An article points out here that, during the four years from 2010 to 2014, the number of Americans with financial assets of $1 million or more spiked by more than 30%, to just under 7 million people.
Further, this piece, a New York Times special report that spotlights an American phenomenon that's gaining momentum--the polarization of the very wealthy from the rest of Americans known as the "velvet rope economy"--notes that the top 1% of households controls 42% of American household wealth, up from a norm of 30% a decade ago.
Should it come as any wonder, then, that since "the rise of the 1 percent spells opportunity and profit," for businesses at large, it should work out to be that very segment who's supercharged the first leg of housing's recovery, and it should also work out to be that very segment upon whom builders have focused the lion's share of their development, design, construction, and marketing attention?
The explanation Times writer Nelson D. Schwartz gives for a velvet rope economy that caters to the ultra privileged to the exclusion of the masses is well-put by Steven Fazzari, a professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, and could easily apply to what's been happening for the past two-plus years on the new home development front:
"You go where the money is. This is where companies are innovating and where there is demand."
With the privileges of the rich and powerful come the license to decide when it is time to spend, not just themselves, but everybody. Or so the 1% might think.
In fact, however, it might behoove the 1% to take a look at what velvet rope economics do over time. In real time, isolating those who can pay five or eight times what others can pay for homes, vacations, cars, access to doctors, etc. may spur innovation, spark aspiration, and kindle a healthy economic release of ambition among those who have less but are motivated for more.
But over time, the sense of insular comfort and ease that comes with the high life may prove to be a false indicator, especially if the erosion of the base below spreads and speeds up.
Many assume this to be the case with housing. Unless there's a healthy entry-level (pricing) market for homeownership, health and well-being in the ecosystem as a whole may be fleeting.
Here's a perspective from Freddie Mac economists that suggests that while economic recovery on a broad basis may be getting a little long in the tooth--perhaps because it has been overly reliant on "velvet rope" dynamics as the basis of consumer household spending--housing has headroom. As a matter of fact, it's housing that shows up as the bootstraps force the economy as a whole may find support in, like business cycles of yore. Freddie Mac analysts write:
"With overall economic growth slowing in the first quarter, how do we remain sanguine about economic and job growth for the balance of this year? We expect housing to be an engine of growth. Construction activity will pick up as we enter the spring and summer months, and rising home values will bolster consumers and help support renewed confidence in the remaining months of this year."
But not if more good for-sale inventory doesn't become available at the lower end of the price spectrum. The good news is that home builders and their design and engineering partners have been innovating at the higher end--with materials, with processes, with installation, with manufactured products, and with tools--for a couple of years.
Now they can start to scale those innovations, replicate them faster, build them cheaper, and make them accessible across the velvet rope.
After all, material gains are, and have been, and will be ever less important as ingredients of the American Dream than one defining goal: we want our children, and our children's children to have a chance to live well by working hard and doing good.