America's Saving Rate: Thoughts on Savings (Part 1 of 2)
Mike Shedlock examines what savings are, what they’re not, and explains why America’s negative Saving Rate is a serious problem.
Under that definition, it is clear that paying down one’s house mortgage, paying off credit card debts, or investing in the stock market is simply not saving. That does not imply these are bad ideas, it just means they are not savings.
Frank Shostak discusses this concept in “Have We Saved Enough?” Let’s take a look:
“The introduction of money doesn’t alter what we have so far said. When a baker sells his bread for money to a shoemaker, he has supplied the shoemaker with his saved unconsumed bread. The supplied bread sustains the shoemaker and allows him to continue making shoes. Note that the money received by the baker is fully backed up by his unconsumed production of bread…
“Money enables the goods of one specialist to be exchanged for the goods of another specialist. In short, by means of money, people can channel real savings, which in turn permits the widening of the process of real wealth generation…
“Now what about the case where money is used to buy unprocessed material — is the unprocessed material real saving? The answer is no. The raw material must be processed and then converted into a piece of equipment, which in turn can be employed in the production of final goods and services that are ready for human consumption. In this sense, the buyer of unprocessed material transfers his claims on real savings to the seller of material in return for the prospect that the transformed material some time in the future will generate benefits far in excess of the cost incurred.”
If I quoted everything of merit in that article, I would be reproducing it in its entirety. The concept is important, so I suggest it is a worthwhile read. Before continuing on, let’s quickly point out that expansion of money supply, whether or not that money ends up in savings accounts, is not savings, either. That concept can easily be proven by adding an extra zero to everyone’s paycheck, and, of course, to the cost of goods as well. Savings have not increased; only the denomination of money has. When it comes to home prices, what good does it do you if your home has doubled in price when a replacement home will have doubled in price as well? Of course, this does not even delve into the very real possibility that asset prices just might drop.
Asset-dependent consumers were running a negative personal saving rate to the tune of negative 0.6% of disposable personal income in July 2005. Not since the Great Depression of the early 1930s have U.S. households been stretched that far. Yet today, few seem worried about this development. Conventional wisdom has it that “rational” consumers have uncovered new and permanent sources of saving in the form of rapid asset appreciation — first equities and now homes…. The American consumer is on the leading edge of the shoestring economy.
The government sector is in a similar position. So far, the Bush administration has hit Congress with $62 billion in supplemental spending requests in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. The risk is that these disaster-relief appropriations are only a down payment on the final tab, which eventually will span the gamut — from infrastructure repair and reconstruction of housing and commercial areas to massive environmental cleanup efforts. In the politically charged post-Katrina environment, any semblance of fiscal discipline has vanished into thin air. Next year’s federal budget deficit is currently projected at minus 2.4% of GDP; a conservative estimate of a post-Katrina budget could easily push that figure into the minus 3.25-3.5% range — virtually identical to peak cyclical shortfalls hit in 2003-04.
One of two things has to happen — either the United States attempts to maintain its current lifestyle and places a greater claim on surplus saving elsewhere in the world, or there is a consolidation of discretionary spending by American households and businesses, alike.
The macro conclusions are inescapable: A saving-short U.S. economy that runs a massive current account deficit is effectively living beyond its means. It not only relies on foreign saving to fund domestic growth, but it also lacks the capacity to invest in public goods that may be needed to safeguard its future. Lacking in domestic saving, the shoestring economy is also biased toward chronic underinvestment in infrastructure — leaving itself vulnerable to “breakage.” Whether that breakage comes from within (i.e., Katrina) or from outside (i.e., terrorism), the shoestring economy runs the risk of being unprepared to ward off such blows in a fragile and dangerous world. An energy shock exacerbates the imbalances that produce such vulnerability. This draws into serious question the resilience that financial markets now seem to be banking on.
America’s Saving Rate: Chart Highlights
Here are the interesting highlights:
1) Private wage and salary disbursements increased $29.4 billion in July, compared with an increase of $17.9 billion in June
2) Personal outlays — PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments — increased $86.8 billion in July, compared with an increase of $92.8 billion in June. PCE increased $85.7 billion, compared with an increase of $88 billion
3) Proprietors’ income decreased $3.5 billion in July, in contrast with an increase of $14.7 billion in June
4) Farm proprietors’ income decreased $0.5 billion, compared with a decrease of $0.8 billion
5) Nonfarm proprietors’ income decreased $3 billion, in contrast with an increase of $15.5 billion
6) Rental income of persons decreased $3.3 billion in July, compared with a decrease of $4.3 billion in June Personal income receipts on assets (personal interest income plus personal dividend income) increased $7.8 billion, compared with an increase of $18 billion.
7) Personal current transfer receipts decreased $4.2 billion, in contrast with an increase of $5.6 billion
8) Contributions for government social insurance — a subtraction in calculating personal income — increased $3.6 billion in July, compared with an increase of $2.1 billion in June.
Negative personal saving reflects personal outlays that exceed disposable personal income. Saving from current income may be near zero or negative when outlays are financed by borrowing (including borrowing financed through credit cards or home equity loans), by selling investments or other assets, or by using savings from previous periods. Not only are we not saving, we are now borrowing simply to support consumption.
Q2) Mish, what does retail spending look like now as compared with historical growth?
A2) It seems as if we are now treating our houses as ATMs, since wage growth is not keeping up. I offer this chart as evidence:
Q3) Mish, is there any evidence of consumer stress as a result of all this spending?
A3) Yes, indeed, there is. We are finally starting to see a big uptick in mortgage defaults and delinquencies. As long as home prices allowed equity extraction, everyone was OK. Unfortunately, it now seems that appreciation has not kept up with expenditures. I offer the following chart as proof:
September 13, 2005