Top Wealth in America: New Estimates under Heterogeneous Returns
This article uses administrative tax data to estimate top wealth in the United States. We assemble new data that link people to their sources of capital income and develop new methods to estimate the degree of return heterogeneity within asset classes. Disaggregated fixed-income data reveal that rich individuals earn much more of their interest income in higher-yielding forms and have much greater exposure to credit risk. Consequently, in recent years, the interest rate on fixed income at the top is approximately 3.5 times higher than the average. We value the population of U.S. firms using firm-level characteristics and apportion this wealth using firm-owner links. We combine this new data on fixed income and pass- through business returns with refined estimates of C-corporation equity, housing, and pension wealth to deliver new capitalized wealth estimates that build upon the methods of Saez and Zucman (2016). From 1989 to 2016, the top 1%, 0.1%, and 0.01% wealth shares increased by 6.6, 4.6, and 2.9 percentage points, respectively, to 33.7%, 15.7%, and 7.1%. Overall, although we estimate a large degree of return heterogeneity, accounting for this heterogeneity does not change the fundamental story for top wealth shares and their growth—wealth inequality is high and has risen substantially over recent decades.