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One of my coolest holiday gifts came courtesy of Uncle Sam. Not a tax refund or stimulus check, but the Commerce Department’s release last week on “Gross Domestic Product by State, 3rd Quarter, 2020.


I always look forward to these data because they enable gauging how developments in the national economy are affecting individual states as well as regions, and vice versa, and this latest report is especially interesting because of all that it says about the economic impact of the highly diverse set of lockdowns and shutdowns and stay-at-home orders and the like that the states have imposed during the CCP Virus era.

This will be the first of two posts on the subject, and I’ll focus on some simple descriptive findings – many of which came as surprises to me. Beforehand, though, it’s important to lay out some warnings against drawing overly tight conclusions between a state’s economic performance and the virus curbs it’s put I effect.

Among the most important:

>The pandemic hit different states at different times, so differences in their growth rates (what these gross domestic product, or GDP, figures are particularly valuable for), in many instances have relatively little to do with their lockdown etc regimes.

>The states have highly diverse demographic profiles (e.g., average age of the population, population density) that can also produce highly diverse economic performances for reasons largely unrelated to economic curbs.

>Different state economies are also dominated by different industries, and as has become obvious, some industries’ health has been decimated by the virus (especially in-person services of all kinds like dining and travel and hospitality, but also energy) while some have held up fairly well (like manufacturing). It’s become just as obvious that many jobs that can be performed at home, and therefore the income and spending they generate have been much less affected by the pandemic than jobs requiring a worker’s presence (e.g., in those in-person service sectors).

>Finally (for now), state economies don’t exist in isolation from each other. Commuters and shoppers often cross state lines when traveling to work or stores, and their businesses often sell their products and offer their services to customers nation-wide – inevitably weakening or strengthening the impact of state-specific curbs.

Still, the new GDP-by-state numbers (which include the District of Columbia) reveal any number of important results since they take the story past the deep second quarter virus- and shutdown-induced downturn suffered by the entire national economy, as well as the strong third quarter rebound.

One big surprise: The entire U.S. economy saw output drop by 2.17 percent in inflation-adjusted terms (the gauge most closely watched) between the first quarter of the year (the last mainly pre-pandemic quarter) and the third. But two states actually managed to grow in inflation-adjusted terms (the gauge most closely watched by students of the economy): Utah (whose economy expanded by 1.04 percent in real terms) and Washington (0.44 percent).

The Washington result was unexpected, at least for me, because its West Coast location placed it closer to the CCP Virus’ origins in China, because the first virus case was recorded there in January (at least as far as is known to date), and because one of its economic crown jewels is aerospace giant Boeing, which has been hit so hard both by recent travel restriction and the safety woes troubling its jetliners.

The worst performing states, in relative (percentage terms) were less surprising. The leader here far and away was Hawaii, whose constant dollar GDP shrank by 6.67 percent) followed by Wyoming (down 5.24 percent by the same measure) and New York (4.56 percent). The Aloha State has of course been victimized by the depression in the travel and tourism industries, Wyoming is energy dependent, and New York collectively caught the CCP Virus early, when so little was known about its virulence and deadliness, and about which Americans were least and most vulnerable.

Oddly, however, the number of states that appear to have been especially hard hit economically between the first and third quarters was pretty limited. Only nine overall experienced price-adjusted contractions of more than three percent. In addition to the three biggest losers above, they were Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont. And bonus points for you if you see major energy (Oklahoma, Alaska) and tourism (Nevada and Vermont) effects at work here.

Other than that, the economies of eighteen states shrank between two and three percent in constant dollar terms between the first and the third quarters – meaning that, generally, they weren’t far from the national total of 2.17 percent. The rest contracted by less than two percent or (as with Utah and Washington) eaked out some growth.

But this isn’t to say that the economic impact of the virus and related economic curbs haven’t been highly concentrated in at least one respect: A way outsized share of this production destruction has taken place as of the third quarter in just two states: New York and California.  

New York’s the champ here. During the first quarter, its economy represented 7.74 percent of the U.S. total in inflation-adjusted terms. By the third quarter, though, its $67.80 billion contraction represented 16.36 percent of the entire country’s $414.33 billion. In other words, measured by lost output, it punched more than twice above its economic weight.

During this period, California’s real GDP fell by more than New York’s in absolute terms ($74.30 billion). But its economy has long been bigger than New York’s – accounting for 14.81 percent of constant dollar US GDP during the first quarter, or nearly twice New York’s share. So its 17.93 percent shrinkage was smaller relative to the size of its economy than New York’s.

Their combined impact, however, is genuinely astonishing. Accounting for a combined 22.55 percent of the U.S. economy adjusted for inflation in the first quarter, they generated 34.29 percent of the nation’s economic shrinkage – more than a third.

And this is where the lockdown angle comes in: By one gauge of virus-era state economic regimes, (which themselves have almost all been on and off at least to some extent, thereby creating yet another complication) New York’s and California’s were among the strictest. And the next RealityChek post will examine in more detail the relationship these curbs and state economic growth.