Friday, March 6, 2009

This is a Switch, and a Good One

The U.S. Commerce Department recently reported that the savings rate in the U.S. has risen to its highest level in 14 years. This is a sea change, possibly with big consequences, since a large part of the global economy has long depended on uncontrollable consumption of Americans.

The loss in value of homes and the collapse of investments and retirement plans has caused a dramatic change in U.S. consumer behavior and the consequences are being felt from Taipei to Berlin. This last January, Americans in the United States saved 5 percent of their income, the highest percentage since 1995. As recently as April of last year, the savings rate was zero. If the savings rate of 5 percent per year continues, then spending by Americans will drop by $545 billion. Many analysts predict that the savings rate will continue to rise. Some believe it will return to the 9 percent level that was seen in 1980.

Consumer spending in the U.S. has undergone a "gigantic" drop according to Rebeca Grynspan, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The World Bank says that for the first time in 25 years, worldwide economic activity has dropped. It fell by 2.1 percent, mainly due to decreased consumption by the United States.

Carlo Cottarelli, head of the fiscal affairs department of the IMF believes that "it is necessary that consumers put their accounts in order" in the United States. For years they lived beyond their means, thanks to abundant credit, whose ultimate origin was Asian, which were happy to extend credit to the United States. They got into debt to buy more powerful cars, bigger houses, travel to the Caribbean, relying on "incredible" stock market gains and real estate capital gains, said Barry Bosworth, an expert at Brookings Institution. The fall of these assets has now destroyed $8 trillion, leaving the poorest families struggling to pay debts.

"I do not expect a return to the mentality of crazy spending in the U.S. in the medium term," said Gary Hufbauer, an expert of the Institute for International Economics. Eswar Prasad, a professor at Cornell University, said that the export-based economies "will be forced to think about rebalancing their growth and generating domestic demand in order to end the crisis." That's just what they are doing in China and Germany, they are employing fiscal stimulus packages. Asian governments have announced a fiscal expansion of nearly $700 billion, comparable to the U.S..

In the United States, the sudden restraint causes immediate pain, however, it is beneficial in the long term by ending behaviors that were unsustainable.

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