Alan Reynolds
You must have heard that "Americans are spending everything they're making and more, pushing the national savings rate to the lowest point since the Great Depression." That line from Associated Press writer Martin Crutsinger was echoed on TV and in most newspapers, provoking columnists and editorial writers to bemoan the "savings crisis."

The analogy with 1933 was designed to equate a low savings rate with hard times. Actually, the savings rate is usually highest in recessions, because of fear and because recessions crush our nest eggs. The savings rate rose above 10 percent during the stagflations of 1974-75 and 1980-82 to make up for the wealth that evaporated when stocks and bonds collapsed. A low savings rate can be a sign of optimism about the future.

Since the purpose of saving is to add to wealth, the best measure of saving is the addition to wealth. In the third quarter of last year, the Fed's measure of household net worth amounted to $51.1 trillion -- up by more than $5 trillion from a year earlier. Net worth measures assets minus debts, so that 10.9 percent wealth gain also debunks any "debt crisis." Homeowners' equity accounted for only 21 percent of total wealth, so it was not just a housing boom.

Wealth gains from financial assets benefit a rapidly rising share of the population. Tax-deferred IRA, Keogh and 401(k) plans alone amounted to $6.7 trillion in 2004. Something like half a trillion dollars in dividends, interest and capital gains from such tax-sheltered investments were excluded from last year's income statistics, particularly those based on income tax returns.

A New York Times story said, "In 2003, the top 1 percent of households owned 57.5 percent of corporate wealth, up from 53.4 percent the year before, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the latest income tax data." Yet the most that such tax data could show is that the top 1 percent own a big share of taxable investments. That is because the rules do not allow large sums to be stashed in tax-deferred or tax-exempt (Roth) savings vehicles. The rest of us, by contrast, now keep the vast bulk of our investment income hidden in such plans. It only shows up in wealth surveys.

To put one year's $5 trillion wealth gain in perspective, personal income was just $9 trillion after taxes. Even if we'd saved half of all personal income, that could not have added as much to household net worth as was, in fact, added. We clearly need to examine the household balance sheet -- not just a one-year income statement.

Alan Reynolds

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