NEW YORK — They speak different languages, live in countries rich and poor, face horrible job markets and healthy ones. When it comes to money, though, they act as one: They’re holding tight to their cash, driven more by a fear of losing what they have than a desire to add to it.
Five years after U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering a global financial crisis and shattering confidence worldwide, families in countries as varied as the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany remain hunkered down, too spooked and distrustful to take chances with their money.
An Associated Press analysis of households in the 10 biggest economies shows that families continue to spend cautiously and have pulled hundreds of billions of dollars out of stocks, cut borrowing for the first time in decades and poured money into savings and bonds that offer puny interest payments, often too low to keep up with inflation.
“It doesn’t take very much to destroy confidence, but it takes an awful lot to build it back,” says Ian Bright, senior economist at ING, a global bank based in Amsterdam. “The attitude toward risk is permanently reset.”
A flight to safety on such a global scale is unprecedented since the end of World War II.
The implications are huge: Shunning debt and spending less can be good for one family’s finances. When hundreds of millions do it together, it can starve the global economy.
Weak growth around the world means wages in the United States, which aren’t keeping up with inflation, will continue to rise slowly. Record unemployment in parts of Europe, higher than 35 percent among youth in several countries, won’t fall quickly. Another wave of Chinese, Brazilians and Indians rising into the middle class, as hundreds of millions did during the boom years last decade, is unlikely.
Some of the retrenchment is not surprising: High unemployment in many countries means fewer people with paychecks to spend. Some people who lost jobs got new ones that pay less or are part time. But even people with good jobs and little fear of losing them remain cautious.
“Lehman changed everything,” says Arne Holzhausen, a senior economist at global insurer Allianz, based in Munich. “It’s safety, safety, safety.”
The AP analyzed data showing what consumers did with their money in the five years before the Great Recession began in December 2007 and in the five years that followed, through the end of 2012. The focus was on the world’s 10 biggest economies — the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., Brazil, Russia, Italy and India — which have half the world’s population and 65 percent of global gross domestic product.
RETREAT FROM STOCKS: A desire for safety drove people to dump stocks, even as prices rocketed from crisis lows in early 2009, and put their money into bonds. Investors in the top 10 countries pulled $1.1 trillion from stock mutual funds in the five years after the crisis, or 10 percent of what they had invested at the start of that period, according to Lipper Inc., which tracks funds.
They put even more money into bond mutual funds — $1.3 trillion — even as interest payments on bonds plunged to record lows.
SHUNNING DEBT: Household debt surged at an unprecedented rate in the five years before the financial crisis. In the U.S., the U.K. and France, it soared more than 50 percent per adult, according to Credit Suisse. For all 10 countries, it jumped 34 percent. Then the financial crisis hit, and people slammed the brakes on borrowing. Debt per adult in the 10 countries fell 1 percent in the 4½ years after 2007. Economists say debt hasn’t fallen in sync like that since the end of World War II. People chose to shed debt even as lenders slashed rates on loans to record lows. In normal times, that would have triggered an avalanche of borrowing.
“Given what they’ve lived through, households are loath to borrow again,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of BMO Private Bank in Chicago. “They’re not going to stretch. They want a cushion.”
HOARDING CASH: Looking for safety for their money, households in the six biggest developed economies added $3.3 trillion, or 15 percent, to their cash holdings in the five years after the crisis, slightly more than they did in the five years before, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The growth of cash is remarkable because millions more were unemployed, wages grew slowly and people diverted billions to pay down their debts. They also poured money into bank accounts knowing they would earn little interest on their deposits, often too little to keep up with inflation.
SPENDING SLUMP: Cutting debt and saving more may be good in the long term, but to do that, people have had to rein in their spending. Adjusting for inflation, global consumer spending rose 1.6 percent a year during the five years after the crisis, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting and consulting firm. That was about half the growth rate before the crisis and only slightly more than the annual growth in population during those years.
Consumer spending is critically important because it accounts for more than 60 percent of GDP.
DEVELOPING WORLD NOT HELPING ENOUGH: When the financial crisis hit, the major developed countries looked to the developing world to take over in powering global growth. The four big developing countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — recovered quickly from the crisis. But the potential of the BRIC countries, as they are known, was overrated. Although they have 80 percent of the people, they accounted for only 22 percent of consumer spending in the 10 biggest countries last year, according to Haver Analytics, a research firm. This year, their economies are stumbling.
Consumers around the world will eventually shake their fears, of course, and loosen the hold on their money. But few economists expect them to snap back to their old ways.
One reason is that the boom years that preceded the financial crisis were as much an aberration as the last five years have been. Those free-spending days, experts now understand, were fueled by families taking on enormous debt, not by healthy wage gains. No one expects a repeat of those excesses.
More importantly, economists cite a psychological “scarring” that continues to shape behavior. Scarring is a fear of losing money that grips people during a period of collapsing jobs, incomes and wealth, and then doesn’t let go.
The desire for safety remains even after jobs return, wages rise and financial and housing markets recover. Think of Americans who suffered through the Great Depression and stayed frugal for decades, even as the U.S. economy boomed after World War II.
Although not on a level with the Depression, some economists think the psychological blow of the financial crisis was severe enough that households won’t increase their borrowing and spending to what would be considered normal levels for another five years or longer.
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