Higher prices, stagnant wages chip at savings rate

November 23, 2011

The nation’s savings rate has dwindled as consumers try to juggle rising prices and stagnant wages.

According to government data released Wednesday, the national savings rate was 3.5 percent in October, a slight improvement from the previous month but significantly below the 5 percent rate seen for most of the past two years. During the throes of the recession, the savings rate had skyrocketed above 8 percent.

“They spent it. That’s the short answer,” said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics. “It might be a lot of households don’t have a choice.”

Economists blamed higher gas and commodities prices for sending the savings rate to its lowest point since 2007. After remaining virtually flat in 2010, the consumer price index inched up this year as prices rose for essential products such as cotton and corn. Although consumers received bigger paychecks this year thanks to a payroll tax holiday, many found that the extra money was eaten up by increased fuel costs.

Of course, some consumer spending was driven by pent-up demand for discretionary goods. Auto sales have proved resilient, while online sales grew by double digits during the third quarter. Consumers’ appetite for spending has outpaced the rise in their incomes for several months.

That dynamic cannot last, said Wells Fargo senior economist Eugenio J. Aleman. He said Americans are in a cycle of save-and-splurge — building up their nest eggs to fund their spending sprees before retreating to start the cycle over again.

“It’s not sustainable. We’ll spend one month and then we’ll take it back and see what happens,” he said.

Consumers managed to make gains on all fronts in October, thanks to a .4 percent rise in income from the previous month. That allowed shoppers to eke out a .1 percent increase in spending while also replenishing some of their savings. Disposable income rose .3 percent.

Meanwhile, inflation moderated in October, giving consumers more breathing room. The consumer price index dipped .1 percent, driven in part by a 3.1 percent drop in gas prices.

“That’s the first month in a while that consumers have seen any real relief,” said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services.

Hoffman said he is optimistic that a significant number of jobs are being created this month, putting more money in consumers’ pockets and keeping the holiday season merry for retailers.

“It’s not an either/or,” he said. “We can spend, we can save.”

The National Retail Federation is predicting that sales during November and December will grow 2.8 percent to $466 billion. Although the increase is less than last year’s 5.2 percent gain, the rise would still be above the 10-year average.

Before the recession, shoppers relied on credit cards and other forms of debt to fuel those spending gains. But consumers have been steadily shedding debt since then. Revolving credit fell to $789.6 billion during the third quarter, down 2 percent from a year ago.

An NRF survey found that 44 percent of shoppers will rely primarily on debit cards, the highest number in the poll’s 10-year history. About a quarter of consumers intend to use cash, and about 29 percent plan to charge their purchases.

Aleman said the shoppers’ shift to checking accounts to manage their fluctuations in purchases contributes to the ebb and flow of savings.

“Consumers used to borrow in order to smooth consumption out across the year,” he said. “Now we are not doing that because borrowing is very weak.”

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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