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From Ben Franklin to IRAs

Back in the days of colonial America, young Ben Franklin would spend part of each midday looking over his financial accounts, as he tells us in his famous ''Autobiography.'' His attentiveness to personal savings was considerable, enough in fact to enable him to become a wealthy man - a course that he earnestly recommended to his fellow Americans in many a discourse and maxim.

Recalling ''young Ben'' in this period of high inflation and economic recession, when pinching a penny is difficult for many families, may seem inappropriate. Yet the importance that Americans attached to personal savings in the early days of the Republic has much to commend itself to our day when consumption and debt have become prevalent.

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Because of enactment of a broad range of new financial laws in the past year, Americans - both individuals and corporations - now have more avenues for savings available to them than perhaps at any time in the past several decades.

Besides new legal incentives - such as liberalized private-pension laws pertaining to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), corporate depreciation laws , and the huge 25 percent three-year tax cut - innovative new banking and institutional channels for savings are opening up.

If the American economy is to overcome its difficulties, the ''savings habit'' must again become as central to people's experience as debt and consumption, which have been encouraged since World War II by tax laws allowing deductions of debt interest and imposing taxes on interest from savings accounts. It is savings, after all, that provides the capital resources to build the new plants and factories needed to revitalize America's sagging industrial base.

There is some evidence that savings rates may be ratcheting upward once again as a percentage of disposable income. In 1979 the savings rate was roughly 5.l percent. It rose slightly to 5.6 percent in 1980. Preliminary figures for 198l suggest it will be at or slightly above the 198l figure. Whether the new IRAs will bring in actual new dollars, or just ''rollover savings'' from existing accounts, is still uncertain, although some economists believe that at least a quarter of the IRA dollars will be ''new.'' But the importance of such savings must not be underestimated. Just getting the savings rate up 2 percentage points , as President Reagan noted in a speech in New York last week, would add ''nearly $60 billion a year to our capital pool to fight high interest rates, finance new investments, new mortgages and new jobs. ''

Can Americans save an additional 2 percent a year, given current economic woes? America's allies save a much larger percentage of income: West Germans, over 15 percent of income; the Japanese, over 20 percent. With so many new opportunities to save, it is to be hoped that those who can will respond to the President's call and - like young Ben - sit down with their account books in an effort to wring out a few more pennies. They will be doing their country - and themselves - a service if they do.

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