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CASE Paper
Mapping and measuring the distribution of household wealth: A cross-country analysis
Frank A Cowell, Eleni Karagiannaki and Abigail McKnight November 2012
Paper No' CASE/165:
Full Paper (pdf)

JEL Classification: C81, D31, D63, I24, I31

Tags: household wealth; wealth inequality; debt; housing assets; educational loans; age-wealth profiles

In this paper we compare the level, composition and distribution of household wealth in five industrial countries: the UK, US, Italy, Finland and Sweden. We exploit the harmonized data within the Luxembourg Wealth Study, which we have extended to allow us to examine trends in the UK and the US between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. Remaining differences between surveys, variable definitions and coverage are highlighted to the extent that they impact on cross-country comparisons. We find that the Nordic countries have lower average wealth holdings, smaller absolute gaps between low wealth and high wealth households but high relative measures of wealth inequality. Italian households hold very little debt and are much more likely to own their homes outright, leading to relatively high median levels of wealth. In contrast American households tend to hold much more housing debt well into retirement. Increases in owner occupation and house prices 2000-05 in the UK has led to substantial increases in wealth, particularly median wealth holdings and this had led to falls in relative measures of wealth inequality such as the Gini coefficient even though absolute gaps between high and low wealth households have grown substantially. We show that there are underlying country differences in terms of distributions of age, household composition, educational attainment and income as well as wealth and debt portfolios. Educational loans are increasing in their size and prevalence in some countries and look set to create some marked differences in the distribution of wealth for different age cohorts.