Was it all worth it?
Everyone knew the second quarter of 2020 was going to be a disaster, and it was. The U.S. economy fell by 31.4% (annualized) in the second quarter.
But, the expectation was that we’d have a V-shaped recovery with a sharp bounce-back in the third quarter, a reopening of closed businesses, rehiring of the unemployed and a rising stock market.
But so far, the economy is not following the script laid out for it by the politicians and experts.
The stock market did rally, but that was mainly because the stock index components are heavily weighted to companies least affected by the pandemic including Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Federal Reserve printed $4 trillion of new money and backstopped money markets, corporate bonds, municipal bonds, foreign central banks and other facets of capital markets with direct purchases, guarantees or currency swaps.
Even at that, stocks have been struggling since hitting new highs on September 2.
And yes, there was growth in the third-quarter (the best estimate is that the economy will grow at about a 35% annualized rate, but we won’t have official figures until October 29).
The 35% third-quarter recovery was to be expected as Americans got back to work after the lockdown. That 35% rate might sound like the third quarter will basically make up for the second quarter, but it won’t.
Not as Good as It Sounds
The 35% gain is applied to the lower level of output resulting from the 31.4% loss. If you take 100 as a starting place, reduce it by 31.4% you get to a new level of 68.6. If you increase that level by 35% you get back to 92.6.
That still leaves you 7.4 percentage points in the hole, not counting the 5% drop in the first quarter. When you apply 7.4% to a $22 trillion economy, that means you still have $1.6 trillion of lost output on an annualized basis even after the 35% third-quarter recovery.
The V-shaped recovery looks more like an “L” with flattish growth beyond the third-quarter. Things will not necessarily get much better from there, and progress is very much in doubt.
The lockdown continues in many places. The virus has not gone away, and the caseload and fatalities continue to grow.
A second wave of layoffs has now begun as companies that were able to hang on thanks to Payroll Protection Plan loans find that the money has run out, and their businesses are still closed. They are now being forced to let go of workers who might have survived the first layoffs in March and April.
So the letter to describe the recovery isn’t a “V” or even an “L” but possibly a “W,” with another recession right around the corner.
Beyond the second wave of layoffs, there is a persistent problem of the long-term unemployed whose businesses are shut down or dead in the water with no prospect of any return of demand.
This is a combination of factors the economy has not seen since the 1930s. It’s worse than a technical recession, it’s a depression, and its effects will be felt for years, or even decades, to come.
When Will Output Return To 2019 Levels?
The U.S. will not regain 2019 output levels until at least 2022, and growth going forward will be even worse than the weakest-ever growth of the 2009–2020 recovery.
The post-2009 recovery produced only 2.2% growth. It was an L-shaped recovery. It was a real recovery, yet the output gap between the former trend and the new trend was never closed.
The U.S. economy suffered over $4 trillion of lost wealth based on the difference between the former strong trend and the new weaker trend.
That lost wealth was a serious problem for the U.S. before the New Great Depression. Now the prospect is for even lower growth than the weak post-2009 recovery.
The U.S. economy would have to grow 10% a year in 2021 and 2022 to return to 2019 levels of output.
First, is 10% growth even a reality? Past history says no.
Since 1943, U.S. annual real growth in GDP has never exceeded 10%. In fact, post-1980 recoveries averaged 3.2% growth. And since 1984, growth has never exceeded 5%.
So 10% is a very optimistic forecast to begin with. Here’s the problem:
Using 100 as a yardstick for 2019 output and assuming unrealistic back-to-back years of 10% real growth in 2021 and 2022, one still does not get back to 2019 output levels.
It would take the highest annual real growth in over 40 years, sustained for two consecutive years, to get close to 2019 output levels.
It’s far more realistic to assume real growth will be less than 10% per year. That puts the economy well into 2023 before reaching output levels last achieved in 2019.
Another “L”-shaped Recovery
The new recovery, far from the 10% growth discussed in the example above, may only produce 1.8% growth, even worse than the 2.2% growth before the pandemic.
It’s another L-shaped recovery, the second in a row. Now the bottom of the L is even closer to a flat line, and the output gap compared with the long-term trend is even greater.
All of this economic devastation was not caused directly by the virus. It was caused by the policy response to the virus, specifically the extreme lockdowns ordered by many state governors.
Was it all worth it? The likely answer is “no.”
90% of Lockdown Benefits at Only 10% of the Cost
Many top scientists agree that lockdowns don’t work. The virus will spread with or without a lockdown. Some measures make sense such as washing hands, keeping social distance and wearing masks in crowded spaces.
But there’s no evidence masks do any good at all when the wearer is alone, outdoors or at a reasonable distance from others.
We could have followed these basic rules and gotten 90% of the benefit of a lockdown at only 10% of the cost.
Those supporting lockdowns have ignored the costs of increased suicides, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the depression and anxiety that result from lack of social interaction. There was never a good reason to close every bar, restaurant, salon, boutique and public space.
“We Destroyed the World’s Greatest Economy for No Good Reason”
Even the World Health Organization is coming out against lockdowns. Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19, says:
We really do appeal to all world leaders: stop using lockdown as your primary control method… We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.
We destroyed the world’s greatest economy for no good reason.