What Is the FIRE Economy?

FIRE refers to a sector of the economy composed of finance, insurance, and real estate - hence the acronym, "FIRE". Businesses that make up the FIRE economy include banks and credit unions, credit card companies, insurance agencies, mortgage brokers, investment brokerages, real estate agencies, hedge funds, and more. The FIRE economy has grown to become a major contributor to the overall U.S. economy.

Key Takeaways

  • The FIRE economy is an acronym that represents the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors.
  • The FIRE economy has become an increasingly important piece of the U.S. GDP, especially with the rise of financialization.
  • Some observers have argued that an increase in reliance on financial industries to propel the U.S. economy has left it vulnerable and has hollowed out the country's industrial and manufacturing sector.

Understanding the FIRE Economy

The FIRE economy has grown significantly since the 1980s and has accompanied the decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector. These businesses thrive largely through rising asset prices and interest on debts, and they benefit from the increasing trends toward financialization seen over the past several decades.

When asset prices suffer, as they did during the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2008, the FIRE economy suffers. When the FIRE economy suffers, the rest of the economy can experience debt defaults, failed businesses, increasing unemployment, reduced demand, and debt deflation.

The ripple effect that the FIRE economy’s decline had on the rest of the economy illustrated how important the finance, real estate, and insurance sector has become. Even non-FIRE businesses had difficulty continuing operations because of limited access to credit and reduced consumer demand.

Growing Importance of FIRE 

The FIRE acronym has been used since at least 1982, when it was referenced in a Washington Post article describing job growth in New York City. Within the United States, the FIRE economy is particularly important in New York, where many financial companies are based. Today, at least a fifth of the U.S. economy is based on activity in these industries, according to World Atlas.

The FIRE acronym was also used in a U.S. Census Bureau classification system first employed in 1992 for the economic census, which collects data on the structure and functioning of the U.S. economy. The economic census classified as part of the FIRE economy depository institutions; non-depository credit institutions; insurance carriers, agents, and brokers; real estate businesses; holding and investment offices; and security and commodity brokers, dealers, exchanges, and services. 

In recent years, some observers have come to lament the increasing economic reliance on FIRE industries. They argue that this increases social inequality by creating a larger economic gap between highly educated and less-educated people. As manufacturing continues to shrink, jobs in that sector have migrated overseas or disappeared. Still, with some 7 million people employed in FIRE businesses in 2017, the sector has become an engine that drives the U.S. economy and supplies the capital and financial infrastructure needed by many of the nation's other industries.