This Is Not A Recovery: Lessons From 1980
The statistical bounce off a record plunge in economic activity linked to the pandemic has proved to be short-lived. The economy is not moving forward in a sustainable way, evident by three consecutive monthly declines in retail sales.
Last April, I argued that relaxing the restrictions too soon to combat the Covid virus runs the risk of the second wave, more serious than the first one. That's what happened in 1980 when the economy faced an "inflation virus" and the federal government imposed credit-controls to break it from spreading. That quick-fix didn't work. More draconian government measures followed, sending the economy into a more protracted downturn.
In the past month, the number of new "Covid" cases has jumped to record highs, supporting the view of medical experts that not enough was done in the spring months to break its transmission. The coronavirus curve can be broken only by medical science. And the bad news is that the current spread of the Covid-virus is moving faster than the vaccine administration program can keep pace.
It's too early to sound the alarm on the recovery but record-high covid cases, a rebound in jobless claims, and three consecutive monthly declines in retail sales are not the recovery-script.
Retail Sales & Covid
December's retail sales declined by 0.7%, the third consecutive monthly decline. Excluding the volatile motor vehicle and gas station sales, retail sales fell 2.1 %, 3X times the drop in the headline figure, and are off nearly 4% in the last three months.
Weakness in retail sales was apparent in business establishments that have been hurt and also benefited from the pandemic. Sales at eating and drinking establishments fell 4.5% last month, while online sales also plunged more, declining 5.8% in December. And sales at both of these retail establishments fell in November.
Retail sales have been the bright spot in the consumer space. Spurred early on by federal support payments, pent-up demand, and monies not spent on travel. recreational and entertainment retail sales surged to a record level in Q3.
Going into Q4 retail sales had a lot of momentum and a number of factors pointing to more gains. To be sure, consumers were sitting on a double-digit saving rate, record wealth, and strong job gains as millions of people were being rehired. But retail spending hit a wall in Q4.
Analysts will quibble over what economic factors are responsible for the abrupt and sharp decline in retail sales but in my view, the record rise in Covid cases is disrupting the normal flow of commerce. There is a direct and indirect link between Covid cases, jobless claims, the number of people working remotely, and the propensity to spend.
Let's assume that half of the more than 200,000+ plus cases are people that are employed. That means 700,000 each week (nearly 3 million a month) are displaced from work for a period of time, and that's not counting the people that came in close contact. Also, as Covid cases spike in towns and cities local governments are forced to impose stricter restrictions on businesses triggering more layoffs.
In 1980, the second wave of inflation proved to be more damaging than the first, and in 2020 the second wave of Covid cases is far more damaging in scale and breadth than the initial count of last March/April.
Here's a simple checklist for a sustainable economic recovery; the number of Covid cases and jobless claims are halved, followed by a sharp decline in the number of people working remotely. The latter is often overlooked as a catalyst for growth, but it shouldn't be as a mobile worker touches more parts of the economy compared to a remote worker, and also has a higher spending multiplier.
Three indicators to follow; daily covid cases; weekly jobless claims and monthly figures on remote workers.