NEW YORK — They speak different languages, live in countries rich and poor, face horrible job markets and healthy ones. When it comes to money, though, they act as one: They're holding tight to their cash, driven more by a fear of losing what they have than a desire to add to it.
Five years after U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering a global financial crisis and shattering confidence worldwide, families in countries as varied as the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany remain hunkered down, too spooked and distrustful to take chances with their money.
An Associated Press analysis of households in the 10 biggest economies shows that families continue to spend cautiously and have pulled hundreds of billions of dollars out of stocks, cut borrowing for the first time in decades and poured money into savings and bonds that offer puny interest payments, often too low to keep up with inflation.
"It doesn't take very much to destroy confidence, but it takes an awful lot to build it back," says Ian Bright, senior economist at ING, a global bank based in Amsterdam. "The attitude toward risk is permanently reset."
A flight to safety on such a global scale is unprecedented since the end of World War II.
The implications are huge: Shunning debt and spending less can be good for one family's finances. When hundreds of millions do it together, it can starve the global economy.
Weak growth around the world means wages in the United States, which aren't keeping up with inflation, will continue to rise slowly. Record unemployment in parts of Europe, higher than 35 percent among youth in several countries, won't fall quickly. Another wave of Chinese, Brazilians and Indians rising into the middle class, as hundreds of millions did during the boom years last decade, is unlikely.
Some of the retrenchment is not surprising: High unemployment in many countries means fewer people with paychecks to spend. Some people who lost jobs got new ones that pay less or are part time. But even people with good jobs and little fear of losing them remain cautious.
"Lehman changed everything," says Arne Holzhausen, a senior economist at global insurer Allianz, based in Munich. "It's safety, safety, safety."
The AP analyzed data showing what consumers did with their money in the five years before the Great Recession began in December 2007 and in the five years that followed, through the end of 2012. The focus was on the world's 10 biggest economies — the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., Brazil, Russia, Italy and India — which have half the world's population and 65 percent of global gross domestic product.
— RETREAT FROM STOCKS: A desire for safety drove people to dump stocks, even as prices rocketed from crisis lows in early 2009, and put their money into bonds. Investors in the top 10 countries pulled $1.1 trillion from stock mutual funds in the five years after the crisis, or 10 percent of what they had invested at the start of that period, according to Lipper Inc., which tracks funds.