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Low U.S. saving: increase it by reducing the federal deficit.

In spite of the federal deficit-reduction

package enacted October 1990, the deficit

remains huge and national saving is still

very low. In reconsidering the issue of U.S.

saving, this article concludes: (1) Low

national saving continues to be a major U.S.

problem; (2) demographic developments in

the 1990s will not raise the saving rate

significantly; (3) new tax incentives aimed at

raising household saving would be

ineffective; and (4) the surest and most direct way

to raise national saving is still to reduce the

federal deficit, by either cutting spending

and/or increasing taxes.

TWO YEARS AGO, Thomas E. Swanstrom concluded that the only assured way to increase national saving was to reduce the federal budget deficit ("The Savings Solution," Business Economics, July 1989). However, he also concluded that the U.S. saving problem had been exaggerated and that demographic changes would raise saving markedly in the 1990s. Since that article appeared, considerable research has been devoted to the saving issue, and the undeniable conclusion from that research is that low saving remains a major U.S. economic problem.

The U.S. national saving rate -- already among the lowest in the industrialized world in the 1970s -- declined significantly in the 1980s. It averaged 16.6 percent of GNP in the 1980-88 period, trailing the average of 23.1 percent for twenty-two other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by 6.5 percentage points, according to U.N. measurements. As shown in Table 1, that saving gap between the U.S. and the OECD average about equally reflected relatively large government dissaving and lower private saving (by both businesses and households) in the U.S.

U.S. saving looks rather sorry on a time-series basis, too. As shown in Table 2, the U.S. national saving rate fell 3.5 percentage points from its average of 16.9 percent of GNP in 1972-81 to 13.4 percent in 1982-89. That decline about equally reflected an increase in the federal deficit and a decline in household saving. In contrast, other saving (both business saving and state and local government surpluses) rose slightly. In comparison with the 1952-71 period, the U.S. national saving rate was also down in the 1980s, but the U.S. private saving rate was about the same in both periods. (In 1990 the national saving rate, at 12.0 percent, was even lower than its average level of the 1980s.)


Low saving is an important U.S. economic problem. According to a study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, low U.S. saving "has caused a steady erosion of the nation's growth potential" and "has contributed significantly to the worsening of the nation's trade and investment position."(1)

First, low saving hurts growth. A strong historical relationship exists between domestic saving and capital investment.(2) Moreover, because slower investment retards economic growth, a low rate of national saving retards advancement in a nation's standard of living. Thus, it should not be surprising that the U.S. standard of living has grown very slowly in recent decades. For example, real GNP per worker grew at an average annual rate of 1.7 percent in the 1952-71 period, but at only a 0.7 percent rate in 1972-89.

Second, a decline in national saving can hurt a nation's international payments position. In the U.S. in the 1980s, rising government deficits stimulated consumer spending (and hence imports) and contributed to a rise in the value of the dollar (hurting U.S. exports and boosting U.S. imports). Partly as a result, an essentially balanced U.S. foreign trade position in the early 1980s mushroomed into a large trade deficit by the mid-1980s, and the U.S. shifted from being the world's largest creditor to the world's largest debtor nation. That new debtor position leaves the U.S. uncomfortably dependent on foreign capital.(3)


All of the above saving concepts refer to "gross" saving, i.e., total saving, i.e., after depreciation deductions. "Net" saving, i.e., after depreciation deductions, is particularly difficult to measure and to compare with confidence on an across-country basis. Nevertheless, using OECD calculations, net national saving in the U.S. has fallen even more sharply than gross saving, from 9 percent of GNP in 1971-80 to 4 percent in 1981-87, while the OECD average fell from 13.5 percent to 8.7 percent.

To be sure, numerous problems also exist in the calculation of gross saving. As a result, the question of how to calculate saving is somewhat controversial. Nevertheless, adjusting for those problems would not alter the basic conclusion that U.S. national saving declined significantly in the 1980s.(4) However, adjusting for those problems could slightly reduce the reported saving gap between the U.S. and other countries, depending on which adjustments were made.(5)


As noted in Table 2, the decline in U.S. national saving between 1972-81 and 1982-89 reflects two developments: a 2.2 percentage point increase in the federal deficit and a 2.0 percentage point decline in the household saving rate.

Explaining the increase in the federal deficit is relatively straightforward: Interest costs on the rising national debt rose 1.4 percentage points as a share of GNP, entitlement outlays rose 1.2 percentage points, and defense outlays rose 0.8 percentage point. In contrast, other federal outlays declined 1 percentage point. Meanwhile, overall federal tax revenues were basically unchanged as a share of GNP in the two periods (18.6 percent in 1972-81 and 18.8 percent in 1982-89).

However, explaining the decline in household saving is more complicated. Indeed, many analysts have suggested that household saving should have risen in the 1980s, because the rate of return on household saving rose, due to the adoption of new federal saving incentives (e.g., individual retirement accounts), reductions in individual income tax rates, and a rise in real interest rates. Instead, a variety of explanations have been advanced to explain the decline in household saving. According to researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the OECD, the following factors were important in depressing the U.S. household saving rate in the 1980s:(6)

1. Wealth Effect. A rapid rise in household wealth,

especially in equities and housing values, reduced

households' need to save as much to meet future

targeted levels of household wealth. This factor

alone can explain most of the decline in U.S.

household saving, according to the IMF.

2. Pensions. The surge in bond and stock markets

reduced the required contributions of employers to

defined-benefit private pension plans (and those

contributions accounted for two-fifths of total

household saving in the 1980s). However, while the

reduction in employer contributions to pensions

contributed to the decline in household saving, it

probably had less impact on overall private saving,

because the decline in business costs associated

with the drop in employer contributions may have

helped to increase business saving somewhat. (The

IMF estimates that, for the U.S., about one-third

of any addition to private pension plans would be

added to total private saving.)

3. Sustained Expansion and Reduced Inflation. The

disinflation and sustained economic recovery in the

1980s helped to lessen uncertainty, causing the

household saving rate to fall. In contrast, rising

uncertainty in the 1970s, associated with the two

oil price shocks, probably led to an increase in

household saving (from 4.8 percent of GNP in 1952-71

to 5.4 percent in 1972-81).

4. Insurance. The increased availability and use of

insurance (e.g., health, liability, life, and

unemployment) reduced the need for precautionary saving.

5. Financial Liberalization. Household saving was

depressed by financial liberalization, which led to a

large increase in the availability and, in turn, the

use of consumer debt by households. (Moreover,

financial liberalization associated with corporate

repurchases and takeovers in the U.S. may have

reduced the U.S. private saving rate by 1 t 2

percentage points of GNP in the 1980s.)

6. "Vintage" Effect. Persons born since 1939 have

been shown to have, at the same age, a lower

propensity to save than those persons born prior to

1939 (corrected for other factors that might

influence household saving). This "vintage effect" may

reflect the fact that later generations have not lived

through the trauma of the Great Depression and,

instead, have experienced continued stability in

employment and income in the postwar period.

7. Demographic Change. More controversial is

whether, and to what extent, saving was depressed

by changes in the age composition of the

population. As Swanstrom has noted, the prime-saving

portion of the population, those aged 45-69,

declined significantly in the 1970s and 1980s.

Emphasizing this development, several empirical

studies have suggested that the changing age

composition of the population appreciably depressed

household, private, and national saving in the


In contrast, other analysts have suggested that

those studies exaggerated the impacts of

demographic shifts on saving because they did not

incorporate other social and economic variables into

their models (e.g., wealth and "vintage" effects).

They have noted, too, that there has been no

significant shift in the relative size of low-saving

groups (youth and the elderly combined) versus

high-saving groups (middle-aged persons).(8)

Another study suggests that it was not the

demographic change itself (i.e., the increase in retirees

per se) that brought the saving rate down, but

rather it was a large increase in government

income-transfer programs (e.g., social security),

which boosted the per-capita incomes and, in turn,

the consumption of low-saving retirees.(9) As a

result, these studies conclude that changes in age

composition can explain only a negligible fraction,

if any, of the decline in household saving in the



Research suggests that the U.S. problem of low national saving will not go away by itself in the decades ahead. First, the business saving rate is likely to be lower in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s, as corporate profits and therefore retained earnings will be held down by increased foreign competition, a higher average level of corporate taxes, and continued rapid growth in business costs for employee and retiree health care. Second, the changing age structure of the population probably will boost the household saving rate only slightly in the 1990s. Looking further long term, demographic factors will not change markedly between 2000 and 2020, and after that they will depress household saving, due to rapid growth in the elderly population.(10)

This view -- that private saving will not rise by very much in the 1990s -- stands in sharp contrast to that of Swanstrom and James W. Christian, who expect the household saving rate to rise by 3 percentage points of GNP over the next two decades. In their view, there will be a pro-saving shift in age composition, beginning about 1995, as the middle-aged (high-saving) population group becomes a larger share of the total population.(11) However, the Swanstrom/Christian analysis fails to take into account the impacts on private saving of rising wealth, the "vintage" effect, and other developments that will reduce the precautionary need to save.(12)

Key Role of the Federal Deficit

Thus, if national saving is to be raised, government policy changes will be needed. As Swanstrom noted two years ago, the surest and most direct way to increase national saving would be to reduce the federal budget deficit.(13) Unfortunately, in spite of the five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction agreement enacted in October 1990, the federal deficit is expected to remain huge for sometime. As a result, the national saving rate will remain low.

Just how the federal deficit is reduced -- whether via spending cuts or tax increases -- is less important to the level of national saving than accomplishing a reduction in the deficit itself. The evidence is unconvincing that government spending cuts would be significantly more effective in increasing national saving than personal tax increases would be, or vice versa. Indeed, data for the U.S. indicate that both tax increases and spending cuts are reflected equally and fully in rises in national saving.(14)

However, there is not unanimity among economists as to whether reductions in the deficit would ultimately translate dollar-for-dollar into higher national saving (i.e., after indirect effects). For example, according to simulations on the Washington University of St. Louis Macromodel, roughly one-half of a reduction in the federal deficit (by either spending cuts and/or personal and corporate income tax increases) would be offset by a subsequent decline in private saving.(15) Furthermore, data for most OECD countries suggest that increases in personal income taxes would lead to a partially offsetting decline in private saving, due to an associated decline in disposable income, a reduction in real interest rates, and/or an emerging perception of a lower government debt to finance in the long run.(16)

Moreover, the nature of any spending cuts could be important for both technical and substantive reasons. Spending cuts in government consumption or transfer payments would directly produce a dollar-for-dollar increase in national saving. However, cuts in government investment in the public infrastructure would not increase national saving according to U.N. measurements (because government investment is counted as saving in U.N. measurements, though not in U.S. measurements.) The nature of the cuts could affect economic growth, too. Indeed, research shows that cuts in government consumption or transfers would have a more positive impact in improving economic growth than would reductions in public investment, which is highly correlated with economic growth.(17)

Raising Household Saving

Tax reforms that would increase the rate of return to saving would increase the federal deficit by reducing tax revenues, and they would probably have only a negligible positive impact on household saving. The improved incentive to save that would result from such reforms would be largely offset by a reduced need to save that would result from such reforms. Confirming hypothesis of offsetting tendencies, a recent IMF survey of quantitative research concluded that the interest elasticity of saving, though positive, appears to be small.(18)

Five tax reform proposals intended to increase household saving include:

1. Substituting Consumption Taxes for Income Taxes.

Any major tax reform package that replaced all or

part of the income tax with a value-added tax (VAT)

would have only a negligible impact on household

saving. A study of the experience of OECD

countries over a twenty-year period found no significant

relationship between reliance on consumption

taxes and either private or national saving rates.(19)

Another study suggests that using a 5 percent VAT

to reduce personal income taxes would raise

household saving slightly, by 0.5 percent of GNP.(20)

Finally, another study suggests that the

implementation of a $60 billion VAT, coupled with

$60 billion of income tax relief, would increase the

capital stock by less than 2 percent after fifty years.(21)

2. Removing Tax Incentives that Encourage

Borrowing. Countries that have generous tax deductibility

for consumer credit tend to have lower household

and national saving rates.(22) While the 1986 Tax

Reform Act phased out the deduction for consumer

interest in the U.S., the deduction for interest on

home mortgage loans remained largely untouched.

Curtailing or phasing out that deduction (which can

be used to finance consumer expenditures as well

as housing) would seemingly help to increase

household saving by raising the effective cost of

borrowing. However, there is little research on this

issue, making the size of that impact on household

saving uncertain.

3. Introducing New Saving Incentives. Expanding tax

incentives for saving, e.g., via individual

retirement accounts (IRAs), would increase the rate of

return on saving, but probably have only a

negligible impact in raising household saving.

Moreover, it would have a negative impact on the

national saving rate if it were financed by an

increase in the federal deficit.(23)

IRAs may not increase household saving, for

three reasons: (1) The dollar cap on IRAs mutes the

incentive effect for saving; (2) taxpayers may spend

the resulting tax saving on consumer goods and

services; and (3) IRAs can be financed in ways that

do not increase saving (i.e., by transferring existing

savings into IRA accounts, by borrowing, or by

diverting new saving that would have occurred in

the absence of IRAs into IRA accounts). Four recent

studies do show a positive relationship between

saving incentives and household saving. However,

each of those studies is rather unconvincing.(24)

Three of the studies were based on unconventional

assumptions and were not robust over time.(25) The

fourth study found a positive relation between

saving incentives and household saving rates in Canada

but not in the U.S.(26)

4. Introducing a Preferential Tax Rate for Capital

Gains. Econometric evidence suggests that, if a

preferential tax treatment for capital gains were

financed by an increase in personal taxes, it would

probably increase the private saving rate, but only

negligibly. Moreover, it would probably reduce

national saving if it were financed by an increase in

the budget deficit.(27)

5. Reducing Personal Income Tax Rates. Cutting

income tax rates would increase the rate of return on

household saving, but it would not increase the

household saving rate appreciably, and it would

increase the federal deficit substantially. Even

using a higher-range estimate of the interest elasticity

of household saving would fail to change that

conclusion. For example, a study by Michael Boskin

found that a 10 percent increase in the marginal

rate of return on saving would increase the

household saving rate by 4 percent.(28) That could raise

household saving from its 1989 level of 3.3 percent

of GNP to 3.4 percent. However, even that small

increase in household saving would require major

reductions in income tax rates, which would

substantially increase the federal deficit and reduce

national saving, unless they were offset by tax

increases elsewhere or by government spending cuts.

Raising Business Saving

Government policies to increase business saving could substantially raise national saving, under certain conditions. For example:

1. Cutting Corporate Income Tax Rates. This policy

would raise national saving, if financed by an

increase in personal income taxes or cuts in

government spending, because it would result in some

increase in retained earnings. However, if financed

by an increase in the federal deficit, a cut in

corporate taxes could decrease national saving, for two

reasons: (1) When after-tax profits have been

increased by $1 in the past, corporations have tended

to increase their dividend payments by about 25

cents, so business saving would not rise by the full

amount of the tax cut; (2) household saving would

decline somewhat, because households tend to

counterbalance about half of any change in

corporate saving, because some households (who are the

owners of corporations) "see through the corporate

veil" and partially adjust their own saving to offset

those changes in corporate wealth.(29)

2. Restoring an Investment Tax Credit (ITC) or

Enacting Faster Depreciation Schedules. These

policies would increase business saving, and they

would also be a very effective way to stimulate

investment spending. That is because they would

reduce the cost of capital with much less of an

increase in the federal deficit than a reduction in

corporate income tax rates would -- because an

ITC or faster depreciation would apply to only new

capital formation, whereas cuts in corporate income

taxes would have to apply to the profits generated

by existing capital as well as new capital.(30)


Low national saving is a serious problem, because of its retarding effects on economic growth and its negative impact of the nation's international payments position. The problem of low saving is not likely to go away of its own accord, because demographic factors acting to raise the household saving rate will be offset by a decline in the business saving rate. The surest and most direct way to increase national saving would be to reduce the federal budget deficit. Tax increases and spending cuts would be equally effective in both reducing the federal deficit and increasing national saving, but enhanced saving incentives within the tax code would be unlikely to increase either private or national saving by very much.

Table 1

Gross Saving in the United States and Other OECD Countries
 Percent of GNP, 1980-88(*)
 U.S. Other OECD(**)
Total Gross National Saving 16.6 23.1
 Private Saving 18.7 22.4
 Household Saving 9.7 11.4
 Business Saving 9.0 11.5
 Government Saving -2.1 0.9

(*)U.N. measurement concepts are used. National saving consists of saving by households, businesses, and governments at all levels. Private saving consists of household saving and business saving, with the latter consisting of undistributed corporate profits and depreciation allowances. Government saving consists of the government budget surplus or deficit plus (in U.N. measurements, but not the U.S. measurements cited in Table 2) government nondefense capital formation. (**)National saving for "Other OECD" reflects data for twenty-two non-U.S. OECD" countries, whereas Government Saving and Private Saving reflect data for only fourteen countriess, and Household Saving and Business Saving reflect data for only countries. Consequently, Government Saving and Private Saving do not sum exactly to Total Gross National Saving in Table 1, and Household Saving and Business Saving do not sum exactly to Private Saving. Source: OECD, National Accounts.

Table 2

Gross Saving in the United States
 Percent of GNP(*)
 1952-71 1972-81 1982-89
Gross National Saving Rate 15.9 16.9 13.4
 Private Saving Rate 16.5 17.8 16.3
 Business Saving Rate 11.7 12.4 12.9
 Household Saving Rate 4.8 5.4 4.3

Government Surplus (+) or
 Deficit (-) -0.6 -0.9 -2.9
 Federal Government -0.5 -1.9 -2.9
 State and Local Government -0.1 1.0 1.3

(*)U.S. measurement concepts are used. Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Income and Product Accounts.


(1)Harris, Ethan S. and Charles Steindel, "The Decline in U.S. Saving and Its Implications for Economic Growth," Quarterly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Winter 1991, vol. 15, nos. 3-4, pp. 1-19.

(2)Bacchetta, Philippe and Martin Feldstein, "National Saving and International Investment," National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 3164, November 1989.

(3)Bergsten C. Fred, "Domestic and International Consequences of Low Saving," in C.E. Walker, M.A. Bloomfield, and M. Thorning, ed., The U.S. Savings Challenge: Policy Options for Productivity and Growth, Boulder, CO Westview Press, 1990, pp. 89-102.

(4)Bovenberg, A. Lans and Owen Evans, "National and Personal Saving in the United States: Measurement and Analysis of Recent Trends," International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper 89/99, December 1989. See also, Thomas E. Swanstrom, "The Savings Solution," Business Economics, vol. xxiv, no. 3, July 1989, pp. 10-16. Swanstrom prefers the Federal Reserve Board's definition of household saving to that of the U.S. Commerce Department in the National Income and Product Accounts, but he concedes that the household saving rate has fallen substantially under both definitions.

(5)Aghevli, Bijan B., J.M. Boughton, P.J. Montiel, D. Villanueva, and G. Woglom, "The Role of National Saving in the World Economy: Recent Trends and Prospects," Occasional Paper No. 67, IMF,

March 1990, 51-56. Most importantly, U.N. measurements include government

capital investment (nondefense only) as government saving, whereas U.S. measurements exclude it..

(6)Aghevli, et al, pp. 16-21; and Dean, Andrew, M. Durand, J. Fallon, and P. Hoeller, "Saving Trends and Behavior in OECD Countries," OECD, Working Paper No. 67, June 1989.

(7)Swanstrom. See also Bovenberg and Owens; and James W. Christian, "Tax Policies for Increasing Personal Saving: Prospects and Policies for Higher Personal Saving in the 1990s," in Walker, et al, 176-194. Based on the life-cycle model, young persons tend to dissave or save little, as they accumulate an initial stock of durable goods and/or spend in anticipation of increases in their incomes; middle-aged persons tend to save the most, as they anticipate relatively low incomes after their retirement; and the elderly tend to have low, or even negative saving rates, as savings are expended in retirement.

(8)Auerbach, Alan J. and Laurence J. Kotlikoff, "Demographics, Fiscal Policy, and U.S. Saving in the 1980s and Beyond," NBER Working Paper No. 3150, Conference on Tax Policy and the Economy, November 14, 1989.

(9)Summers, Lawrence H. and Chris Carroll, "Why Is U.S. National Saving So Low," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2:1987, September 1987, The Brookings Institution, Washington, pp. 607-642. Also see L.H. Summers, "Tax Policies for Increasing Personal Saving: Stimulating U.S. Personal Saving," in Walker, et al, pp. 153-176.

(10)Auerbach and Kotlikoff, pp. 4, 11-13; Aghevli, et al, pp. 17-18.

(11)Swanstrom, pp. 14-16; and Christian, in Walker, et al, p. 191.

(12)Dreyer, Jacob S., "Discussion" to Christian, in Walker, et al, pp. 194-197.

(13)Swanstrom, p. 16.

(14)Ebrill, Liam P. and Owen Evans, "Ricardian Equivalence and National Saving in the United States," IMF Working Paper No. 88/96, October 26, 1988.

(15)Prakken, Joel L., "The Federal Deficit, National Saving, and Economic Performance," in Walker, et al, pp. 173-309.

(16)Aghevli, et al, p. 28.

(17)Aschauer, David A., "Public Investment and Productivity Growth in the Group of Seven," Economic Perspectives, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, September/October, 1989, pp. 17-25.

(18)Smith, Roger S., "Factors Affecting Saving, Policy Tools, and Tax Reform: A Review," IMF Working Paper, No. 89/47, May 23, 1989.

(19)Militzer, Ken and Ilona Ontscherenki, "The Value Added Tax: Its Impact on Savings," Business Economics, vol. 25, no. 2, April 1990, pp. 32-37.

(20)Richards, Gordon, "Some Macroeconomic Implications of the Value-Added Tax: Results from an Econometric Model," Studies in Economic Analysis, National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C., 1990, pp. 43-83. Richards argues that the nature of large-scale econometric models tends to dampen such impacts, so the impact on saving may be greater than simulations show.

(21)Gravelle, Jane G., "Effects of a Value Added Tax on Capital Formation," Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, November 14, 1988.

(22)Tanzi, Vito, "The Tax Treatment of Interest Incomes and Expenses in Industrial Countries: A Discussion of Recent Changes," Taxation, Proceedings of the 80th Annual Conference of the National Tax Association-Tax Institute of America, Columbus, OH, 1988, pp. 128-36.

(23)Gravelle, Jane G., "Capital Gains Taxes, IRA's, and Savings," CRS Report for Congress, September 26, 1989.


(25)Feenberg, Daniel and Jonathan Skinner, "Sources of IRA Savings," in L.H. Summers, ed., Tax Policy and the Economy 1989, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1989, pp. 25-46; Venti, Steven F. and David A. Wise, "Have IRAs Increased U.S. Savings?" Evidence from Consumer Expenditure Surveys," NBER Working Paper No. 2217, April 1987; and Venti and Wise, "The Saving Effect of Tax-Deferred Retirement Accounts: Evidence from SIPP," March 1989.

(26)Carroll, Chris and Lawrence H. Summers, "Why Have Private Savings Rates in the United States and Canada Diverged?" Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 20, September 1987, pp. 249-280.

(27)Gravelle, Jane G., "Can a Capital Gains Tax Cut Pay for Itself?," CRS Report for Congress, March 23, 1990.

(28)Boskin, Michael J., "Taxation, Saving, and the Rate of Interest," Journal of Political Economy, vol. 86, April 1978.

(29)Poterba, James M., "Tax Policies for Increasing Corporate Saving," in Walker, et al, pp. 244-260; and Aghevli, et al, p. 20.

(30)Sinai, Allen and Otto Eckstein, "Tax Policy and Business Fixed Investment," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 4 (1983), pp. 131-162.
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Date:Jan 1, 1992
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