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A picture of global household wealth in three charts

Duncan Bay
A household-level look at the economy yields a macro perspective.
By Credit Suisse
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A picture becomes more clear when it has more dots per inch: the more data, the higher the quality—and details that were once fuzzy come into focus. Like a high-resolution photo, the Credit Suisse Wealth Report takes a granular look at the assets of households in 173 countries, with researchers using the best household-level data currently available to compose the clearest possible picture of global wealth.

The report offers a global perspective on the trends and habits of the world’s households, highlighting where we hold our wealth, which countries have the poorest citizens, which count as the wealthiest, and the growing global divide between both ends of the spectrum. Like a composite image featuring portraits of millions of individuals, surprising macro trends emerge when you zoom out.

First, the process

Assembling and analyzing this data requires a three-step process. The most reliable source of information is household balance sheet data, which is available for 23 countries. Data from a variety of other sources was used to fill in gaps: 1) Establish average level of wealth for each country using household balance sheet data. 2) Construct the pattern of wealth holdings within nations; figure out wealth distribution. 3) Use information from Forbes rich lists to adjust the picture of wealth ownership in the top tail of distribution.

How wealth is changing

Broadly speaking, wealth falls into three categories: financial wealth, which includes cash, stocks and other financial instruments; non-financial wealth, composed primarily of real estate; and debt. Plotting these levels over time shows the startling effect of the 2008 financial crisis on household wealth. As stated in the report (pdf, page 130), “While the financial crisis of 2007-2008 is receding into the past, it was a landmark event for household wealth, bringing an abrupt decline in most personal fortunes and a change in household behavior and wealth performance in most countries.”

Where wealth is scarce

Wealth is not held evenly across regions. Africa and India have the highest proportion of population in the bottom rungs; North America the lowest. The bar chart holds two surprises: First, the gap between Europe and North America. As the report explains (pdf, pg 120), “Europe is a less homogeneous region than North America. As well as high-wealth countries in the North, it includes countries with much lower wealth in the East and South.”

The second unexpected finding: Even in North America there are many people occupying the bottom echelon of the wealth pyramid. As the report states (pdf, pg 120), “this highlights the fact that there are significant numbers of low-wealth citizens in high-income countries, including many whose debts exceed their assets.” These numbers reflect the availability of credit, including student loans, as well as the number of young adults who live separately from their parents. Overall, age, education, and marital status are the strongest predictors of wealth; young, uneducated single mothers have the highest chance of falling in the lowest decile.

Where wealth has accumulated

The image flips when we examine the numbers of adults in the top 10% of global wealth by region, and some interesting contrasts between regions become evident. It’s clear that in developing economies the vast majority of the population continue to live on very little compared to their European and North American counterparts, where the share of the population that has wealth over $100,000 is 25% and 38% respectively (pdf, pg 137).

What rich looks like

Global figures show where wealth has accumulated. But the cost of living varies by region, and with it the amount of money required to reach the top decile. Here, North America completely skews the picture, particularly in the top 1%.

However, as a ratio, the gap in North America between the top 10% and the top 1% is not far off the gap in India or Africa, which might provide insight into current conversations about income inequality, even in developed nations like the United States. In fact, data from the report suggest evidence of growing wealth inequality both within and between countries.

This article was produced on behalf of Credit Suisse by the Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

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