Household income headlines yesterday came across as a psychic adrenaline shot for an economy aching for signs that eight years of jobs recovery means more than that, eight years of jobs recovery.
The data print read bright tidings. Median household income in 2015 was $56,516, according to the Census' Current Population Survey. In real terms, that's a 5.2% stride upward from 2014's median household income, a greater increase than any in the past 17 years. Here's how the Census illustrates the benchmark, compared with years past.
Particularly encouraging are the data points for the leading edge Millennials and the next group up, where we expect to see outsized demand over the next few years. Among 25 to 34-year olds, the earnings median spiked 5.6%, while the next batch of adults, the 35- to 44-year-olds saw the biggest jump of all: 7%. As they pay down college debt and start families, demand among these households will likely surge.
Moreover, the gains in household income show up across a broad spectrum of age ranges, earnings ranges, and geographies, a strong hint that progress is inclusive. For example, poverty rates fell, and it seems that this economic recovery is working to chip away at gender inequity, as the gap between men's and women's wages narrowed. Here, Jonathan Rothbaum, chief of the Censusa's Income Statistics Branch, spotlights some of the heartening signs of dispersion among the household data points:
Median household income in 2015 increased for many different demographic groups, including for Hispanic (6.1 percent), non-Hispanic white (4.4 percent) and black (4.1 percent) households. Although median income is highest in Asian households, their median was not statistically different between 2014 and 2015. Note that the increases (6.1 percent, 4.4 percent and 4.1 percent) are not statistically different from each other.
Households across the country experienced growth in median household income, with an increase of 6.4 percent in the West, 5.1 percent in the Midwest, 4.9 percent in the Northeast and 2.9 percent in the South. Note that when comparing these increases across regions, only the median income growth in the West is greater than in the South.
Now, what's the catch here? The smart money has been betting for some time now that household earnings--stuck in neutral for years now even as employment numbers and rates have been digging steadily out of the hole dug by The Great Recession--were due for growth. Has that time come? How strong is the economic foundation for household income growth to continue?
And, importantly for a community trying to create a thermal bridge across housing's recovery gap, from one that's serving mostly discretionary purchasers and kissing off would-be American Dream-of-homeownership seekers, what does the earnings data and its trajectory say about affordability--i.e. payment power--for buyer pools who've been priced out up to now?
Here's a couple of noteworthy points to understand even in light of the headline print on yesterday's household income data.
As Wall Street Journal staffers Nick Timiraos and Janet Adamy note, the 5.2% gain--which nets out to about $2,800 per household--is significant, but relative. Here's one of the catches, per Timiraos and Adamy:
The increase was the largest annual gain recorded since the yearly survey of incomes began in 1967, though it didn’t fully close the gap left by last decade’s recessions. Median household incomes stood 1.6% shy of the 2007 level, before the last recession took its toll, and 2.4% below the all-time high reached in 1999.
The WSJ staffers observe that as the economy tries to stabilize around full-employment and organizations seek to reverse declining productivity trends, household income growth may be harder to come by in the months and years ahead.
What's more, even though the wage gains have seemingly trickled down, the data reveal that the growing wage and income gap between the few "haves" and the many "have-lesses" is not slowing down. CNBC correspondents Katie Little and John W. Schoen write:
Households in the top 5 percent earned incomes of $214,463 or more. This number rose 3.7 percent. This group's mean, or average, household income rose to $350,870.
While this growth lagged the overall median on a percentage basis, the top 5 percent still control an outsized portion of total household income — at 22.1 percent of the total, higher than 2014's share of 21.9 percent.
Here's an illustration of that imbalance writ large:
Still, the most important take-away for us in the housing community may be in understanding how positive changes on the household earnings front impact housing demand. It may be that the effect of higher wages is already activating, as we see strong absorption rates for new for-sale offerings in the lower end of the price continuum.
Calculated Risk blog host Bill McBride looks here at the ratios of house prices to household income for insight into relative affordability trends. As usual, his analysis reveals a bright fillip of practical, actionable information. He writes, referring to his chart, using Core Logic and Case Shiller home price data tied to Census Bureau income figures through 2015:
The second graph ... uses the mean of the fourth-fifth household income (if we separate households into fifths, this is the second highest income group).
House Prices and WagesThese are key households since they are more likely to be homeowners (and home buyers). Using this group, prices are well below the bubble peak.
Bottom line, well-dispersed household income growth, if it's sustainable, is building a constructive base of increased demand for entry-level and starter homes, the kind of buyer whose played a big role in most housing recoveries past. It's truly a matter of whether developers and builders can make their operational numbers work to serve that need and make money doing it.