Is New Zealand really the world’s wealthiest country?

Reporting on the latest Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report has repeated its claim that New Zealand has the second highest average (mean) wealth in the world – and the highest median wealth.

But is that true? It sits oddly with personal experience. Does anyone who has been overseas, or seen other countries depicted, think that we are wealthier on average than the Swedes? The Dutch? The French? The Canadians? The Norwegians? The Australians? It seems unlikely.

The only possible explanation, for me, is that our figures, if they are correct, are being bumped up by our massively overvalued housing. And the figures do seem to be taken from the Reserve Bank’s household balance sheet, which includes the value of housing. In which case, this measure of wealth isn’t perhaps the most useful (in a popular context, anyway), since it is just capturing the size of our housing bubble.

More fundamentally, though, I’m not sure the figures are correct. They claim household wealth in New Zealand is US$1.3 trillion, around NZ$1.9 trillion, but the relevant Reserve Bank figures seem to indicate a much lower figure around NZ$1 trillion.

The report claims the median wealth in New Zealand is US$182,000 – nearly NZ$270,000. But the 2010 Survey of Family Income and Employment, analysis of which I’ve recently been involved in, puts median individual wealth at about a third of that figure, and I can’t imagine it has tripled in a few years. Next month I’m publishing a book, Wealth and New Zealand, that will bring these figures – and more – into the light.

The Credit Suisse report also takes its figures for the distribution of wealth from a survey in 2001 – now 14 years out of date, and not even the most up-to-date survey available to the report’s authors.

I’m hoping to talk to the report’s authors and puzzle some of these things out, but until then, I would take its conclusions with a grain of salt.