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Americans are saving more than previously thought, new government report says

FILE- In this Nov. 6, 2017, file photo, people walk by a branch office of Bank of America in New Yor
A Bank of America branch in New York in 2017. New government statistics show that Americans’ saving rate is much higher than previously thought, largely due to the earnings of small-business owners.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Bloomberg

U.S. households have been socking away a lot more money in recent years than had been earlier thought, revised government statistics released on Friday showed. The saving rate over 2016 and 2017 is now pegged at an average 6.7%, up from a previously reported 4.2%.

The new data may help quell some economists’ concerns that consumers were becoming so pinched that they would have to cut back on their spending in order to put more money aside.

But there’s a catch: Most of the revision to savings in recent years came about because small-business owners and other proprietors made more money to salt away, not because workers got bigger wage increases.

The comprehensive update of gross domestic product, carried out every five years by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, rewrote recent history in other ways as well. Business investment, especially in high-tech equipment, was marked up.

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So too was economic growth in the first quarters of most recent years, the final step in a drive to improve the seasonal adjustments that the BEA makes.

Below are highlights of the comprehensive update, based on a census of economic activity that the government carries out every five years to gather detailed industry and commodity data. The update also reflects new information from other sources, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Agriculture.

The household saving rate was revised higher in 10 of the last 11 years in the latest update, sometimes substantially. The changes were mainly driven by new IRS data showing that business proprietors’ income was much bigger than previously known.

The upward revision in last year’s rate to 6.7% from 3.4% also reflected a change in the seasonal adjustment for employee compensation.

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BEA officials believe they’ve now scrubbed the data clean of the so-called residual seasonality issues that have been artificially depressing first-quarter growth numbers. First-quarter GDP is now calculated to have risen by an average annual rate of 1.6% from 2002 to 2017, versus 1.2% previously.

For 2017, the contours of growth showed a slower second half than previously reported. The first quarter was revised to a 1.8% pace from 1.2% and the second quarter went to 3% from 3.1%. The third-quarter pace was reduced to 2.8% from 3.2%, and the fourth quarter ended with a 2.3% gain, after a previously reported 2.9%.

The first quarter of 2018 was revised to a 2.2% growth pace from 2%.

The bureau also began on Friday to publish GDP data that has not been seasonally adjusted, allowing economists to make their own calculations of how changes in the calendar affect economic activity.

An ongoing BEA initiative on the digital economy led to other data changes. The agency adopted new quality-adjusted price measures for software and medical and communications equipment, including cellphones. It also broke out capital spending on components for cloud computing.

The result was a jump in inflation-adjusted outlays by businesses on high-tech and other equipment. Those investments are now calculated to have grown at an average annual rate of 3.8% over the past five years, up from 3.2%.

With the rise in spending came a markdown in corporate profits after adjusting for depreciation and inventory valuations. For 2017, such earnings were lowered by $65.4 billion, or 3%. They were still up for the year though, by 3.2%.

In spite of the various tweaks to the numbers, the overall narrative of the economy’s performance over the last decade has not really changed.

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The recession that began in December 2007 is still the deepest since the Great Depression, though it’s a shade less terrible than previously thought: GDP contracted by 4%, rather than 4.2%.

And the expansion that began thereafter remains the weakest of the post-World War II period, with an average annual growth rate of 2.2%.

Miller writes for Bloomberg.


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