The Land Down Under; home to beautiful beaches, dangerous animals, and very wealthy people. Australia is home to some of the wealthiest people per capita in the world, and the number of highly wealthy individuals continues to grow.
But what does this actually mean? The ABS says ‘wealth’ refers to the balance of assets and liabilities held by members of a household. Basically, how much money would members of an Australian household have if they cashed in all of their assets (e.g. property, superannuation, cars, shares, etc.) and paid off all of their debts (e.g. home loan, car loans, credit cards etc.)
So, why is it important? How rich are Australians, and what does this mean for our future and future generations?
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How much is the average household worth?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has a quarterly measure of average household wealth.
In the March 2023 quarter, Australian household wealth rose $299.1 billion to $14.8 trillion. Per capita, that works out at about $569k a head. Net worth per capita has been over half a million dollars since June 2021. However, interest rate rises through 2022 and in the first half of 2023 meant household wealth took a dive. This is because more money went into keeping up with interest rate rises, while high inflation corroded household budgets as well.
A lot of household wealth in Australia is tied up in the family home, so when you live by the house, you die by the house. However, interest rate rises are a benefit to interest yielding products like deposit accounts, with the accumulation of deposits partially offsetting losses in other areas such as housing, and the share market.
How much richer are the wealthiest Australians than everyone else?
Of course, $569k per capita is just the average, or mean, which tends to be pushed out by a few very high net worth individuals - think multi-billionnaires. There's probably quite a few individuals with nowhere close to a net worth of half a million who feel a bit left out.
A joint report from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and the University of NSW found that the highest 10% of households had an average worth of $6.1 million - or 46% of all wealth in the nation.
The bottom 60% of the population had $376,000 per household, or just 17% of the wealth.
So that means fewer dollars spread among more people. George Orwell's novel 1984 and the 'proles' wasn't a terribly inaccurate assessment.
As a report from property consultancy Knight Frank revealed, you’d need to have a net wealth of at least $5.5 million USD to be in the wealthiest 1% of Australia’s population. This is third-highest threshold for that measure in the world, beaten only by Monaco and Switzerland.
Of course, even $5.5 million USD is peanuts compared to some people. The joint ACOSS/UNSW report found there were 131 billionaires in Australia. They make up just 0.001% of the population, but had 2.9% of all household wealth in 2021.
The joint report found those 131 individuals had almost as much wealth between them as the 2.8 million households in the lower 30%.
Still, Australia enjoys a huge middle class, as seen in the graph below.
How much has Australian household wealth risen over the years?
The wealth of Australians has grown by 302%, or $9.5 trillion, over the past 30-odd years according to a new report by left-leaning thinktank The Australia Institute. The majority of this wealth is in the hands of people over 55 years old, and comes in the form of property and shares.
“In the coming decades, not only is the wealth of Australians likely to grow rapidly but that wealth will almost certainly flow primarily to those aged over 55,” said David Richardson, senior research fellow at The Australia Institute.
“Rapid increases in wealth, like the one Australia has already experienced and the one we will likely experience in the decade ahead, are a good problem to have.”
Turning back the clock to 1989, net worth per capita was only $72,000. Meaning, in just over three decades, the average net worth per Aussie has increased sevenfold.
How did Covid-19 affect Australian household wealth?
While the rise in net worth has been pretty steady over the years, the pandemic saw the biggest spike in household wealth on record. Go figure.
COVID-19: initially projected to tank the economy (and in some ways, it did) seemingly had some great financial outcomes for Aussies. Net worth per capita skyrocketed from $428,000 in March 2020, peaking at $574,000 in March 2022.
That's around $150,000 in two years, or the price of a new top-spec Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG performance coupe.
While many thought that the sky would fall, and governments reacted accordingly, the truth is a lot of people kept their jobs still and used the lockdowns as an enforced method of saving.
Households collectively stashed away more than $250 billion in deposits, according to the RBA, despite record low interest rates, and the household savings ratio spiked to a level not seen in around 50 years.
House prices also took off, as did the sharemarket after a nasty dip in March 2020. This was driven by a $576.5 billion rise in the value of land and dwellings (non-financial assets) from March 2020 through September 2021.
Additionally, financial assets such as superannuation reserves and shares/other equity rose 3.3% or $206.1 billion over the period.
As we briefly mentioned, the pandemic has been good to some but not to all. The divide between high and low income households is widening, according to the ACOSS/UNSW report.
Australian wealth compared globally in 2023
It’s easy to say that we’re a wealthy bunch, but the real test is how we compare to other countries around the world. Well, we do pretty well when compared to most countries.
Now, we're going to be referencing now-defunct investment bank Credit Suisse here. It has recently been absorbed by bigger investment bank UBS.
But for a few years, Credit Suisse published some good reports.
According to Credit Suisse’s 2021 wealth report, Australia ranks as second on the scale of biggest gain in wealth during the pandemic. In US dollars, Australia’s wealth per adult increased by $65,695, which is just below Switzerland’s US$70,729 gain.
Below Australia in the top five were Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Notably, the next country’s gain in wealth per capita was $50,000; so, we are well ahead of the pack.
Now, here’s the real test. Credit Suisse also ranks countries by mean and median wealth per adult. Again, we do pretty well here, with Australia number one for median wealth per adult (US$238,070), and fourth place for mean wealth per adult ($US483,760).
So far, we’re doing pretty well. But here’s another fun question: how many millionaires (in US dollars) are there down under? Currently, Australia ranks number three for the number of millionaires gained in 2020 - 392,000, which brings our total number of USD millionaires to 1,805,000.
Will we ever have the most, you might be thinking? I’d say the answer is probably ‘no’, as the United States leads the way with an absurd 21,951,000 millionaires in 2020. This is up by 1,730,000 in 2020 - nearly as many as Australia’s total number of millionaires. However, we do beat them in percentage of millionaires, coming in second with a 9.4% density of millionaires compared to the US’s 8.8%.
So, on the global stage, Australia’s wealth is pretty impressive. For a relatively ‘small’ population in a relatively ‘new’ country, we’re well and truly up there with the best of the best in terms of our wealth. It's just not spread evenly across the populace.
Why should we care about our wealth?
At the end of the day, why does it all matter? Is it all just for bragging rights, or does being a wealthy country have real benefits for those of us who call Australia home?
Well, a country’s wealth correlates ‘strongly’ with prospects and opportunities according to Credit Suisse. Basically, it allows people to strive for goals bigger than the basics. Not needing to worry about the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs - like access to food and shelter - means we can reach for the stars and try to achieve the need of our own self-fulfilment.
Whether your goal is to become a doctor, a teacher, an artist, or an entrepreneur - our wealth can be used directly or as collateral for loans to make these dreams a reality according to Credit Suisse. For example, if you can’t afford to pay for your university degree outright (and let’s face it, who can?), you can take out a HECS-HELP loan to cover the costs in the interim.
Alternatively, if you need some cash to get your startup off the ground, you have the option to take out a business loan. In countries with lower wealth levels, business opportunities can be fewer and there might be less access to investment capital that a company needs to grow.
However, recent reports suggest that the focus on the family home and property in general comes at the expense of business investment.
According to Credit Suisse, a good measure of whether a country offers favourable entrepreneurship conditions is how many millionaires are in its population. With Australia up there with nearly two million millionaires, this means that generally speaking, conditions are pretty good.
But being wealthy isn’t just good for the economy and business opportunities - wealth is important for individuals. Wealth can act as a buffer, ‘cushioning the blow’ of out-of-the-blue financial burdens like sudden illness, job loss, or even a natural disaster. Without wealth behind them, people can be “literally at the mercy of the elements”.
This article was initially published in 2021 by Rachel Horan and updated July 2023.
Image by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash