NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Americans Saving Less, Not More

November 12, 1998

Despite last week's Commerce Department announcement that the personal savings rate has turned negative for the first time since 1933, analysts say the numbers are actually much more encouraging.

Commerce reported a negative 0.2 percent savings rate in September. Conventional wisdom says Americans already don't save enough for retirement or to meet investment needs. But Commerce only counts money saved from current disposable income after spending and taxes. Analysts point out most people consider savings to include bank and stock accounts, which Commerce regards as assets -- and Commerce regards neither assets nor the return on them as savings. So, analysts believe:

  • Investors have received huge capital gains from the stock market -- causing the Commerce Department to underestimate "savings."
  • If savings are a means to an end, people can rely on capital to meet financial goals -- so it doesn't matter if they don't save regularly out of their paychecks.
  • Using a broader gauge of savings -- home buying, consumer durables, capital gains, debt reductions -- a 1989 St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank study found the savings rate to be more than 10 percent from 1950 to 1988.
  • When "involuntary savings" -- employee and employer contributions to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and company health and pension benefits -- are included, the total savings rate has risen each decade, from 13.6 percent in the 1950s to 24.4 percent from 1980 to 1988.

However, analysts do point out the fact that savings have been trending lower for decades, thanks in part to rising taxes.

  • From 1990 to 1997, personal tax revenue soared 58 percent, due partly to the tax increases of 1993 and 1994.
  • In the same period, spending rose just 43 percent.
  • When tax rates rocket up, people typically don't cut back on spending, they cut back on savings.

Source: Ed Carson, "Negative Savings Rate Is Not So Negative," Investor's Business Daily, November 12, 1998.


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