Unsaving the U.S. economy

October 30, 2012

The U.S. savings rate sank last month to its lowest since November, official data showed this week, in a sour reminder of how the economy is still dangerously exposed to any financial downturn or other shocks like the fiscal cliff. Following are some facts about this usually overlooked indicator:

* The U.S. saving rate is basically the amount of dollars Americans are able to save from their wages after spending and paying taxes, as a percentage of income. In September the rate was at 3.3 percent, a drop from 3.7 percent the previous month and the lowest since 3.2 percent in November 2011.

* The 3.3 percent rate is much worse than the healthy 8.1 percent average of the 1950s and 60s, the Golden Age of the U.S. post-war economy. It is also below the 5.5 percent average of the 1990s.

* A low saving rate means consumers are spending too much in relation to their real earnings, making the economy as a whole precariously reliant on the financial wealth generated by rising stock markets and home values to keep growing at a robust pace and creating jobs.

* This was exactly the situation just before the 2001 slowdown, when the dotcom crash wiped out the financial positive effect that was leveraging growth in an economy where the savings rate had fallen for the first time since the Great Depression below 3 percent, and the recent Great Recession, when it was even lower.

* A financial shock like that seems unlikely now that the euro zone debt crisis is apparently contained. But with consumer budgets so tight, any other hit such as the imminent tax increases and automatic public spending cuts in the U.S. could hurt private expenditure, which accounts for two thirds of GDP.

* “Households were only able to boost consumption in the third quarter by dipping into their savings,” said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, after the Commerce Department release. “Faced with the prospect of major tax hikes in the New Year, however, they will soon become more cautious”.

* The causes behind the long-term saving rate fall are subject of debate. A decades-old trend of decreasing productivity and real earnings gains combined with an accumulation of many layers of spending in different goods and services could offer an explanation.


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