September 29, 2005

The great thrift shift

These shifts have been large and complicated, and they have had important and unusual consequences. The first is that capital now flows primarily from poor countries to rich countries. In 2004, emerging economies, including the newly industrialised economies of East Asia, sent almost $350 billion to rich countries. Yet according to the economic textbooks, capital seeking the highest returns should flow from rich (and capital-intensive) countries to poorer ones that have less of it.

The second consequence is that outside China, less saving by households rather than investment by firms has become the engine of global economic growth. The world economy continues to hum because consumers, particularly American ones, are content to become ever more indebted. That willingness appears closely related to the rapid rise in house prices across much of the globe.

These patterns are a long way from historical norms. Can they last? In the long term, the answer is clearly no. Household saving cannot keep on falling, and America's foreign borrowing cannot keep on rising. The question is when and how the tide might turn.

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