Friday, March 5, 2021

Checks Without Balances

Washington’s lawmakers have discovered the joys of sending checks to their constituents during bad times. They’ve done it twice so far since the start of the pandemic and are likely to do it a third time shortly. The $1,200-per-person checks sent during April did work to revive the economy from last year’s two-month recession during March and April. The $600 checks sent during January certainly averted any stalling in economic growth in the face of the third wave of the pandemic. It’s not hard to guess what another round of $1,400 checks will do to the economy. Consider the following:

(1) Pandemic. On a 10-day moving average basis, Covid-19 hospitalizations have plunged 55% from a record high of 130,386 during January 15 to 58,394 during February 26 (Fig. 1). That’s the lowest pace since November 12, 2020. The Food and Drug Administration on February 27 authorized Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use. J&J will provide the US with 100 million doses by the end of June. When combined with the 600 million doses from the two-shot vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna slated to arrive by the end of July, there will be more than enough shots to cover any American adult who wants one this summer.

The new vaccine’s 72% efficacy rate in US clinical trials falls short of the roughly 95% rate found in studies testing the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Across all trial sites, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine also showed 85% efficacy against severe forms of Covid-19 and 100% efficacy against hospitalization and death. That sounds like a winner for sure! To repeat: 100% efficacy against hospitalization and death. That should turn the plague into a pest by the second half of this year.

In his February 23 congressional testimony on monetary policy, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said, “While we should not underestimate the challenges we currently face, developments point to an improved outlook for later this year. In particular, ongoing progress in vaccinations should help speed the return to normal activities.” I think that both monetary and fiscal policymakers underestimate the stimulative impact of the end of the pandemic.

(2) Real GDP. The V-shaped recovery in real GDP will remain V-shaped during the first half of this year and probably through the end of the year. However, it will no longer be a “recovery” beyond Q1 because real GDP will have fully recovered during the current quarter. Thereafter, GDP will be in an “expansion” in record-high territory.

Last year, real GDP rebounded 33.4% (saar) during Q3 and 4.1% during Q4 (Fig. 2). We are projecting 7.0% during Q1. On Monday, we raised our Q2 estimate from 4.5% to 9.0%, mostly because we expect that President Biden’s American Rescue Plan will be enacted in the next few weeks.

The plan will provide checks of $1,400 per eligible person, mostly during April, we reckon, providing another big boost to consumer incomes and spending. Last year, consumer spending in real GDP rose 41.0% during Q3 and 2.4% during Q4. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model showed an 8.8% increase in such spending during Q1 as of March 1 (with real GDP up 10.0%). We forecast that real consumer spending will increase 7.9% during Q1 and 11.3% during Q2.

(3) Personal income. In current dollars, personal income jumped by a record 12.4% m/m during April 2020 as a result of a $3.3 trillion (saar) increase in government social benefits that month, thanks to the $1,200 checks and generous unemployment benefits (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). January’s 10.0% increase in personal income was the second biggest ever in a month, as a result of a $2.0 trillion increase in benefits attributable to the $600 checks.

If the next round of $1,400 checks goes out in April, it will undoubtedly boost personal income by a new record amount to another record high! The “other” component of government social benefits in personal income includes an item for “Economic Impact Payments” (Fig. 5). At an annual rate, these checks from the Treasury boosted benefits and total personal income by $2.6 trillion and $0.6 trillion, respectively, during April and May of last year. They boosted them both by $1.7 trillion during January. So they accounted for virtually the entire $1.9 trillion increase in personal income during January!

(4) Personal consumption. The government checks certainly contributed to the V-shaped recovery in consumer spending (Fig. 6). Another round of checks will do the same this spring. In current dollars, consumer spending rose 2.4% m/m during January, led by a 5.8% m/m increase in consumption of goods to a new record high. In coming months, consumers should be able to spend much more on services that have been limited by the pandemic’s social-distancing protocols.

(5) Personal saving. During last year’s lockdowns, consumers couldn’t spend either their paychecks or government benefits as readily as usual since most stores and restaurants were closed. So personal saving soared to a record $6.4 trillion (saar) during April (Fig. 7). It then fell to $2.3 trillion by December, which was still well above the $1.3 trillion pace of personal saving at the start of last year.

Interestingly, January’s $2.0 trillion jump in government social benefits coincided with a $1.6 trillion increase in personal saving to $3.9 trillion, suggesting that much of the month’s stimulus hasn’t been spent yet. After the year-end holiday season, January is not a prime month for shopping.

So there is plenty of stimulus left over. In addition, consumer revolving credit outstanding dropped $118 billion y/y through December to $976 billion (Fig. 8). The ratio of consumer revolving credit to personal consumption (both in current dollars) dropped from 7.4% to 6.7% over this period (Fig. 9). This suggests that consumers aren’t as reliant on their credit cards because they have plenty of cash. Moreover, once they spend their extra cash, they can always tap into their credit cards again.

(6) Unemployment benefits. The Biden plan will extend temporary pandemic relief programs for unemployed workers, expiring on March 14, to August 26. Benefit recipients would also get an extra $400 a week. More than 19 million Americans were collecting benefits as of early February, according to the Labor Department. Last year, unemployment benefits in personal income totaled $550.2 billion, up from $27.7 billion during 2019.

Our February 9 Morning Briefing was titled “The Government Is Here To Help.” We reviewed the recent Washington Post op-ed by economist Larry Summers in which he trashed President Biden’s American Rescue Plan as too stimulative and too inflationary. He also strongly implied that the plan included overly generous unemployment benefits that would discourage the unemployed from taking jobs. In fact, there is mounting evidence that the pandemic-related unemployment benefits provided last year have been doing the same.

Our February 10 Morning Briefing was titled “Help Wanted.” We wrote, “There actually seem to be lots of job openings, but fewer people willing to take them. That would explain why wages have been rising at a faster pace in recent months.”

(7) Bottom line. There is plenty of stimulus left in the pipeline from last year’s pandemic rescue programs. More rounds of government stimulus programs this year are likely to cause a boom that overheats the post-pandemic economy, which might result in higher inflation. The government’s overly generous extended unemployment benefits could frustrate policymakers’ goal of achieving full employment while driving up wage inflation.

Too much of a good thing is often just too much. The economy is hot and will get hotter with the bonfire of the fiscal and monetary insanities.

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