American markets began responding to the coronavirus in late February, and the impact by most economic measures is still not known.
Right now, NAFCU Chief Economist Curt Long said he’s watching unemployment claims, which rose sharply last week, and housing, where the latest sales data from February released Friday still showed a healthy gain in existing home sales.
The National Association of Realtors also reported a survey of members Monday and Tuesday found their optimism about the real estate market waned from the previous week because of worries about the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, the Labor Department reported there were the equivalent of 281,000 initial claims after seasonal adjustments for the week ending March 14, up from 211,000 in the previous week and the highest level since claims reached 299,000 in September 2017.
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“Obviously there was a big jump, but probably nothing like what we’re going to get next week,” Long said Thursday. “Everyone is focused on the labor market — just curious to see how bad it’s going to be.”
The loss of jobs or crimping of income will be hurting credit union members from coast to coast as workplaces cut back because of social distancing measures to limit the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long said he expects the decline will be sharper, and hopefully, briefer than past recessions.
“I’m not sure it’s going to qualify as an official recession, but that’s just really semantics,” Long said. “It’s going to be more damaging than anything we’ve seen since World War II. The Great Recession is really the only thing that might rival it.”
Recessions are defined as two consecutive quarters with real gross domestic product declining.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, the nation’s official arbiter of the start and stop dates on recessions, draws on changes in inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product and Gross Domestic Income, plus a medley of monthly data like employment levels and unemployment rates.
Their time ranges for recessions mark the turning points of the economy, not the level of distress. For example, it marked the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, even though unemployment was still just 5% and two consecutive quarters of GDP decline (an oft-cited rule of thumb for the start of a recession) didn’t happen until the second and third quarters of 2008.
It marked the recession’s end as June 2009, when unemployment was still four months from reaching its peak of 10%.
“How we typically define recessions is not well suited for what we’re going through right now,” Long said.
While nearly two years elapsed between the start of the recession and the peak in unemployment, this time he expects the change to occur in just a couple months.
“In that respect, it’s really unique,” he said. “As economists, we really struggle to find a comparable episode.”
Long said the analogy that comes to mind is a nation responding to an outbreak of war on its home soil. “It’s not something we’re accustomed to.”
Unlike recessions caused by forces of supply and demand, this event is in a way a calamity on command.
Governments ordered or recommended restaurants and bars to close or limit business, and suddenly waiters, cooks and barkeepers were out of jobs. It mattered not whether there was a line of people at the door.
At once, there was a shortage of supply (say, of drinks and restaurant meals) and a drop in demand for other goods and services from unemployed restaurant workers. And so on for every business curtailed and every person losing income.
“This is a demand shock first and foremost,” Long said. “The focus should be on the people getting laid off, and those worrying they might be next, who will cut back on their spending.”
Credit unions ended the year with average net worth ratios of 11.4% — near all-time high records and well above the NCUA’s 7% threshold for being well capitalized. But how big will this event be, and do credit unions have enough of net worth cushion to absorb it?
“That’s the question of the day,” Long said.
Another factor is how much members will be helped by government programs.
“All eyes are on Congress right now,” Long said. “Time is of the essence right now, first and foremost for the people who have been laid off. For the businesses that are cash-strapped at the moment, it’s critical for them as well.”