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Bernard Hickey from interest.co.nz on personal finance trends, mortgages, homeloan affordability, credit cards and more

Bernard Hickey: Baby boomers' wealth explodes

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This week Roy Morgan published its annual State of the Nation survey showing a stunning rise in the wealth of New Zealanders aged 55 and over.

The survey of 5000 older New Zealanders asked them how much they were worth and how much debt they had compared with the broader population.

The report confirms an extraordinary shift in the structure of wealth in New Zealand, raising important questions for politicians, policy makers and voters. Anyone aged 30 or lower should look away now. It may prove too painful to read.

The gross wealth of those aged 55 and over has risen from $188 billion in 2002, or 37 per cent of total wealth, to $525 billion, or 47 per cent of total wealth. This growth was only partly due to a rise in the proportion of the population who are 55 and over to 24.7 per cent from 19.5 per cent.

That period from 2002 to last year was dominated by the housing boom from 2002 to 2007 when house prices virtually doubled, even after accounting for inflation.

Anyone owning property early in that period is now much richer, given many had leveraged investments in their properties because of their mortgages.

Most of the property owners through that period were aged over 30 and therefore made the bulk of the gains.

This shift in the proportion of the wealth to the aged will intensify further as that "lucky"generation of mostly baby-boomers retire over the next 20 years.

The picture becomes starker when looking at net worth. Those aged 55 and over added just $21 billion in debt to $32 billion over that 2002-2011 period. The unlucky ones were those that took on massive debts in the last five years to buy houses at the newly inflated prices. They were mostly below 40.

This structural shift in wealth to the aged and a loading up of debt on the young is obviously not sustainable, particularly when combined with the current promises of universal superannuation from 65 and publicly funded healthcare.

With the current policies, New Zealand faces the bizarre prospect of either higher income tax rates on the increasingly indebted young to pay for pensions and "free" healthcare for the increasingly wealthy old, or huge amounts of government borrowing, which would of course have to eventually be repaid by the young.

New Zealand needs to have a conversation about how to transfer this wealth back.

A land tax, a capital gains tax, higher income taxes, a later retirement age, means testing for New Zealand Superannuation and means testing for public health care will have to be considered.

Or the Baby Boomers will face the ultimate sanction. They will have to watch their grandchildren grow up by Facebook and Skype.

- Herald on Sunday

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