In Defense of Savings

By: Peter G. Klein

I can’t recall the last time I heard something on National Public Radio in defense of savings but, there it was, in this morning’s Marketplace segment on Karen Petrou’s new book Engine of Inequality: The Fed and the Future of Wealth in America. Savings, Petrou asserts, are the “engine of wealth accumulation.” Petrou, whose work has been discussed on these pages before, identifies the Fed’s massive and unprecedented monetary expansion since 2008 as a prime driver of inequality in the US.  As she explains to host David Brancaccio:

[T]he cost of being middle, even upper-middle, class, and lower- or moderate-income, has gone way up. So all but the top 10% of Americans already have more debt than assets. We don’t need more debt, we need more employment and economic growth. And we critically need savings. That’s the engine of wealth accumulation. And right now, if you put your money into your savings account, you lose money because rates are negative in real terms, and they have been pretty much ever since 2008. Saving is a losing game. Investing is a winner’s game, but most Americans aren’t in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans have over half of our stock.

Of course, the Austrians have been arguing—long before 2008!—that the engine of economic progress, not just simply for individuals but for the economy as a whole, is capital accumulation via savings and investment, not “aggregate demand” fueled by monetary and fiscal stimulus. Petrou is interested in individual and household inequality, not economic growth. Because inequality is the topic de jour among the intelligentsia, her book is getting a fair hearing. It is certainly true that the Fed’s policies have exacerbated inequality and, while that is not the most important critique of the Fed or of central banking per se, it seems to be gaining popularity. Even Ben Bernanke felt compelled to respond to the criticism, albeit unconvincingly. 

Austrians including Zoran Balanc, Karl-Friedrich Israel, and Louis Rouanet have written recently about the effects of central banking on inequality. Petrou’s book should help to shine more light on this debate. 

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