BOSTON (TheStreet) -- After hovering near zero for months, the savings rate among U.S. consumers may increase to 6.5%, putting as much as $700 billion up for grabs by banks, financial service firms and the retirement sector.That's the conclusion of a study of consumer spending patterns in the U.S., Germany, France and Italy by the financial services firm Allianz ( AZ). Allianz considers the shift in savings habits a positive side effect of the decline in wealth from mid-2007 to early 2009. In 2008, the financial assets of private households declined 18% from the previous year. Stock market freefalls and a collapse in home values destroyed nearly $17.5 trillion of household wealth during the first quarter of 2009. Though economic improvements made up some of these losses by year-end, estimated losses still amounted to as much as 12 trillion. As stocks and bonds rebounded in 2009, households started buying riskier assets again. Still, cash holdings by U.S. households are still high compared to pre-crisis levels, according to the Allianz study. Checkable deposits stood at $332 billion at the end of the third quarter of 2009 compared to $104 billion in the first quarter of 2008. With disposable income at $11 trillion, Allianz economists expect money to emerge from the sidelines and boost the savings rate, which has surged to 4.6% since early 2008, even higher. Gary Bhojwani, chief executive of Allianz Life Insurance of North America, expects more that money to flow into retirement plans.
"People are coming to the realization that they are going to have to prepare for retirement on their own," he says, citing the ongoing elimination of company pension plans and uncertainty about the future of Social Security. With a backdrop that includes support for annuities from the Obama administration, Bhojwani plans to capitalize stock market gains in recent months to attract new clients. Other leaders in the marketplace include Wells Fargo ( WFC), Bank of America ( BAC), ING ( ING) and Sun Life Financial ( SLF). "We are seeing people buy more annuities and putting more of their net worth into them," he says. "I've never been so bullish on what we do." -- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.