Insight: household savings

Putting your savings into the sharemarket is so last decade - at least, that's what the figures suggest.

Just 5.5 per cent of households think the sharemarket is the ''wisest'' place to park spare cash, according to a new survey. On the other hand, a near-record proportion of almost 40 per cent of respondents prefer the safety of deposit accounts.

It's hard to believe now, but things were once very different. In the heady days of the early 2000s, more than 30 per cent of people surveyed by Westpac and the Melbourne Institute nominated the sharemarket as the wisest place to put their savings, making shares even more popular than bank deposits.

How long will this conservatism last? With interest rates coming down, deposits are bound to become less attractive because of the weaker returns. This may encourage people to take more investment risks - there are already signs that lower rates are sparking interest in the housing market.

However, economists believe households are unlikely to rekindle their love affair with shares soon.

Why? Because the wave of household caution sweeping the country appears to be more than a short-term change of heart - suggesting shares could remain on the nose for some time to come.

After seeing other countries in deep trouble with debt, consumers appear to have undergone a fundamental shift in mindset.

Between 2008 and 2011, small investors pulled about $67 billion out of the sharemarket - many probably making capital losses - while the amount held in deposits soared by $225 billion.

At the same time, experts believe sharemarkets have become more volatile in recent years, and are likely to remain so. This year the Reserve Bank said sharemarket volatility had doubled since 2007, which can result in actual returns being lower.

None of this changes the long-term attractiveness of share investments. The Reserve said average annual returns from Australian shares - including capital growth and dividends - had been been 5.5 percentage points higher than returns from deposits over the past 30 years. Since 2008, however, it said the reverse had occurred.

But for now, it seems fewer households are willing to take the greater risk that comes with these returns.

This story Insight: household savings first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.