or an eight stall garage full of super cars.
Note: I don’t have room for it here, but the wealthy do seem to splurge on one thing: art. In fact, the wealthy can spend as much on art as they do on other “stuff.” Download the IRS spreadsheet via the link below for details.
Insight #7: No Mutual Funds, No Passive Index Investments
Something that probably doesn’t really make financial sense for the wealthy?…
In spite of the clear superiority of passive investments like index funds, and then also the diversifying power and massive efficiency of mutual funds, the IRS wealth statistics indicate that the wealthy don’t emphasize passive investments or mutual funds.
The typical mutual fund holdings appear in the table below:
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Mutual Fund Balances|
|Under $5 Million||32,473||$95,864|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||145,332||$223,536|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||48,814||$343,569|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||19,644||$551,568|
|$50 Million or more||6,943||$1,748,380|
Weird, right? Only a minority of wealthy investors use stock mutual funds. And when they do use them, they don’t use them very much.
Insight #8: Active Small Business Investors
Okay, the IRS wealth statistics provide a bunch more details on the financial profiles of the wealthy.
You won’t be surprised to hear they own a little real estate in general. Or that they tend to invest in more exotic investments like limited partnerships, hedge funds, venture capital funds and municipal bonds.
But the other thing—maybe the really unique thing—they invest in appears to be private businesses.
The table below, for example, shows the details of these individuals’ investments in closely held corporations. Note that the table shows a pretty big chunk of each wealth bracket’s members have on average roughly a third of their wealth tied up in a closely held corporation.
|Wealth Bracket||Individuals||Mean Private Corporate Holdings|
|Under $5 Million||29,678||$930,352|
|$5 Million to under $10 Million||102,692||$1,689,207|
|$10 Million to under $20 Million||44,724||$3,779,313|
|$20 Million to under $50 Million||22,179||$8,306,461|
|$50 Million or more||8,384||$39,879,890|
And then here’s where this gets really interesting, I think. The same sort of active private business investment shows up a couple of other places in the data too.
Each of the wealth brackets, for example, also shows a big chunk of individuals with on average a big investment in un-incorporated businesses like a professional service firm partnership.
And each of the wealth brackets shows a chunk of individuals with on average a big investment in a farm, which is another type of small business obviously.
The details appear a little fuzzy. Only someone very foolish draws hard conclusions—and then shares them in a blog post. Or a comment to a blog post.
But it appears that a majority of these wealthy individuals have a chunk—on average a big chunk—of their wealth in a closely held corporation, a business partnership, or a farm.
Furthermore, the wealthier an individual is, the more likely he or she owns an interest in a private company.
You can’t say that everyone who owns their own business joins the top one percent or top quarter of a percent. (Roughly 28 million small businesses exist in the U.S.) But the IRS data makes one wonder if most of the people who join the ranks of the truly wealthy own an interest in a successful small business.
Note: Another big chunk of each wealth bracket’s money resides in publicly traded stock. This chunk may report on investors who’ve successfully managed active investment portfolios. But this chunk may also report on top managers and technology company employees who’ve built wealth through their employer’s stock.
Looking at the finances of people who have more money that you or I do can be a little unsettling. If we’re not careful, the financial voyeurism can also foster a sense of ingratitude. That’s not good…
But can I suggest a little bit of looking is okay? I see three helpful insights we glean from looking at how others run their finances.
First, I am pretty sure many in both the news and entertainment media exaggerate the affluence, consumption and the financial sophistication of the top one percent or top quarter percent.
Second, the robust personal balance sheets and (relatively speaking) modest consumption of the rich provide a blueprint that everybody can use to improve their finances.
Third, and finally, you ought to know that it seems very possible the way most people end up in the top quarter a percent (and maybe the top one percent too?) is through ownership of a small business. Maybe you or a child or grandchild will want to do that…
Other Resources You May Find Useful
Downloadable IRS Wealth Statistics (Note: For this blog post, I calculated the mean values shown above by dividing the dollar values shown for each asset or net worth amount provided by the number of individuals within a category.)
And then these blog posts about the last IRS wealth statistics study might be interesting, too…
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