The Covid-19 pandemic and measures to contain it have led to a dramatic slump in economic performance in the United States. After the U.S. economy shrank by 5.0 and 31.4 percent (annualized, the quarterly rates were -1.3 and -9.0 percent) in the first two quarters of the current year, the recovery in economic performance was strong during the summer. Gross domestic product increased at a rate of 33.4 percent (again annualized, the quarterly rate was 7.5 percent). Thus, the U.S. economy is likely to have grown fast in the second half of the year. The availability of vaccines against COVID-19 will probably support the recovery in 2021. In addition, fiscal aid and stimulus measures adopted in December 2020 will significantly support the economy in 2021. For 2021, I currently expect an increase in GDP of 5.5 to 6 percent. For 2022, economic growth will slow down to 2.5 to 3 percent. If the new Biden administration adopts further fiscal stimulus programs, one may expect higher economic growth rates.
The Covid-19 pandemic and measures to contain it have led to a dramatic slump in economic performance in the United States. Following the slump in economic output in the first half of the year, there was a strong recovery in the summer months after the pandemic had been contained somewhat for the time being and the various lockdown measures had been partially lifted. The main stimulus to the economy in the summer was the financial aid package adopted in March. Key elements of the program were an increase in unemployment benefits until the end of July and one-off payments to low and middle-income households. A significant number of the unemployed are thus likely to have temporarily earned more than they previously did with a job. Above all, this lifted private consumption.
Fast recovery in the second half of 2020
As a result of these developments, gross domestic product grew strongly by 7.5 percent in the third quarter according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Similar to the previous slump in the second quarter (a drop of 9.0 percent), this growth is also the strongest since quarterly GDP data have been published. However, economic output in the third quarter was still 3.4 percent down on the level seen in the final quarter of 2019. Both private consumption and corporate investment have once again shot up. Private consumption grew very strongly by 9.0 percent in the third quarter, following a slump of 11.2 percent in the first half of 2020. Not all consumption categories have been equally affected by the Corona crisis. Given that the various lockdown measures have restricted or rendered the provision of personal services impossible, real consumer spending on services as a whole slumped by 14.9 percent in the first half of the crisis and, against the backdrop of a further increase in the number of corona cases and restrictions, grew at 8.4 percent in the third quarter, less strongly than purchases of consumer durables, which even grew by 16.3 percent over the summer following a relatively moderate slump of 3.7 percent in the first half of the year. The crisis has so far also had less of an impact on non-durable consumer goods, which include food and other goods for daily use, than on services.
This pattern shows that the corona crisis differs markedly from other recessions, in which the purchase of durable consumer goods such as cars, furniture or computers is postponed, while personal services usually suffer less. The pattern to date also indicates that economic development in the coming months is likely to be severely dampened by the continuing high number of corona cases, since under these circumstances it is unlikely that the service sector will experience a strong recovery. The purchase of consumer durables to date may also be due to the fact that many households have temporarily made purchases for work from home, leisure activities or means of transportation, such as cars or bicycles, in the course of increasing work from home and avoiding large crowds of people. This may not be repeated to the same extent in the future.
Foreign trade also shows a pattern in which trade in services – which among others includes tourism and professional travel – has been affected much more than trade in goods. The United States’ trade deficit has risen significantly in this year of the Corona. By preventing an even sharper slump in private consumption, the financial stimulus measures also had a supporting effect on imports from the rest of the world.
Rather unexpectedly, corporate investment also showed a surprisingly bright picture in the third quarter, although there were various negative factors such as uncertainties about the further course of the pandemic and economic development, as well as the uncertain outcome of the U.S. presidential and congressional elections. After a decline of 9.2 percent in the first half of the year, the third quarter saw an increase of 5.3 percent. As expected, investments in equipment were volatile this year, while spending on research and development or software, which is also otherwise less sensitive to economic cycles, reacted much less strongly and less quickly to the slump and recovery of the economy.
Unemployment rate steadily decreases
In the spring, there were dramatic effects on the job market. The official unemployment rate was at 14.7 percent in April, but the “true” unemployment rate was probably at least 5 percentage points higher due to measurement issues. Since April, the unemployment rate has decreased to 6.7 percent in November and December. However, the pace of the recovery has gradually slowed down. The improvement on labor markets was rather modest in November. And in December, the situation moderately deteriorated again. During the winter, I do not expect significant improvements in the labor market, perhaps even a further deterioration. In spring, the unemployment rate will probably continue to gradually decline, but unemployment will remain higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic for a considerable period of time. This will also dampen the evolution of wages. While disposable personal income was until July strongly supported by fiscal support measures such as the temporary higher unemployment benefits, it has decreased in the period from August to November. Currently, I expect a subdued evolution of personal income in the coming months, which will also dampen private consumption and the economic recovery. Since May, job growth occurred in most sectors of the economy and was particularly strong in sectors such as hospitality, leisure, food services and drinking, retail trade or health services, which were all hardly hit by the pandemic and the lockdown. Let me stress that employment levels in most of these sectors remain well below their pre-pandemic levels.
The recovery is dampened by high numbers of Covid-19 cases several restrictions on economic activities. Probably, this situation will not change in the coming months although vaccines are now available. Various containment measures and uncertainties about the further course of the pandemic remain in place at least until the summer, which will dampen economic dynamism.
Further fiscal aid and stimulus measures support the economy
The U.S. government’s extensive fiscal measures have been supportive in the first half of the year. These measures included direct transfers to low- and middle-income households, an increase and prolongation of unemployment benefits, and emergency loans for businesses. However, between August and December, unemployment benefits were lower. In the end of December, the political parties agreed on new fiscal stimulus measures (a total of 900 billion US-dollars). In particular, unemployment benefits were extended and one-time payments of 600 dollars per adult and child for low- and medium-income households were adopted. This measures will significantly boost economic growth in the first quarter of 2021 and, obviously, in the whole year of 2021. One may expect that the new Biden administration will propose further fiscal stimulus measures and additional spending, in particular on infrastructure and green energy. I do not yet include these measures in my baseline forecasts.
Monetary policy also strongly supports the economy. The U.S. Federal Reserve cut its key interest rates to almost zero percent in two steps. Extensive asset purchase programs were also adopted and various measures were taken to ensure liquidity in the financial system. In August, the Fed communicated that it will start to target an average inflation rate of two percent (average is new), which might result in a somewhat higher inflation rate in the future. This would mean that a year-long undershoot of the inflation target – as was the case in previous years, would in the future be compensated for by a temporary overshoot. As a result, monetary policy might remain a bit more expansionary in the next year than under the previous monetary policy strategy. With the gradual recovery of the U.S. economy, the situation on the labor market will improve; the unemployment rate will probably drop below 6 percent in the first half of 2020.
All in all, after a contraction of around 3.5 percent in 2020, I currently expect that the U.S. economy will expand at a rate of 5.5 to 6 percent in 2021. For 2022, I expect a growth rate of 2.5 to 3 percent. Obviously, such forecasts are associated with a very high degree of uncertainty. If the new Biden administration adopts further fiscal stimulus programs, one may expect higher economic growth rates.
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis:
Bureau of Labor Statistics:
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