When the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee draws the boundaries on the current recession, it’s unlikely to stand out as an especially long one. In fact, by the time the committee publishes the official start date, it could be past its end date.
Because it’s front-loaded. Spending has dropped so sharply in such a large portion of the economy that many types of activity have nowhere to go but up. And once activity starts increasing, even from nothing, that’s expansion, not recession.
But the eventual business-cycle dates tell us little about our current situation. We could hit bottom in 2020 but then expand so weakly that we don’t restore vitality for several years. So let’s consider how the economy might unfold over a fixed horizon—say, three years from 2020 to 2022—rather than fixating on business-cycle dates.
First, I’ll look at the reasons why our situation is really, really bad, and then I’ll consider why it might not be that bad, after all. I’ll benchmark my calculations against the post–World War II period, but especially against the economic destruction from 2008 to 2010.
Why this is the worst economy since the Great Depression
I have six reasons.
Reason #1: This is a “double-recession.”
Consider that our last ten recessions were shaped mostly by four categories of spending: business equipment, commercial real estate, home building and consumer durables. If you isolate only the ups and downs of those four categories (but throw in changes in inventories to account for milder, inventory recessions), your partial business-cycle history would be almost indistinguishable from the actual history.
Moreover, those four categories typically amount to less than a quarter of the economy. In 2019, they composed 19.5% of GDP, as shown below:
- Business equipment: 5.8%
- Commercial real estate: 2.9%
- Home building: 3.7%
- Consumer durables: 7.1%
So a 19.5% chunk of the economy explains the first part of the double-recession, and we know it’s currently recessionary because the usual precursors are back—collapsing business profits, tightening loan standards, widespread job losses and rising delinquencies. With the usual precursors in place, we can expect a sharp contraction in all four categories noted above.
But the second part of the double-recession is separate. Consider the 2019 GDP weights for the additional spending categories below, totaling 11.3%:
- Transportation services: 2.2%
- Recreation services: 2.7%
- Food services and accommodations: 4.8%
- Gasoline and other energy goods: 1.6%
Now we’ve reached the piece that’s completely new—it has no precedent in past business cycles. Each of the four categories shown above has contracted far more than ever before. In each case, activity is only a fraction of what it was just three months ago—probably less than half, and maybe even less than a quarter. Considering the severity of the contraction, together with the GDP weights, the destruction in these items alone is enough to establish a recession, even without the usual fixed investment and consumer durables categories discussed earlier.
So that’s what I mean by a double-recession. The first part includes the fixed investment and consumer durables categories (totaling 19.5% of GDP). The second part includes the additional categories (totaling 11.3% of GDP) that imploded during the last two months, even as they’re normally only bit players in the business cycle.
Reason #2: Pandemic-related business costs could last for years.
Businesses will have to manage through some combination of the following:
- Migration to more secure but higher cost suppliers (in response to supply chain fragilities exposed by the pandemic)
- Measures to facilitate social distancing, including larger business premises in some cases
- More frequent and thorough cleaning of business premises
- Personal protection equipment for employees and, in some cases, customers
- COVID-19 testing costs
- Potentially greater contributions to employee health insurance (when insurance companies build COVID-19 into their cost structures, premiums can only go up)
- Potentially greater absenteeism (employees being told to stay home with even mild illnesses, employees relying on public transportation facing greater challenges getting to work safely)
- Potential work stoppages when employees test positive
- Potential hazard pay
We can only guess how widespread and persistent these costs will be. But across the whole economy, they’ll surely add to a significant, positive number. They’re bad news for business profits, inflation and probably both (more on inflation in a moment).
Reason #3: The Fed only had two bullets in the interest-rate chamber (the two March rate cuts).
After cutting the fed funds rate in March from 1.6% to just above zero, the Fed can’t reduce it further without entering the Twilight Zone of negative rates. (Sure, other countries have tried negative rates, but it’s still the Twilight Zone.) By comparison, here are the fed funds rate changes during the last five recessions, from business-cycle peak to business-cycle trough: –4.8%, –9.8%, –2.0%, –3.2% and –4.1%. So this year’s change of –1.5% is only a fraction of the interest rate stimulus we normally see in recessions.
Reason #4: Bankruptcies could be more severe than in any other post-WW2 recession.
I wrote “could be” because we don’t know for sure, but record bankruptcies seem consistent with three things we do know. First, business shutdowns within the 11.3% of GDP noted above (the second part of the double-recession) will surely result in record destruction in that particular portion of the economy.
Second, activity has already contracted more sharply than at any time since the 1933 national bank holiday, and in that instance, widespread business stoppages only lasted a week.
Third, nonfinancial businesses are loaded up with record amounts of debt. As of Q4 2019 and relative to GDP, nonfinancial businesses were more indebted than ever before on a gross basis (74% of GDP), and they also carried more debt than in any prior expansion after netting out interest-earning assets and cash (55% of GDP). In short, nonfinancial businesses could hardly have entered this crisis with a riskier aggregate balance sheet.
Reason #5: Meet the zombies—next generation.
Stimulus programs are helping forestall economic destruction, but they’re also propping up companies that wouldn’t be viable without cheap financing backed by the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department. Some of those companies will still go bust, despite public support. Others will become zombies, dependent on loans that can only be paid back by obtaining more loans. To those who pointed to the zombie companies of the last decade as one reason for a less-than-vibrant global expansion, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Reason #6: Inflation risks are unusually high for a recession.
As noted above, the pandemic has lifted business costs by adding procedures and complexities that didn’t exist before. Rising business costs damage profitability, at first, but should eventually have some effect on inflation. And that’s not all. Inflation is normally a policy choice (either intentional or inadvertent), and policy makers are more inclined to risk it than at any time in the last four decades. Notably, current policies include direct injections of Fed-financed spending power into the Main Street economy. Moreover, those injections appear to be augmenting rather than just supplanting spending power supplied by commercial banks. (I’ve shown several times that past QE programs merely substituted Fed financing for commercial bank financing, without having a significant effect on the total.)
Note that I’m not using the flawed logic of monetarist economists who predicted rising inflation during the Fed’s earlier QE programs, nor did I join those predictions (just the opposite, as shown here, for example). Also, the inflation outlook is hardly one-directional, since certain items, such as housing costs, are now less likely to inflate than they are to deflate or remain stable.
But the factors discussed above should threaten the benign inflation of recent decades. After remaining below 3% for the last 24 years, an increase in core inflation to just 4% would be a major event. And if we get there, fiscal and monetary policies would become more challenging, to say the least. After many years of disinflation, policy makers would again be forced to choose between snuffing out inflation and sustaining growth.
Why this isn’t the worst economy since the Great Depression
I have six reasons, once again, the first three of which compare 2020 to 2008.
Reason #1: The big-4 “home” risks—home prices, home mortgage debt, home building and home equity extraction—are relatively nonthreatening.
The mid-2000s housing bubble brought unsustainable prices alongside unsustainable growth in mortgage debt, home building and home equity extraction. Just before the pandemic, by comparison, house prices and housing activity appeared sustainable. Here’s a rundown of 2019 data versus “peak” housing boom data:
- Home prices: Grew 3% in 2019 versus –19% in 2008 (after peaking in mid-2006)
- Home mortgage debt: 49% of GDP in 2019 versus 72% in 2007
- Home building: 3.7% of GDP in 2019 versus 6.6% in 2005
- Home equity extraction: 1% of DPI in 2019 versus 8% in early 2006 (according to Bill McBride’s calculations)
We can link each of the items above to a significant drop in household spending power or housing activity in the 2008-9 recession and the years that followed, whereas the data show much lower risks today. Clearly, the big-4 home risks are unlikely to wreak as much destruction in the current recession as the destruction caused by the housing bubble.
Reason #2: Sterilization? What’s that?
In 2008, the FOMC fretted for months before dropping long-established central banking orthodoxies. But such lengthy deliberations have long since gone out of style. The committee now crams money without hesitation into every financial-sector crevice that appears to be leaking. The new policy “normal” invites both moral hazard and zombification of wide swathes of the economy, as noted above. But the immediate upside is significant—the Fed’s interventions short-circuited the financial crisis that appeared to be unfolding in March.
Reason #3: Banks have more capital than they did in 2008.
We’ve all heard the story about the better capitalized banking system, and it’s true. But higher capital ratios won’t stop banks from slowing or even shuttering their lending operations. (They’ve already done that.) So the capital cushion is larger, and that’s nice to have, but it won’t save the economy. The main benefit is that measures to bail out the banks won’t need to be as large as they would otherwise be.
Reason #4: Some areas of the economy are seeing stellar demand.
I noted above that spending has evaporated like never before in portions of the economy that total 11.3% of GDP. Now consider three other types of spending:
- Food and beverages purchased for off-premises consumption (4.8% of GDP)
- Other consumer nondurables (5.6% of GDP)
- Health care (11.5% of GDP)
Solid spending in these areas, which total 22% of GDP, doesn’t negate the destruction in the transportation, recreation, restaurant, hotel and energy sectors. But it’s important to recognize that some of the spending lost through health fears and business shutdowns is being redirected, not extinguished. It’s flowing strongly into other parts of the economy. And the jobs market demonstrates that point—many recently jobless workers are finding new positions at Amazon, Instacart, CVS or one of a smattering of other companies whose outlook has brightened. So the double-recession I noted above might net out to more like a recession-and-a-half.
Reason #5: Furloughs, not layoffs.
Of the newly jobless workers who don’t find jobs elsewhere, many remain on their employers’ payrolls, retaining certain benefits but not working or receiving wages. One survey shows that 78% of employees who lost their wages due to the coronavirus expect to return to their former jobs. That might prove more hopeful than realistic, but it’s a less bearish recession story than the more typical story of companies slashing labor unconditionally.
Reason #6: Helicopter money!
Now for the elephant in the room. Fiscal policy makers are intent on providing “what it takes” to overcome the crisis. For that, they’re tapping into the Fed’s unlimited capacity to finance government spending with newly created money. They’re tapping it like never before. To highlight just two data points:
- Roughly half of unemployment claimants will have more income than they had while working (through July, at least), thanks to an extra $600 weekly of CARES Act benefits on top of their normal state benefits.
- Millions of working Americans will also make more than they would have without COVID-19, thanks to CARES Act stimulus payments.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the survey linked above shows people feeling better about their finances than they did a month ago, despite weekly unemployment claims averaging over five million between the two survey dates.
So helicopter money gives us yet another surreal and unprecedented development to ponder. In the short-term, it’s certain to blunt the pandemic’s economic impact. In the long-term, we’ll face consequences, but I won’t delve into that in this article. I’ll only suggest tuning out pundits who claim that “advanced” nations with their own currencies can drop helicopter money without repercussions. In fact, the advanced nations of today reached their advanced status long ago after enduring tumultuous periods of fiscal profligacy, learning from those experiences, and then maintaining relatively sound finances thereafter. And if they didn’t learn from experience? Well, that’s one of the biggest reasons that many countries fail to advance.
(My book supports that argument with an examination of every recorded instance of governments accumulating a higher debt-to-GDP ratio than America’s debt-to-GDP as of 2018. For anyone interested in the general idea without the historical detail, I published an excerpt here.)
The eventual COVID-19 wreckage pivots on many unknowns, and future policies are among them. But the biggest unanswered question—at least when it comes to the economy—is this:
For how much longer will the pandemic prevent vulnerable businesses from operating profitably (or operating at all)?
Optimistically, new COVID-19 cases will descend downward until they hit bottom in a few months, allowing businesses to restore profitability. That’s the scenario the President’s task force includes in its slideshows—it shows virtually no new cases by July. And the more political voices on the task force have reinforced that message, playing up the idea that we’ll be back to normal by this summer. If their prediction proves accurate, the economy should perform better in 2020–22 than it did in 2008–10, for these reasons:
- With a COVID-19 resolution in the summer, the housing market would be in far better shape than it was in 2008.
- The financial sector would recover relatively quickly—banks would still be cautious but not as cautious as they were during and after the Global Financial Crisis.
- Many depressed businesses would bounce back at least partially and rehire furloughed employees.
- Some businesses boosted by the pandemic would continue to thrive.
- Exiting the recession, household spending power would be unusually strong, thanks to the recession’s short duration as well as generous government handouts.
So that’s the outcome we’re hoping to see, but it has an obvious weakness. That is, it presumes the coronavirus remains dormant after the economy restarts. A different theory says the virus revives whenever it finds an opening. Evidently, that’s a common feature. Epidemics tend to attack in waves. Until vaccines become available, the challenge in snuffing out this epidemic is that it only takes a handful of infected people going about their normal lives to reseed it.
In other words, a future resurgence of COVID-19 seems the most likely outcome. It’s the scenario many experts warn us to expect, and not just any experts but the ones who’ve been most accurate to date.
Where does that leave the economy?
The worst case combines a historically deep recession with a disappointing recovery that feels more like continued recession. If future COVID-19 waves prove as dangerous as the first wave, the recession could be an early 1980s–style double-dip. But other possibilities are less severe. For example, medical discoveries could make the virus less risky, restoring confidence in normal business activities. (Note that Dr. Fauci was citing “quite good news” on remdesivir trials as I write this.)
So the possibilities run from one extreme to the other. We need to be ready for anything, unfortunately, from a mid-2020 rebound to a prolonged crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression.