Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Savings Rate Could Stay High

Mark Thoma shows us a historical chart of the personal savings rate since 1960 and asks how much of the recent increase (from an average of about 0.5% from 2005 through 2007 to a peak of almost 7% in May of this year) is permanent? One must, of course, take the May figure with a grain of salt: the savings rate rose in May largely because tax withholding was reduced; unless that attempt at a stimulus is completely ineffective, we should expect the savings rate to decline as people start taking advantage of the new disposable income. But even before May the savings rate this year was running consistently above 4%, which is a dramatic change from a few years ago. Let’s use the April figure – 5.6% – as a guesstimate of what the “true” savings rate is right now and ask how much of that will be permanent.

Not much, thinks Brad DeLong:
I would guess that only a small part of the rise in the savings rate is permanent. Financial distress was and is much greater than in past post-WWII recessions, and financial distress is associated with transitory rises in the savings rate.

I’m inclined to disagree. Undoubtedly the savings rate will fall somewhat as the degree of financial distress declines, but I think there’s a good case to be made that much of the increase is permanent.

For one thing, from the point of view of households, “financial distress” may be extremely slow to lift. If the Japanese experience is any guide, it is a very slow process to get a severely distressed banking system to start lending normally again, and it’s not clear that things are going to be any easier for the US. Meanwhile, most forecasts expect the unemployment rate to remain quite high for several years. It could take 3 years, or 5 years, or 10 years, or 20 years before the financial distress lifts.

Granted, even 20 years is not forever, and 3 years is certainly not forever, but it’s long enough to stop thinking about household behavior as being continuous over time. We can reasonably surmise that, even without so much financial distress, the savings rate would have trended upward over time. Presumably households would gradually have come to recognize that they weren’t saving enough. (Can zero be anywhere near enough?) And as baby boomers’ children settle into their own careers, they would cease to be a drag on their parents’ savings, and at the same time those parents would have to start worrying seriously about retirement. The financial distress messed up this scenario (or maybe just speeded it up), but the underlying trend should still be going on “beneath the surface.” By the time the distress lifts, there will be other reasons for the savings rate to be higher than it was in 2006.

That argument is rather speculative, I admit, but there are more solid reasons to expect the savings rate to remain high. While the current, comparatively high savings rate may reflect the effects of financial distress, the low savings rates of the 2005-2007 period did not merely represent the absence of financial distress. What is the opposite of financial distress? Financial ease? The degree of financial ease during that period (which was the culmination of a process that had been building on and off for a couple of decades) was well beyond normal, and well beyond what we can expect in the coming years, even if recent sources of distress are resolved fairly quickly. Consumption was supported (and aggregate saving accordingly reduced) by a fountain of credit that will not re-emerge with such force unless people in Washington and on Wall Street make some big mistakes.

The ready availability of credit to consumers was in large part the result of lax regulation, careless investing, and the assumption that home prices would never decline significantly on a nationwide basis. With respect to regulation, the pendulum is clearly swinging in the other direction now. Careless investors have learned their lesson for a generation. And housing prices have disproven the earlier assumption.

After the collapse of housing prices, not only will lenders be more cautious: borrowers also won’t have as much collateral. It will be quite a while before typical homeowners have as much equity as they did in 2006.

Moreover, the meltdown may have shaken confidence in the concept of securitization to the point where it will take a decade or more to restore even healthy securitization markets (if they can be restored at all), let alone the severely intoxicated ones that we were seeing in 2006. It won’t be easy for households to borrow money for consumption in the coming years. The ones that had negative savings rates will be much less common, while the ones that had positive savings rates will still be there. I expect we’ll be seeing savings rates noticeably higher than zero for years to come.

UPDATE: With today's revisions, the increase in the savings rate is much less dramatic, from an average of 1.8% during 2005-2007 to 5.2% in the second quarter of 2009. (Revised monthly data are not yet available.) My guess is that the rate going forward will be higher than the 3.5% average of 2002-2004 but probably not as high as the second quarter, when the lower tax withholding begins to appear in the denominator.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.


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