Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Saving Versus Hoarding

Saving is the use of revenue or income by a business or individual for purposes other than expenditure on consumers’ goods (or consumers’ services). It is revenue or income that is not consumed.

Because what is saved is not spent by the saver for consumption, a popular fallacy has grown up that saving is synonymous with hoarding—i.e., with the retention of money in the manner of a miser. This fallacy is not so difficult to understand when committed by people with limited education, who thus know little beyond their own personal experience. Most such people are wage earners, who normally do not personally make any kind of expenditures but consumption expenditures. In the absence of wider knowledge, it is easy for such people to confuse consumption spending with all of spending and thus to conclude that what is not spent for consumption is simply not spent. But the fallacy is also prevalent in the press, which persists in equating an increase in the rate of saving with a decrease in the spending for goods. For example, whenever it is reported that some increase in the rate of saving has taken place, the press concludes that the effect must be economically dampening at the very least.

Worse still, the fallacy that saving is hoarding is prevalent among professional economists—notably the Keynesians and neo-Keynesians—who routinely describe saving as a “leakage” from the “spending stream.” (Such economists have taught the fallacy to the members of the press.)

Indeed, so complete has been the intellectual severance of saving from spending that for several decades it has been routinely taught in college and university classrooms not only that what is saved simply disappears from spending and depresses the economy, but also that what is invested virtually comes out of nowhere and financially stimulates the economy. This is a state of confusion that would be comparable to believing that the seeds a farmer scatters simply disappear, and that the crop that later comes up, comes out of nowhere. Yet such a state of confusion is the corollary of believing that saving is hoarding. If one recognized that investment comes from saving, one would have to recognize no less that saving goes into investment—that the two are merely different aspects of the same phenomenon. In that case, one would not view saving as depressing, nor investment as stimulating.

The Hoarding Doctrine as an Instance of the Fallacy of Composition

It should be realized that while any particular individual might save in the form of adding to his cash holding—that is, in the form of “hoarding”—it is not possible for the economic system as a whole to do so. Indeed, the belief that the economic system as a whole can save by means of hoarding is an instance of the fallacy of composition—the same fallacy encountered in connection with the belief that not only an individual industry or group of industries can overproduce, but that the economic system as a whole can overproduce.

The reason that an individual can save by means of hoarding cash, while the economic system as a whole cannot, is because whatever cash an individual adds to his holding, some other individual has had to subtract from his holding. If I sell my goods for $1,000, say, and decide to retain that sum in the form of cash, it is true that I increase my savings in the form of cash by $1,000. But in the very same period of time, the individuals to whom I have sold my goods have had to reduce their cash holdings, and thus their accumulated savings in the form of cash, by that very same $1,000. I have $1,000 more in savings in the form of cash, but they have $1,000 less in savings in the form of cash. Adding up the change not only in my position, but in theirs as well, it thus turns out that in the economic system as a whole there is no increase whatever in savings in the form of cash holdings. What some individuals save by means of adding to their cash holdings other individuals have had to dissave.

The situation of students in a classroom provides an excellent illustration of this proposition. At any given time, the members of the class have just so much cash in their possession. If the doors to that classroom were locked and that class became a “closed economic system” for an hour or so, with its members carrying on some form of production and buying and selling from one another, any individual student might increase his savings by adding to his cash holding over that interval of time. But then the rest of the class must decrease its savings in the form of cash holdings to exactly the same extent. There is no way that the class as a whole can increase its savings by increasing its holding of cash.

It follows that if there is to be saving in the economic system as a whole—that is, an increase in the savings of some or all members of the economic system that is not compensated for by a decrease in the savings of other members of the economic system—the only way it can take place is in the form of an increase in assets other than cash. The increase in the savings of the economic system as a whole must take the form of an increase in its capital assets, such as business plant, equipment, and inventories.

The only exception to the principle that the economic system cannot save by means of adding to its cash holdings exists insofar as there is an increase in the quantity of money. If, over a period of time, the quantity of money in the economic system increases, then, to that extent, there can be an increase in the holding of cash that does not imply an equivalent decrease in the holding of cash by others. But this is the only exception, and it obviously does not reduce spending. Moreover, it is inescapable inasmuch as the new and additional money must be added to the cash holdings of someone and in that capacity will constitute part of their savings.

This article is adapted from pp. 691-693 of the author’s
Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996). The article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.