The Misunderstood Relationship Between Savings & Investment
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If you ask an economist to explain the
relationship between savings and investment, she will likely refer
you to the model of the loanable funds market that classical
theorists put together long ago. She’d mention that there is a
supply of loanable funds and a demand for those funds and that the
market price of those funds (the interest rate) is ultimately
determined by the changes that occur in those two key variables.
If, for example, supply increases relative to demand, the interest
rate will drop. If demand increases relative to supply, then the
price will go up.
In the classical model, the demand for
loanable funds comes from firms that want to use them for economic
investments that will improve economic efficiency. The supply of
loanable funds comes from the savings of households. With this
model in mind, economists have typically pointed out that an
increase in savings will increase the supply of money available for
lending relative to demand, forcing interest rates down, which makes
borrowed money more affordable for firms. Conversely, a reduction
in savings when demand is constant or growing would force interest
rates up, making funds for firm investments prohibitively expensive.
When they are taught this
conceptualization of the money/capital market, economists are
[implicitly] asked to embrace several key assumptions:
Firms always have economic efficiency projects they would invest
in if only there were enough loanable funds available at an
All money borrowed by firms is used for economic investments
All economic investments by firms are financed by borrowed money
and therefore by savings
All saved money is borrowed by firms
All money borrowed by firms comes from saved money
These assumptions are said to be “close
enough” to the truth that we can rely on them to give us an accurate
understanding of the money market and the crucial role that savings
plays in our economy. Unfortunately, nearly all of these
assumptions are flawed.
Empirical evidence reveals that:
1) Between 1988 & 1997, an average of
nearly 85% of the money that corporations spent on investment came
from retained earnings or other internally generated funds.1
This empirical fact would seem to
strongly refute the assumption that firms are desperately dependent
upon borrowed money (and therefore upon savings) when they want to
make investments. What is the ultimate source of the internally
generated funds? It would be the expenditures of consumers
and firms and government, not savings.
2) Between 1998 & 2001 (years that
included cyclically high levels of business investment) the combined
borrowing of non-financial corporations and all non-corporate
businesses varied between 20-34% of total borrowing nationwide.2
During the same period, the household sector of the economy
accounted for 20-30% of total borrowing.
These statistics tell us that only a
fraction of total savings is directed, ultimately, to the noble
purpose of improving economic efficiency. Much of the money that is
saved is ultimately spent on consumption (e.g.,
credit card and installment purchases). If firms find that interest
rates are too high, is it necessarily because there is a shortage of
savings, or is it perhaps because lending institutions are quite
happy to starve the supply-side of the economy if they can get
higher yields by lending to people for their consumption desires?
3) Savings are not the
only source of loanable funds
The ultimate determinant of the supply
of loanable funds in the U.S. economy is the Federal Open Market
Committee of the Federal Reserve System. Whenever The Fed buys
securities in the open market, it pays for them with money that it
creates out of thin air with a keystroke. It does not draw the
money from some reserve account that is limited in size.3 It is “new
money” that did not exist prior to the keystroke that created it.
With any of its purchases of securities, The Fed provides loanable
funds to banks that were not saved by any saver.
This gives us a profoundly different
investment equation. Instead of the equality Investment =
Savings that is taught in most economics classrooms, a more
accurate description of the loanable funds market would be
Investment = (some % of Savings not used for Consumption) + (the corporate earnings that finance 85% of Corporate Investment) + (newly created money by the Fed deposited in banks).
There is no limit to the amount
of money The Fed can inject into the loanable funds market.4
If savers were to suddenly pull
most of their money out of banks and put it under their mattresses
instead (equivalent to a dramatic reduction in savings), The Fed
would still be able to easily maintain the supply of loanable funds
or even increase it by simply buying every sort of debt instrument
offered in the credit markets. Even if The Fed bought up all
of the nation’s debt---something that would never happen---and there
was still a shortage of loanable funds, it could maintain/increase
the money supply by buying buildings or land or anything else it
In a booming economy, at some point The
Fed will begin to panic about the prospect of inflation as
unemployment approaches zero. It will want interest rates to
increase to discourage the spending of borrowed money. That is
something we would expect would happen if people started to save
less. But The Fed does not want people to save less in this
situation because that would mean that they are spending more,
which is the very thing that The Fed does not want. This is not a
conundrum for The Fed, however, because it can withdraw loanable
funds from the market by either selling securities or by increasing
the Reserve Ratio. These actions will drive up interest rates no
matter what happens to the savings habits of households.
In light of these facts, it is quite
irrational for economists to insist that interest rates are
influenced in any significant way by savings levels given The Fed’s
known capabilities and its proven ability to control the money
supply (interest rates) no matter what the level of savings.
Changes in savings do nothing more than simply determine how many
securities The Fed is going to buy or sell to maintain the supply of
loanable funds at the level it desires. Firms never
face a shortage of loanable funds in the U.S. unless that is what
The Fed wants. We can be absolutely certain that The Fed will
cheerfully reduce the supply of loanable funds available to firms
any time it believes inflation is threatening.
A correct, empirically-based
understanding of The Fed’s role in credit markets leads one
logically to the conclusion that the primary argument Supply-Siders
have always used to justify tax cuts for wealthy citizens is
actually quite spurious. If interest rates are ever too high, it
isn’t because there is too little money being saved in the economy;
it’s because The Fed has intentionally reduced the supply of
loanable funds in the economy to ensure that interest rates will
be “too high.” If savings levels are dropping, but the
Fed still wants interest rates to remain low, it would simply buy
Treasuries in the bond market---increasing the supply of loanable
funds---until interest rates are as low as it desires.
One thing we need to try to remember is
that it is ECONOMIC INVESTMENT that is sacred in our economy, not
the practice of saving money. They are not the same thing.
Many economists frequently refer to Saving as a pure good
that the economy can never get too much of, but they are mistaken.
The simple economic truth that should be apparent to all is that
there are certain times (full-employment economy) when greater
aggregate savings is a virtue and other times (unemployed resources)
when it is quite the opposite. No, we are not saying that saving
money is a great evil that needs to be stamped out. We are simply
saying that policy makers need to be aware of the serious damage
that excessive saving can inflict on the economy and be
prepared to reduce those excesses when they occur.
Myers, Principles of Corporate Finance, 2000, pp. 383-384.
2 Flow of Funds Accounts, The Board
of Governors of the Federal Reserve System,
Confirmed by a spokesman for the Fed
Board of Governors.
Many have argued that
international capital flows have been even more important than domestic
savings rates in determining America's recent, historically low short-term
interest rates. It must be kept in mind, however, that foreign
investors paid for their purchases of America's financial assets (U.S.
Treasuries, e.g.) with U.S. dollars. Where did these dollars come
from? Primarily from U.S. bank reserves (the size of foreign bank reserves
of U.S. dollars is ultimately determined by the size of domestic bank reserves).
When a foreign investor buys an American asset, she "activates" unused
of dollars, injecting them into our economy's money supply. Ultimately,
however, the Fed's unlimited control of the money supply is so profound,
it can easily compensate for any fluctuations in international capital flows.
If, for example, foreign owners of U.S. Treasuries (typically, foreign banks)
were to try to sell all of their holdings, The Fed could easily maintain the
money supply and the interest rates it desires by buying all of them.
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