U.S. – They’re skint, they’re frugal, get used to it

January 29, 2009

Good session on the “Frugal American,” an as yet undiscovered species that is coming to a global economy near you.

You know the general idea, a decade or so of living beyond their means, borrowing money against their rising house values to finance consumption is coming to a grinding halt. That’s called a recession, but how long will this frugal thing last?

Ian Davis, the MD from consultants McKinsey & Co was blunt:

“Americans have no option but to be relatively more frugal over the next 10-20 years.” This is irrespective of the crisis and is a structural issue due to overspending in the past and the huge host of baby boomers who are now moving into what they fondly hope will be their retirement years. Old people buy fewer ipods and ski boots apparently, and are less likely to remodel their kitchens and bathrooms. That is a problem for the global economy.

So who is going to pick up the ball on consumption? From the sound of the panel, it looks like some kid took the ball and went home. China was candidate one, but even if consumption increased there, as it will, its not likely to become the next America, nor should it be.

“We have to live with the frugal American. Think about how much wealth has been lost, half of world market cap” said Zhu Min, executive vice president of the Bank of China.

“You don’t have wealth, you don’t have liquidity, how do you come back? After a very deep adjustment … the whole world will be a frugal world.”

The understanding I came away with is that it is 1) unclear what the new model will be, who will produce what and who will consume what, and 2) the frugal countries like Germany, Japan and China face their own very stern tests as their business models were predicated on consumption in the English-speaking world.

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

5 comments

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Finally the numbers catch up with what everyone knew all along but were too afraid to admit to themselves – we don’t live in a world with limitless resources, we were living beyond our means for FAR longer than a decade and in more places than just the USA and we need to adjust our attitudes with respect to our place in the world and how we treat it.

Posted by Andy | Report as abusive

absolutely agree, we were living way beyond our means. In a world attempting to mimic the “fabulous” lifestyles we see on TV. We don’t need 5 flat screen TV’s in every house, or a car that goes 120mph that you can only drive 65mph. Or cars that give you 15mpg that you drive 100 miles round trip every day from suburbia to work.
The numbers do not lie. It’s time to get back to basics, how generations before us did it — hard-work, prudent spending and savings — credit: only if you have collateral.
We think we can use and waste whatever we want without any consequence. The philosophy of “if I can afford I’m buying it” contradicts being a good person to our community/world. I’m glad this is all happening, the piper finally arrived to get paid.

Posted by RM | Report as abusive

It’s not that we don’t have enough resources; it’s that we don’t work together as a human race to smartly and fairly distribute our resources or use the limitless resources that do exist (alternative energy, for example) because a few people control the profits and the power to choke off innovations that would “compete” with them. Why in the world do we all drive gasoline-powered cars in 2009? Think about how we got here, and imagine how it could have been different had we made different choices at any point in history.

We could all have PLENTY if we worked together cooperatively, because we are all on this little planet together, but instead we operate under the assumption that only cut-throat competition spurs innovation.

Now, if we could agree as a human race that every person should have the right to at least a minimal, modest standard of living and shouldn’t have to worry about having a roof over his head, food in their stomach and a little health care, for instance, because we agreed as humans that we believe this about ourselves, but over and above that we agree we can have as much as we want as long as we are not cheating and enslaving others to get it, then those with brains, special talents, loads of creativity and desire would continue to innovate without fear of failure (because they know they won’t be destitute if they “fail”) and they wouldn’t have to innovate based solely on risk/benefit of profits ratio. (Think drug companies that only develop drugs for the most widespread conditions that they can make the best profit on, so they decline to develop medicines or cures for rarer yet just as devastating diseases.)

If there was no way to utterly “fail” in the terms we have set for ourselves now, I bet there would still be plenty of millionaires or billionaires but maybe not quite as many gazillionaires and whole lot less people in poverty, trapped in a system that forces them to work at menial “jobs” for life that are for subsistence rather than for fulfillment, meaning and joy and adding something REAL to the human condition.

We haven’t even begun to tap into our human potential, simply because we mistakenly believe there is not ENOUGH and that we must fight each other for our share.

You may say-ay-ay I’m a dreamer . . .

Posted by Phyllis | Report as abusive

The reality is there, me and my American comrades have lived a very nice life, many of us beyond our means. But before we bash ourselves, we must think of all the progress that was funded by what many call “greed.” The majority of innovations in the Medical arts come from a increase in the money that can be charged from the technology that is developed in Research and Development. Computing technology has been pushed so quickly it caught up with Moores law. Communication between world citizens is at an all time high via the internet. (It is a flat world after all.) Many of the life changing tools in the last 40 years would have never existed without the “American” greed that we hear so much about. Do you think WorldCom or Verizon would have built the fiber that carries a huge amount of the Internet if they didn’t design their profit models off of American excess? How about Intel’s investment in new labs to research smaller fabrication technologies? And many other countries profited off of this “greed,” South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Britain and of course China to name just a few. Granted their is too much money in too few hands, but if you punish those with money they find ways to hide it from you. Increase taxes in your country and they “diverisfy” which means move it off-shore to an account that can’t be taxed by the government. You put barriers to hiring indivduals and they move their factories to another country that doesn’t care who you hire. Since we don’t have a better way to function as a socieity yet, that is the way it is.

Posted by n8 | Report as abusive

Well, a lot of the news lately has been about rebounding and reviving our economic growth. How about if we just focus on being consistent for once? Pay off some of this debt that we’ve accrued as a nation (and as individuals) and start acting like responsible people.

It is sad that we’ve reached this point, but I kind of enjoy the vision of the future I keep imagining. Imagine Americans riding motorcycles and bicycles instead of Suburbans. I always try to think about what I could do without, and most of the time, I realize that most of the things I own are tangential to my life. I’m as guilty as the rest, but I’m ready to make some changes. I even look forward to it.

Posted by Jesse | Report as abusive