Earlier this year, many economists and market analysts were predicting an apocalyptic financial downturn that would potentially rattle the U.S. economy for years to come. They immediately started to compare it to the Great Depression of a century ago. Six months later, the economy is still trying to stabilize, but it is evident that the country will not face the total devastation projected by some. As we continue to battle the pandemic, forecasts are now being revised upward. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) just reported:
“The U.S. economy and labor market are recovering from the coronavirus-related downturn more quickly than previously expected, economists said in a monthly survey.
Business and academic economists polled by The Wall Street Journal expect gross domestic product to increase at an annualized rate of 23.9% in the third quarter. That is up sharply from an expectation of an 18.3% growth rate in the previous survey.”
What Shape Will the Recovery Take?
Economists have historically cast economic recoveries in the form of one of four letters – V, U, W, or L.
A V-shaped recovery is all about the speed of the recovery. This quick recovery is treated as the best-case scenario for any economy that enters a recession. NOTE: Economists are now also using a new term for this type of recovery called the “Nike Swoosh.” It is a form of the V-shape that may take several months to recover, thus resembling the Nike Swoosh logo.
A U-shaped recovery is when the economy experiences a sharp fall into a recession, like the V-shaped scenario. In this case, however, the economy remains depressed for a longer period of time, possibly several years, before growth starts to pick back up again.
A W-shaped recovery can look like an economy is undergoing a V-shaped recovery until it plunges into a second, often smaller, contraction before fully recovering to pre-recession levels.
An L-shaped recovery is seen as the worst-case scenario. Although the economy returns to growth, it is at a much lower base than pre-recession levels, which means it takes significantly longer to fully recover.
Many experts predicted that this would be a dreaded L-shaped recovery, like the 2008 recession that followed the housing market collapse. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case.
What About the Unemployment Numbers?
It’s difficult to speak positively about a jobs report that shows millions of Americans are still out of work. However, when we compare it to many forecasts from earlier this year, the numbers are much better than most experts expected. There was talk of numbers that would rival the Great Depression when the nation suffered through four consecutive years of unemployment over 20%.
The first report after the 2020 shutdown did show a 14.7% unemployment rate, but much to the surprise of many analysts, the rate has decreased each of the last three months and is now in the single digits (8.4%).
Economist Jason Furman, Professor at Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the previous administration, recently put it into context:
“An unemployment rate of 8.4% is much lower than most anyone would have thought it a few months ago. It is still a bad recession but not a historically unprecedented event or one we need to go back to the Great Depression for comparison.”
The economists surveyed by the WSJ also forecasted unemployment rates going forward:
- 2021: 6.3%
- 2022: 5.2%
- 2023: 4.9%
The economic recovery still has a long way to go. So far, we are doing much better than most thought would be possible.
Many American businesses have been put on hold as the country deals with the worst pandemic in over one hundred years. As the states are deciding on the best strategy to slowly and safely reopen, the big question is: how long will it take the economy to fully recover?
Let’s look at the possibilities. Here are the three types of recoveries that follow most economic slowdowns (the definitions are from the financial glossary at Market Business News):
- V-shaped recovery: an economic period in which the economy experiences a sharp decline. However, it is also a brief period of decline. There is a clear bottom (called a trough by economists) which does not last long. Then there is a strong recovery.
- U-shaped recovery: when the decline is more gradual, i.e., less severe. The recovery that follows starts off moderately and then picks up speed. The recovery could last 12-24 months.
- L-shaped recovery: a steep economic decline followed by a long period with no growth. When an economy is in an L-shaped recovery, getting back to where it was before the decline will take years.
What type of recovery will we see this time?
No one can answer this question with one hundred percent certainty. However, most top financial services firms are calling for a V-shaped recovery. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo Securities, and JP Morgan have all recently come out with projections that call for GDP to take a deep dive in the first half of the year but have a strong comeback in the second half.
Is there any research on recovery following a pandemic?
There have been two extensive studies done that look at how an economy has recovered from a pandemic in the past. Here are the conclusions they reached:
1. John Burns Consulting:
“Historical analysis showed us that pandemics are usually V-shaped (sharp recessions that recover quickly enough to provide little damage to home prices), and some very cutting-edge search engine analysis by our Information Management team showed the current slowdown is playing out similarly thus far.”
2. Harvard Business Review:
“It’s worth looking back at history to place the potential impact path of Covid-19 empirically. In fact, V-shapes monopolize the empirical landscape of prior shocks, including epidemics such as SARS, the 1968 H3N2 (“Hong Kong”) flu, 1958 H2N2 (“Asian”) flu, and 1918 Spanish flu.”
The research says we should experience a V-shaped recovery.
Does everyone agree it will be a ‘V’?
No. Some are concerned that, even when businesses are fully operational, the American public may be reluctant to jump right back in.
As Market Business News explains:
“In a typical V-shaped recovery, there is a huge shift in economic activity after the downturn and the trough. Growing consumer demand and spending drive the massive shift in economic activity.”
If consumer demand and spending do not come back as quickly as most expect it will, we may be heading for a U-shaped recovery.
In a message last Thursday, Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank, agrees with other analysts who are expecting a resurgence in the economy later this year:
“We’re forecasting real economic growth of 30% for the U.S. in the 4th quarter of this year and 6.1% in 2021.”
His projection, however, calls for a U-shaped recovery based on concerns that consumers may not rush back in:
“After the steep plunge and bottoming out, a ‘U-shaped’ recovery should begin as consumer confidence slowly returns.”
The research indicates the recovery will be V-shaped, and most analysts agree. We will have to wait and see as the situation unfolds just how quickly Americans will get back to “normal” life.