Drawing Down Savings to Pay for Growth Can’t Last Forever

The personal savings rate is suddenly under scrutiny. On Friday the Washington Post ran a piece calling it a “red flag” in the middle of otherwise good economic news. Today the Wall Street Journal reported on the latest numbers from the Commerce Department, noting that savings have fallen to their lowest rate in more than a decade.

There are various ways of looking at this. Here’s one:

After the Great Recession, the savings rate stayed steady because households were paying off debt primarily by reining in spending. This was not great for the economy, but it was good for personal finances. Between 2010 and the end of 2015, the difference between debt and savings improved from -6 percent to -4 percent.

That changed two years ago. Since the beginning of 2016, savings have plummeted, but this money is not being used to pay off debt, which has stayed about the same. It’s being used to buy stuff. The difference between debt and savings has fallen from -4 percent to -8 percent.

This is obviously not sustainable. When savings start to run out, households can keep up their spending for a while by maxing out their credit cards. Eventually, though, they have no choice but to cut back on consumption, something that will almost certainly stall the economy when it happens. Before long, that stall will turn into a recession.

There are actually lots of red flags in the economy right now. My guess—which is worth what you paid for it—is that the US economy will continue to hum along in 2018, buoyed by the Republican tax cut and the economic recovery in the rest of the world. But I suspect it doesn’t have much longer than that. Right now, I imagine that Republicans are holding their collective breath, praying for the economy to crash precisely in November, after it can’t affect the midterm elections, and then recover precisely a year later, when the 2020 elections start to approach. They might get their wish.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate