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Consumer savings rate dips

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We may be stashing aside less savings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re returning to spendthrift ways.

After a dismal couple of years, financially speaking, Americans have let their combined personal savings rate slip a bit off the high of 6.2 percent achieved in May 2009. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says that personal savings as a percentage of disposable personal income skidded to 4.7 percent in November.

For a little perspective, let’s start with the 18-month stretch from mid-2005 to the end of 2006 when the personal savings rate languished in negative territory. The savings rate moved to the positive side during 2007 but for the most part, remained pretty much below 1 percent until very late in 2008 when it accelerated toward the May 2009 high. Since May the personal savings rate has trended below 5 percent.

Still curtailing spending

While the drop coincides with a bullish run on the stock market that began last March, experts say it doesn’t prove that consumers have abandoned efforts to curtail spending, pay off debt, and stash whatever they can into savings vehicles that pay next to nothing in interest.

“A drop from 6.2 percent to 4.7 percent is noticeable but it’s not necessarily an indication of a renewed shift downward,” says Dorsey Farr, CFA and principal at French Wolf & Farr in Atlanta, and former chief economist at Wilmington Trust. “The two motives for savings are precautionary — to weather a storm such as we’ve just experienced, and retirement — to have a store of assets to provide income during retirement.

“Many people counted on an existing portfolio that was perhaps too small, as well as equity in their home and now they’re questioning whether they have sufficient savings, not only for the precautionary needs but also for retirement. So, our view is that this is more of a long-term trend where we’ll see renewed interest in savings at higher rates than we’ve seen so far for a sustained period of time.”

Farr says he’d like to see an aggregate personal savings rate in the 7 to 10 percent range. Rebuilding the stock of savings — the accumulated savings — will happen as debt is reduced and household balance sheets are repaired. To accomplish that, says Farr, will require that the savings rate be higher for a sustained period, not just a few months.

Trading yield for risk

Bud Conrad, chief economist at Stowe, Vt.-based Casey Research, says it’s quite possible that savers are fed up with low interest rates and are prepared to accept a certain amount of risk; but he urges caution.

“I think one of the biggest risks someone could take on is a long-term commitment, meaning a long-term bond. While they may be paying 4 percent, 5 percent, or a corporate bond may be paying 9 percent, they all fall risk to the problem of rising rates. In some sense 2009 was a precursor of that. The 10-year Treasury started at 2.4 percent and concluded at 3.8 percent. It was one of the worst years to hold a 10-year Treasury because the purchase price of the bond itself dropped.”

If you were to hold the 10-year Treasury until maturity your principal investment would be intact but chances are the purchasing power of that sum would be severely eroded.

Even the most ardent savers aren’t looking for a return to the early 1980s when the effective fed funds rate brushed up against 20 percent. But savers want better than to lend their money to banks for free.

Assuming you have at least three months’ living expenses socked away in FDIC-insured deposits such as CDs or money market accounts, or even money market funds — which are not FDIC-insured, Farr says he’d advise deploying additional savings into inflation-protected securities such as TIPS to hedge against the risk of inflation. Additionally, floating-rate mutual funds or exchange-traded funds are another way Farr recommends to shelter against interest rate risk and inflation risk.

If you buy CDs be sure to stick with short-term maturities so you can take advantage of higher rates as they become available and not get stuck with a low-yielding investment for a prolonged amount of time.