Why Are Savings Patterns So Different?

BEIJING – Ever since the integration of emerging markets into the global economy began in the early 1990’s, three striking trends have emerged: a divergence in private savings rates between the industrialized core and the emerging periphery (the former experiencing a sharp rise, and the latter a steady decline); large global imbalances between the two regions; and a drop in interest rates worldwide. But, while global imbalances have preoccupied many observers, few have sought to explain the divergence in world savings behavior.

In 1988, the household savings rate in China and the United States was roughly equal, at about 5%. Yet, by 2007, China’s household savings rate had risen to a staggering 30%, compared to just 2.5% in the US. The pattern is not uncharacteristic of other industrialized countries relative to emerging markets over the last two decades (Figure 1).

Savings behavior invariably reacts to changes in interest rates, which have fallen steadily over the last two decades to today’s record-low levels. But how can savings patterns be so different – often opposite – in globalized economies that are well integrated into world capital markets?

The answer may be that credit markets are more developed in advanced economies than they are in emerging countries, particularly in terms of the degree to which households are able to borrow. Of course, one might argue that Asian thrift and American profligacy merely reflect asymmetric demands for credit: Asians are intrinsically more reluctant to borrow. In that case, however, the vast differences in household debt (Figure 2) – ranging from 25% of GDP in emerging Asia (Southeast Asia, China, India, Hong Kong, and South Korea) to more than 90% in the US and other Anglo-Saxon economies (including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) – would reflect only a dissimilarity in taste.