Stocks are high but investor numbers are low

New highs in the U.S. stock market are certainly good news — for those who own stocks. The bad news is, those who own stocks are only a small part of total U.S. households. The investment class in the United States is small, and it’s not getting bigger.

According to the latest Gallup poll of American households, only 54 percent own stocks, down from 62 percent before the financial crisis. And many of the households only own small amounts of stock.

New York University economist Edward Wolff conducted a careful study of stock ownership in 2013 and found that 81 percent of the stock market worth is concentrated in the top 10 percent of households by wealth.

the New York Stock Exchange

I spoke with Wolff and he was kind enough to update the numbers. It’s gotten worse: 84 percent of the stock in the United States is owned by the top 10 percent of households by net wealth.

These are incredible statistics. More than 93 percent of the stock is owned by the top 20 percent of households. The bottom 80 percent of households owns only about 7 percent of stock.

By the way, this includes direct ownership of stocks and indirect ownership through mutual funds, trusts, IRAs, Keogh plans and other retirement accounts. Everything.

This is the great tragedy: is up 270 percent since bottoming in 2009, but stock ownership is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Here’s another thing that makes me crazy: You’d think with stocks at all-time highs, there’d be confidence that stocks are a good long-term investment.

But Gallup’s most recent poll, conducted in April, indicated that confidence in owning stocks is still poor compared with other investments.

This is better than it was a few years ago (only 19 percent thought stocks were the best investment in 2011), but don’t kid yourself. Nearly as many still think gold is just as good a long-term investment as stocks.

Stocks are high but investor numbers are low

The 2008 financial crisis was a defining moment for investments. Americans shifted from higher-risk to lower-risk investments like savings accounts. But 10 years after the financial crisis, and after one of the great bull markets of all time, Americans still have not notably changed their diminished view of the stock market.

What would it take to get more households to own stock? What won’t work are new record highs. We’ve been there, time and again this year, and there is no stock euphoria or a rush to buy stocks by people who are not already investing.

In fact, new highs have often been met with indifference at best, and hostility and derision at worst.