SOME people blame credit cards. Some blame Yuppies who want to buy everything in sight. And some point to the government and its tax policies. But no matter who is at fault, Americans are unable to raise a nest egg. ``The savings rate is a disgrace,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, Senate Finance Committee chairman. No question, the latest statistics bear Senator Bentsen out.
According to the Commerce Department, Americans save less of their disposable personal income than they used to. They also save less than people in most other industrial countries, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.
While spending helps pump up the economy, most economists agree that consumption must be balanced by savings. Savings provides a valuable resource of capital that individuals and businesses can tap when their need for money exceeds the cash on hand.
For example, when a couple wants to buy a house, they usually turn to a bank for a mortgage. When a local business wants to open a new store, it relies on bank loans. When the government needs to finance a new interstate highway or welfare program, it supplements tax revenue with loans from anyone with spare cash.
Historically, Americans' savings were recycled to others - individuals, business, government - who needed to borrow. But as Americans save relatively less of their disposable income, the role of the capital supplier has increasingly fallen to foreign investors.
The problem today is that to attract foreign money, borrowers in the United States must offer higher interest rates. Higher rates make borrowing more expensive, and people put off spending plans. The danger is that the nation's economy could stop growing and slump into recession.
The relatively low US savings rate is a statistic that worries policymakers. At the recent economic summit in Toronto, for example, the final statement by the seven participating nations (the G-7) said it was a US priority ``to increase incentives to save.''
Some foreigners also worry about the global effects of low US savings. Not only does the constant borrowing back and forth make it hard to keep currency values stable, but US borrowing can siphon off their own savings. Also, in a recession, US demand for foreign goods could drop, which might create turmoil in capital markets.
Leonhard Gleske, a member of the Bundesbank, West Germany's central bank, says that the differences in savings rates between the US and West Germany, for example, puts strains on international economic policy coordination, and ultimately the US dollar.
Part of the difference between national savings rates is a cultural phenomenon.
Martin Hufner, a senior vice-president at Deutsche Bank AG in Frankfurt, refers to the ``German mentality'' as a prime cause for savings. Germans don't like to borrow, he says, tracing this attitude back to the post-World War II period when most of West Germany had been destroyed. ``We were forced to save since there was no money.'' As far as tax incentives to borrow go, West Germans don't get much of a break. For example, mortgage interest is not tax deductible like it is in the US.
Japan's saving tradition dates back even further. Hideo Karino, general manager for foreign stock trading at Nikko Securities, says it is part of the Buddhist tradition. ``People spending money are not well respected,'' he says. However, he also notes practical reasons for the higher savings rate: Japan doesn't tax interest earned on savings on a set percentage of each savings account. And Japanese social security benefits are not as high as those in the US.
``I remember my parents were always trying to save money for retirement,'' says Mr. Karino.
In the US, tax breaks were traditionally given for interest paid on credit cards and home mortgages, encouraging people to save and borrow. With several such deductions being phased out under the new 1986 tax laws, and with taxes on interest earned on savings accounts, saving is discouraged, especially when inflation eats away at funds put away.
The savings gap between the US and other nations is also the result of demographic differences. The average American is younger and still ``consuming'' compared to the older West German and Japanese. One third of the US population, notes Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Prudential Bache Securities, are ``baby boomers.''
And baby boomers are buyers. According to the OECD, US consumption over the past 20 years rose by almost 10 percent. (Last year, consumption fell, due to higher income taxes - not more savings.)
Two such boomers are William and Deborah Uher, a couple from St. Paul, Minn., who are trying to save money. They sent their credit cards back to the stores, and Mr. Uher works weekends as a musician. But then, he says, ``something comes up, like new tires for the car.... It's almost impossible to save money. We try and try and try.''
The good news for this couple is that they will soon enter what Wall Street economist Edward Yardeni calls ``the couch potato'' years. Mr. Yardeni says older Americans have already purchased their houses, cars, and stereo equipment. At this point in their lives, ``They start thinking about stashing away money,'' he says.
But many Americans are complacent about saving for retirement. ``People are relying more and more on social security and pensions and less on savings,'' says William Cooper, chairman of Twin City Federal Savings and Loan Association (TCF) in Minneapolis.
To counter this attitude before it is ingrained, the Dollar Dry Dock Savings Bank in New York has embarked on a computerized school savings program involving 2,500 public elementary school students. Schools in the program teach students about the ``why's'' and ``how's'' of savings.
The bank began the program, says chairman Robert Steele, because ``most of the emphasis in the country is on spending. The old thrift ethic is not there to the extent it use to be.'' But he says the program has ``taken off beyond expectations.''
If the students continue at the rate they're going, saving could be a lifelong habit.
At least that's what's happened to Birch Bell, the founder of TCF. Mr. Bell opened up the first three savings accounts at the branch in 1923. Bank officials say he continues to make deposits every chance he gets. ``He's got a lot of money in there,'' Mr. Cooper says.
The US Savings Bank passbook What savings do for the US economy
Deposits 1. Provide funds for mortgages. 2. Provide a stable source of funding for corporations. 3. Benefit the US government. 4. Curb the urge to ``live beyond'' our means.
Benefits 1. The housing industry, which is 10% of the economy, can grow. 2. Companies can expand, providing jobs. 3. More funding is available for US government programs. 4. Individuals acquire ``nest eggs'' for emergencies. What lack of savings do for the US economy
Withdrawals 1. Mean the US relies on foreigners to provide funding to meet government spending. 2. Make interest rates more volatile. Often they tend to rise more than they should to attract foreign capital. 3. Create a ``credit card'' mentality for people, ultimately resulting in a loss of personal worth.
Penalties 1. Potentially, foreigners could make US funding decisions. 2. Higher interest rates mean fewer people can afford new homes and cars. This could lead to economic decline. 3. Families quarrel over money.