Consumers and businesses in wealthy countries are being forced to confront a new reality: The days of spending beyond one’s means are over.
The global financial and economic crisis of the past two years has forced a change in habits. Banks that nearly collapsed have become more reluctant to lend, while households that lost personal wealth are reverting back to the higher savings rates of past generations.
Take the United States, where the shift from spending to saving could be massive. The world’s largest economy has long had some of the most debt—happy consumers, who in turn helped drive demand for products produced halfway around the world.
In 2007, U.S. households saved just 1.7 per cent of their disposable income, compared with 3.8 per cent in Japan and 8.3 per cent in the euro-zone, according to the Organization for Economic Co—operation and Development.
Since then, the “Great Recession” has devastated the equity of U.S. families. Plunging housing prices alone wiped out more than 7 trillion dollars in home value, while nearly one quarter of all households owed more in mortgages than their house was worth at the end of 2009, said real estate group First American Core Logic.
Even once the economy improves, U.S. consumers say they plan to save a whopping 15 per cent of their income, according to a survey by AlixPartners, a business advisory firm.
That figure is partly still the fear talking, with many worried about losing their jobs even as the U.S. embarks on a slow, but steady, recovery. Yet a rise in savings to even half that amount would have tremendous consequences for US and global businesses.
“We think there is a new normal,” said Steve Deedy, who co—leads AlixPartners’ consulting practice. “There is a move to a longer—term higher savings rate because there is a lot of the consumer war chest to be replenished.” The U.S. government warns that other countries must get used to the new normal. Exporting powerhouses like China and Germany will no longer be able to rely on the US consumer to fuel their own growth.
President Barack Obama last week spoke of a “bargain” with major exporters: “We’ve got to take on our responsibilities in terms of improving our savings rate ... but you have to recognize that a purely export—driven strategy is not going to work.” In Europe, the global crisis has also saddled many governments with massive debt burdens. Greece’s budget woes have grabbed the headlines, but others are being dragged down by dangerous deficits.
Spain’s economy has been especially hard hit by the global recession and a meltdown of its housing sector, arousing fears of Spain becoming the European Union’s next Greece.
Concern over the Spanish economy is based partly on the country’s private debt, incurred when credit was cheap and available to almost anyone.
Spain’s total debt is estimated at up to 400 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), more than half of which is private debt. This has forced the government to raise taxes and households to cut down on spending, making it difficult to revive the economy.
The biggest victims of the crisis include some 350,000 families unable to pay mortgages they took out during the boom years. These families have been, or face, being evicted, struggling with massive debts in a situation that the daily El Pais described as a “collective catastrophe.” “Spain grew beyond its possibilities, on the basis of credits, and now we must pay for those excesses,” economist Jaime Requeijo said.
Yet not all countries are drawing the same lessons from the crisis. With US, British and Spanish households pulling back, Australians now lead the world in personal debt, with the value of what households owe exceeding the value of the entire economy.
In February, the Reserve Bank of Australia found that the average Australian adult was about the equivalent of 56,000 US dollars in debt, against 44,000 dollars in the U.S. Home mortgages accounted for about 90 per cent, with the remainder made up of overdrafts and credit card debts.
Unlike most other countries, Australia avoided recession last year and is now thundering out of a mild downturn. Shane Oliver, an economist with brokerage AMP Capital, warned that the high debt signalled complacency.
“There is less fear about people losing their jobs and, as a consequence, Australians are taking on more debt again,” Mr. Oliver said.
What this means is the obverse of what is happening in stricken countries like the US and Britain. Australians are spending again and feeding back into economic growth.
Michael Rennie, managing director of consultancy McKinsey & Co in Australia, noted that 8 per cent of US mortgages were in default. But the figure for Australia was less than 1 per cent. Yet, with interest rates rising, more householders will face problems repaying.
“In the past 10 years our household debt has grown much faster to a much higher level than it is in places like the UK and the US where we tend to look at them and go ‘my goodness, look at their incredibly high household debt!’” Rennie said.