Fed on guard over low U.S. savings rate

July 22, 2013

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered what may have been his last testimony on monetary policy before Congress, most of the world’s attention was focused on what hints he might give about the timing of an eventual reduction in the pace of asset purchases.

Tucked in the actual semi-annual monetary policy report Bernanke delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was a little-noticed reference to growing worries about the potential for an extended period of low savings, associated in part with long-stagnant wages, to thwart long-run economic progress.

Total U.S. net national saving – that is, the saving of U.S. households, businesses, and governments, net of depreciation charges – remains extremely low by historical standards.

In the third quarter of last year, net national saving as a percent of nominal GDP was close to zero. The relative flatness of the national saving rate over the past few years reflects the offsetting effects of a narrowing in the federal budget deficit as a share of nominal GDP and a downward movement in the private saving rate.

National saving will likely remain low this year, in light of the still-large federal budget deficit. A portion of the decline in federal savings relative to pre-recession levels is cyclical and would be expected to reverse as the economy recovers. If low levels of national saving persist over the longer run, they will likely be associated with both low rates of capital formation and heavy borrowing from abroad, limiting the rise in the standard of living for U.S. residents over time.

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