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How Much Do People Really Save?

|Includes:DFS, IBN, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), SBKJY, WFC

Before you answer this question, take a moment to think how much you save and think what others might be saving. The Bureau of economic analysis publishes every month the estimated Personal Savings rate. The latest number was 2.7%1. This number has fluctuated in the past few years from 2%-6%. Often this number is quoted in various media publications. If the number increases, media suggest that consumers have become cautious and are not spending or saving more for future.

I think this Personal Saving Rate does not really say what consumers are saving. This number includes the savings by the ultra rich and people who take debt either for college education or medical expenses or any other consumption expenditures. Borrowing for buying a house is excluded as money is not actually spent for consumption, but more for investment. By having an average, it is quite difficult to use this number to determine the consumer's financial health. Knowing consumer's financial health helps investors in predicting the Bank's earnings or designing financial products for consumers.

One data that may help in answering the above question is the survey done by Gallup poll2 on US workers. This survey asks the working population how many months they can survive without incurring significant financial hardship if they were to lose jobs today. About 16% said they can survive only for one week, 27% said they can survive up to 1 month, 28% said they can survive up to 4 months and 17% said they can survive up to 1 year and only 11% said they can survive for more than 1 year. There can be sampling error, in any survey or how the question is framed. There can also be issue with what does "Saving" really mean. But to person responding to the survey on how many months they can be survive without a job, it probably means how much liquid cash he has in his bank account to get by. Some people may interpret the data little bit differently. The data does give some insight into wide variation on how people save. About half the population has negligible accumulated savings and 10% of the working population does have a high accumulated savings.

I think financial press gives too much weight to the Personal Savings Rate issued by Bureau of Economic Analysis. People's saving habits vary widely across the spectrum and no one number does justice to how much people do really save. Banks, if they are able to group the people based on savings habit, may have a better credit risk profile on their balance sheet.