May 24, 2024

Why Did So Few People Save For Hard Times?

A Recession of Biblical Proportions

Consumers usually build savings in booms, then raid their troves during busts – but not this time.

In booms we put away some of the abundance because we know we’ll need it in busts to come. Then, when the bad times hit, we spend some of what we’ve saved. But no more: Our recent bizarre behavior helps explain how we got into this economic mess.

For the first time since Genesis, consumers are doing everything backward. During the expansion from 2002 through 2007, our savings rate fell rather than rose. In mid-2005 it even went negative, and it mostly stayed below 1% until late last year. Then, as the recession really took hold, we again did the opposite: We increased our saving. As the economy shrinks, our savings rate has climbed to almost 3%.

Not only do we lack savings to dig into and spend during this downturn, but we’re also spending a smaller proportion of our incomes (which are themselves stagnating, so maybe it’s a triple whammy). Put it all together, and it’s clear why this recession is dragging on.

The central mystery: Why did we go into hock in the fat years? One argument is that we were behaving rationally. As our homes increased in value, they were doing our saving for us, so we didn’t have to save out of current income.

Nor was our borrowing binge focused only on mortgages; we were going heavily into most other types of debt as well. In fact, we were spending record proportions of our incomes just to service our personal debt – even with interest rates near historical lows.

Maybe it was just a mania, focused not on tulip bulbs but on the simple joy of buying, reinforced by a belief that bad times were no longer inevitable.

Whatever happens, don’t expect miracles. Spending and saving behavior evolves slowly, and our current mess is in some ways the culmination of a long journey. We may not suddenly start behaving with biblical wisdom. But at least let’s try not to forget how bad things can be when we get spending and saving backward.

Normal vs. Abnormal

It’s normal human behavior to want more than we have.   Our free enterprise system rewards hard workers by allowing them to live well.   What was not normal over the past decade were the ridiculous lending policies of the banks, encouraged and supported by the easy monetary policies of the Federal Reserve.

In fact, not much of anything was normal over the past ten years.  It’s not normal to lend borrowers large amounts of money without regard to income or credit.  It’s not normal to expect housing prices to rise 100% every five years.  It’s not normal to expect that a nation could borrow its way to prosperity.  The list goes on.

The really bad news here is that while consumers know what they have to do (save more, spend less) every action being taken by the Government and Federal Reserve is to continue the failed policies of the past, this time on an even grander scale.  Let’s all hope that the common sense of the governed will ultimately elect leaders who stop promising free lunches with borrowed money.


Promises That Cannot Be Kept

Did Bernard Madoff run the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time, or does this honor actually belong to the US Government?

Is Social Security A Ponzi Scheme?

In the aftermath of the Madoff implosion, quite a few people have pointed out the parallels between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security. Arnold Kling, whom I respect, has written:

I’ve been thinking that Madoff is a perfect analogy for the public sector. The government gives people money, which it expects to obtain by taking the money from people in the future. Even the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, not known as a right-wing organization, sees the U.S. fiscal stance as unsustainable (pointer from Ezra Klein via Tyler Cowen)—in other words, a Ponzi scheme.

Other people have gone farther. Paul Mulshine of the New Jersey Star Ledger wrote a column entitled “The Ponzi scheme that Baby Boomers are waiting to cash in on.” And Jim Cramer has called Social Security the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

The article above discussed only social security and not the other two financial time bombs – medicare and medicaid.  The net present value future cost of these three programs is estimated at $52 trillion, a burden that we have thrown on future generations who may be unwilling or unable to pay.

Wages have been stagnant for a decade.  Politicians are afraid to raise taxes and voters don’t want to pay so the easy solution is to borrow the money and add more debt, a self defeating cycle.   Promises and free lunches are great ways to get elected but governments only redistribute wealth.   Without the ability to tax the productive capacity of its country’s labor force, a government would have no fiscal capacity.

Debts do matter, of course, it’s just common sense.  Merely because a governmental entity has taken on the debt in the name of the taxpayer does not mean we can get a free lunch.  Ultimately we fool ourselves to believe that debt obligations are not a problem –  the world learned this in 2008.   The government can promise all of us everything and we can keep electing the fools who say what we want to hear, but ultimately someone has to pay for the promises or they will not be kept.