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The Recovering Financial Health of Americans

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Financial Health

Financial Health

This infographic is available as a poster.

The Recovering Financial Health of Americans

Did you spend less and save more due to the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you’re not alone.

Overall, the percent of Americans with strong financial health increased by 2% from 2020-2021. This was largely due to the aforementioned behavioral changes, along with government interventions like stimulus payments that helped Americans pay off their debt.

However, the economic recovery has not been even for everyone. This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments looks at which Americans have seen the biggest increase in their financial health, broken down by race, household income, gender, and location.

What is Financial Health?

Before we dive into the results, let’s take a look at what financial health means. It is measured using eight indicators within four broad categories:

  • Spend: Spend less than income and pay bills on time
  • Save: Have sufficient liquid savings and long-term savings
  • Borrow: Have manageable debt and a prime credit score
  • Plan: Have appropriate insurance and plan ahead financially

People are considered to be financially healthy when they have strong scores across all of the above indicators.

Changes in Financial Health

In order to measure financial health, the Financial Health Network surveyed 6,403 respondents in April and May 2021. Below are the changes in financially healthy people, measured in percentage points (p.p.), from 2020-2021. Statistically significant responses, where the authors are 95% confident that the observed results are real and not an error caused by randomness, are marked with an asterisk.

GroupChange in Financially Healthy People (2020-2021)
Overall2 p.p*
Black9 p.p.*
Latinx4 p.p.*
Asian American11 p.p.*
White0 p.p.
< $30,000 Household income2 p.p.*
$30,000 - $59,999 Household income2 p.p.
$60,000 - $99,999 Household income2 p.p.
> $100,000 Household income1 p.p.
Men4 p.p.*
Women1 p.p.
Northeast2 p.p.
Midwest3 p.p.
South5 p.p.*
West-1 p.p.

With an 11 percentage point jump, Asian Americans saw the biggest increase and are now the most financially healthy of any race. The increase was due to an absence in major employment disruptions, growth in employment, and generous unemployment benefits for those who did experience disruptions.

In addition, the proportion of Black people considered financially healthy nearly doubled due to two primary factors: receipt of stimulus payments and reduced spending. This helped Black families to build up savings, pay bills on time, and improve their credit scores.

While men experienced an increase in financial health, women were disproportionately affected by employment disruptions and childcare responsibilities. For instance, women were more than twice as likely as men not to work due to childcare responsibilities in 2021. Meanwhile, men reported bigger improvements in their liquid and long-term savings than women.

People with a household income under $30,000 saw slight improvements in their financial health, primarily due to unemployment benefits and reduced spending. However, lower-income households saw a significant reduction in the “planning ahead financially” indicator, signifying this could be a temporary improvement.

A Current Snapshot

While it is primarily marginalized groups that saw the biggest improvements over the last year, large gaps in financial health remain. Here is the current percentage of people who are financially healthy for each group.

Financial Health

The starkest differences are by income level. People with a household income under $30,000 are nearly five times less likely to be financially healthy than those who have a household income over $100,000.

However, gaps occur across race, gender, and location as well:

  • The proportion of Black and Latinx people who are financially healthy is significantly lower than that of Asian Americans and White people.
  • Despite an increase in female breadwinners in recent years, women are much less likely than men to have strong financial health.
  • Of all regions, Americans living in the South are the least likely to be financially healthy.

At an aggregate level, only one-third of Americans are considered to be financially healthy.

A Continued Recovery?

While it appears that government relief efforts have helped traditionally marginalized groups, it remains unclear what will happen now that these programs are winding down. Not only that, large gaps in financial health still exist. The Financial Health Network recommends policies tailored to help close these gaps, such as universal child care and policies that reduce the disparities in educational opportunity.

Of course, government programs, macroeconomic conditions, and individual behaviors will all play a role in Americans’ financial health going forward. If you were fortunate enough to spend less during the pandemic, do you plan to continue saving more? Your actions could help you build a solid foundation to manage expenses, while also planning ahead for long-term needs.

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Markets in a Minute

Explainer: A Visual Introduction to Fed Tapering

Broadly speaking, Fed tapering is the reversal of quantitative easing. We show the history of Federal Reserve bond tapering and how it works.

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Fed Tapering

Explainer: A Visual Introduction to Fed Tapering

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The Federal Reserve began tapering its large-scale asset purchases in November 2021, a move likely influenced by:

  • Rising inflation
  • Improving unemployment
  • Strong U.S. GDP growth

More than $4 trillion in capital was injected into the economy through quantitative easing (QE), over the course of the pandemic, inflation is at 40-year highs, and unemployment levels hover below 4%.

As Fed policy responds to a recovering U.S. economy, this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows how Fed tapering works, and its impact on the economy.

How Fed Tapering Works

Fed tapering is the unwinding of the Federal Reserve’s large-scale asset purchases.

After the 2008 financial crisis, large scale asset purchases were introduced for the first time to inject liquidity into the market and help restore confidence. During the pandemic, they were introduced once more, at a rate of $120 billion per month.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The U.S. central bank buys government bonds typically in the form of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
  2. This influx of demand leads to a rise in these bond prices and their yields (interest rates) fall.
  3. As this lowers the interest rate on the government bonds, what often follows is lower interest rates on loans for households and businesses.
  4. Lower rates stimulate spending.
  5. When the economy is running well, the bank may unwind asset purchases to help keep inflation low, otherwise known as Fed tapering.
  6. Notably, Fed tapering and QE is hotly debated among economists. Those in favor say QE is a critical tool for stimulating the economy. Those against say that it inflates asset prices and contributes to inequality.

    Inflation Levels

    The consumer price index (CPI) rose 7% in December, the highest rise since 1982.
    Fed Tapering

    Given this increase, Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Jason Furman, former chief economist for President Obama say that the Fed didn’t taper soon enough. Other financial heavyweights suggest this is just the beginning of a hawkish approach to inflation.

    So how does Fed tapering impact inflation?

    By tapering asset purchases, the amount of money circulating in the economy that can be used to borrow to buy a house or car is reduced. According to this theory, when there is less spending, inflation will gradually cool down.

    Fed Tapering and Interest Rates

    The Federal Reserve has outlined that it will taper asset purchases before it increases targets on short-term interest rates. By current estimates, interest rates could rise in March.

    However, if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, the Federal Reserve can shift direction. This gives the Fed time to assess how the market and economy will react before it raises rates.

    To prevent the taper tantrum of 2013, which led to market volatility and U.S. dollar appreciation, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell has stated that the Fed must carefully communicate the sequence of QE and tapering to prevent any fear in the market.

    When Doves Cry

    Like the 1940s, the rise in money growth over the pandemic has been driven by government deficits. By contrast, leading up to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or during the 1950s and 60s, the private sector spurred loan growth.

    Monetary inflation can impact consumer prices and financial asset inflation.

    As CPI and financial markets have soared over the pandemic, investors will be watching closely to see how Fed tapering impacts future monetary policy.

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Markets in a Minute

Ranked: Real Estate Returns by Property Sector (2012-2021)

From residential to retail, are there patterns in real estate return on investment? We rank them by sector over the last decade to find out.

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Real Estate Return on Investment by Sector

For the ninth year in a row, Americans say real estate is the best long-term investment.

However, what might be less clear to the average investor are the different types of investments available within the real estate sector, and how they compare. Real estate return on investment within property sectors has historically been uneven, and 2021 was no exception. While residential property soared, office real estate has performed relatively poorly.

Are there any patterns in the top performers over time?

This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments ranks real estate return on investment by sector over the last decade.

Sector Returns Over Time

We used data from the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts to show real estate return on investment by year. A real estate investment trust is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-producing real estate.

Here’s how total returns stack up by property sector, sorted from highest to lowest return in 2021.

 2012201320142015201620172018201920202021
Self Storage19.9%9.5%31.4%40.7%-8.1%3.7%2.9%13.7%12.9%57.6%
Residential6.9%-5.4%40.0%17.1%4.5%6.6%3.1%30.9%-10.7%45.8%
Industrial31.3%7.4%21.0%2.6%30.7%20.6%-2.5%48.7%12.2%45.4%
Retail26.7%1.9%27.6%4.6%1.0%-4.8%-5.0%10.7%-25.2%41.9%
Diversified12.2%4.3%27.2%-0.5%10.3%-0.1%-12.5%24.1%-21.8%20.5%
Infrastructure29.9%4.8%20.2%3.7%10.0%35.4%7.0%42.0%7.3%18.6%
Timber37.1%7.9%8.6%-7.0%8.3%21.9%-32.0%42.0%10.3%16.4%
Mortgage19.9%-2.0%17.9%-8.9%22.9%19.8%-2.5%21.3%-18.8%14.7%
Office14.2%5.6%25.9%0.3%13.2%5.3%-14.5%31.4%-18.4%13.4%
Healthcare20.4%-7.1%33.3%-7.3%6.4%0.9%7.6%21.2%-9.9%7.7%
Lodging/Resorts12.5%27.2%32.5%-24.4%24.3%7.2%-12.8%15.7%-23.6%6.3%

Data for 2021 is as of November 30. Specialty and data center sectors are excluded as this data was only available from 2015 onwards.

Self Storage real estate was the best performing sector for the last two years, and also performed well during the 2015 market correction. It tends to perform well when people’s lives are disrupted, such as when they’re moving for a new job, schooling, or due to marriage or divorce. In the case of COVID-19, self storage got an extra boost from people wanting more space in their home amid remote work.

Timber and Industrial real estate have been in the top three performing sectors for at least half of the last decade. Industrial real estate, a category including properties that enable the production, storage, and distribution of goods, has seen increased demand due to the rise of e-commerce. One estimate says the U.S. could require an extra billion square feet of warehouse space by 2025.

On the other hand, the Lodging/Resort sector has frequently been one of the bottom performers. A form of discretionary spending, hotel stays may be one of the first expenses people cut when the economy is in a downturn. This weakness was compounded by lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is a Good Return on Investment in Real Estate?

In light of the above data, investors may be wondering which sectors are “the best” to invest in.

The short answer: it depends. Here’s how real estate return on investment has varied within sectors, using the minimum, median, and maximum returns. We’ve sorted the data from the highest to lowest standard deviation, a measure of risk.

Real Estate Return on Investment

While Timber and Self Storage have delivered strong returns, they have also been relatively risky, with some of the widest variations in returns.

Industrials have seen the highest median return, and their risk is about middle of the pack. The second highest median return goes to the Mortgage sector, which earns income from the interest on mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. The mortgage sector has seen less risk than most other real estate categories, at least in the last decade.

For investors with a lower risk tolerance, Infrastructure may be a sector to consider. These properties had a positive return on investment for all of the last 10 years, and had the lowest risk of any property sector.

Patterns Within Real Estate Return on Investment

By looking at historical patterns, investors can consider how economic conditions may affect real estate return on investment.

Sectors associated with discretionary spending, such as Retail and Lodging, have tended to perform poorly during downturns. On the other hand, Self Storage and Residential properties have historically been more resilient during the 2015 selloff and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Future trends may also offer food for thought. For example, as the population ages and the government puts an increased focus on critical facilities, could the Healthcare and Infrastructure sectors be poised for growth?

Whichever sector(s) an investor focuses in on, real estate serves as an alternative investment that can help diversify any portfolio.

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