Daily Archives: June 30, 2009

Government Deficits Generate Household Savings

by L. Randall Wray

A Bloomberg report by Rich Miller and Alison Sider recently noted that “Americans are shutting their wallets and building their nest eggs at the fastest pace in 15 years.” It went on: [T]he household savings rate rose to 6.9 percent in May, the highest since December 1993, as personal spending increased less than incomes. The rate in April 2008 was zero. Most of the rise in income in May was due to one-time government stimulus payments to seniors, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
These should not be surprising events, as we have explained in previous posts (here, here and here). Government sector spending creates private sector income; government sector deficits create private sector savings. These are identities that virtually no one recognizes. I can recall that during the Clinton administration’s budget surpluses, the Wall Street Journal ran two front-page stories side-by-side, one congratulating the government for finally getting its budget in order—supposedly adding to national savings–and the other chastising consumers for spending more than their incomes—reducing national savings. The rising Obama budget deficit will help our private sector to accumulate savings and retire debt, part of the necessary remedy to the run-up of debt that occurred over the past dozen years. Unfortunately, fiscal policy remains too tight, as evidenced by continued (and, I think, growing) stress in the retail sector.

The report goes on: “the trend will put the country’s finances in better balance and reduce its dependence on Chinese investment”. Now this is utterly confused. Yes, our household sector’s finances will improve and might eventually recover—if the fiscal stance loosens and job losses are turned around to employment growth. However, the US did not, indeed in a significant sense cannot, rely on the Chinese. Our spending is in dollars, and we are the source of those dollars. Needless to say, every dollar spent by the Chinese was generated by us. In fact, we “financed” their accumulation of dollars, mostly through our current account deficit (we bought more stuff from them than they bought from us). This allowed them to “net save” in dollar assets. As our trade deficit with China shrinks (by the way, not necessarily a good thing for us!), China’s net saving in dollars will also shrink. It is quite unlikely that the trade balance will reverse any time soon (China is not going to become a net importer in the near future), so China will continue to accumulate dollar assets although (probably) at a reduced pace. But that does not “finance” US domestic spending.