Huh. Judging from the situation today, it looks like banks have gone on a bit of a spending spree themselves. We’re starting to wonder whether the problem is less that Americans have been overspending and more that they have been stowing their money in the wrong places.
Brian Lawler, writing for The Motley Fool, notes that
when the news comes out that the average U.S. citizen has a negative savings rate, everyone tends to bemoan consumers’ overspending, undersaving ways. Yet in reality, people in the United States do a great job of saving for the future—if you measure by the more appropriate metric of economic wealth, which accounts for rising asset values even before they are sold.
The problem, of course, with these kinds of investments, as both Giusti an Lawler point out, is that if the housing or stock markets plummet, it can wipe people’s savings out. As Giusti puts it:
Unfortunately, stagnating home values, a dip in stock prices or some unforeseen calamity could cause the whole equation to shift radically out of balance.
And it is worth pointing out that by this logic, the low savings rate indicates not profligacy but rather a general trust in the stability of the economic system—after all, aren’t we always told to trust the markets? Well, Americans did, apparently, and look where it got them.
As for that issue of choice and consumer spending, a CNN piece from the middle of this year makes the following point:
The fact that consumers continue to borrow against their homes, even as they decline in value, shows how troubled Americans are.
‘It signals how consumers are struggling to get cash,’ [senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s Economy.com Scott] Hoyt said.
You don’t need a PhD in economics to know that anyone borrowing on their homes in early 2008 was in serious trouble. The business press needs to move beyond the idea that luxury spending by the general public got us into this mess. And that scrimping by the average American will go very far toward righting the Good Ship Economy.
Sometimes, Dear Reader, things really are as bad as they look.