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US Consumer Rediscovers Frugality at Trader’s Narrative

US Consumer Rediscovers Frugality

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Every single great bear market has left its own unique mark on the psyche of investors and consumers. While it may be much too early to declare what the effects of this most recent bear market may be, the US consumer may provide a clue.

For the past few decades the insatiable appetite of the US consumer has been the engine of global consumption. Fed by the trifecta of easy credit, loose fiscal and monetary policy and cheap goods from Asia, it went on a binge.

The personal saving rate was in decline since the mid 1970’s when it reached a high of 14.6%. Last year the average US consumer had zero savings. The disparity between the spendthrift lifestyle enjoyed by the average American and the average miserly Chinese or Japanese (or Korean) suddenly became cartoonish.

And then this extreme scenario began to unwind:

personal savings rate

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (US Department of Commerce) the latest data for April 2009 was a saving rate of 5.7%. While this is a welcomed change, there’s no question this will have a deflationary effect on the economy.

In April 2009 Americans paid down debt at a record rate of $15.7 billion. Combined with $16.5 billion in March and $10.9 billion in February we have a trend. According to Lombard Street Research, this is the fastest decline in credit since 1980 and the largest since 1943 when wartime rationing restricted consumption.

We’ve seen a reduction of consumer credit in every recession but the recent numbers are simply mind boggling:

consumer credit 3 month change

While the US consumer garnered a fame for profligate spending over the past decade, those days are clearly over as a new frugality becomes the watchword. Those who lived through the Great Depression - even when the worst was over - were changed for the rest of their lives. Similarly, this Great Recession may change the attitudes of a whole new generation towards discretionary spending.

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