Are We Investing Too Little?

by Lynn Elaine Browne and Rebecca Hellerstein
November/December 1997

One of the most disappointing features of U.S. economic performance over the past 20 years has been the slowing of growth in productivity and, as a result, in real incomes. For many, the explanation can be found in the low U.S. saving rate. Since the mid 1980s, national saving has averaged just over 15 percent of GDP, compared to more than 20 percent during the 1970s. Thus, one plausible explanation for slow productivity growth, at least in recent years, could be that our low saving rate is constraining investment and thereby depriving the nation of both the tools and the technologies that would leverage human skills.

This article considers whether the decline in the U.S. saving rate necessarily means that investment spending is "too low." The authors show that private domestic investment has fallen less than one might infer from the decline in saving, and business use of credit markets in the 1990s has remained unusually low even as the cost of capital has fallen. They highlight the growing importance of investment in business equipment, especially computers, during the 1980s and 1990s, and they suggest that this shift in the composition of investment, coupled with the rapid decline in computer prices, may account for some of the inconsistencies in saving and investment patterns. In particular, investment spending may be limited by the ability of businesses to absorb the new information technology.

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