Thanks To Central Banks, Saving Rates Are Declining Worldwide by Ryan McMaken, Mises Institute
The media has again begun focusing on the fact that most Americans surveyed have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts. On Sunday, USAToday reported on “America’s spend-first mentality” and last week, CNBC suggested that 34% of Americans “have no savings at all.”
The statistic that most Americans have less than $1,000 in sort of liquid emergency fund stems from a 2015 study by GoBankingRates which concluded that 34% of Americans have zero dollars in a savings account while 35% have between one dollar and $1,000 dollars.
For those who have little in a savings account, this doesn’t mean their net worth is necessarily zero or negative, of course. Some of those people own property (such as real estate and securities) outside their savings account.
Nevertheless, the implication is that most Americans can’t even deal with a small $500 automobile and health care bill in an emergency.
For a country that has one of the world’s highest levels of disposable income, this is a grim figure.
CNBC even goes on to note in a September 2016 article that, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, the median retirement savings among all American families is a measly $5,000.
Are Americans Worse Savers than Everyone Else?
It is often suggested that Americans are particularly bad savers. Americans spend everything they’ve got we are told (although it is often admitted that in decades past, Americans saved at considerably higher rates). Or, when there’s a political agenda to be nourished, we might be told that Americans can’t save anything because they have to spend every last dime on health care.
In a past article on international comparisons of net worth, I examined the claim that Americans can’t save because of the lack of a more “generous” welfare system. This is unconvincing. While Americans certainly spend more on health care out-of-pocket, its also true that Americans also buy bigger houses, drive more luxurious cars, buy houses sooner, rent apartments sooner, and go to college more than many European societies. In other words, Americans really do like to spend more on many things other than health care.
While Americans are famous for spending, in neither net worth nor household savings is the US at the bottom of the heap. Indeed, in terms of household savings, the US is near the middle:
There’s nothing remarkable about the US in these figures, and it’s certainly hard to say the US is any sort of outlier in this regard.
However, if we start to look at savings rates in the context of disposable income, we do find that Americans do save quite a bit less than in countries with comparable levels of disposable income.
The next graph shows savings rates in light of disposable income levels. The US is among the countries with the highest income (taking into account taxes and social benefits payments), but is only in the middle in terms of savings rates2:
This should be the case since, presumably, households with higher incomes are able to save more. In other words, once a household’s income begins to exceed the cost of daily necessities, one should expect that household to begin to save some of the surplus. The higher incomes go above these basic levels — ceteris paribus — the higher the savings rate would tend to be. The same claims could reasonably be made about a region, metro area, or country. Those areas with higher incomes could be expected to have higher savings rates.3
Nevertheless, the US lags well behind other wealthy countries like Norway and Switzerland in terms of savings.
Why is this? Well, part of this comes back to our earlier analysis. Americans simply like to spend more on SUVs and houses with three-car garages.
So far, though, we’ve only looked at static 2014 numbers for international comparisons. When we look at some international trends over time, we find not only that Americans are saving more than you’d expect — compared to the last twenty years — but that Americans seem to be in more of a saving trend than many others in wealthy countries.
First of all, let’s look at US savings rates over the past 20 years.
According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the personal savings rate in recent years is not especially low in light of recent decades. It is certainly down from where it was back in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is up from what we saw during much of the 1990s and 2000s:
So, we can conclude that the savings rate, while low by broader historical standards, is not low in terms of recent history. Indeed, as was mentioned more than once at the time, the savings rates during the middle of the last decade were at levels not seen since the Great Depression when people were exhausting their savings to make ends meet. In 2005, though, the US was not in recession, and yet savings rates were at exceptionally low levels.
Central Banks and Saving Rates
Much of this was due to a combination of an expanding economy and historically low interest rates. By 2004, after more than 25 years of declines, the effective federal funds rate hit 1 percent. At the same time, mortgage rates were falling below six percent for the first time in decades. For many, it also seemed that the economy was rock-solid. When it’s easy to borrow money at remarkably low interest rates, and when the economy seems very good, few are motivated to save.
Even after the Fed allowed interest rates to creep up again from 2004 to 2007, interest rates were still at levels below what had been seen in most of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It was only in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 that savings rates really began to climb again, hitting a 15-year high of 7.6 percent in 2012.
This has been vexing for the Federal Reserve since the central bank believes that economic growth can be achieved by reducing saving and increasing spending. Historically, reducing interest rates has spurred spending and borrowing and reduced saving. After all, why bother saving anything when bank deposits will collect almost nothing in interest and borrowing is easy?
In a recent article for mises.org, Victor Xing examined why lowering rates isn’t working to reducing saving anymore. In an environment of uncertainty, savers become more cautious, and will respond to low interest rates by saving even more. If savings accounts are going to pay almost nothing, savers figure, then they need to save even more than they would have otherwise.
It seems that for all its calming talk about “moderate growth” the Fed has not been able to convince people that things are getting better. If anything, savers have become more cautious and saving in spite of the fact