Friday, May 27, 2011
Economic fragility...financial stress expands
Nearly Half of Americans Are ‘Financially Fragile’
May 23, 2011, 2:22 PM ET
Nearly half of Americans say that they definitely or probably couldn’t come up with $2,000 in 30 days, according to new research, raising concerns about the financial fragility of many households.
Many Americans aren’t able to cope with an unexpected bill. In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Annamaria Lusardi of the George Washington School of Business, Daniel J. Schneider of Princeton University and Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School used data from the 2009 TNS Global Economic Crisis survey to document widespread financial weakness in the U.S. and other countries.
The survey asked a simple question, “If you were to face a $2,000 unexpected expense in the next month, how would you get the funds you need?” In the U.S., 24.9% of respondents reported being certainly able, 25.1% probably able, 22.2% probably unable and 27.9% certainly unable. The $2,000 figure “reflects the order of magnitude of the cost of an unanticipated major car repair, a large copayment on a medical expense, legal expenses, or a home repair,” the authors write. On a more concrete basis, the authors cite $2,000 as the cost of an auto transmission replacement and research that reported low-income families claim to need about $1500 in savings for emergencies.
Financial fragility isn’t limited to low-income groups. “Households with socioeconomic markers of vulnerability (income, wealth, wealth losses, education, women, families with children) are more likely to be financially fragile, and substantially more so,” the authors write. “The more surprising finding is that a material fraction of seemingly ‘middle class’ Americans also judge themselves to be financially fragile, reflecting either a substantially weaker financial position than one would expect, or a very high level of anxiety or pessimism. Both are important in terms of behavior and for public policy.”
Lusardi, Schneider and Tufano also looked at the ways in which people coped with an unexpected expense. Most would use multiple methods ranging from dipping into savings, asking for help from family and friends, using loans or credits cards, taking out payday loans or selling possessions. “Taken together with those who would pawn their possessions, sell their home, or take out a payday loan, 25.7% of respondents who were asked about coping methods (equal to 18.6% of all respondents) would come up with the funds for an emergency by resorting to what might be seen as extreme measures,” the authors write. “Along with the 27.9% of respondents who report that they could certainly not cope with an emergency, this suggests that approximately 46.5% of all respondents are living very close to the financial edge.”
Meanwhile, Lusardi, Schneider and Tufano also looked at how different countries compare. They consulted with local partners to set the number used in local currency at a comparable level. “Perceived capacity to cope with an emergency is lowest in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, all countries in which 50% of households or more would probably or certainly be unable to come up with the emergency funds,” the authors wrote. “France and Portugal occupy an intermediate position; 46% of respondents in Portugal would certainly or probably be unable to come up with the funds as would 37% of those in France. The highest levels of coping capacity are found in Canada (28% certainly or probably unable), Netherlands (27.9%), and Italy (20%).”