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Culture influences savings

Differences in world view also account for why some cultures save more than others, analysts say.
None | By UNI, New York
UPDATED ON MAR 30, 2006 04:23 PM IST

When Suyin Tsui has an extra $2.50 lying around, rather than spend it, she will cut back on her expenses so that she ends up having $3.00 to save.

"I can buy groceries that are cheaper or postpone buying new clothes for myself," said Tsui, an immigrant homemaker from Taiwan who lives in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Most Americans, however, practice very different saving habits from Tsui. Last year the US Household saving rate was negative for the first time since the Great Depression.

With interest rates so low, consumers have been depending heavily on credit to supplement their incomes, making them potentially vulnerable to shocks in the economy. Low financing rates made it easier to splurge on new cars and electronics and not just in the United States but countries like Britain and New Zealand as well.

Meanwhile, many European and east Asian countries have relatively high rates of saving. In fact, total saving in east Asian countries amounts to nearly 40 per cent of their economic output, compared with only 20 per cent in developed economies.

Yet, economics and finance can only account for so much of such a significant difference in saving rates. Common beliefs and behaviour patterns -- in short, culture -- may affect saving as much as economic factors, analysts said.

Analysts say quirks in statistics on income, investment and taxes can exaggerate the differences in saving rates between some countries. They also point out saving rates in the last 30 years have been generally falling around the world.

"But when you make all these adjustments, you are still left with what appear to be cultural differences," said Barry Bosworth, economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

When it comes to saving, one of the key differences between Asian and American cultures has to do with the reason why people save in the first place, said Bosworth, whose work has focused on the difference in saving patterns between Japan and the United States.

Unlike Americans, Asians have what Bosworth called a "dynastic" view of saving, meaning they often are motivated to accumulate wealth for use beyond their own lifetimes.

"An American might think in terms of saving for their own retirement, but an Asian will think of accumulating resources in terms of saving for their family, for multiple generations in the future," he explained.

Many political leaders and economists have warned the lack of US Saving could worsen as baby boomers exit from the workforce. As an economics rule of thumb, retirees tend to deplete their savings while workers add to savings.

At a time when many companies are having to renege on pension promises made to workers, lack of saving can make the future for retirees seem dire.

Is the piggy bank half full?

Furthermore, lack of US Saving underscores the breadth of global financial imbalances that many analysts say will at some point have to be corrected.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has argued that a global "savings glut" in countries such as China and Japan has sent large amounts of capital overseas to the United States, helping to finance the enormous US Trade deficit, which hit a record $723.62 billion last year.

However, if high saving countries decide to slow their purchases of US Financial assets, interest rates would rise and possibly drag on the economy -- a reason politicians and economists say US Saving needs to improve soon.

Differences in world view also account for why some cultures save more than others, analysts say.

China, the world's fourth largest economy, has an extraordinarily high national saving rate -- which includes government and corporate saving -- of 50 per cent of gross domestic product.

"The Chinese have a deeply entrenched and historically justified sense that the world is unsafe," said Tom Doctoroff, author of "Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer" and chief executive of JWT Greater China, one of the largest ad agencies in Asia.

"The high saving rate in China is a defence against uncertainty," he said.

Americans, on the other hand, have an essentially optimistic view of the world and a confidence that US political and economic institutions will basically work. And that world view contributes to a complacency about saving enough for the future.

"The United States is a country where people see the future as better and see themselves as making a better future for themselves," said Martin Baily, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington.

The rosy view of the future needs to be given a dose of reality, analysts generally reckon. Low or negative household saving leaves many people vulnerable to sudden shocks to the economy, such as spikes in energy costs or another Sept 11-type attack.

"We can improve saving," said JWT's Doctoroff. "But until the day arrives in which we fundamentally change our world view, it will not be a true 'culture of saving."' he said.

Perhaps, it will take a change of world view or just plain old grit. Tsui, a retired accountant, plans out her monthly expenses by assigning a name to each expense, such "gasoline" or "medicine."

When asked whether she would like to do things in her retirement like travel, she said, "Travel doesn't have a name yet."

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