Are Americans becoming more thrifty? Personal savings rates are up, the government statistics tell us. This fact has engendered a wide-ranging debate. Is this just a short-term deviation from America’s obsession with spending, or is it a permanent change?
I believe it’s a permanent change, but not for the reasons you might think.
No, the financial crisis and recession have not administered some type of shock treatment on the American psyche. Rather, it’s my view that the crisis has administered shock treatment on the financial institutions that gave rise to a high-debt culture—a culture of high credit card and installment balances, no money down, minimum monthly payments, and negligible savings.
Here’s my hypothesis: The steady decline in American savings rates over the past quarter-century was largely due to growing access to easy credit. It was a structural or institutional shift, not a behavioral one. Americans in the 1950s, who saved at a much higher rate than Americans today, were not somehow morally superior in their fortitude or self-discipline. Rather (in my view) they just couldn’t say “charge it” every time a new consumer product caught their eyes.
The institutional impediments to spending were strong. Credit cards were nonexistent. When it came to borrowing to buy a new car, it was a short-term installment loan and required a hefty down payment. And when it came to buying a home, there was no PMI—it was 20% down, in cash. (And who remembers layaway?)
Now, with tightening credit standards, Americans actually have to save money to buy things—they need cash to buy a car or new appliances or a home. Hence the rise in savings. From this point of view, many of the recent complaints about availability of credit have a silver lining. They will encourage those Americans who are overreliant on debt to consider saving for the future, rather than borrowing from it.
Recently, I heard a radio interview with an author who complained about rapacious credit card practices. He talked about credit limits being sliced and minimum payments raised sharply. There were a number of legitimate points he raised.
And yet I couldn’t help thinking that maybe we want and need debt and borrowing to have a “bad rap.” Longer-term institutional restrictions on credit may be exactly what America’s meager savings rate might need. They will contribute to a savings culture—a culture where saving, not debt financing, is the automatic response to every consumer impulse.