On the Post-Pandemic Horizon, Could That Be … a Boom?

Signs of economic life are picking up, and mounds of cash are waiting to be spent as the virus loosens its grip.

Credit…Maxime Mouysset

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By Ben Casselman

The U.S. economy remains mired in a pandemic winter of shuttered storefronts, high unemployment and sluggish job growth. But on Wall Street and in Washington, attention is shifting to an intriguing if indistinct prospect: a post-Covid boom.

Forecasters have always expected the pandemic to be followed by a period of strong growth as businesses reopen and Americans resume their normal activities. But in recent weeks, economists have begun to talk of something stronger: a supercharged rebound that brings down unemployment, drives up wages and may foster years of stronger growth.

There are hints that the economy has turned a corner: Retail sales jumped last month as the latest round of government aid began showing up in consumers’ bank accounts. New unemployment claims have declined from early January, though they remain high. Measures of business investment have picked up, a sign of confidence from corporate leaders.

Economists surveyed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia this month predicted that U.S. output will increase 4.5 percent this year, which would make it the best year since 1999. Some expect an even stronger bounce: Economists at Goldman Sachs forecast that the economy will grow 6.8 percent this year and that the unemployment rate will drop to 4.1 percent by December, a level that took eight years to achieve after the last recession.

“We’re extremely likely to get a very high growth rate,” said Jan Hatzius, Goldman’s chief economist. “Whether it’s a boom or not, I do think it’s a V-shaped recovery,” he added, referring to a steep drop followed by a sharp rebound.

The growing optimism stems from the confluence of several factors. Coronavirus cases are falling in the United States. The vaccine rollout, though slower than hoped, is gaining steam. And largely because of trillions of dollars in federal help, the economy appears to have made it through last year with less structural damage — in the form of business failures, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies — than many people feared last spring.

Lastly, consumers are sitting on a trillion-dollar mountain of cash, a result of months of lockdown-induced saving and successive rounds of stimulus payments. That mountain could grow if Congress approves the aid to households that President Biden has proposed.

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