Americans' savings -- not so skimpy after all?

Politicians, businessmen, and sometimes editorial writers have often argued in recent years that savings in the United States are inadequate and declining.

Economists, however, are now asking whether the fuss unnecessary?

Several changes in federal tax law last year were enacted partly to stimulate private savings. The personal income tax rates were cut. Tax exemption was given the All-Savers certificates. Individual retirement accounts were liberalized. In each case, the goal was to raise the after-tax rate of return on capital invested by individuals.

Business also got its share of tax breaks, such as more depreciation and investment tax credits. These are designed to raise profits, some of which become savings.

At a conference in Melvin Village, N.H., last week sponsored by the Federal Reserve bank of Boston, economists argued over whether further such measures are needed. In the meantime, revisions in the statistics show that private savings have not declined much in recent years. In fact, since the latest tax cut in July, savings have risen sharply, to the discomfort of the Reagan administration. With the economy still dawdling along, the government would be delighted if individuals stepped on the spending gas enough to give the economy something of a boost before election day.

There was also much concern about the low rate of private investment in plant and equipment. The US, it was argued, was going the way of Britain, because of inadequate efforts at modernization.

Here again, however, statistical revisions this summer cast doubts on this thesis. Gross private fixed investment as a percentage of gross national product - the total output of the economy - averaged 14.5 percent in the years 1962-66, 14.4 percent in 1967-78, 14.92 percent in 1972-76, and 16.1 percent in 1977-81. So investment in expansion and modernization was doing best in those years where people were most worried.

But there is a caveat. Frank E. Morris, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, notes that the labor force was also growing very rapidly in the 1970s and needed new plant and equipment to provide productive jobs.

Lately, with the economy in deep recession and industry suffering from large amounts of unused capacity, plant and equipment spending has plunged once again.

Nonetheless, the worriers make comparisons between savings rates in this country and Japan, where the national savings ratio is more than twice as large.

Curiously, the Japanese government thinks its people are saving too much. It would like them to spend more to step up domestic growth in output. In that way, brightening of the Japanese economy would not depend on a rapid expansion in exports - a prospect highly unpopular at this moment to its major trading partners in North America and Western Europe.

Two economists with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development , Derek Blades and Peter Sturm, have attempted to compare the savings rates for the 24 industrial nations that are members of the OECD.

Their data show that the US does do better at saving than the raw data would indicate. The two economists pointed out that various countries define income and savings differently. There are institutional factors that distort the data. For example, how does a nation deal with the receipts and outlays of an unincorporated business, say, a ''mom-and-pop shop''? Or how do you handle public and private pension programs statistically? And what do you do about government-provided health and education services when some governments provide more than others? These are factors relevant to personal savings levels.

Of interest to national savings is the question of taxes on consumption expenditures - such as the tax on value-added used widely in Western Europe - as compared with taxes on income.

After these adjustments, the US personal savings ratio remains low. But the national savings ratio improves a bit - up 1 percent, to 19.6 percent, for 1970- 80. Japan stands at 36.7 percent, France at 27.6 percent, the United Kingdom at 20.9 percent. So the US remains the lowest of these on the savings totem pole.

One economist, however, noted that the cost of machinery and other capital equipment in the US is lower than elsewhere. So US industry generally gets a bigger bang for its capital spending buck.

Blades and Sturm go further. They ask what happens if spending on such consumer durables as refrigerators and automobiles, which last for some years, is treated like capital outlays and thus include an element of savings. The same treatment can be given private and government expenditures on education, and on research and development. The first is an investment in ''human capital'' - a form of savings; the other in useful knowledge which can increase productivity, too.

When that is done, the ratio for the US comes out to 31.6 percent, vs. 33.6 percent for an average of nine countries or 42 percent for Japan and 29.6 percent for Britain.

So, in this sense, Americans just save a different way, putting more money into consumer durables, research and development, or education. These can certainly help produce a better life for US residents.

But the critics maintain that dollars saved in this fashion are not available for lending to business. Thus industrial modernization is restrained.

Of course, in the current recession, business is not about to spend huge amounts of extra money on plant and equipment, even if it were easily available and cheap.

In time, however, the debate as to whether the system should be changed to give further incentives to savings and discourage consumption will reemerge.

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