Fear: The lingering legacy of the financial crisis

By Bernard Condon

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 7 2013 4:56 p.m. MDT

— SPENDING SLUMP: To cut debt and save more, people have reined in their spending. Adjusting for inflation, global consumer spending rose 1.6 percent a year during the five years after the crisis, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting and consulting firm. That was about half the growth rate before the crisis and only slightly more than the annual growth in population during those years.

Consumer spending is critically important because it accounts for more than 60 percent of GDP.

— DEVELOPING WORLD NOT HELPING ENOUGH: When the financial crisis hit, the major developed countries looked to the developing world to take over in powering global growth. The four big developing countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — recovered quickly from the crisis. But the potential of the BRIC countries, as they are known, was overrated. Although they have 80 percent of the people, they accounted for only 22 percent of consumer spending in the 10 biggest countries last year, according to Haver Analytics, a research firm. This year, their economies are stumbling.

Consumers around the world will eventually shake their fears, of course, and loosen the hold on their money. But few economists expect them to snap back to their old ways.

One reason is that the boom years that preceded the financial crisis were fueled by families taking on enormous debt, experts now realize, not by healthy wage gains. No one expects a repeat of those excesses.

More importantly, economists cite psychological "scarring," a fear of losing money that grips people during a period of collapsing jobs, incomes and wealth, then doesn't let go, even when better times return. Think of Americans who suffered through the Great Depression and stayed frugal for decades.

Although not on a level with the Depression, some economists think the psychological blow of the financial crisis was severe enough that households won't increase their borrowing and spending to what would be considered normal levels for another five years or longer.

To better understand why people remain so cautious five years after the crisis, AP interviewed consumers around the world. A look at what they're thinking — and doing — with their money:

Rick Stonecipher of Muncie, Ind., doesn't like stocks anymore, for the same reason that millions of investors have turned against them — the stock market crash that began in October 2008 and didn't end until the following March.

"My brokers said they were really safe, but they weren't," says Stonecipher, 59, a substitute school teacher.

Americans sold the most in the five years after the crisis — $521 billion, or 9 percent of their mutual fund holdings, according to Lipper. But investors in other countries sold a larger share of their holdings: Germans dumped 13 percent; Italians and French, more than 16 percent each.

The French are "not very oriented to risk," says Cyril Blesson, an economist at Pair Conseil, an investment consultancy in Paris. "Now, it's even worse."

It's gotten worse in China, Russia and the U.K., too.

Fu Lili, 31, a psychologist in Fu Xin, a city in northeastern China, says she made 20,000 yuan ($3,267) buying and selling stocks before the crisis, more than 10 times her monthly salary then. But she won't touch them now, because she's too scared.

In Moscow, Yuri Shcherbanin, 32, a manager for an oil company, says the crash proved stocks were dangerous and he should content himself with money in the bank.

In London, Pavlina Samson, 39, owner of a jewelry and clothes shop, says stocks are too "risky." What's also driving her away may be something that runs deeper: "People feel like they're being ripped off everywhere," she says.

Holzhausen, the Allianz economist, says the crisis taught people not to trust others with their money. "People want to get as much distance as possible from the financial system," he says.

The crisis also taught them about the dangers of debt.

After the crisis hit, Jerry and Madeleine Bosco of Tujunga, Calif., found themselves facing $30,000 in credit card bills with no easy way to pay the debt off. So they sold stocks, threw most of their cards in the trash, and stopped eating out and taking vacations.

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