Why the economy’s struggling: Too many people saving money

The richest fifth of Americans — whose household incomes started at $100,000 in 2008 — account for about 60 percent of consumer spending. “A lot of people who are in the lower-income affluent — from $100,000 to $250,000 — have dropped out of the luxury market,” says Pam Danziger, whose firm Unity Marketing regularly surveys the top fifth. “They’re back to the middle class.” In her 2010 survey, 33 percent of respondents said they’re eating out less often and 25 percent have expanded or started using retail store coupons.

The present pessimism could be a passing fad. Doubts about recoveries are standard in the early years, notes Susan Sterne of Economic Analysis Associates. Still, there are calls for government to do more. But with interest rates already low and budget deficits high, additional actions might boomerang, especially if they seem desperate and aggravate anxiety.

The recovery is a creature of confidence, or its absence. “In normal times, psychology doesn’t matter much. It reflects economic conditions,” says Zandi. “But in abnormal times, it’s the reverse. Psychology determines economic conditions.” What the boom and bust left is a massive case of collective doubt.