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The pluses and minuses of reluctant consumers
If you've been keeping up with news from last weekend's convergence of economists at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, you will probably have heard of this optimistic-sounding conclusion by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein:
"It is not hard to imagine that a few years from now the current account imbalances of the US and China will be very much smaller than they are today or even totally gone."
An advance copy of the article was provided a few weeks ago at Real Time Economics, and considerable commentary has followed since (here, here, here, and here, for example). Not surprisingly, the progress Professor Feldstein envisions has two components:
"The persistence of large current account imbalances reflects government policies that alter the savings-investment balances in both the United States and China.
"The large current account deficit of the United States reflects the combination of large budget deficits (negative government saving) and very low household saving rates. ...
"In contrast, China's large current account surplus reflects the world’s highest saving rate at some 45 percent of GDP [gross domestic product]."
The source of Feldstein's belief that progress will come?
"Consider first the situation in the United States. Current conditions suggest that national saving as a percentage of GDP will rise as private saving increases and government dissaving declines. Private saving has been on a rising path from less than two percent of disposable income in 2007 to nearly six percent of disposable income in 2010. The forces that caused the rise in the U.S. saving rate since 2007 could cause the saving rate to continue to rise. Those forces include reduced real wealth, increased debt ratios, and a reduced availability of credit. ...
"The reduction of the U.S. current account deficit implies that the current account surplus of the rest of the world must also decrease. While this need not mean a lower current account surplus in China, I believe that the policies that the Chinese have outlined for their new five year plan are likely to have that effect. These include raising the share of household income in GDP, requiring state owned enterprises to increase their dividends, and increasing government spending on consumption services like health care, education and housing."
Some skepticism about the probability of a substantial decline in Chinese saving rates was noted in a recent post at The Curious Capitalist, which focuses on some interesting new research that relates high Chinese saving rates to an increase in income volatility. To the extent that the increased income volatility is inherent in China's ongoing transition to a more market-based economy, substantial changes in consumer behavior might be difficult to engineer. That said, only about half of the increase in Chinese saving rates appears explainable based on natural economic forces, and the Chinese government can certainly reduce national saving of its own accord (via deficit spending). Furthermore, according to Feldstein's calculations, a relatively small decline in the Chinese saving rate could eliminate their side of the current account imbalance.
As to the first part of the equation—an increase in saving by U.S. consumers—Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart offered this yesterday in remarks prepared for the Atlanta Rotary Club:
"Households have been actively deleveraging—that is, working down debt levels and saving more of their income. The savings rate has increased from a little over 1 percent in 2005 to more than 5 percent currently.
"Consumer debt as a percent of disposable income has declined markedly over the past three years after rising steadily since the 1980s. Most nonmortgage consumer debt reduction has been in credit card balances. As consumers have reduced their debt, the share of income used to service financial obligations has fallen sharply to the lowest level in a decade.
"Consumer action to reduce debt is not the whole deleveraging story. In the numbers, the decline in overall household indebtedness has been highly affected by bank write-offs. Also, banks' stricter underwriting requirements for new consumer debt have contributed to runoff.
"I expect the phenomenon of household deleveraging to continue."
Restrained consumer spending was one item on a list of three "headwinds" that President Lockhart believes will serve to restrain growth in 2011 (the other two being policy uncertainties and ongoing credit market repair). Not that this is all bad:
"First, today's headwinds to a significant degree reflect structural adjustments that will, in the longer term, place the U.S. economy on a stronger footing. The preconditions for strong future growth are reduced uncertainty, improved consumer and household finances, and healthy credit markets.
"Second, I believe the headwinds I have emphasized will restrain growth but not stop it. I fully expect growth in gross domestic product, in personal incomes, and in jobs to be better in 2011 than in 2010.
"Finally, I acknowledge the potential that economic performance this year could surprise me on the upside. Businesses, for example, are sitting on lots of cash. Cash accumulation is not something that can continue forever, particularly in the case of public companies. It may not take much weakening of headwinds to unleash some of the economic forces that thus far have been bottled up."
Though faster progress would be welcome—particularly with respect to job creation—the Lockhart and Feldstein commentary makes it clear there is a delicate balance between resolving the short-run pain and setting up the longer-term gain.
By Dave Altig
Senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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