The Shape of Things to Come
With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.
That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.
It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.
“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”
But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.
And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.
That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.
As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.
It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?
And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?
These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.
“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”
“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”
Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.
“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”
As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.
“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.
“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”
Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.
“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”
“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”
Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.
“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.
“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”
Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.
“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”
But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.
“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.
“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”
Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.
“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.
“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”
What’s in Store?
As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.
Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.
It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.
“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”
Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.
Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.
“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”
The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.
“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”
One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.
“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.
Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.
“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”
But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.
“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.
Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.
As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]