The U.S. savings rate spiked to 5 percent in May from 0. 4 percent in April, according to the Commerce Department, as consumers socked...

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The U.S. savings rate spiked to 5 percent in May from 0.4 percent in April, according to the Commerce Department, as consumers socked away some of their tax rebates from the government.

But the surge may be a “temporary aberration rather than the start of a major shift,” writes DundeeWealth chief economist Martin Murenbeeld in a report.

Higher savings implies lower spending, he notes. This can hurt over the long haul because consumer spending, even on credit, fuels the economy. But savings also helps consumers weather economic shocks, like high food and energy costs.

Declining home prices are making it harder for consumers to tap home equity for cash, as they did during the real-estate boom. As a result, households face growing delinquencies and defaults on everything from mortgages to credit cards, writes Moody’s Economy.com Chief Economist Mark Zandi in a report. For the more than half the population in lower income brackets, “balance sheets are a mess,” he says. “Overleveraged households are at the heart of the economy’s problems.”

Zandi says for the rest of the decade, home prices will fall and the job market will weaken. In a worrisome sign, credit-card debt is climbing in the hardest-hit real estate markets, such as California, Florida and Nevada, he says. “Of course, this borrowing will result in more credit problems by late this year and 2009,” says Zandi.

David Malpass, economist with Encima Global, says an alternative measure of savings presents a less dire picture. According to the Federal Reserve, household financial assets rose by $736 billion in the year ending in March, he writes. This implies a savings rate of 7.1 percent of disposable income — without the boost from rebates. That’s higher than the Commerce Department figure, which excludes capital gains on contributions to private retirement plans.