Marcos Vera-Hernández
Emla Fitzsimons
José V. Rodríguez Mora
Tomasa Rodrigo
Álvaro Ortiz
Stephen Hansen
Vasco Carvalho
Gergely Buda
Gabriel Zucman
Anders Jensen
Matthew Fisher-Post
José-Alberto Guerra
Myra Mohnen
Christopher Timmins
Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri
Peter Christensen
Linda Wu
Gaurav Khatri
Julián Costas-Fernández
Eleonora Patacchini
Jorgen Harris
Marco Battaglini
Ricardo Fernholz
Alberto Bisin
Jess Benhabib
Cian Ruane
Pete Klenow
Mark Bils
Peter Hull
Will Dobbie
David Arnold
Eric Zwick
Owen Zidar
Matt Smith
Ansgar Walther
Tarun Ramadorai
Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham
Andreas Fuster
Ellora Derenoncourt
Golvine de Rochambeau
Vinayak Iyer
Jonas Hjort
Elena Simintzi
Paige Ouimet
Holger Mueller
Pablo Garriga
Gabriel Ulyssea
Costas Meghir
Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg
Rafael Dix-Carneiro
Alessandro Toppeta
Áureo de Paula
Orazio Attanasio
Seth Zimmerman
Joseph Price
Valerie Michelman
Camille Semelet
Anne Brockmeyer
Pierre Bachas
Santiago Pérez
Elisa Jácome
Leah Boustan
Ran Abramitzky
Jesse Rothstein
Jeffrey T. Denning
Sandra Black
Wei Cui
Mathieu Leduc
Philippe Jehiel
Shivam Gujral
Suraj Sridhar
Attila Lindner
Arindrajit Dube
Pascual Restrepo
Łukasz Rachel
Benjamin Moll
Kirill Borusyak
Michael McMahon
Frederic Malherbe
Gabor Pinter
Angus Foulis
Saleem Bahaj
Stone Centre
Phil Thornton
James Baggaley
Xavier Jaravel
Richard Blundell
Parama Chaudhury
Dani Rodrik
Alan Olivi
Vincent Sterk
Davide Melcangi
Enrico Miglino
Fabian Kosse
Daniel Wilhelm
Azeem M. Shaikh
Joseph Romano
Magne Mogstad
Suresh Naidu
Ilyana Kuziemko

Top wealth in America: new estimates under heterogeneous returns

What is this research about and why did you do it?

How rich are the richest Americans? A thorough answer to this question is necessary to address public concern over rising inequality, whether the distribution of resources is fair, and how policy ought to respond. Evaluating tax policies that target the rich depends upon the quality of top wealth estimates. Measuring the concentration of wealth also matters for economic analysis of growth, savings, and capital accumulation.  

How did you answer this question?

This paper uses administrative tax data to estimate top wealth in the United States. We assemble new data that links people to their sources of capital income and develop new methods to estimate the degree of return heterogeneity within asset classes. We value the population of pass-through 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 pioneering methods of Saez and Zucman (2016) and Piketty, Saez and Zucman (2018).  

What did you find?

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. From 1989 to 2016, we find that 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%. Furthermore, we find that pass-through business and C-corporation wealth account for most of the wealth at the top of the distribution. In contrast, pensions and housing account for almost all wealth of the bottom 90%. P90-99 portfolios are more balanced across asset classes.

This figure plots the share of total household wealth for different wealth groups from 1966 to 2016.

What implications does this have for the research on wealth concentration or economic inequality?

We find a large role at the top for pass-through business and C-corporation wealth, low and stable concentration of fixed income wealth, and equity concentration that rises sharply with wealth—these facts all point to a central role for entrepreneurs and other stockholders for top wealth accumulation.

What are the next steps in your agenda?

We are investigating entrepreneurial wealth accumulation, how tax policy affects global investment behaviour of firms, and the importance of inherited wealth and the role of family firms versus self-made entrepreneurs.


This paper can be cited as follows: Smith, M., Zidar, O., and Zwick, E. (Forthcoming) "Top wealth in America: new estimates under heterogeneous returns." Quarterly Journal of Economics.

About the authors


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