The World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER) launched a report last December, about household net worth around the world. Here's a nugget or two from their press release:
“The study finds wealth to be more unequally distributed than income across countries. High income countries tend to have a bigger share of world wealth than of world GDP.” (p. 3)
This suggests to me that the wealthy countries are to some extent living on their capital.
‘China … fails to feature strongly among the super-rich because average wealth is modest and wealth is evenly spread by international standards. However, China is already likely to have more wealthy residents than our data reveal for the year 2000, and membership of the super-rich seems set to rise fast in the next decade.’ (p.4)
Surprisingly, household debt is relatively unimportant in poor countries. As the authors of the study point out: ‘While many poor people in poor countries are in debt, their debts are relatively small in total. This is mainly due to the absence of financial institutions that allow households to incur large mortgage and consumer debts, as is increasingly the situation in rich countries….many people in high-income countries have negative net worth and—somewhat paradoxically—are among the poorest people in the world in terms of household wealth.’ (p. 5 - italics are mine.)
Figure 7, “Asset Composition in Selected Countries”, shows the proportion of real property, financial assets and debt in 7 countries, including the US, Canada and Japan. Looking at the ratio of debt to financial assets, China is clearly the least debt-burdened.
When a spendthrift heir meets a poor but hard-working and hard-saving entrepreneur, the result seems predictable. Look at page 16 of Warren Buffett's 28 Feb 2007 letter to shareholders, which I quoted at greater length on July 5:
"The world is ... willing to accept our bonds, real estate, stocks and businesses. And we have a vast store of these to hand over.... [but] foreigners now earn more on their U.S. investments than we do on our investments abroad. In effect, we’ve used up our bank account and turned to our credit card."