When one thinks of America, the word “savings” is likely the last thing to come into a person’s head, for the simple reason that the vast majority of Americans don’t save: recall that in September the personal savings rate dipped to 3.3%, the lowest since 2009 save for one month.
On the surface this makes sense: the average US consumer, tapped out, with more spending than income, has no choice but to max out their credit card, and eat into whatever savings they may have.
This is usually as far as most contemplations on savings go. And this is a mistake, because at least according to official Fed data reported weekly as part of the H.6, which lists the data on the various components of M1 and, more importantly, M2, the real story with US savings is something totally different.
As a reminder, the H.6 lists the bank sector “liability” equivalents of the components that make up M2, which as most know comprises of M1, or physical currency in circulation at just over $1 trillion as well as Checkable and Demand deposits, amounting to $1.4 trillion, and the various M2 components which comprises of Savings Deposits, the largest component of M2 at $6.6 trillion, a modest amount of Time Deposits, and an even more modest amount of Retail Money Funds.
It is the Savings Deposits component that is of most interest. Recall that the primary definition of a savings account is, naturally, an amount of cash parked with an institution for a longer period of time, in exchange for receiving interest (or no interest in the era of The Great Chairman), which also have a limitation on the number of withdrawals: six per month at last check. Savings accounts also encompass the broader Money Market account category, which has a higher floor requirement than an ordinary savings account.
At first blush one would balk at the concept of a Savings Account in the New Normal: after all who in their right mind would face the counterparty risk associated with having money in a bank, especially money that has withdrawal limitations, if there is nothing to be gained in exchange, because under ZIRP nobody collects any interest, and won’t until the system finally collapses.
Well prepare to be surprised.
The chart below shows the time progression of the largest Savings Component: total Savings Deposits at Commercial Banks, which at $5.6 trillion in the week ended November 5, 2012, is also the largest single component of M2, and thus broader money stock of the US (accessible source data via the St Louis Fed).
The chart above hardly shows any slowing down in cash entering Savings Accounts. In fact, quite the opposite. As we have conveniently highlighted, the historic rate of growth in this category of about $200 billion per year, aka the “pre-New Normal” regime, nearly quadrupled to just shy of $700 billion, with a distinct break when Lehman failed aka the “post-New Normal”. That’s $700 billion per year entering what the Fed defines as a “Savings Account.” And all it took to get everyone to scramble to the uncompensated safety of savings accounts? A near collapse of the entire financial system!
This topic alone is worthy of a far greater discussion, because there is a distinct possibility that what the Fed discloses as a “savings account” book entry may simply be a book entry “plug” at the bank level to account for the surge in Excess Reserves into the banking system, after applying an appropriate reserve discounting factor: one way of thinking of M2 is the full lay out of the monetary system using base currency and Fed Excess Reserves and applying a Fractional Reserve banking multiplier. At last check the, multiplier from currency outstanding (1.08 trillion) to total M2 ($10.3 trillion) was 9.5x, in line with the historic ratio of ~10x.
A better representation of the very tight correlation between M1, which captures both currency and physical excess reserves, and M2 can be seen on the chart below.
As can be seen M1 is M2 just with a multiplier factor of ~4.5x.
What has been unsaid so far, is that to Ben Bernanke and the champions of the status quo, money in Savings Accounts would be far better used if it were to be dumped into stocks. After all, the primary reason for the urge by the Group of 30, Tim Geithner, Bernanke and the SEC to crush money markets and to make them even more uneconomical is to pull all the cash contained there and to have it invested into bonds, stocks, and other risky products.
In summary, the more money allocated to Savings Accounts, the more Bernanke’s attempts to rekindle the “animal spirits” fail. And while this cash is at least on the surface what is known as “money on the sidelines”, the flipside also is that should this money ever leave the “sidelines”, modestly at first, then all at once, then the Fed’s moment of reckoning will come, as that will be the moment when the Fed’s ability to keep inflation grounded in “15 minutes” or less, will be thoroughly tested.
Paradoxically, Bernanke wants this money to re-enter the risk markets, and/or the economy, but not in a way that leads to hyperinflation. After all there is $10 trillion in electronic “money” in the US system, and only $1 trillion in cold, hard cash available for cash claims satisfaction.
All that brings us to the topic of today’s post: weekly changes in the amount of cash held in Savings Deposits at Commercial Banks. As the chart below shows, rapid, dramatic shifts, characterised by massive inflows of cash into such savings accounts usually coincide with times of great monetary stress: the three biggest episodes in history to date have been the 2008 Lehman failure, the August 2011 Debt Ceiling Crisis and associated US downgrade, and the May 2009 First Greek failure and bailout.
Those three episodes represent the biggest weekly Savings Deposits inflows number 2 through 4.
When was the largest ever inflow into Savings Deposits at Commercial banks, at $131.9 billion in one week? This past week.
We don’t know, but the people who control $5.6 trillion in US commercial bank savings deposits – certainly not the vast majority of the US population who have virtually no money saved up, but the true 1% – just decided to park the most cash on a week over week basis into their savings accounts in history.
Perhaps ask them why they did it…
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