The American economy has depended on consumers’ health, and consumer spending since the 1950s, really. Consumers generate some 70 percent of economic activity from their purchases, with government spending and capital expenditures in the private sector generating the rest of the activity.
Yet there is much doubt that American consumers will be in any position to return to their spending ways once COVID-19 is sufficiently tamed (meaning testing, tracking and quarantining programs in all states are fully operational). Consumers will feel reassured when it is safe to return to work and consume again.
We save more and spend less in times of worry, which depresses the demand for goods and services. And any diminishment in demand caused by their insecurities diminishes the production of those goods and future investment that would expand economic growth.
There is now a tremendous worry that consumers may stay-in-home for a prolonged period because of the pandemic. The personal savings rate has jumped from 8 to 13 percent just in March, when it was as low as 3 percent during boom times leading up to the Great Recession. They weren’t saving during those heady times of the housing boom and bust when housing prices were rising in double digits.
But the lower-income earners haven’t recovered, and some 40 percent of households have almost no savings to weather this downturn.
The latest retail sales tell us what is happening with consumers. Retail sales plunged 16.4 percent in April, by far the biggest drop on record and another reflection of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. economy. They were nearly double March’s revised decline of 8.3 percent. Spending at restaurants and bars fell by about half from a year ago, while clothing store sales slumped 89 percent due to the work lockdown and stay-at-home rules.
That can be counteracted by programs that reassure consumers. For instance the CARES Act prolonged unemployment benefits to July or longer, but need to be extended for at least another six weeks..
But a far more active federal government that develops a real social safety net with far fewer holes is the real answer.
There are some basic elements that might keep consumers from saving too much for a rainy day, if it is being saved for them by effective government social programs, like some form of universal health care that insures as many Americans as possible from expensive medical bills.
Then a much expanded education system that insures a good education for all Americans through high school, and even two-year community colleges to increase their skills. (Community College’s would be tuition-free, in other words.}
What else would reassure ordinary citizens? A safer international environment is being threatened by nationalist and populist governments that have closed their borders to any kind of international cooperation. But COVID-19 is stopping that fragmentation of necessity, as countries must work across borders to share medical science that saves their own populations from higher death rates.
We therefore see a rebuilding of the international supply chain that produces most consumer products, as well. Those products will continue to be produced overseas because of cost factors, no matter how many tariffs Trump imposes on the countries that manufacture them.
Mohamed El-Erian, former CEO of PIMCO and Chairman of President Obama’s Global Development Council, has worried about the damage COVID-19 has done to global growth, and the supply chains that connect what has become a global economy.
“Having already been buffeted by two big shocks in the last ten years, the global economy’s highly interconnected wiring is suffering a third because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a recent Project-Syndicate article. “Globalization thus faces a three-strikes-and-out situation that could well result in a gradual but rather prolonged delinking of trade and investment, which would add to the secular headwinds already facing the global economy.”
Those “headwinds” include the possibility of greater geopolitical conflicts and increased poverty levels of poorer countries from a prolonged slump in foreign trade and investment. Keeping the international supply chain from breaking is an absolute necessity for maintaining worldwide peace and prosperity, in spite of the backlash against globalization by populist governments.
I have cited NYTimes’ commentator Peter Goodwin before, when he said, “For seven decades after World War II, the notion that global trade enhances security and prosperity prevailed across major economies. But in many countries—especially the United States—a stark failure by governments to equitably distribute the bounty has undermined faith in trade, giving way to a protectionist mentality in which goods and resources are viewed as zero-sum.”
We cannot allow the “protectionist mentality” to continue, in other words, if we are to recover from what Mother Nature has thrown at us.
Harlan Green © 2020
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