May 4, 2020

This is how it happens that boats that were once worth tens of thousands of dollars are set adrift by owners who can no longer afford to pay slip fees.

The increasing concentration of the ownership of wealth/assets in the top 10% has an under-appreciated consequence : when only the top 10% can afford to buy assets, that unleashes an almost karmic payback for the narrowing of ownership, a.k.a. soaring wealth and income inequality: assets crash.

Most of you are aware that the bottom 90% own very little other than their labor (tradeable only in full employment) and modest amounts of home equity that are highly vulnerable to a collapse of the housing bubble. (The same can be said of China's middle class, only more so, as 75% of China's household wealth is in real estate, more than double the percentage of wealth held in housing in U.S. households.)

As the chart illustrates, the top 10% own 84% of all stocks, over 90% of all business equity and over 80% of all non-home real estate. The concentration of ownership of assets such as vintage autos, collectibles, art, pleasure craft and second homes in the top 10% is likely even greater.

The more expensive the asset, the greater the concentration of ownership, as the top 5% own roughly 2/3 of all wealth, the top 1% own 40% and the top 0.1% own 20%. In other words, the more costly the asset, the narrower the ownership. (Total number of US households is about 128 million, so the top 5% is around 6 million households and the top 1% is 1.2 million households.)

This means the pool of potential buyers is relatively small, even if we include global wealth owners.

Since price is set on the margins, and assets like houses are illiquid, then we can anticipate all the markets for assets owned solely by the wealthy to go bidless --yachts, collectibles, vacation real estate--because the pool of buyers is small, and if that pool gets cautious due to a drop in net worth/unearned income, there won't be any buyers except at the margins, at incredible discounts.

As we know, in a neighborhood of 100 homes currently valued ar $1 million each, when a desperate seller accepts $500,000, the value of the other 99 homes immediately drops to $500,000.

Since few of the current bubble-era asset valuations are supported by actual income fundamentals, then the sales price boils down to a very small number of potential buyers and what they're willing to pay.

Houses have a value based on rent, of course, but rents will drop very quickly for the same reason: prices are set on the margins. The most desperate landlords will drop rents and re-set the rental market from the margins. If demand plummets (which it will as people can no longer afford rents in hot urban markets once they lose their jobs), then vacancies will soar and rents will crash as a few desperate landlords will take $1200/month instead of $2500/month.

Due to the multi-year building boom of multi-family buildings in hot job markets (which inevitably leads to an over-supply once the boom ends), there are now hundreds of vacancies where there were once only a few dozen, and thousands where there were previously only hundreds.

As millions of wait staff, bartenders, etc. who made good money in tips find their jobs have vanished, all the urban hotspots will see mass out-migration: Seattle, Portland, the S.F. Bay Area, L.A., NYC, Denver, etc. as demand for rentals will evaporate and rents will be set on the margins by the most desperate landlords. Everyone holding out for the previous bubble-era rent will have $0 income as their units are vacant.

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