Harvard Business Review
Welcome to the False Recovery
by Eric Janszen
Make yourself comfortable.
We’re going to be stuck here awhile.
The one economic indicator that seems to point toward long-term hope for businesses is the increase in the U.S. household savings rate—the portion of income that wage earners aren’t spending. Savings were close to nil until the economic collapse but have been rising ever since. As of this writing, the rate stands at about 4.8%. Economists and business leaders say this is a good sign, despite the short-term drag created by decreased spending. “I would feel more pessimistic if it were still 1%,” says Gregory W. Brown at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Friends of mine who run companies, both private and public, have expressed pretty much the same sentiment. A savings rate that’s even in the 6%-to-8% range is respectable. And if consumers don’t return to their old borrowing-and-buying habits, the argument goes, one day they’ll go out and spend all this saved-up cash, and businesses everywhere will reap the benefits.
But in fact, the rising savings rate is telling us something very different. It’s not reflecting an imminent recovery but rather a drawn-out malaise that will soon become something like a lost decade. Because of the way the government measures household savings, the increase doesn’t signify more money in people’s wallets; instead, it suggests that consumers are paying off their mounting debt during a period of reduced borrowing. That’s no harbinger of growth.
Companies planning for sudden and relatively near-term growth should reshape their strategies to make the best of economic flatness.
FIRE Extinguishes Savings
The savings rate is one of those numbers that econo-wonks adore because it is seen as an indication of pent-up consumer demand. Its history is simple. After the early 1980s, when the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy was born, we saw two glorious decades of falling interest rates and rising asset prices. So an entire generation internalized the false belief that home values and stock prices would forever rise. Equity portfolios averaging double-digit annual increases and home prices doubling every six years scotched any incentive to sock away 8% of income. As households spent, they also took on large amounts of debt. Cash went into mortgage payments for overpriced housing, and the savings rate dropped to near zero.
Which was fine until asset prices collapsed. Even now it’s hard to fathom that $6.3 trillion in financial assets and more than $5 trillion in real estate value vanished in the 24 months between late 2007 and late 2009. The popular delusion of asset price inflation as a savings substitute disappeared in tandem, as did millions of jobs and the portion of the economy sustained by private debt growth. When people stopped spending and borrowing, the government cut interest rates and pumped $1.6 trillion of deficit spending into the economy. This was the Great Recession, and it led to the current sharp rise in household savings, the first increase since the FIRE economy took hold.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
The reality is, households are using their savings to pay off the massive amounts of debt they accumulated even before their net worth declined a staggering $11 trillion over 2008 and 2009. The money is not going under mattresses or into bank accounts, from where it will emerge one day to jump-start the economy. It’s actually subsidizing the previous boom, which was built on debt and the presumption that assets would always cover that debt.
The fact that savings are a mirage is made worse by the simultaneous credit crunch. Credit card and auto loans have become much more difficult to get. Federal Reserve data show year-over-year decreases in those types of consumer loans (revolving credit)—a phenomenal development. (See the exhibit “Looks Like Progress—But It’s Not.”) That hasn’t happened since records began, in 1969.
So Americans continue to pay off their debt, and they’re unable to borrow as freely as before. The net effect misleadingly shows up in the statistics as an increase in the savings rate
Banks can loosen lending policies to allow people to borrow and spend again—but for that to solve anything, consumers must be extremely judicious in how they take on and use their debt. It’s more likely that consumer debt levels will rise again as individuals stretch themselves to afford what they want. Alas, this will drive the reported savings rate back down. By the end of 2010, I expect it to dip below 3%. Then, any drop in asset values will set off the debt trap. We’ll again see a rising savings rate and tightened lending, followed by loosened lending and a declining savings rate. The recovery will become a series of starts and stops: promising progress, periods of retreat.
Japan provides a glimpse of what may lie ahead for the U.S. Although Japan once enjoyed famously high savings, the rate fell as asset prices climbed during the country’s great stock and real estate booms. After the collapse in 1990, the savings rate rose for about a year before resuming its downward trend. Japan entered the Lost Decade and has since drifted in and out of recession.
Where does all this leave corporate America? With a lot of domestic consumers who can’t afford as much stuff as before. They’ll be maxed out on loans, they won’t be able to borrow as much against their homes as they once did, and many of the high costs that precipitated the financial crisis, such as energy-related expenses, will continue to eat away at their funds.
Hopes for a real recovery will fade. Increased lending will lead to decreased savings, and the cycle will start again. If the savings rate fails to stay high enough long enough for consumers to pay off debts and save up real spending money, notes Gregory Brown, the economy will “end up treading water for years.”