At the risk of being (undeservedly) tarred as a CCP Virus pollyanna, I can’t help but being struck by the some new evidence that the U.S. economy’s recovery from its pandemic-induced swoon will be faster than widely feared. In fact, I still share these fears to some degree. But I can’t ignore increasing signs to the contrary.
To be clear, this evidence has little to do with the subject of yesterday’s post. Just because data can be cited showing significant national progress in beating back the virus threat doesn’t necessarily mean that a more so-called “V-shaped” economic rebound is on the way. The same goes for the impact of this progress on the economy reopening decisions of individual U.S. states – even though the more decline seen in numbers of new cases (despite gains in testing that should be revealing much more infection), numbers of deaths, and numbers of virus-related hospitalizations, the more reopening obviously will be seen.
Nor are my views being shaped by the strong rebound seen in U.S. stock markets so far (including today so far), or by the newly bullish recovery views voiced last night on “Sixty Minutes” by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. And this post isn’t even driven by the latest news about vaccine progress (though such reports will clearly help as long as the results continue being validated).
The reason: I’ve been convinced that the key to the recovery’s strength will be Americans’ willingness to start patronizing businesses in an economy where most activity – and most income earning opportunities – depend on consumer spending. So I’ve put considerable stock in predictions that, even though all the objective conditions can show that a return to normality will be safe, too many Americans will remain too fearful to boost the economy significantly.
I also take seriously the idea that all the restrictions on visiting retail stores (including restaurants) and personal service businesses will limit their customer flow either simply by forcing them to operate substantially below capacity, or by dissuading many customers from visiting in the first place, and thereby sharply reducing impulse consuming. Further, I’m well aware that the much more modest shock administered to Americans by the Great Recession triggered by the 2007-08 financial crisis was painfully slow to wear off. (See here and here where I write about reasons for recovery pessimism.)
In addition, the experiences of other countries that started reopening earlier has reenforced consumer caution concerns. Sweden, for example, has imposed fewer economic restrictions than any other major country. But this survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports that consumer spending has dropped significantly anyway, and may not recover for months. China claims that it’s beaten the virus and its regime has been easing factory lockdowns since February. But as of late April, retail sales were still way down.
Finally, there’s the second wave threat, which could kneecap the economy as temperatures start dropping in the fall even if summer does witness a decent bounce back toward pre-virus consuming.
So the case against a relatively quick recovery with real legs is still awfully strong.
But don’t overlook reasons for more optimism. One that’s nothing less than amazing: The piece in this morning’s Washington Post reporting that even though virus testing is now much more widely available in the United States than previously, Americans are far from rushing to capitalize on these opportunities. Even accepting the various reasons offered in this article (e.g., not enough Americans know that the situation has changed; there’s too much mistrust of medical providers in some U.S. communities, particularly African-Americans), it’s difficult at least for me to conclude anything else but that many in the United States simply aren’t concerned enough about the pandemic to take this precaution. After all, if they were panic-stricken, wouldn’t they be following every bit of news about the supply of tests with baited breath?
Perhaps more important, the more news that emerges that the CCP Virus is much less lethal than early reports suggested, the (understandably) less concerned about infection more and more Americans seem to be.
Then there are all the reports of Americans, whether in states that have eased lockdowns more vigorously and those that haven’t, violating social distance guidelines, either by not wearing masks where they’re supposed to, or seemingly ignoring social distancing rules in public place – and indeed returning to restaurants and bars and beaches in pretty impressive numbers. These reports are anecdotal, and therefore should be viewed with lots of caution. Also, please don’t assume that I’m endorsing this behavior! But there sure seems to be a lot of it, these reports also seem related to growing evidence of the virus’ relatively modest death rates, and and as an old adage goes, when enough anecdotes appear, they become data.
Finally are several indicators pointing to an actual, non-trivial comeback in economic activity, and for a variety of sectors. This account mentions encouraging signs from the tech sector to the automotive industry. This article presents evidence of bottoming even in hard-hit bricks and mortars retail stores and restaurants. And click here for information on the housing industry.
Of course, the references above to “bottoming” could still be entirely consistent with pessimistic predictions of a painfully slow climb back to pre-virus prosperity. But I still find myself wondering if, having seen the overpoweringly depressive effect of various official edicts literally to halt and outlaw much economic activity, Americans might experience a reasonably powerful growth effect from their withdrawal – not to mention declining fears that infection is a death sentence.