The economic downturn is forcing a return to a culture of thrift that many economists say could last well beyond the inevitable recovery.
This is not because Americans have suddenly become more financially virtuous or have learned the error of their free-spending ways. Instead, these experts say, Americans may have no choice but to continue pinching pennies.
This shift back to thrift may seem to be a healthy change for a consumer class known for spending more than it earns, but there is a downside: American businesses have become so dependent on consumer spending that any pullback sends ripples through the economy.
Fearful of job losses and anxious over housing and stock declines, Americans are squirreling away more of their paychecks than they were before the recession. In the last year, the savings rate — the percentage of after-tax income that people do not spend — has risen to above 4 per cent, from virtually zero.
This happens in nearly every recession, and the effect is usually fleeting. Once the economy recovers, Americans revert to more spending and less saving. Over the last 30 years, the savings rate has fluctuated from over 14 per cent in the 1970s to negative 2.7 per cent in 2005, meaning Americans were spending more than they made.
This time is expected to be different, because the forces that enabled and even egged on consumers to save less and spend more — easy credit and skyrocketing asset values — could be permanently altered by the financial crisis that spun the economy into recession.