Savings rate may not be so bad
NEW YORK » Now that America's savings rate has been negative for an entire year, a first since the Great Depression, the question is whether we're a spendthrift nation on its way to the poor house or whether we're looking at the wrong numbers when we calculate savings.
The personal savings rate is, essentially, the amount of after-tax income left once household bills are paid. Maybe it's $75 for a household, maybe it's $7,500, but as a percentage of income, it's declining. The personal savings rate used to be 10 percent of disposable income from 1974 to 1984, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It fell to 4.8 percent by 1994, and was negative for all of 2005. As of January, the personal savings rate was minus 0.7 percent.
With retirement looming soon for the baby boom generation, the concern is that a dearth of savings now could cause a cutoff in spending later.
Some economists say that's far-fetched. They argue the personal savings figures are artificially low, since the numbers don't include increases in assets such as equities and homes. Yale University economics professor William D. Nordhaus made that argument in 2002 congressional testimony, saying that once assets were included, the savings rate for the 1990s would have been a robust 25 percent.
Another argument is that the wealthiest 20 percent of American families account for roughly 40 percent of consumer purchases, spending roughly 4.5 times as much as the lowest 20 percent, something Citigroup's chief U.S. equities strategist Tobias M. Levkovich pointed out in a recent report. The implication: This group isn't going to run out of money anytime soon. If a healthy economy depends on the wealthiest Americans continued spending on $200 haircuts and $500 seven-ply cashmere sweaters, we can all rest easy.
The other side argues that American consumers simply spend way too much.
"The decline in the U.S. personal savings rate and the dearth of internal saving raise concerns for the future," The San Francisco Federal Reserve said in a November note titled "Spendthrift Nation."
To prepare for retirement, "aging workers should be building their nest eggs and paying down debt," the note said. "Instead, many of today's workers are saving almost nothing and taking on large amounts of adjustable-rate debt with payments programmed to rise with the level of interest rates. Failure to boost saving in the years ahead may lead to some painful adjustments in the future."