Economists generally agree that the slowdown could boost savings, a potential boon for banks but it might also reduce demand for bank loans.
Robert W. Strand, a senior economist at the American Bankers Association in Washington, said last week that its just consumer spending that is keeping the economy going right now, but it is clear that we need more savings.
Some economists argue that reduced consumption and increased saving might be good for banks: Consumers might boost equity investments, contribute more to retirement plans, tap credit lines for home improvements, or park more cash in deposit accounts.
On the other hand, consumer saving could push the economy into recession, said some economists at a two-day conference late last month sponsored by the Jerome Levy Economic Institute of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
According to the Commerce Department, the personal savings rate as a percentage of disposable income improved to a negative 0.8% in March, up from negative 1% in February and negative 1.3% in January.
Mr. Strand said that higher savings rates would benefit credit quality in the banking industry as consumers start to pay back loans, but that could also mean that banks balance sheets would contract if consumers pay down their debt and do not take out new loans.
The consumer sector is vulnerable, said Peter Hooper, a managing director at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, the U.S. securities unit of Deutsche Bank AG, during the April conference. He expects the unemployment rate to rise to over 5%, which would sharply curtail housing sales and productivity. And, Mr. Hooper said, higher savings might not directly influence deposits.
At least one of his fears seems to have been confirmed Friday. The Labor Department reported a 0.2% rise in unemployment last month, to 4.5%, and the increase occurred not only in manufacturing but also in service industry jobs.
With consumer spending the main source of economic performance, rising unemployment is causing anxiety.
Mounting layoffs are battering consumer pocketbooks and confidence, said Sung Won Wohn, chief economist of Wells Fargo & Co in San Francisco, on Friday. Todays number indicates that the downside risk has not disappeared.
The key problem is that there is too much debt, said David A. Levy, director of forecasting at the Levy Institute, during the April conference. We would need boom conditions to service it, he said, pointing out that the high debt service burden inevitably restricts spending and adversely affects the overall economy.
Economists were also divided about how the Federal Reserve might best handle the situation.
Mr. Hooper said he expects another 0.75% cut in the federal funds rate to offset the immediate danger of falling consumption.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Chicagos Bank One Corp., however, thinks consumer debt is less of a concern because it is spread across a bigger group of households. For example, consumers who never had access to debt now have credit cards and can get home loans because banks have eased their lending standards to compete more effectively with nonbank lenders, she said.
Ms. Swonk seemed less worried than others that a recession is coming. The timing of the slowdown is crucial. If this would have happened in 1999 recession would have been inevitable. Now we are coming from a higher level of economic performance, she said.
She predicted that the economy will bounce back soon, which could lead the Fed to think about an increase in interest rates by the end of the year or early next year.