Number tells why the economy is in such a scary spot

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Number tells why the economy is in such a scary spot

Here are nine that, taken together, show how we’re entering difficult territory.

Economic growth

Every day brings ever more dire forecasts. In the latest, Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius and his colleagues revealed they expect the bottom to drop out of the U.S. economy in the second quarter of 2020.

Their estimates show gross domestic product will contract at a 24 percent annual rate between April and June. That’s about three times that of the single worst quarter of the Great Recession (8.4 percent).

Unemployment claims

What has them spooked? The earn-spend-earn cycle at the heart of the U.S. economy is unraveling. Consumer spending makes up more than two-thirds of U.S. economic output. With millions expected to be laid off, Americans have much less cash. With tens of millions more locked up in their homes, they have fewer goods and services to buy with what little money they have.

We don’t have great direct measures of layoffs, but new claims for unemployment benefits are a good proxy. Goldman Sachs expects those to soar to an unprecedented 2,250,000 this week, reflecting what happened last week. That’s more than three times the previous all-time high.

Millions looking for work

All those laid-off restaurant, bar and retail workers will send the U.S. unemployment rate soaring, with peak estimates ranging from Goldman’s 9 percent to the 30 percent that St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard warned about. After the Great Recession, unemployment topped out at 10 percent.

We won’t begin to know the equivalent number for the coronavirus crisis until May 8, when the government releases preliminary jobs numbers for April. Because of how the data are collected, the unemployment numbers from March will not include data from last week’s meltdown.

Restaurant traffic

The virus has progressed so rapidly that traditional data sources can’t keep up. To fill the void, economists and policymakers have turned to real-time alternatives such as the restaurant-reservation app Open Table, which publishes a daily comparison of how far sit-down restaurant traffic has fallen relative to last year. As of Friday, it was down 99 percent in the United States. One of the most common jobs in the country, waiter or waitress, has effectively ceased to exist.

The stock market

In the absence of other data, we’ve been forced to rely on the stock market as a proxy for the country’s financial health. Keep in mind, of course, that it’s of direct interest to only a minority of the population. New York University economist Edward Wolff has found that 50.7 percent of Americans aren’t invested in the market, even via mutual or retirement funds, and 90 percent of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 20 percent.

Investment grade ‘spread’ chart

With all this volatility, investors are beginning to worry that companies won’t be able to pay off their debt in the long term. While junk-bond yields have soared, folks aren’t just worried about high-risk companies. Investors are bailing out of every flavor of private-sector debt, even those given a AAA rating by Moody’s Investor Service. The gap between the yield on 10-year Treasury notes and the yield on high-rated corporate debt is at its highest level since the Great Recession.

The Treasury flip

And, of course, no list is complete without 10-year Treasury bond yield and the real (or inflation protected) Treasury yield. These help measure how eager investors are to lend the government money. The 10-year Treasury is near a historic low, meaning that as of Friday, investors were willing to lend the U.S. government for 10 years for a measly 0.92 percent per year return. After inflation, that was only 0.26 percent. In fact, at times during this crisis, investors have been willing to lend money to the government at a negative interest rate — meaning they’d get back less than loaned.


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