Why Don't Americans Save?

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This paper provides an examination of the decline in the household saving rate over the past two decades from both the macroeconomic and microeconomic perspectives. Between 1980-84 and 2000-04 private saving fell more than 8 percentage points of U.S. GDP. At the aggregate level, about 40 percent of the fall in the household saving rate occurred within contractual retirement accounts, that is, within employer-sponsored and individual retirement plans. Moreover, much of the drop in discretionary saving occurred before the sharp rise in equity and home values in the late 1990s. The paper examines the potential scope of a number of other explanations for the fall in aggregate saving, such as the drop in inflation, increased capital gains on wealth, and alternative treatments of consumer durables as investment. Lower rates of inflation do emerge as a possible cause of the drop in measured saving, but the other factors do not seem consistent with the observed timing of the decline.

The microeconomic section explores the feasibility of using information from successive Surveys of Consumer Finances (SCF) to follow the wealth accumulation of specific age cohorts over the period of most dramatic change in aggregate saving. For many components of wealth, the surveys are very similar to the corresponding aggregates of the flow of funds accounts (FFAs), but there are important discrepancies for corporate equities that become particularly large for the 2001 survey. The discrepancies in the nominal wealth are magnified when the two estimates are adjusted for capital gains, yielding substantially different estimates of household saving. The paper reports on some efforts to benchmark the SCF to the FFAs, using the distributional information of the SCF to provide an added dimension to the FFA data. The resulting microeconomic data indicate a widespread drop in saving that cannot be associated with any specific group of households.