Monday, September 21, 2009
We're all going to be hearing a lot about the "paradox of thrift" in the months (and probably years) ahead, the well worn maxim that economic growth suffers when more people save, due to the fact that more saving means less spending.
This report in the LA Times covers the topic quite well.
After the most punishing downturn in half a century, the U.S. economy has finally begun showing signs of renewed life. Stock prices and factory orders are up. The housing market appears to be stabilizing. Job losses are moderating. Overall, the economy has begun to grow, officials believe.Yes, conventional economic "wisdom" has it that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with an economy where more than 70 percent of all activity came from personal consumption.
Welcome as all those developments are, many analysts worry that they may not be enough to offset another trend: the continuing refusal -- or in many cases the inability -- of millions of U.S. consumers to go out and spend money the way they did before the crash.
As formerly spendthrift consumers all across the country begin to rebuild their personal balance sheets, now realizing that their home equity isn't going to fund their kids' higher education and their own retirement, more traditional methods of saving (e.g., spending less than you make) are becoming popular again.
No less an economic expert than former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan feared this development not long ago, noting that a higher personal saving rate (after tax income minus spending) could make an economic recovery difficult.
He seems to be right about a lot more things in retirement than when he ran the central bank.
When American Express asked a sampling of 2,032 people late last month what they would do if they found $500, the answers were like a pitcher of ice water in the face of retailers. Survey respondents were offered a list of possible spending choices that included splurging at a restaurant, going on a shopping spree and taking a trip.Apparently, that's what happens when you reach the maximum level of debt that a system can sustain and asset prices can be pushed no higher - you hit the reset button.
But a mere 10% or fewer marked one of those items. Most went down the list and checked off paying regular bills, reducing credit card debt or simply saving the money.
"What we see consumers doing is exhibiting a level of discipline that we didn't know," said Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman for American Express, which like other card companies has reinforced the reduced- spending trend by issuing fewer cards and slashing credit lines to lower their own risks.
"It's very clear consumers have hit the reset button. They've reevaluated their priorities and separated their wants from their needs," Wasserman said.
That is an odd analogy - hitting the reset button.
For example, when computers are functioning properly, there is no need to reboot. Normally, it is only when things go awry that a restart is needed. It seems that if the system had been designed a little better, there would be no need to reset it...