Don’t blink! As revealed by government data released yesterday, the U.S. personal savings rate has been vanishing so quickly lately that, before too long, you might miss it entirely. And here’s the kicker to this latest evidence: Although, as I reported on Monday, the American economy is just about as consumption-heavy as during the run-up to the financial crisis, all the resulting spending is now generating growth that’s not only subpar by historical standards, but shockingly weak.
According to the Commerce Department, the savings rate for the last three quarters of national economic activity (through the second quarter of this year) has sunk below four percent of disposable personal income for the first time since the first quarter of 2008. The latest nadir of 3.6 percent was hit in the fourth quarter of last year, and represents the lowest such level since the fourth quarter of 2007 (2.8 percent). If those dates sound familiar, they should. That’s when the last recession officially broke out. As of the second quarter of this year, the rate bounced back a bit to 3.8 percent.
These are a pretty far cry from the worst savings rates in U.S. history. During the previous (bubble) decade, this figure bottomed out at 2.2 percent (in the third quarter of 2005). But the latest numbers are a much further cry from the double-digit levels that were common from the early 1950s through the early 1980s.
After the last recession began, there was some evidence that Americans were learning the lessons of over-spending and socking away more of their incomes. By the second quarter of 2008, the savings rate jumped from 3.7 percent in the first quarter of that year to 5.7 percent. It rose steadily even after the recovery began in the middle of 2009, and actually hit 9.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. Savings didn’t stay nearly that high, but still generally remained well above five percent through the early part of last year. Since then, however, they’ve slid pretty rapidly downhill.
Throughout the recovery, shortsighted economists and other observers actually have bemoaned these signs of consumer caution as unnecessary restraints on economic growth that were preventing the expansion from achieving a satisfactory pace. I disagree, because as I wrote on Monday, the nation needs a sustainable basis for growth, to improve its long-term economic health, even more urgently than it needs faster growth. But what’s especially troubling about the recent drop in the savings rate is that it’s shown no ability to generate what’s seen as respectable growth at all.
In fact, over these last three quarters of weak personal savings rates, the economy grew in real terms by just 1.8 percent, 1.2 percent, and 2.6 percent (the preliminary figure for the second quarter of this year). Those results aren’t even impressive by the low bar set by the current expansion. And they’re positively abysmal when compared with the performance registered between the early 1950s and 1980s, when double-digit savings rates were no obstacle at all to real growth rates of between five and ten percent!
Of course, America’s growth rises and falls for many reasons part from savings and consumption rates. Moreover, the economy of that 1950s-1980s period was very different structurally from today. One example: Military spending played a much bigger economic role during those Cold War decades, and generated abundant production, as well as employment. At the same time, for most of that era, women had not entered the labor market in great numbers, meaning that households generally speaking were living off a single paycheck and benefits package. And still both growth and family incomes were by and large stellar.
The current situation, though, is unmistakably sobering. In recent decades, America has substituted borrowing and spending for saving and producing as its main engines of growth. Now even the unhealthy growth recipe has not only helped trigger a terrifying financial crisis and deep recession. But seven or eight year after those crises were overcome, the spendthrift approach seems close to exhaustion. In sports, those playing a losing game are usually encouraged to change it. How much longer before Americans and their leaders take the hint?