Virus’ Effect on US Economy Grows Ominous

Economists are grimly predicting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Chicagoans make their way past a closed retail store on Wednesday. (AP photo/Nam Y. Huh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Evidence of the coronavirus’ devastating impact on the U.S. economy has been steadily emerging, and the signs have grown ominous.

Sales at stores and restaurants plunged in March by the largest amount on records dating back to 1992. The nation’s industrial output fell by the largest amount since the end of World War II. And the outbreak keeps ravaging the global oil market.

That was just Wednesday’s news.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. “You don’t want to look, but you know you have to.”

The picture will likely deteriorate in the coming weeks and months. Retail sales — a primary driver of the U.S. economy — are suffering further in April because business shutdowns will have been in effect for the entire month, compared with just half of March.

Sales of homes and cars will also keep declining. And economists have forecast that Thursday’s weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits will show that millions more Americans sought jobless aid last week, on top of the record-high of nearly 17 million who filed in the previous three weeks.

Economists project a record-shattering 40% annual decline in U.S. economic output for the April-June quarter. While growth is expected to rebound in the second half of the year, economists at JPMorgan Chase have forecast that the U.S. economy will shrink by 7% for 2020 as a whole.

The slowdown will be global. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday predicted that the world economy would shrink by 3% this year, the worst performance since the Great Depression.

That is hammering oil prices, threatening the solvency of oil drillers and putting many of their employees out of work. Global demand for oil will fall this year by the most ever, due to economic lockdowns around the world, the International Energy Agency said Wednesday. Demand will drop by an estimated 9.3 million barrels a day — equivalent to a decade’s worth of growth.

Consumer spending drives more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy and was one of the main pillars of support before the pandemic. Business investment in new plants and equipment had already pulled back due to the U.S.-China trade war and falling oil prices.

On Wednesday, the government said U.S. retail sales plummeted by 8.7% in March, an unprecedented decline, as the outbreak brought much commerce to a halt.

The deterioration of sales far outpaced the previous record decline of 3.9% during the depths of the Great Recession in November 2008. Auto sales dropped by 25.6%, while clothing store sales collapsed, sliding by 50.5%. Restaurants and bars reported a nearly 27% fall in revenue.

Spending may be falling at an even faster pace than the retail sales figures suggest. Wednesday’s report did not include spending on services such as hotel stays, airline tickets or movie theaters.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. reported that industrial production, which includes manufacturing, mines and utilities, posted the biggest drop in March since 1946.

Manufacturing output dropped by 6.3% that month, led by plunging production at auto factories that have shut down. Output dropped by 3.9% at utilities and by 2% at mines as oil and gas drilling plunged.

Builder confidence in the market for new single-family homes has fallen off a cliff, according to an index released Wednesday by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo. Their monthly housing market index plunged by 42 points in April to 30, the largest single monthly change in the history of the index.

Retail sales represent about one-third of consumer spending, with the rest consisting of services. But the damage to the sector has broader ramifications for the economy.

The retail industry supports 1 out of 4 jobs in the United States, according to some estimates. That includes millions of jobs such as delivery workers, tailors, vendors who supply hangers to stores, and construction workers who renovate or build new stores.

“A lot of the economy is driven by the consumer,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, a research firm. “The consumer is the linchpin. If the consumer takes a tumble, the rest of the economy falls down.”

Stockpiling of essentials is starting to wane, Saunders said, which will lower retail sales in April, and more grocery stores are limiting the number of shoppers in their sites. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is allowing no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time. That will reduce their stores’ capacity by about 80%.

The pullback in spending intensifies the problems facing brick-and-mortar retailers, which were already struggling with online competition.

With a nationwide shutdown of malls and most stores, the pandemic is putting clothing retailers in peril, while increasing the dominance of big box stores that have remained open during the pandemic because they sell essentials such as food and household goods.

More than 250,000 stores, including Macy’s, Nordstrom and Nike, which sell nonessential merchandise, have been shuttered since mid-March. That’s 60% of U.S. retail square footage, Saunders said.

Major retailers including J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Nordstrom have furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers, while Walmart and Amazon are on hiring sprees to try to meet the surging demand of shoppers buying online or for curbside drop-off or delivery.

Some department stores and mall-based chains have cut executive pay and suspended cash dividends and stock buybacks or repurchases to preserve cash. They’re drawing down their credit lines to make sure they have a bigger pile of cash on hand.

Nordstrom warned last week that it doesn’t know when it will be able to reopen its stores and that prolonged closures could cause it to become financially distressed. Ralph Lauren and Gap have announced that, for now, they’ve stopped ordering products for the fall. Other retailers will likely follow.

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