We no longer support this browser. Using a supported browser will provide a better experience.

Please update your browser.

Close browser message

RESEARCH The rise in retail investing: Roles of the economic cycle and income growth

The use of investment brokerage accounts has increased notably in recent years, broadening the population that is able to earn returns on wealth in the stock market and other financial assets. In the U.S., the percent of households with stock holdings increased to an all-time high of 58 percent as of 2022, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, up from 49 percent in 2013.1 Historically, use of brokerage accounts was more concentrated among those with higher incomes.2 However, within the past decade, our data show increasing engagement with investment accounts across the income spectrum. Notably, this engagement increased during a period in which the incomes of lower-income workers grew relatively quickly.

In this report, we use data from over 10 million active checking account users from 2007 to 2023.3 In recent years, about a quarter of our sample transferred significant funds to an external investment account.4 The data link households’ financial dynamics and investing transactions, enabling insight into the drivers underlying the rise in investing. We find that income growth—particularly when sustained over time—emerges as one of the strongest predictors of the investment transfers that we explore.

Our quantification of the connection between income changes and investing behavior allows policymakers to translate developments in the labor market or fiscal policy into the evolution of wealth inequality. For example, economic booms and tight labor markets have tended to result in outsized wage gains at the lower end of the income distribution. Asset prices tend to be relatively high when these economic conditions hold,5 implying that the timing of low-income individuals’ gains may put them at a disadvantage in terms of entering or adding to financial investments at attractive valuations.

We organize this report around three findings:

  1. In a given month, lower-income individuals were four times more likely to transfer funds to investment accounts in 2023 than they were in 2015.
  2. Individuals are more likely to transfer funds to investment accounts after income gains, particularly those sustained over the course of a year.
  3. Lower-income investors made investments when stocks were at valuations 4 to 6 percent above the highest earners since 2008, likely, in part, due to the timing of their relative income gains. 

Finding One: In a given month, lower-income individuals were four times as likely to transfer funds to investment accounts in 2023 compared to 2015.

Figure 1 shows the share of individuals in our sample transferring funds from their checking account to investment accounts in monthly data from 2008 to 2023. The figure shows shares both for below- and above-median income individuals, and scales investor shares to each group’s baseline average over 2010 to 2015, a period when investing flows in our data stagnated in the wake of the Great Recession. As of 2023, the number of individuals making investing transfers in a given month was four times the 2010-15 baseline for those with below-median average incomes and two times for higher income individuals. Our income categorization method seeks to capture a person’s persistent earnings level—or likely “lifetime” real income—by ordering based on age-adjusted average earnings translated to 2023 dollars.6

The second panel of Figure 1 provides a different perspective on the same trends by plotting the monthly ratio of above-median-income individuals making investing transfers to below-median-income. The imbalance fell from an average close to four-to-one in favor of those with high incomes, the rate prevailing from 2011 to 2014, to a low of two-to-one at the height of the 2021 stimulus-driven investing surge. Notably, incomes for low-wage workers grew substantially faster than those for high-wage workers during much of this period (Greig et al., 2021).7 Changes in the brokerage industry—including the availability of accounts with low (or no) minimum deposit amounts and reduced trading commissions—likely also contributed to the broadening base of investors.8

Figure 1: The share of investors with lower incomes rose steadily over the past decade—particularly during the pandemic savings surge.

Finding Two: At the individual level, the likelihood of transferring funds to investment accounts increases after income gains, particularly those sustained over the course of a year.

Our data track changes in individual financial circumstances like income, spending, and cash balances—providing a unique lens on the drivers of individuals’ investment decisions. We find that income growth, savings, and cash buffers are substantial predictors of investing. Standard consumption-smoothing theory provides a basis for such relationships, as people save for the future (including in the form of financial market investments) when current income is elevated and liquidity on-hand is sufficient to support near-term spending. This micro-level observation—that people are more willing and able to invest when they are themselves experiencing increases in income and have near-term financial security—is a natural counterpart to the economy-wide perspective discussed in Finding 1.9

Figure 2 shows the monthly probability of transferring money to an investment account for individuals experiencing different income growth changes, for groups of different income levels. We summarize an individuals’ income growth dynamics two ways to capture potential differences in the timing of income changes and investment decisions. First, we compute a short-term measure of income growth as the current month’s income relative to the average of the prior 12 months.10 In the second way, we compute a longer-term measure of income growth as the 12 months trailing average income compared to the year prior.11 The plot shows outcomes by strong and weak growth, with strong denoting growth above the 75th percentile and below the 25th percentile, respectively, for both growth measures. We define “sustained growth” as cases in which both short- and long-term growth are strong or weak.

Both short- and long-term growth shift the likelihood of investing. In our full sample, the probability of investing in a month for an individual near median income—between the 40th to 60th percentiles—is 2.9 percent. A month of strong income growth increases the probability by almost 20 percent (half a percentage point) to 3.4 percent. Strong short- and long-term growth together lift the probability to 4.1 percent, over 40 percent higher than the average for individuals near the middle of the income distribution.

Income changes may take time to influence an individual’s financial position sufficiently to spur an investment decision, which helps explain the distinct roles for each income measure. Individuals may build additional liquidity (or reduce debts) before transferring funds to external investments. Standard household financial theory predicts such an influence of balance sheets on savings and decisions to invest.12 We explore the independent roles of short- and long-term income growth further in the Appendix: Statistical framework mapping individual-level financial circumstances to investing , which additionally considers cash liquidity and spending dynamics. Liquidity emerges as an important additional factor to consider. Individuals that have already transferred money to investment accounts appear to use them as an outlet for excess liquidity—investing when cash buffers (measured by liquid balances relative to spending) are elevated relative to their previous average level.

Figure 2: Income dynamics predict transfers to investment accounts.

Finding Three: Lower-income investors made investments when stocks were at valuations 4 to 6 percent above the highest earners since 2008, likely, in part, due to the timing of their relative income gains.

The U.S. stock market and economy exhibit cyclical fluctuations. Academic research finds that the investment performance households can expect from the stock market is correlated with the economic cycle.13 When the economy is weak, expected future returns tend to be elevated (because current prices are depressed) and vice versa. Disparities in how booms and busts affect the population, therefore, may spill over into unequal investment returns. In particular, lower-income households may be at a disadvantage in the accumulation of financial market wealth because they tend to experience relative income gains—and have investable wealth—when economic expansions are already well underway and stock prices have already risen.14

To estimate disparities in the prices in which individuals purchase stocks, we use an indicator of stock market valuation over time and our data on investment transactions to compute average entry valuations of investments. Using valuation instead of simple prices helps put investments made at different points in time on a more “level playing field,” as common bases for investments—corporate earnings and dividends—rise over time. Our preferred measure weights purchases by individual investment decisions (defined as a month of significant net transfers to investment accounts), providing a “count-weighted” perspective. We supplement this measure with a dollar-weighted equivalent.15 The box: How we compute average purchase valuations provides further details.

Figure 3 shows average purchase valuations, scaled to those of the top 5 percent earners—the group with the lowest, most attractive entry prices. The bottom two quintiles have the highest purchase prices, about 4 to 6 percent higher than the top earner group, depending on whether transaction- or dollar-weighting purchases. Computing the average purchase valuations by transactions (counts) shows a wider gap than dollar-weighting (flows), which could be consistent with the general relationship if some high-income individuals that invest more are mis-categorized as low-income if they receive some of their earnings through accounts at other financial institutions. Average purchase valuations decline steadily with from the 40th to the top percentiles, suggesting a positive relationship between expected investment returns and income level.

Figure 3: Lower income groups have made purchases when the stock market has been at relatively elevated valuations, on average, from 2008 to 2023.

How we estimate average stock market purchase pricing

To estimate the relative attractiveness of investments made by individuals across the income distribution, we compute flow-weighted averages of investment purchase prices by income group.16 Assets in retail investment accounts tend to track the stock market overall. Since corporate fundamentals like earnings—which drive expected future returns—usually increase over time, we use a metric that normalizes prices by a 10-year trailing average of earnings, as proposed in Shiller (2000).17 The use of a 10-year average of inflation-adjusted corporate earnings reduces the effects of short-term earnings volatility related to the state of the business cycle that may not reflect sustainable fundamentals. These adjustments help make investment flows more comparable over time in terms of expected returns for investors.

Specifically, for each income group, g, the two weighted-average purchase valuations are defined as follows, where t denotes month, S denotes the share of individuals in the sample making investments, f denotes the dollar value of transfers to investment accounts, and V is the valuation metric (CAPE®):

As a robustness check, we also check average purchase prices using raw prices over the shorter time horizon of 2017 to 2023 and find a larger, steeper declining relationship between purchase valuations and income.

Finding Four: Conclusions and Implications

Retail investing broadened notably across the population from 2016 through 2021 and remained higher as of last year compared to pre-pandemic levels. On a percentage basis, the increase in the number of investors with average incomes below the median was about twice as large than those with higher incomes. The trends, including higher-frequency changes during the pandemic, align with dynamics observed in income growth rates and the timing of fiscal stimulus payments. Using individual-level financial dynamics, we find that income growth is a strong predictor of transferring money to investment accounts.18 The signals from our data point to income dynamics as a central driver of financial wealth accumulation.

The broadening of the population engaging with financial markets is generally a positive sign for the reduction of stark wealth gaps. However, the timing of asset accumulation along the economic cycle provides some reason for caution. Over the period in which we observe rising investment flows of lower-income individuals, the stock market more than doubled. Notwithstanding gains for all individuals as markets have reached all-time highs (as of early 2024), relative returns have still favored those with higher incomes, echoing dynamics documented in Institute research on crypto-assets.19


The close connection between income gains and investing we discuss in this report suggests policymakers concerned with wealth inequality should consider how financial asset prices evolve alongside the labor market. In particular, our research carries implications for the Federal Reserve’s incorporation of distributional outcomes in its policymaking framework—laid out in 2019—which emphasizes benefits of tight labor markets for reducing inequalities. The reduction in unemployment prior to COVID-19 indeed appeared to tilt income growth and asset accumulation in favor of those with on the margin of the job market, largely those with lower incomes.

However, the evolution of asset prices also influences the trajectory of economic inequalities, and systematic connections between the financial cycle and the labor market cycle may carry unintended consequences for policymakers. Academic and industry research on financial markets has drawn clear links between asset market valuation and the economic cycle.20 Asset prices tend to be high during booms when, disproportionately, those with lower incomes are trying to gain sustainable footholds on the wealth ladder, in part by making financial investments. Policymakers at modern central banks regularly balance difficult tradeoffs. Indeed, this report points to challenges—emanating from how households accumulate investments—that may complicate policy that targets distributional labor market outcomes.


Chris Wheat


George Eckerd

Wealth and Markets Research Director