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The Saver’s Dilemma

BEIJING – Most of the international financial crises that have occurred over the last 200 years were the result of strains created by the recycling of capital from countries with high savings to those with low savings. The current European crisis is a case in point. For nearly a decade, capital from high-savings countries like Germany flowed to low-savings countries like Spain. The resulting build-up in debt created its own constraints, and now Europe’s economy is forced to rebalance.

If the rebalancing takes place only in Spain and other low-savings countries, the result, as John Maynard Keynes warned 80 years ago, must be much higher unemployment. Whether unemployment remains confined to countries like Spain, or eventually migrates to those like Germany, depends on whether the former remain in the euro.

Although the relative savings positions of Germany and Spain seem to confirm cultural stereotypes, national savings rates have little to do with cultural proclivities. Instead, they largely reflect policies at home and abroad that determine household consumption rates.

A country’s overall consumption rate is, of course, the flip side of its savings rate. Apart from demographics, which change slowly, three factors largely explain differences in national consumption rates.