Covid-19 tanks US economy in second quarter, labour market struggling

The normally bustling Georgetown neighbourhood in Washington DC has turned into a ghost town as damage to the US economy builds. — AFP pic
The normally bustling Georgetown neighbourhood in Washington DC has turned into a ghost town as damage to the US economy builds. — AFP pic

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WASHINGTON, July 30 — The US economy contracted at its steepest pace since the Great Depression in the second quarter as the Covid-19 pandemic shattered consumer and business spending, and a nascent recovery is under threat from a resurgence in new cases of coronavirus.

The bulk of the historic plunge in gross domestic product reported by the Commerce Department today occurred in April when activity almost ground to an abrupt halt after restaurants, bars and factories among others were shuttered in mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The collapse in GDP and faltering recovery put pressure on the White House and Congress to agree on a second stimulus package. President Donald Trump, whose opinion poll numbers have tanked as he struggles to manage the pandemic, economic crisis and protests over racial injustice three months before the November 3 election, said yesterday he was in no hurry.

“This is hard to swallow,” said Jason Reed, finance professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “Right now, the American economy is speeding toward a fiscal cliff. Not only do we need Americans to take serious action preventing the spread of the disease, but we also need Congress to agree on another stimulus package and quickly.”

Gross domestic product collapsed at a 32.9 per cent annualised rate last quarter, the deepest decline in output since the government started keeping records in 1947. The drop in GDP was more than triple the previous all-time decline of 10 per cent in the second quarter of 1958. The economy contracted at a 5.0 per cent pace in the first quarter. It fell into recession in February.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP plunging at a 34.1 per cent rate in the April-June quarter.

The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, which compiles the GDP report, attributed the tumble in output to measures taken in March and April in response to Covid-19, saying they “led to rapid shifts in activity.”

Though activity picked up starting in May, momentum has slowed amid a resurgence in new cases of the respiratory illness, especially in the densely populated South and West regions where authorities in hard-hit areas are closing businesses again or pausing reopenings. That has tempered hopes of a sharp rebound in growth in the third quarter.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell yesterday acknowledged the slowdown in activity. The US central bank kept interest rates near zero and pledged to continue pumping money into the economy.

Stocks on Wall Street opened lower. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. US Treasury prices rose.

Broad historic declines

Economists say without the historic fiscal package of nearly US$3 trillion (RM12.7 trillion), the economic contraction would have been deeper. The package offered companies help paying wages and gave millions of unemployed Americans a weekly US$600 supplement, which expires on Saturday. Many companies have exhausted their loans.

This, together with the sky-rocketing coronavirus infections is keeping layoffs elevated. In a separate report today, the Labor Department said initial claims for unemployment benefits increased 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 1.434 million in the week ending July 25. A staggering 30.2 million Americans were receiving unemployment checks in the week ending July 11.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-third of the US economy, plunged at a record 34.6 per cent rate last quarter. That followed a 6.9 per cent pace of decline in the January-March period. Major retailers including JC Penney and Neiman Marcus have filed for bankruptcy.

Business investment tumbled at a historic 27 per cent rate. It was pulled down by spending on equipment, which collapsed at a 37.7 per cent rate. Investment is equipment has now contracted for five straight quarters. Boeing reported a bigger-than-expected quarterly loss on Wednesday and slashed production on its widebody programs.

The pandemic has also crushed oil prices, leading to deep cuts in shale oil production and layoffs. Spending on nonresidential structures such as mining exploration, shafts and wells plunged at a record 34.9 per cent rate in the second quarter.

The housing market was not spared, with spending on homebuilding tumbling at 38.7 per cent rate. But government spending rose at a 2.7 per cent rate, thanks to the historic stimulus package. Spending by state and local governments, whose budgets have been decimated in the fight against coronavirus fell at a 5.6 per cent rate.

Disruptions to global trade depressed exports and imports. Though a smaller import bill helped to narrow the trade deficit and was positive for GDP, it cut inventories, leading to a drawdown of stocks by businesses that subtracted 3.98 per centage points from GDP.  — Reuters

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