Is America about to become a nation of savers?
My bet: People will save more on average than they did over the past two decades.
The personal savings rate averaged 9.6% in the '70s and 8.6% in the '80s. It dropped to about 5% in the 2000s and rose to an average of 7.8% from 2010 to 2019.
I wouldn't be surprised if it returned to the 1970s average at least in the post-pandemic economy. (The rate jumped early in the pandemic, largely driven by the potent combination of fiscal support and lockdowns.)
Experiences shape how people think about money. In "Exposure, Experience, and Expertise: Why Personal Histories Matter in Economics," economist Ulrike Malmendier of the University of California, Berkeley, writes that research suggests the pandemic will affect our economic expectations post-pandemic.
"The growing research on experience effects implies that the answer is yes — that there will be long-term changes in beliefs and behavior even 'ceteris paribus,' even if we were actually back to a world pre-Covid-19," she writes.
Experience matters. For instance, I worked on a radio documentary that looked back at the double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inflation is bad for savers, but it's good for borrowers since they pay off loans with depreciated dollars.
Americans embraced debt during the inflationary era and the habit continued long after inflation moderated.
"My parents could tell me till I'm blue in the face debt is bad, debt is bad, debt is bad," recalled business columnist Joseph Nocera in the documentary. "But my experience told me debt is good."
The pandemic is one among several economic shocks over the past two decades. For example, the leading edge of millennials is in its early 40s. Their adult lives were disrupted by several upheavals, such as the Great Recession, a pandemic and now Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Young adults with college degrees confronted stagnant wages. Worse off have been those with less than a college degree.
Despite the recent surge in prices, the past two decades has highlighted the value of savings. The turn toward saving more will be helped by the rise of a sustainability ethic, since being green is good for savings.
We've relearned the lesson captured by two wonderful lines in personal finance.
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness," wrote novelist Charles Dickens. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor to American Public Media's "Marketplace" and to Minnesota Public Radio.