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For all the criticism of Americans and their profligate spending in recent years, it’s clear that their appetite kept a lot of people in business. BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Steve Adler moderated a panel at Davos today on the subject of how the world will cope with a new frugality among U.S. consumers.
The impact of the sharp drop in spending has proven devastating to manufacturers. Adler noted that Americans have accounted for nearly a quarter of global consumption in recent years, about three times the level of spending by consumers in China and India combined. Now, the U.S. consumer engine is slowing at a record pace.
The most dire assessment came from Ian Davis, Worldwide Managing Director of McKinsey & Company (U.K.). He noted that “Americans have no option but to be more frugal over the next 10 to 20 years.” Along with being cut off from credit, the population is aging and “older consumers don’t buy as much.” His advice: Look to the East. Big consumer companies in the coming years will be Asia-focused.
But Zhu Min, Group Executive Vice-President of the Bank of China, predicted that it will take many years for Chinese consumers to make up for the gap created by falling U.S. spending. The Chinese currently spend about $1.5 trillion, vs. the $10 trillion normally spent by Americans. Even with 21% annual growth in spending in China, that won’t be enough to make up for what Zhu projects to be “a sharp drop in American consumption for three years.”
The question is how long Americans will stick to their tighter ways. Will frugality become the “new normal” among Americans, as some people fear?
Richard Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Mastercard Worldwide (U.K.) didn’t appear convinced. While the dollar value of sales has dropped sharply, the actual number of transactions has held up surprisingly well. He concluded that “Americans are shopping smarter.”
Ken Rosen, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, insisted that the spirit of frugality will last. “We spent money we didn’t have on goods we didn’t need,” he said. Now, American consumers can’t refinance their homes or get access to credit—and the situation will only get worse as layoffs escalate. “I’m still worried that the housing market has not stabilized,” he added. “The team we had in place over the last eight years dropped the ball … The free-market fundamentalism we had was a mistake.”
The solution? Government spending, according to Yasser El Mallawany, CEO of Egypt’s EFG-Hermes Holding. Ideally, he said, infrastructure spending will help to spur growth. The big issue is whether governments will fall back into a pattern of protectionism. That, he asserted, “could bring the world 40 to 50 years backwards.”
As for the assertion that Americans have, in fact, become frugal: “I don’t see anything under the current definitions of ‘frugal’ that suggests the U.S. is a frugal country,” said McKinsey’s Davis.
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