Economic recovery – sort of

These are the times that try men’s souls.

Thomas Paine

The pandemic and protests and civil disorder continue to assail both the social fabrics and the economies of our cities, states and nation. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following an interesting set of maps and graphs detailing the ongoing evolution of the US economy.*

The graphs and maps are focused on consumer spending, and based on private sector data (e.g., credit card transactions). Thus, they do not directly reflect business activity (although the team has separately analyzed some data relating to business activity). They also are significantly distorted by government initiatives designed to mitigate the economic impacts (more on that below). The data is broken down into seven economic sectors** – by state and county, and also includes data for 50+ metro areas. Data are also reported on a national level for consumers living in high, medium and low income areas. In the following, let me give you a sort of high-level early-stage summary on the recovery of consumer spending (based on data up 6/26/20).

Total consumer spending is still down by about 7% since the group’s January baseline. However, that total is misleading – spending on Arts, entertainment and recreation and Transportation is still only abut half of the baseline, with a very slow trajectory toward recovery. It may take years for these sectors related to tourism to recover, especially Transportation. Spending on Restaurants and hotels is also still down by a third nation-wide, but with a better trajectory. Health care spending is down 12%, but seems to be recovering well. Spending on Apparel and merchandise has essentially recovered, though the data does not reflect shifts from storefronts to online suppliers. The biggest surprise is Grocery spending – up 12%, probably reflecting eating at home vs dining out. This is highlighted by data from March: Grocery spending spiked at +73%!

Another surprise is in who’s not spending – consumers in affluent areas are spending 12% less than in January. Middle income areas are seeing a drop of only about 6% in spending; while there is a negligible drop in less affluent areas. Other data collected by the group indicate that small businesses in the more affluent areas are also being harder hit than in other areas.

Looking at the data at a state level, mid-America is doing the best, with generally increased consumer spending; Tennessee having the largest increase (5%). West Virginia, New Hampshire, Idaho, Hawaii and Maine are also seeing somewhat increased consumer spending compared to January. Both coasts are doing more poorly, especially the West Coast. Consumer spending in Rhode Island and California has lagged the worst among the states.

Looking at the metro areas, there are two surprises: Jacksonville and Nashville. Jacksonville’s consumer spending is up over 5% compared to January; Nashville’s is off 33%(!). Nashville is particularly surprising given that Tennessee in general is doing rather well. San Francisco is also lagging badly, as are the other California metro areas as well as DC.

A few other observations about the data:

  • Iowa is the only state which has seen a decline on spending for groceries (11%).
  • Nashville saw the biggest drop in Transportation spending – 80%, and it’s staying flat.
  • In terms of Health care spending, the southern tier of states has recovered more than the northern tier; poorest performing is Vermont, off 52%.
  • In general, spending in rural areas is recovering more rapidly than in urban areas; and several rural counties actually saw increased consumer spending.
  • There is one aspect of the data that I find fascinating, but can’t explain: almost everyone one of the curves bottomed out in the period 3/28-4/17. However, in each case, there were two dips – one around 3/30 and another around 4/15, with slightly increased spending in between.

Here’s my takeaways:

  • The data shows great disparities in terms of geography, economic sector and income group. When I add in the data not included here (e.g., unemployment, housing, bankruptcies, small businesses closing) I come to the conclusion that recovery policies are going to have to be carefully crafted if they are to work. One size won’t fit all. Given the continuing dysfunction in Washington, I have to wonder whether my prediction of a four to five year recovery wasn’t overly optimistic. If Congress can’t come together on something as relatively simple as policing reform, how are they going to deal with the knottier (and naughtier!) issues surrounding recovery? As one example, increasing taxes on higher income groups will penalize already suffering small businesses in their areas – is this what we really want to do?
  • These data necessarily paint a much more positive picture than reality. They reflect the positive impacts on spending due to stimulus and unemployment payments (which eventually have to expire), but hide the looming problems associated with housing. Throughout the country, there have effectively been rent and mortgage “holidays” – most often three to six month moratoria on evictions and foreclosures. As these expire, the pressures on the consumer are going to increase. Governments will be forced to choose between landlords and renters, banks and homeowners. In general, my sympathies are always with the underdog, but the choice between landlords and renters is actually between two little guys – over half of the nation’s landlords manage only one or a very few units.
  • The prognosis for many metro areas is not very good. People are leaving NYC, San Francisco (in fact, all of California) and other big cities in droves. Conversely, the suburbs and near-urban rural areas are already seeing signs of growth. If this de-urbanizing trend continues (and I think it will) it will constitute a watershed period in American history, testing urban resilience as never before.
  • Still, the data could have been worse; even with the caveats above, rebounding consumer spending is a necessity for our consumer-driven economy. And recovery is actually happening in some places. We aren’t seeing a V-shaped recovery, but progress is being made.

* Developed by a group consisting of Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, and the Opportunity Insights Team.

** Apparel and general merchandise; Arts, entertainment and recreation; Grocery; Health care; Restaurant and hotel; and Transportation.

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