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The New Rules of Spending

It’s hard to ignore signs of improvement in the economy, however tentative. Consumer confidence has rebounded, stocks have moved off their lows, and even the battered financial industry is regaining some of its old swagger. But not everything will return to normal. The economic crisis has already led to significant shifts in both consumer and corporate behavior that will create headaches for many firms—but opportunities for a handful of others. Whether you’re a CEO or a consumer, experts say that even as the economy recovers, a new kind of thriftiness will rule the day. The national savings rate has already risen to 5.7 percent from zero a year ago; economists expect it to hit nearly 8 percent in the next few years—closer to the historical average since 1929. That savings could be in cash, stocks or bonds, but ultimately, it means homeowners are staying put for longer, cars are driven another year or two, shoppers are hunting for “values,” and staycations are on the rise, says Ravi Dhar, director of Yale’s Center for Consumer Insights. Even the affluent (generally defined by academics as those making more than $150,000 and with plenty of home equity) are on “austerity budgets,” says Michael Silverstein, a consumer expert and senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group. Corporate America is in the same boat: Firms, startled by the swiftness and depth of the recession, have hunkered down, with even the strongest conserving cash and looking for ways to cut costs and improve productivity. The trend isn’t to cut spending entirely but to become shrewder—and that’s likely to continue, says Ed Kerschner, chief investment strategist for Citigroup’s global wealth management group. Such tactics among consumers have already helped discount-designer retailers TJX and Ross Stores. As for where Americans are stashing their savings, the mutual fund industry has started to see assets grow after a huge exodus last fall. Battered stocks of fund firms have attracted veteran value investors like Royce Funds President Chuck Royce, who thinks asset managers are “the sweet spot” in financials. Companies are also spending more discerningly. Forrester Research expects technology spending this year to slip 5 percent, though analyst Andrew Bartels says firms are still interested in technologies that will make them efficient, cut costs and deliver results quickly. Of course, some argue that Americans (both corporate and consumer) will revert to their profligate ways once the economy starts growing and job losses abate. But it’s going to be hard to feed the consumption cravings, since credit is going to be a lot tougher to come by as banks become more selective and homes can’t be tapped as easily for cash, says Michael Shinnick, manager of the Wasatch-1st Source Long/Short fund. Companies catering to the postcrisis changes and new value approach should offer opportunity for some time, Shinnick adds.