WASHINGTON -- With the economy in a slump for nearly four years, corporate executives and conservative politicians have repeatedly invoked "uncertainty" as a major barrier to American job-creation. The "uncertainty" jab is a go-to talking point for any congressional Republican looking to tag President Barack Obama as a tax-raising, regulation-obsessed foe of American businesses.
But according to banking data compiled by economic research firm Moebs Services, the uncertainty plaguing the American economy has nothing to do with government regulations or taxes on millionaires. It's an uncertainty driven squarely by consumers and small-businesses who are worried about their short-term financial prospects. And it's been going on since well before Obama took up residence in the White House.
Since the end of 2007, bank customers have pulled over $900 billion out of certificates of deposits at major U.S. banks, parking their money in checking accounts and money market deposit accounts. Banks pay customers interest to park their money in CDs, but pay out next-to-nothing for money market accounts, and still less -- usually nothing -- for checking accounts.
"These are enormous shifts," Moebs Services founder and Chairman Mike Moebs told HuffPost. "We haven't seen stuff like this since the 1930s."
Money market and checking accounts offer consumers the ability to withdraw their money quickly, while CDs require the funds to be locked up for years. And that heavy reliance on short-term cash indicates a tremendous amount of uncertainty among the American public about the future -- people with jobs are uncertain about whether they will have one in a year, people without jobs have to pay the bills and don't know how long their unemployment checks will keep coming in.
"People are beginning to realize that zero is a good number if the alternative is a negative number," said Ed Friedman, a director at Moody's Analytics.
The total balance of retail CDs -- interest-bearing accounts targeting ordinary consumers -- has fallen by about $350 billion since the end of 2007. Checking accounts, meanwhile, have climbed by an almost identical amount over the same time period -- jumping from $620 billion to $960 billion, an increase of over 50 percent, which has occurred despite repeated threats from big banks to charge new checking fees.
Another $570 billion has been pulled from "jumbo" CDs -- bigger CD accounts that are used by the wealthy or businesses -- while money market deposit account balances have jumped from $3.9 trillion to $5.7 trillion, suggesting an additional flow of money from other investments, like the stock market and mutual funds.
"People continue to be very pessimistic," said economist Dean Baker, co-Director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, noting that economic conditions like the trouble in Europe could dramatically disrupt financial markets in the near future. "It wouldn't be irrational to stay out now."
This rush to easily accessed, low-paying accounts is a symptom of the recession itself. When people are out of work, they cannot afford the luxury of having their money tied up in longer-term investments. The bills have to be paid.
The shift in consumer banking behavior has also tracked an overall stagnation in the federal money supply, making the change all the more significant.
Moebs runs calculations that correspond to a measure of the total supply of money that the Federal Reserve ceased to cover during the Bush years, once known as the "M3" metric. The metric aggregates the currency in peoples' pocketbooks, checking accounts, CDs, money market accounts and other assets that were viewed as highly liquid prior to the current recession. And according to Moebs, that supply of money has gone from $10.6 trillion in 2007 to $11.3 trillion in the first quarter of 2011 -- an increase of less than 2 percent per year. That compares to an increase of more than 9 percent over the course of 2007 alone.
This kind of uncertainty -- a lack of consumer confidence -- can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When consumers pull their money out of longer-term investments, banks are reluctant to make longer-term loans, which in turn can hamper businesses, which become reluctant to hire without access to credit. The government can, in fact, take steps to alleviate the kind of uncertainty by boosting demand in the economy -- essentially, spending government money. But with congressional Republicans vilifying government spending on a regular basis, this prospect has been unlikely for years.
"It's really a function of the liquidity trap," said Josh Bivens, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank. "We have way too little spending in the economy, which is why we have low interest rates across the board. But then once you see interest rates piling up near the zero-bound, uncertainty is going to drive people to cash."
The Federal Reserve, however, has options. The Fed has kept interest rates low for years, and resorted to exotic maneuvers to encourage consumers and companies to spend money and boost the economy. But since 2008, the Fed has actually paid banks to park their excess reserves at the central bank, rather than lend them out into the economy. If the Fed wanted that money to make its way to consumers and businesses and stimulate job growth, it could simply reverse its policy -- instead of paying banks interest on excess reserves, it could charge them fees. At present, banks can actually make money by doing nothing with their money. If there were a penalty for doing nothing, banks would work harder to find good loan candidates.
"The money doesn't end up going out into the marketplace," Nomi Prins, former managing director for Goldman Sachs, said. "It would make sense to reverse the policy."