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A SPECIAL SECTION: Haiti, Since the January 12, 2010 Fierce Earthquake

Posted Saturday, February 19, 2011 

The New, New Rich: Wealth After the Recession

by Seth Fiegerman

provided by


For more than two decades, Diane Saatchi has worked as a luxury real estate agent in Long Island's glitzy Hampton neighborhoods, helping some of America's wealthiest men and women find their dream homes, or more likely, their second dream home. Saatchi's work has given her a front row seat to the decadent lifestyles of the country's elite, but in the last year or so, she's seen a subtle but surprising change in some of her clients.

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"I've noticed more wealthy people talking about shopping at Costco (Nasdaq: COST - News) and bragging about deals they found on Groupon," said Saatchi, who works for Saunders & Associates. "And by wealthy, I mean the kind of wealthy people who own two or three private jets."

Saatchi isn't the only one to notice these changes. Surveys in recent months have hinted at a shift in the spending habits and general lifestyles of wealthy Americans -- not just in how they shop, but in what they buy, where they live and when they can retire.

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One Nielsen study found that 40% of consumers who considered themselves "coupon enthusiasts" in 2009 lived in well-to-do households with incomes of at least $70,000 a year. Moreover, Nielsen found that it was the Americans earning six figures who spurred the growth in the coupon market during much of the recession.

At the same time, wealthier consumers developed more of an appetite for fast food, buying 24% more of it in the second quarter of 2010 than the year before, according to an American Express (NYSE: AXP - News) report, far outpacing the nation's overall 8% increase in fast food consumption.

"The wealthy are dining out less frequently, shopping less frequently and most are still continuing to make changes to their lifestyle in response to the recession," said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a luxury market research firm.

Some of these changes are far more severe than just cutting coupons. Realtors around the country have noticed an uptick in luxury rentals, hinting at a sea change in the rich deciding to rent rather than buy. And perhaps most striking of all, more than half of adults with a net worth of at least $15 million no longer consider themselves financially secure, according to a survey from Barclay's Wealth, with one in every 10 people interviewed saying they don't have enough money to retire.

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This may come as a shock to the millions of lower- and middle-class Americans who have been forced to collect unemployment benefits and rely on food stamps to get by, but yes, the recession did reach the upper class as well and many are still shaken up by it.

Danziger cites one recent study from Unity showing that 53% of the ultra-affluent, defined as the top 2% of income earners, do not think the recession is over even now, and 9% remain uncertain about it, but the $64,000 question (or I guess in this case, $64 million) is what do they have to be uncertain about?

The Recession's Impact on the Wealthy

On the surface, it would seem that the millionaires of America are thriving. The number of households worth $1 million or more actually increased by 16% between 2008 and 2010, and the top 1% of income earners still take home 20% of the nation's gross income. But in reality, the wealthy lost a far greater percentage of their assets during the recession than the rest of the country.

"High income households used to have stable incomes through recessions and booms, but that's not so anymore," said Jonathan Parker, a professor of consumer finance at Northwestern University who authored a paper on the wealth patterns of the upper class. "During this most recent recession, we saw their wealth decline very rapidly."

Between 2007 and 2008, the average U.S. household saw income decline by 2.5%, but according to Parker, the drop was much steeper for higher income earners. The top 1% of households experienced an 8% decline and the super rich, or the top 0.01%, saw their fortunes decline by 13%. This may not put them on the bread line in the way that a similar decline for a poorer family would, but it's enough to put some wealthy households on edge all the same.

Parker notes that this is largely due to the wealthy becoming increasingly invested in stocks and assets like real estate, which in turn makes them more "cyclically exposed" to the ups and downs of the market as a whole.

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Yet the same factors that caused the wealthy to lose their wealth at a faster pace in the early days of the recession will also enable them to grow their wealth more quickly as the economy continues to improve, driving up stocks and housing prices. While Parker does not have data past 2008, he expects that high income earners began to see a rebound sometime in 2010.

Even with that rebound though, Parker predicts that their lifestyles may shift noticeably for the foreseeable future, as the Great Recession, more than any other in recent memory, showed the rich just how fragile their wealth can be.

"I do expect there will be a moderate change as the recession makes them a little more cautious in their spending," Parker said. But how long will this change actually last?

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By the end of 2010, the luxury goods market began to bounce back after declining during the recession, in what was seen as a sign that the wealthy had started to spend again, after taking some time off to mind their finances. At the end of the day though, their reasons for doing so might not have been much different than consumers of more modest means. They just missed the joy of spending.

"People felt bad spending money on luxury during the recession, and even the rich pulled back," said Alison Paul, retail sector leader for Deloitte, a consulting firm that tracks consumer spending. "Now the rich are tired of being frugal. There's all this pent-up demand from not spending and they're back to shopping."

But just because the rich are spending again doesn't mean they have abandoned their frugality altogether.

"We are certainly seeing people stay in high-end lodging and use first class airlines and go to high-end restaurants," said Erin Ryder, a spokesperson for American Express. "But at the same time, they are also curbing their spending in other ways, spending more time at home so they can go out and afford these luxuries so they don't have to worry so much about money."

Likewise, Saatchi, the real estate agent, has noticed an increasing number of her clients focusing on the value of the deals they get on luxury homes rather than on spending excess amounts just for the sake of bragging rights.

"Overpaying and spending a lot is not in vogue," she said. "Now the focus is not on the house so much as on the deal. People want to feel they got a big discount on the asking price and a good value for the money."

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In fact, this change may go above and beyond the devastating effects of the recession. According to Danziger, from Unity Marketing, the 2000s were a "luxury boom," as wealthy Americans proved quite generous in their spending. Now, many households have purchased all they need and are comfortable being more conservative with their purchases. Or as she puts it, "after you've bought ten kinds of Gucci bags, how many more do you really need?"

Danziger now worries that America may face a "luxury drought" in the coming decade in part because newly wealthy households, which are traditionally the loosest with their money, carry lessons of the recession for years to come.

"For any of us to assume younger affluents are not looking at price tags is crazy. They have the tools now to evaluate value and they are going to flash sale sites and looking for bargains," she said. "I think the luxury brands will really feel the pain of losing this market that was once very vibrant for them."

Published February 15, 2011

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