Respond true or false to this statement: "I spend more than I should, and I ought to save more money. " The official U.S. personal savings rate, as calculated by the Commerce...
Respond true or false to this statement: “I spend more than I should, and I ought to save more money.”
The official U.S. personal savings rate, as calculated by the Commerce Department, makes a strong case that the majority of Americans must plead guilty as charged — and that most of the rest are liars.
This is a long-standing issue, of course; by various measures, Americans have been saving less of their collective income since the mid-1980s.
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It has become a hotter topic in recent months as the dollar has tumbled and the alarm has been sounded about the nation’s growing dependence on foreign capital to fuel its growth.
The numbers have become so extreme that there is an air of hopelessness to it all. In October, Americans saved just 0.2 percent of their disposable income, according to government data. In the 1970s and early 1980s, that rate of savings was between 9 percent and 11 percent.
For many Americans, saving money has primarily meant putting it in a government-insured bank account. But by hacking rates so low in recent years, the Fed sent a clear message: Go ahead and spend, because saving (at least in the classic sense) would earn you little.
If you’ve had money to save, the housing market was the logical place to put it in the past few years. Mortgage rates were falling and by 2003 were the lowest in modern memory.
At the same time, property values seemed to have nowhere to go but up at the turn of the century — quite a different story from the stock market, which had been many Americans’ favorite asset class in the late 1990s, only to leave a trail of wealth destruction from 2000 through 2002.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also helped consumption win out over saving and investing.
After the attacks, the overriding concern for the economy was that Americans would stop spending and instead squirrel away whatever they could to buffer themselves and their families in a world suddenly turned dark with fear.
They did retreat from spending — for a few weeks. But the popular refrain then became that people should get on with their lives, because by cowering the nation would hand victory to the terrorists.
Now, however, the economic and financial landscapes are changing in ways that seem to point to an inevitable rise in Americans’ savings rate.
The Fed raised short-term interest rates five times in 2004.
Higher interest rates make credit more expensive, which eventually should be a drag on consumption. Perhaps more important, higher rates give consumers more reason to think about contributing to their bank accounts. You actually may earn more in interest than what the bank takes back in account fees.
Are the world’s greatest shoppers really ready to slow their consumption and put more money away for the future? It seems farfetched. Which is why it just might be the big surprise of the second half of this decade.