Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Savings and Investment

There is some illusion about people saving, for retirement, for example. People do not save for retirement. They may think they do. But the reality is society invests to support its people, of whom the retired are (will be) a part.

What do we mean? We mean that it is only in the present that society supports its members. It doesn’t ‘save up’ present production to support them in the future. It doesn’t take past production to support them in the present. In terms of what is being produced, it only has what is currently being produced, to support its economy. Yes it has inventories, but usually these are at most a few months. Society doesn’t accumulate (save) a 20 year supply of dishwashers, so it will have them when they are needed ‘down the road.’ Society doesn’t do this with anything.

The closest society does to this is invest in its productive structure. Roads, structures and machinery last a fair length of time. It builds these things in the present, so it will have their productive capacity in the future. It has built these things in the past, so that we have them now. This is physical capital. A society builds capital in the present, so it will have the productive facilities to support its people in the future. In order to do this, it takes away some of its current production from direct consumption, and invests it.

Now the more society builds these things in the present, the more productive capacity we will have in the future. The more productive capacity we will have in the future, the better off, materially, we will be. Assuming, of course, we have the energy to power it. And the labor to direct it.

In particular, the greater comfort we will be able to support our retirees, and the rest of the idle class. And of course, everyone else. And everything else. Because production must also be supported.

Now the way we decide how to divvy up this production is with money. Those who spend the most money get the most goods and services. Those who spend the most, in the long run, are those who have the most. So if you save money in the present, in the future you will have more money to spend.

Now the theory is that the banks will take this money and loan it to someone who will invest it. That is, take current production, and use it to build more productive capacity, so there will be more goods and services to divvy up in the future. This isn’t the only money that does this. Corporations make profits, which they may spend to increase their productive capacity. Some of government spending may go to increase productive capacity, as with some of the ’stimulus.‘

So what happens instead when the banks take your money and squirrel it away?
Well, you’re still saving, but society is not investing in its future. Its capital is not expanding. So the pie is not growing any bigger. So down the road, when you retire and spend your savings, you may have a bigger share of the pie. But since the pie will not be any bigger, everyone else will, on the average, have a smaller share. This includes other retirees, say those on social security, and those who still work, who are supporting you with their labor. It also includes those other things, the productive facilities which must be supported to maintain present production and expand production in the future. So your individual savings, when you spend it in the future, takes away from everything else, including supporting the production on which it depends.

Now, if this were just you, this would not be very significant. But if there is a substantial share of savers, and the banks are not investing the money, (or investing it badly, say in housing or commercial real estate) then all the other people will have a significantly smaller share. And so will production.

What does this mean? Well, under these circumstances, savings is deflationary in the present, and inflationary in the future. In the present, money is being taken out of the economy, and since it is not being invested, (spent on capital) and put back in the economy, there is continually less money, chasing a constant supply of goods. And since the money was not invested, but merely saved, productive capacity is not expanded, so the quantity of goods will not increase.

So when in the future the money is taken out of savings and spent, along with the money that was there before, we will have inflation. Over time, these two effects could be expected to cancel out. What won’t cancel out is a big increase in money supply caused by deficit spending. If this is invested to expand the pie, well and good. If squandered, so the pie still does not expand, much the worse for inflation. What also won’t cancel out is the contraction caused by the deflation, which is that the decreasing amount of money chases a quantity of goods which is also decreasing., though not as fast., which does tend to mitigate the deflation, at the expense of the destruction of productive capacity. The pie actually shrinks.

So this is what is caused by the financial industry doing its retrenchment thing. Now we have already pointed out that the financial ‘industry’ is much too big, so its hoarding of money (rather than investing it in real industry) can be expected to go on for a while. To the detriment of the rest of the economy, since it means that the money supply in the rest of the economy can be expected to decrease, thus robbing productive industries of their nominal profits. Since these industries are losing money, they are not investing, they are cutting back. Still. (Add to this the contraction brought about by the trade imbalance! See: April 2010 The Effects of Unbalanced Trade)

The problem, of course, is that as long as these banks are in business, they’re going to be sucking the money out of the economy, so destroying the economy on which they depend. The government with its stimulus tried to counteract this action. It didn’t, much. It can’t. The banks are sucking too much, too fast.

So. In Economics, savings and investment are equal. At equilibrium. But not in the economy we are experiencing, where savings and investment are not equal.

Just by the way, elementary Keynesian theory predicts a reduction in a nation’s income with an increase in its ‘thrift.’ It assumes savings increases with income, but investment is relatively independent of income, or flat. How to explain the Chinese, though, eh? Next time.

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